Across the Atlantic, Jack Siebert, an American college student who spent a semester in Spain, battled raging headaches, shortness of breath and fever that touched 104 degrees. Concerned about his terms of travel, but worried about the president’s announcement, his parents crashed to book a flight home for his son – an impetus shared by thousands of Americans rushing to get flights from Europe.
Siebert arrived at O’Hare International Airport in Chicago three days later when the new US restrictions ̵
When he finally reached the checkpoint for coronavirus near baggage retrieval, Siebert reported his previous symptoms and described his exposure in Spain. But the monitors abstained from him with a volatile temperature control. He was instructed to isolate himself which struck him as absurd given the circumstances he had just encountered at the airport.
“I can guarantee you that people were infected” in the transatlantic gantlet, said Siebert, who tested positive for the virus two days later in Chicago. “There were people passing through a needle hole.”
The sequence was repeated at airports across the country that weekend. Harrowing scenes with endless lines and unspoiled faces crowded into cramped spaces scattered across social media.
The pictures showed how a policy designed to block the pathogen’s entry into the United States instead delivered a final viral infusion. When exposed travelers went into American cities and suburbs, they became part of an influx of Europe that went unchecked for weeks and helped seal the country’s coronavirus fate.
Epidemiologists claim that the US outbreak was overwhelmed by viral strains from Europe rather than China. More than 1.8 million travelers entered the United States from Europe alone in February, as that continent became the center of the pandemic. Infections reached critical mass in New York and other cities long before the White House took action, according to studies charting the spread of the virus. The crisis of travelers triggered by Trump’s announcement only added to the viral load.
“We closed the front door with the Chinese travel ban,” New York Governor Andrew M. Cuomo (D) said last month as officials began to understand the size of the failure. Waiting to stop traveling from Europe he said, “We left the back door wide open.”
Trump has repeatedly talked about his decision in January to restrict travel from China as evidence that he acted decisively to contain the corona virus, often claiming it saved more than a million lives. But it was his administration’s response to the threat from Europe that proved to be more consistent for the majority of the more than 94,000 people who have died and the 1.6 million who are now infected in the United States.
White House officials noted that the president was widely criticized for the move to restrict travel from Europe, with many saying it was too draconian at the time. “The president took bold, early action that I believe few leaders would be willing to take – and therefore he saved countless lives,” spokeswoman Alyssa Farah said.
The crime of spreading from Europe, along with other breakdowns – is about developing diagnostic tests, securing protective equipment and introducing social distance guidelines – as reasons why the United States became so overwhelmed.
The travel encounter triggered many of the same problems that plagued the US response to the pandemic from the beginning: Early warnings were missed or ignored. The coordination was chaotic or non-existent. Key companies fumbled their missions. Trump’s inaccurate statements undermined his administration’s plans and threatened the public.
“We kept foreign nationals out of the country but not the virus,” said Tom Bossert, who served as a homeland security adviser at the White House until last year. “It was a strategic miscalculation.”
This article, which tracks the administration’s response to the Europe threat, is based on interviews with dozens of current and former US officials, as well as public health experts, airline executives and passengers. Some spoke on condition of anonymity to offer honest assessments of events, decisions and internal administration debates.
An upset president
The European restrictions, which remain in force, prevent entry for non-US citizens or permanent residents from 26 countries. The UK and Ireland were first excluded from the list before being added on 17 March.
The decision came at a time when the country was still opposed to other measures critical to contain the outbreak. Schools remained open, states did not yet issue orders at home, and many officials still emphasized hand washing as a sufficient way to prevent infection.
The lack of urgency was driven by a failure to understand the true dimensions of the threat. There were only 2,100 confirmed cases in the United States on March 13, the day the travel restrictions were implemented and only 50 deaths were recorded. Unfortunately, these figures are considered to be incorrect, artificial suppressed by test failure.
Within days, Trump would claim that he took the full size of the danger shortly after the virus escaped from Wuhan, China. “I felt it was a pandemic long before it was called a pandemic,” he said on March 17.
