There are many pithy remarks and exasperated comments in a new documentary report on the spread and impact of the coronavirus in the U.S. Perhaps the most scathing comes from Juliette Kayyem, who was Assistant Secretary for Intergovernmental Affairs in the Obama administration: “We’re relying on sewing circles, and it may be a nice American story, but I find it pathetic.”
Frontline: Coronavirus Pandemic (Tuesday, PBS, 9 p.m.) is new, not newsy but deeply serious and meant to be a study of what happened in Washington state, where the virus first landed, and how the government in Washington, D.C., responded. As such, it distills the story of the virus in the United States into a useful and revealing dichotomy. To call that dichotomy disturbing would be an understatement.
Frontline sent Miles O’Brien, a science and tech specialist, to Seattle in late March, and he talked to numerous officials there. We see but do not meet “Patient One,” and we only see footage of the person incarcerated in elaborate safety equipment. Patient One, a 35-year-old man, flew home to the Seattle area from China on Jan. 15 and, after feeling unwell in the following days, went to a walk-in medical centre.
From there, the narrative unfolds briskly, switching between Washington state and Washington, D.C. On Jan. 20, local medical officials alerted the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention that they had a coronavirus patient in isolation. On Jan. 22, U.S. President Donald Trump said the situation in the U.S. was “totally under control.” He didn’t seem to keep up with developments in Washington state as authorities there feared losing control.
The CDC didn’t have testing kits ready, medical authorities in the state were warned. The World Health Organization was recommending the use of test kits created in Germany. The American bureaucracy was having none of that, according to the program. The first kits sent out by the CDC were faulty, they knew in Washington state. There, they aimed to create their own kits, as worry about the spread of the virus was tangible and real.
The Food and Drug Administration stepped in and demanded oversight. A doctor at a facility in Seattle felt he had a reliable test ready. But the application form provided by the FDA was 28 pages long, and certain papers could only by sent to the agency by FedEx courier. The doctor was beyond rolling his eyes. He couldn’t believe what was happening – or not happening.
The fateful moment came when two patients in the Seattle area tested positive and doctors determined that neither patient had travelled to China nor been in contact with anyone who had symptoms. Soon, 27 people were dead at a Life Care Center nursing home in the Seattle suburbs. One-quarter of the staff tested positive for the disease. On Feb. 29, Washington Governor Jay Inslee declared a state of emergency.
On March 5, Inslee criticized the lack of help or sense of urgency from the Trump administration. The next day, Trump referred to Inslee as “a snake” at a public event. One week later, on March 13, the state-wide death count in Washington increased to 31 from 457 total cases. While Trump made grandiose and inaccurate statements about equipment stocks of personal protective equipment, health staff across the system in Washington were making their own masks and face shields.
We see Dr. Alex Greninger, professor in the Department of Laboratory Medicine at the University of Washington, illustrate how he lacks enough testing equipment. He says he’s been sending tweets to Roche laboratories, asking for help, “Like you would tweet to Delta Airlines about losing your luggage.” He’s sarcastic but also desperate.
The entire program paints a pitiful and sometimes wrenching picture of a U.S. health system that is at odds with itself. Watch this, about what happened in the state of Washington, and those news briefings from Washington, D.C., will look all the more alarming and lamentable.
Finally, this column continues with a “stay-at-home-period daily-streaming pick.” Today’s pick is Homecoming (Amazon Prime Video), a paranoid thriller, with Julia Roberts in the lead role. It’s an elliptical series – the episodes run 30 minutes each – about mistrust and, visually, it’s more disturbing than most things people watch during Halloween. In its foundation, it’s about the toxic legacy of military actions in Iraq and Afghanistan.
Roberts plays Heidi, a counsellor at a startlingly antiseptic facility offering therapy and job-training skills to help returning soldiers re-enter society. It all seems legitimate, but the viewer knows from the start that there’s something sinister going on. The main narrative returns again and again to Heidi’s counselling sessions with one ex-soldier. That’s Walter Cruz (Canadian Stephan James, stealing the series from Roberts), who seems unnervingly well-adjusted. Or is he?
Sign up for the Coronavirus Update newsletter to read the day’s essential coronavirus news, features and explainers written by Globe reporters and editors.