Fourteen years ago, two federal government doctors, Richard Hatchett and Carter Mecher, met with a colleague at a burger joint in suburban Washington for a final review of a proposal they knew would be treated like a piñata: telling Americans to stay home from work and school the next time the country was hit by a deadly pandemic.
When they presented their plan not long after, it was met with skepticism and a degree of ridicule by senior officials who, like others in the United States, had grown accustomed to relying on the pharmaceutical industry, with its ever-growing array of new treatments, to confront evolving health challenges.
Hatchett and Mecher were proposing instead that Americans in some places might have to turn back to an approach, social, first widely employed in the Middle Ages.
How that idea — born out of a request by President George W. Bush to ensure the nation was better prepared for the next contagious disease outbreak — became the heart of the national playbook for responding to a pandemic is one of the untold stories of the coronavirus crisis.
It required the key proponents — Mecher, a Department of Veterans Affairs physician, and Hatchett, an oncologist turned White House adviser — to overcome intense initial opposition.
It brought their work together with that of a Defense Department team assigned to a similar task.
And it had some unexpected detours, including a deep dive into the history of the 1918 Spanish flu and an important discovery kicked off by a high school research project pursued by the daughter of a scientist at the Sandia National Laboratories.
The concept of social distancing is now intimately familiar to almost everyone. But as it first made its way through the federal bureaucracy in 2006 and 2007, it was viewed as impractical, unnecessary and politically infeasible.