Still, Trump spent much of the previous month predicting that the virus would rapidly subside and reduce its severity. “It will disappear,” he declared on March 10, a day before his address from the Oval Office. “Just stay calm. It will disappear. “
Behind the scenes, senior officials had been agitating for weeks to consider tightening restrictions outside China. Deputy national security adviser Matthew Pottinger, who had been based in Beijing as a journalist, argued during meetings in February that the transmission was higher than reported in China and that if social dissemination began in Europe there was little possibility of containing it.
Pottinger claimed that “when in Europe, it would go” whoosh, “said a senior official. Members of the administration’s coronavirus workgroup were even presented with charts showing that the number of flights coming from Europe dwarfed the influx from China.
By the third week in February, the fear of Europe became reality. On February 22, Italy issued quarantine orders to 11 municipalities in the northern part of the country. It closed schools, canceled public events and stopped train journeys in the same region. As there are no restrictions on crossing borders in continental Europe, the development in Italy meant that the spread to other countries was inevitable.
But Pottinger and a handful of other officials who shared his concerns faced opposition from powerful administration officials who feared a huge financial fallout. Among those who argued hardest against restricting travel from Europe, officials said, were Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin and Larry Kudlow, the president’s economic adviser.
Even health experts sometimes seemed skeptical. Anthony S. Fauci, the country’s best communicable disease expert, initially reacted skeptically to restricting travel from Europe and said in a February meeting in the situation that the available data did not support such a move, the senior official said. A spokesman for Fauci declined to comment and referred questions to the White House.
Few countries then imposed travel restrictions on countries other than China and its neighbors in Asia. Europe did not issue extensive travel restrictions until the United States had done so.
Debate on the issue was also spurred by unrest in the coronavirus working group. Trump laid Vice President Pence in charge of the panel on February 26 when Italy confronted a growing outbreak. Officials said it took a week or more for Pence to speed up the threat and range of possible responses.
Serious considerations about Europe did not resume until mid-March. Then Pottinger had a new ally. Deborah Birx, who had joined the working group earlier that month, entered a White House meeting armed with worrying information about a powerful force in Northern Italy’s affairs, as well as numbers showing a faster spread across Europe. Since March 11, the World Health Organization declared coronavirus as a global pandemic.
An excited meeting with working groups and other officials at the White House followed the afternoon in the locker room. A small contingent then gathered around Trump at the Oval Office.
Mnuchin remained against the movement, officials said, and spoke properly about its potentially deleterious effects on the economy. But others present, including Robert C. O’Brien, national security adviser, and Alex Azar, secretary of health and human services, argued that the United States could no longer justify the risk of allowing travel from Europe to continue unimpeded.
Trump supported the majority. But the size of the company – which limits one of the busiest corridors on the planet – seemed to escape him. And the logistical requirements for implementing this plan on a 48-hour schedule were not even meaningfully discussed, officials said.
Instead, Trump and his inner circle seemed focused on staging the announcement for maximum political influence, officials said. Jared Kushner, the president’s adviser and son-in-law, urged Trump to give a formal speech that night, arguing that details should be kept close to prevent them from leaking.
Kushner then met with senior political adviser Stephen Miller at the latter office to work on a draft. The duence was sometimes joined by Pence and still made edits until shortly before Trump was scheduled to go live on TV at 9 p.m.
No draft was shared in advance with the members of the working group or any of the agencies that would need to implement Trump’s decision, officials said.
“The president was in a bad mood,” said one official. As he sat in his chair, Trump cursed for a stain on his shirt. “He was not convinced that the speech was a good idea.”
It was only the second Oval Office address for his presidency that reflected the moment of gravity. But the result was a stumbling performance where Trump struggled to follow the text of the teleprompter and committed a series of gaffes.
“Never has a less prepared set of comments been left out of that room,” said a former administrative official.
The actual policy included no plan to turn off shipping between the continents, for example, but Trump indicated otherwise. The restrictions “will not only apply to the huge amount of trade and goods,” he said, “but to various other things.”
