Coronavirus Outbreak: A Cascade of Warnings, Heard but Unheeded

The war game-like exercise was overseen by Robert P. Kadlec, a former Air Force physician who has spent decades focused on biodefense issues. After stints on the Bush administration’s homeland security council and the staff of the Senate Intelligence Committee, he was appointed assistant secretary of Health and Human Services for Preparedness and Response.

“He recognized early that we have a big problem and we needed much bigger budgets to prepare,’’ said Richard Danzig, secretary of the Navy in the Clinton administration, who had worked with Mr. Kadlec.

The exercise played out in four separate stages, starting in January 2019.

The events were supposedly unspooling in real time, with the worst-case scenario underway as of Aug. 13, 2019, when according to the script, 12,100 cases had already been reported in the United States, with the largest number in Chicago, which had 1,400.

The fictional outbreak involved a pandemic flu, which the Department of Health and Human Services says was “very different than the novel coronavirus.” The staged outbreak had started when a group of 35 tourists visiting China were infected and then flew home to Australia, Kuwait, Malaysia, Thailand, Britain and Spain, as well as the United States, with some developing respiratory symptoms and fevers en route.

A 52-year-old male from Chicago, who was on the tour, had “low energy and a dry cough” upon his return home. His 17-year-old son on that same day went out to a large public event in Chicago, and the chain of illnesses in the United States started.

Many of the moments during the tabletop exercise are now chillingly familiar.

In the fictional pandemic, as the virus spread quickly across the United States, the C.D.C. issued guidelines for social distancing, and many employees were told to work from home.

But federal and state officials struggled to identify which employees were essential and what equipment was needed to effectively work from home.

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