The governor of California has issued a state lockdown for the state's roughly 40 million residents in order to slow the spread of the coronavirus. Meanwhile in Massachusetts, Gov. Charlie Baker has called in 2,000 members of the National Guard. These measures may sound harsh enough, but are they? WGBH Morning Edition host Joe Mathieu spoke with Homeland Security expert and WGBH News contributor Juliette Kayyem about the country's response to the pandemic, and whether it's adequate to stop the spread. The transcript below has been edited for clarity.
Joe Mathieu: You wrote a column in The Atlantic two weeks ago that grabbed my attention. The headline was "The U.S. Isn't Ready for what's about to Happen." Two weeks later, obviously, you were right. Are we starting to get it?
Juliette Kayyem: I think we are. It's funny, The Atlantic told me they called that story the "stop being calm" story, which then led to everything that we've seen. I know pandemic planning [and] I know what successful pandemic planning is, which is massive social distancing, and tried in my way to prepare the American public for what we have experienced the last two weeks.
I think we're starting to get it. I think we're late. I think we've been late on everything. We were late on anticipating that China would not be able to contain this, so we've been late on the testing kits. That then led to the assumption — and I think rightfully so, everyone from Governor Baker to other governors — that we had wide community spread, which now meant that the only option we had was this mandatory or semi-mandatory social distancing. You're now seeing the other states, including very red states or conservative governors like in Texas and Florida, finally get it.
And it's weird because as I noted, this is all being done essentially without federal guidance. You're just seeing this sort of federalism play out — a mayor here, a governor there, California now. And it's going to get harsher. I'm honest. This is the start of trying to flatten the curve, and people have to remember that a flattened curve is longer. So what we're trying to do is essentially shock ourselves and the system to protect our health care system and surge resources to it, and then we can get a little bit more nuanced in our approach.
Mathieu: The news from California is pretty scary. Governor Newsom says projections show more than 25 million people could become infected in his state, and so everyone stays home. Should Governor Baker make a similar move?
Kayyem: I think we're heading there. It's just inevitable. Nothing is ratcheting down, let's just put it that way. The numbers are going up; we are on the curve. And I think obviously, you want to take a tiered approach, but I just cannot see that we won't get there. As I said, it's just sort of blunt realism. And the faster we get there, the faster the system will be able to adapt to what it's facing — the health care system — and then be able to have some capacity on the other side.
I just looked at the data. Eight days ago were recommendations that we could not be with more than 500 people. That was eight days ago. Then it turned to 50 and now it's 10. So all I can say is get your head around it. I think we are headed that way. But that's the hammer part and it will last a little bit of time, and then we get to either having good treatments where we have testing kits that help us identify people so they can be specifically isolated. But the only end is a vaccine, and you're looking 18 months from now. We're not gonna be inside for 18 months, but we start with the hammer and then we move to what someone has called the dance, which is going to be more nuanced.
Mathieu: Juliette, you were also charged with overseeing the National Guard when you were in the Massachusetts Department of Homeland Security. Is Governor Baker doing the right thing by calling up the guard, and what will they do?
Kayyem: Yes, absolutely. And I think this is where a pretty progressive state needs to get their concerns out of the way. Let me say two things about the military.
So the governor, under state-active duty, controls the National Guard. When I was there there was about 9,000. They are good and are trained for logistics and support. They work under a civilian context, so they work under emergency management. And that is great because the resources we're going to need cannot be handled by each locality or even the state alone. So they're an asset of basically relieving pressure and they do they do logistics well, they build things quickly, they can do medical tents. What we're just trying to do is bring up capacity. I do think, though, there's another story here which [is] this only works if the federal government at the same time that were all home begins to surge, manufacture [and] deliver the kind of capacity that each state is clearly going to need. Governor Baker is in the same position as 49 other governors; he cannot rely on other governors. So, if something bad happens here — say a hurricane or even the Boston Marathon bombing — you can turn to Rhode Island, Connecticut, say, "look, can we bring people to your hospitals?" And they say, "of course, sure. Under mutual aid we have that capacity."
This is America's first 50-state disaster. We've not planned for this. It's going to stretch every governor and every state's capabilities, and this is why the federal government needs to surge [and] needs to use the tools it has to require the private sector to manufacture or deliver what the states need. It's inexplicable at this stage and it's not hard. Vaccines are hard. What I do, it's just logistics. Just move stuff from point A to point B. We don't need to make it as hard as the White House seems to be.
Mathieu: Governor Baker was on the phone with President Trump yesterday. You probably saw this. He told the president Massachusetts has been twice outbid by the federal government in trying to procure the very medical protection equipment that we've been told to get. What needs to change here?
Kayyem: Let me just tell you where we would have been by now under the Defense Production Act, a 1950 law that gives president tools even in a domestic disaster — so it's not just for war — to do two things: to either acquire goods [and] commodities that are needed from the private sector or they get paid and essentially then deliver them to the states; or to prioritize manufacturing, so we have all these companies that they should just be making masks or they should just be making respirators. Neither of those things have been done.
Two months ago I could have told you that we would have this need. Manufacturing doesn't turn on a dime. That needs to get done immediately. And because what Governor Baker experienced is what other 49 other governors have experienced, which is with limited resources, each state is going to be competing with other states, but also with the federal government. So Governor Baker was exactly right to sort of say if you're going to outbid us, why don't you just buy everything and then deliver it to the states because they're going to run out of capacity?
Mathieu: He seemed to be proud of the fact that the feds outbid our state, which is completely bizarre.
Kayyem: It's like the concept that the states are takers in this. And instead, the government's job in emergency management is defined as delivering of resources and supplies where state capacity is inadequate. It's their job to do this.