The new restrictions included “exceptions for Americans who have undergone appropriate screenings,” he said. But few caught the important caveat after his opening statement that the United States “stopped all travel from Europe.”
When networks were cut off, Trump mumbled a prolonged “okayyyyy” as he fell into his seat. Afterwards, he grumbled about his performance, officials said, while the subordinate issued statements and tweets to clarify or correct his inaccuracies. Within a few days, he blamed Kushner and told his aides that he should not have listened to his son-in-law.
Competing to come home
Even the timing of the speech turned out to be poorly considered. It came at the end of a three-hour window during which dozens of red-eye flights leave the United States each night for cities across Europe. As a result, thousands of passengers learned about the new policy while crossing the Atlantic and climbed on arrival to change their plans.
At Dulles International Airport outside Washington, the cabin door on United Flight 989, en route to Frankfurt, Germany, had just secured when Trump’s speech began broadcasting on television networks. As he spoke, the passengers began to panic from their seats. Branding bulletins about the speech on their mobile phones, some pressed on the exits.
“He said they are pushing the boundaries,” said one passenger. “I want this planet.”
The pilot and cabin crew began making calls to the supervisors for guidance. Bobbie Mas, a veteran flight attendant, called a hotline for United employees, since the company’s staffing office in Dulles, but no one had answers.
She then went into the cockpit to talk to the captain, who would be first in line for all major flights. The captain contacted United’s operations desk – the nerve center for the airline – but officials there similarly screwed for details.
The only warning transmitted to the airline was a call that United’s then CEO, Oscar Munoz, received from an administrative official “literally minutes” before Trump began speaking, a company spokesman said. The official did not give details about what Trump would say except for air travel.
By the time Boeing 777 went to Frankfurt two hours later, almost all US citizens had left the plane. For many, the decision was driven by the mistaken impression that the president created that they risked being stranded in Europe for a month or more.
Among those planning was Mas, who is also a union representative with the Association of Flight Attendant. Worried that she had not packed enough prescription medicine to last a month trapped in Europe, she said she asked to board an aircraft for the first time in her 21-year career.
“It was fear and chaos,” she said. Apart from the tense days that followed on September 11, 2001, attacks, she said, “I’ve never seen anything like it.”
Even more chaos was in store.
Airlines’ websites and phone lines were flooded hours after Trump’s oval address. American Airlines made about 700,000 calls on March 12, a spokesman said, more than five times the number on a typical day.
Travel across the Atlantic vigorously. The number of passengers arriving from countries targeting restrictions increased 46 percent in a single day, up from about 31,000 on the day Trump delivered his address to 45,399 the next, according to data from the Customs and Border Protection. Friday’s traffic was even higher, peaking at 46,000.
Many were US citizens competing to return home before midnight March 13, when the restrictions were scheduled to take effect – unaware that they were exempt from the policy and had no deadline. Even when they got exact details about the policy, many refused to postpone their travels out of fear that the administration would suddenly change course and end the exemption.
An official in the aviation industry, speaking on the condition of anonymity, said gatekeepers at several airports began to panic after encountering symptomatic passengers.
“We had customer agents who rang the security counter for hundreds and told of individuals who have the symptoms,” the official said. “Our response was to follow the policy,” the official said, meaning they would not be kept away from aircraft if they could not prove unable to fly or had recently traveled to China.
Those who arrived before the restrictions kicked in for narrow aircraft and extended expectations even without the extra layer of medical screening. But the next wave of travelers, who began arriving on March 14, was confronted with scenes of a public health dream.
Waking crowds at the airports
Trump has spent much of his presidency fixing at US borders and denying entry to foreigners. Of the possible reactions to a pandemic, moving restrictions is the only thing Trump should have mastered.
The travel ban on majority Muslim countries that Trump declared during the first days of his presidency sparked havoc at airports and border points. The fallout delivered an early lesson on the consequences of exercising power without adequate planning.
