They Sounded the Alarm, Evacuated Americans and Started Working on a Vaccine

Behind-the-scenes stars of the federal government’s coronavirus response.

The federal government’s response to the novel coronavirus pandemic has been mixed at best. Government officials arguably underestimated the threat, made key missteps in implementing testing systems and social distancing protocols, and failed to ensure the kind of coordinated response that might have prevented COVID-19 from having such a devastating effect on Americans.

But within the federal ranks, there were people working behind the scenes who had a positive, immediate and ongoing impact on response efforts. They sounded the alarm early about the spread of the disease, set to work on developing a vaccine at breakneck speed, blew the whistle on poor agency safety practices and coordinated efforts to evacuate Americans overseas. 

Here are a few of their stories. 

Dr. Carter Mecher, Senior Advisor, Office of Public Health, Veterans Affairs Department

On Jan. 28, as the coronavirus was just beginning to spread around the world, Dr. Carter Mecher of the Veterans Affairs Department, who had worked on a pandemic response plan in the George W. Bush administration, sent an email to a group of colleagues in the public health community. “Any way you cut it, this is going to be bad,” he wrote. “You guys made fun of me screaming to close the schools. Now I’m screaming, close the colleges and universities.”

It wouldn’t be the last time that Mecher sounded the alarm. On March 1, in another in a series of messages to the group, known as Red Dawn, that were later obtained by the New York Times, Mecher wrote, “I fear we are about to see a replay of Italy,” where the virus had begun spreading like wildfire. 

Mecher, the former director for medical preparedness policy on the White House Homeland Security Council, knew from experience with pandemic response exercises that time was of the essence. “Political leaders and public health leaders need to be convinced of the utility of these interventions and the courage to act,” he wrote on March 4. “There is no reset button to play the game again,” he added. “You only get one shot.”

A little more than a week later, on March 12, Mecher delivered a sadly prescient message. He wrote that the situation in the United States “feels like a replay of [the flu pandemic of] 1918. Some state and local leaders will make poor decisions and unfortunately the Americans who live in those communities are going to pay dearly for the choices being made by their leaders.”

Kizzmekia Corbett, Research Fellow, National Institutes of Health

When Kizzmekia Corbett began working at the National Institutes of Health in October 2014, she decided to focus her research on coronaviruses. It was an area that was “somewhat unknown and no one really cared about it,” she told the Raleigh News and Observer in June. “That work proved to be fruitful in this moment.”

Indeed it did. Now Corbett is the scientific lead on the coronavirus vaccine program at NIH, which has shown promising results at virtually unprecedented speed. 

“We’ve researched coronavirus vaccine development for the last seven years — particularly under my direction, the team has researched this coronavirus development for five years,” Corbett told CNN in April. “And so coming into the onset of this pandemic, we had an idea about what we wanted to do as far as the design of the vaccine.”

Corbett is passionate about her research and outspoken about being a Black woman in science. She attracted controversy earlier this year with social media posts questioning the lack of diversity on the White House coronavirus response task force and addressing whether the disproportionate impact of COVID-19 on Black Americans amounted to a form of “genocide.”

Meanwhile, her work speaks for itself. The vaccine NIH has developed in cooperation with biotechnology firm Moderna entered Phase 3 clinical trials in late July, meaning it is on pace to be available by the end of the year.

Jay Brainard, Kansas Federal Security Director, Transportation Security Administration

In early June, Jay Brainard did what thousands of federal employees have done over the years: Blew the whistle. Specifically, in a complaint filed with the Office of Special Counsel, he alleged mismanagement in the coronavirus response at the Transportation Security Administration.

TSA, Brainard charged, had withheld personal protective equipment from employees, refused to allow local officials to mandate that employees wear masks, and failed to require that agents change gloves frequently. OSC found there was a “substantial likelihood of wrongdoing” on the part of TSA and ordered the agency to open an investigation.

Then an amazing thing happened: Agency leaders listened. TSA Administrator David Pekoske met with Brainard at the end of June and the agency announced it was updating safety protocols to address some of the issues Brainard had raised. 

Tom Devine, legal director at the Government Accountability Project, who advised Brainard, told the Washington Post, “the system responded with lightning speed to the truth about a significant threat. I’ve never seen the truth make a difference so quickly.”

FangFang Wang, Consulate Wuhan Criminal Fraud Investigator, Diplomatic Security Service, State Department

As the coronavirus tore through Wuhan, China, in January, the Chinese government abruptly announced the complete closure and quarantine of the city and its 11 million residents. The State Department moved quickly to arrange to send an aircraft to Wuhan to pick up stranded Americans and ferry them to the United States. 

At the American consulate in Wuhan, members of State’s Diplomatic Security Service, working with consulate staff, swung into action to devise and carry out a plan to evacuate not only department personnel but other Americans in and around the city. FangFang Wang, a criminal fraud investigator at the consulate, worked with Robert Gudenkauf, an assistant regional security officer investigator, to coordinate the effort. Wang “rode a bike through Wuhan’s deserted streets to the consulate each day to assist with the departure planning,” according to a DSS report on the evacuation.

Wang served as liaison to Chinese government officials, negotiating the details of the evacuation. When she and other security bureau officials arrived at the airport on the day the flight was slated to depart, they found more than 100 Americans waiting. Wang was able to reassure local government leaders that U.S. officials could process all the passengers, screening them for COVID-19 symptoms and handling visa issues. They did, and on the morning of Jan. 29, the evacuation flight, the first of its kind, took off.

“It was a team effort,” said Wang, “and we were all dedicated to the mission.”