When Trump moved to block travel from China in January, there were few signs of disruption at the affected airports. But while the president has portrayed the decision he made before anyone else acknowledged that it was necessary, the big airlines actually forced their hand.
Delta and American had announced on January 31 that they were canceling routes to China before Trump announced the restrictions. United informed the White House that it had already decided to do the same, but was willing to keep announcing it publicly if Trump was prepared to act quickly in issuing an order, officials said. Eager to demand credit for acting to contain the virus, Trump’s announcement came within hours.
The European restrictions followed six weeks later but released chaos in ways that surpassed even the Muslim ban.
Current and former officials said that key agencies, including the Home Security and Transport Departments, had no meaningful efforts in the nature of the European restrictions or how and when they would be implemented. Also, there were no detailed advance reviews for airlines, regional airport authorities or members of Congress. The European Union was not even notified.
Centers for Disease Control and Prevention were scrambled to round up contractors to perform temperature checks on tens of thousands of passengers. But they were exceeded by the rush of travelers that Trump had helped release.
Even the most basic screening steps seemed to reverse. The CDC failed to distribute a new paper questionnaire in time for it to be shared with the airlines in advance, which means passengers must fill it in on arrival. As a result, travelers found themselves around each other for paper and pencil paper and risked the transfer when the bottlenecks became worse.
In fact, the number of arriving passengers had dropped on the first day under the new restrictions. Only 19,418 passengers arrived from designated countries in Europe, according to CBP, less than half the number from the previous day. But even the dramatically reduced passenger volume seemed to be overwhelmed by airport displays.
Alarming photographs and expressions of outrage lit up social media throughout March 14. “Finding yourself waiting for four hours in a crowded customs hall is not social distancing,” a passenger arriving in San Francisco posted. “Fix it or fail.”
A photo showed thousands of travelers in a row in Dallas-Fort Worth without masks or other protection. “This will not flatten the curve,” said the caption that followed the tweet.
Even the New York JFK airport had “turned into a #CoronaVirus culture site,” tweeted a traveler, who was swarming with crowds of “worthless #COVID19 screening measures.”
But the most disturbing scenes came from Chicago’s O’Hare. By the end of the evening, conditions had become so precarious that Illinois Gov. J.B. Pritzker (D) started delivering broad pages on Twitter.
“The crowds and lines at O’Hare are unacceptable and need to be addressed immediately,” he tweeted at 5 p.m. 10:50. “Since this is the only communication medium that you are aware of,” he said, expressing his purpose to the president, “you must do something NOW.”
He concluded with one final blast: “The federal government must collect its s # # t.”
Pritzker’s assistants had struggled to get answers from the administration earlier in the day, but the Twitter outbreak got the White House’s attention. Within minutes, Douglas Hoelscher, director of the Intergovernmental Agency, called Pritzker. But instead of promising to solve the problems at O’Hare, Hoelscher began to criticize the governor for insulting the president, saying that Pritzker should have contacted the White House.
The conversation heated up, and the governor said the White House had failed to communicate or implement its plans properly, according to two people familiar with the exchange.
“It screamed a lot,” said a person with knowledge of the conversation.
Others responded more productively. At 3.30pm on March 15, Chad Wolf, the acting DHS secretary, tweeted that his department was “aware of the long lines of passengers undergoing increased medical screening requirements.” He said the department was “working to add additional screening capabilities” and asked the public for patience.
The next day, DHS officials identified procedural problems at O’Hare that helped explain why waiting and lines there were worse than at other airports. CBP agents kept passengers on instructor trainers until all the screening data collected from them had been entered into departmental computers. Other airports had scraped the paperwork and put it off until later, shortly after lines started bumping.
When O’Hare did, officials said, the crowds and lines began to spread. The critical problems had largely subsided by late Sunday. The lines continued to shrink during the following weeks as Europe’s travel dropped.
European strains are multiplied
Within hours of Trump delivering the oval address, experts warned that it was already too late.
Bossert, the former National Security Council security adviser for Homeland Security, raised basic questions about the travel ban in an email he sent to public health experts and others late in the evening on March 11.
“Can anyone justify the European travel restriction, scientifically?” Bossert asked the group, who had given themselves moniker Red Dawn with reference to the 1980s movie. “Seriously, is there any benefit?”
The resounding response he received from others was “No” The virus was already too widespread in the United States for lone travel routes to make any difference. The only chance to contain the outbreak and save lives, some argued, was to introduce drastic deterrent measures that would put a stop to social interactions, as well as the economy.
Much of the information that has emerged about the pandemic in the following months seems to verify that view.
Comparison of genetic signatures of different strains of viruses has enabled researchers to map its global detonation with growing precision. After surface treatment in China at the end of December, the infections had migrated to Europe in early February.
There was a fleeting window in maybe weeks when blocking of travel from Europe may have protected the east coast coast.
But in mid-February, European tribes were set up in New York, where they multiplied in the city’s narrow streets and subways before heading out to the rest of the country, according to findings released by Trevor Bedford, a professor of epidemiology at the University of Washington.
The virus then continued to cross the Atlantic – probably in both directions – for weeks before the Trump administration acted. In February alone, more than 1.8 million travelers from Europe entered the United States, according to the Bureau of Transportation Statistics. The travelers would not have been faced with even a temperature control.
An April study led by researchers at Northeastern University in Boston concluded that New York probably had more than 10,000 undetected cases by March 1 – two weeks before European restrictions were introduced – with thousands more cases in San Francisco, Chicago and other cities.
“Horse out of the barn,” said Stuart Ray, professor of medicine at Johns Hopkins University and expert on infectious diseases. The travel restrictions “could have bent the curve downwards” only if they were placed together with massive tests, distribution of protective equipment on a huge scale and clear public messages on social distance.
“Without them,” he said, “the transfer would have surpassed any advantage of the travel ban.”
Some in the Trump administration argue that such assessments are too pessimistic. Without the Europe restrictions, “you would probably have seen a higher seed in the United States,” and infections would still increase, said one official. “These are the advice we received from Birx, Fauci and others.”
But if you ask the question of timing, important components of the screening measures seem to have failed. For example, temperature controls have proven to be an unreliable way of identifying carriers of the corona virus because many of the most infectious individuals are, at least currently facing a thermometer, asymptomatic.
The plan also depended on the authorities’ ability to track people exposed by incoming travelers. This usually means getting passenger manifests from the airlines and contacting anyone who sat within several rows of someone who tests positive. But that protocol was made meaningless by the chaotic scenes at the airports and the resulting contacts that would be impossible to trace.
Siebert, the student who studied abroad, seems to have encountered all these problems when he returned from Madrid. After completing the CDC questionnaire and reporting its previous symptoms, the screener took his temperature and passed away briefly.
“You’re fine, just go self-insulating,” said the screener when he returned, according to Siebert. Exhausted, the drama student at New York University picked up his bags and was greeted by family members who brought him home.
Siebert, 21, said he was never contacted about any of the information he reported to officials at the airport. The next day he went independently to be tested at Northwestern Memorial Hospital in Chicago. A day later, the results came back confirming his infection.
“In the end, I am a culprit in bringing back coronavirus to the United States,” he said. His mother also contracted the disease, although her symptoms appeared before Siebert’s return. The two isolated themselves for weeks in the household, he said, and no other family members fell ill.
Siebert was among 110,000 passengers screened during the first four days of Europe’s travel restrictions. According to the CDC, only 140 cases of infection were identified either through airport evaluations or subsequent test results reported to the center by local health authorities.
If other travelers were exposed to Siebert’s infection, it is unlikely that any of them would ever hear. A CDC spokesman said the center has conducted “contact tracking” investigations on nine flights between Europe and the United States since the restrictions began. Iberia Flight 6275 – the one that Siebert took to get home – was not among them.
Julie Tate contributed to this story.