White House to phase out virus task force

Ad­min­is­tra­tion to shift fo­cus to econ­omy

Orlando Sentinel - - Front Page - By Noah Wei­land, Mag­gie Haber­man and David E. Sanger

WASHINGTON — De­spite grow­ing ev­i­dence that the pan­demic is still rag­ing, ad­min­is­tra­tion of­fi­cials said Tues­day that they had made so much progress in bring­ing it un­der con­trol that they planned to wind down the coro­n­avirus task force in the com­ing weeks and fo­cus the White House on restart­ing the econ­omy.

Vice Pres­i­dent Mike Pence, who has led the task force for two months, said it would prob­a­bly wrap up its work around the end of the May and shift man­age­ment of the pub­lic health re­sponse back to the fed­eral agen­cies whose work it was cre­ated to co­or­di­nate.

Other ad­min­is­tra­tion of­fi­cials said that un­der plans still in dis­cus­sion, the White House would con­sult with med­i­cal ex­perts on a more in­for­mal ba­sis and that Jared Kush­ner, the pres­i­dent’s sonin-law and se­nior ad­viser, would help over­see a group push­ing for progress in de­vel­op­ing a vaccine and treat­ments for the virus.

“It re­ally is all a reflection of the tremen­dous progress we’ve made as a coun­try,” Pence told re­porters at the White House.

His com­ments came a day af­ter the rev­e­la­tion of new es­ti­mates that sug­gest deaths from the coro­n­avirus, now above 70,000, could dou­ble by early Au­gust and that in­fec­tion rates may rise sharply as busi­nesses re­open.

With Pres­i­dent Don­ald Trump

fac­ing a tough re­elec­tion bat­tle, the White House ap­pears in­tent on putting a re­sponse to the daily death toll more to­ward the back­ground as it em­pha­sizes ef­forts at a re­turn to eco­nomic and job growth. The pres­i­dent’s ad­vis­ers have re­peat­edly tried to place the re­spon­si­bil­ity for test­ing and de­ci­sions about re­open­ing on in­di­vid­ual states.

The task force spent some of its time pre­par­ing talk­ing points for Trump, who took over its pub­lic brief­ings, of­ten turn­ing them into lengthy op­por­tu­ni­ties to air griev­ances, praise his own han­dling of the cri­sis and of­fer up his own pre­scrip­tions.

There were sig­nals in re­cent days of the task force’s im­pend­ing demise: The panel did not meet Satur­day, as it typ­i­cally does, and can­celed a meet­ing Mon­day. And Trump has stopped link­ing his news brief­ings to the task force’s meet­ings and no longer rou­tinely ar­rays task force mem­bers around him in his pub­lic ap­pear­ances, a change that came swiftly af­ter the pres­i­dent mused one day about the pos­si­bil­ity of in­ject­ing dis­in­fec­tants to kill the virus.

Mem­bers of the coro­n­avirus task force, in­clud­ing Dr. Deb­o­rah Birx, the White House’s coro­n­avirus re­sponse co­or­di­na­tor, had to urge Amer­i­cans not to take those steps. And they of­ten served as a pub­lic check on Trump’s ques­tion­able or false state­ments, cau­tion­ing about prom­ises of a quick vaccine or the ef­fec­tive­ness of hy­drox­y­chloro­quine, a drug pro­moted by the pres­i­dent.

While the task force’s ad­vice has some­times been swept aside by Trump and the guide­lines it pro­duced for states to re­open ig­nored by some of them, the group was a com­fort­ing sym­bol for peo­ple scared about the virus’s spread and look­ing for a sign the White House was tak­ing it se­ri­ously. Peo­ple closely mon­i­tored which mem­bers at­tended, not­ing any time Dr. An­thony Fauci, a lead­ing in­fec­tion dis­ease ex­pert, was ab­sent. The de­ci­sion to phase out the task force has prompted new ques­tions about whether the ad­min­is­tra­tion will be ad­e­quately or­ga­nized to ad­dress the com­plex, life-or-death de­ci­sions re­lated to the virus and give suf­fi­cient voice to sci­en­tists and pub­lic health ex­perts in mak­ing pol­icy.

“We will have some­thing in a dif­fer­ent form,” Trump told re­porters Tues­day dur­ing a trip to Ari­zona.

Asked why now was the right time to wind down the task force, Trump replied, “Be­cause we can’t keep our coun­try closed for the next five years.”

If there is a re­cur­rence in the fall, he said, “we’re go­ing to put the flame out.”

White House of­fi­cials said that med­i­cal of­fi­cials like Birx would still be ad­vis­ing the pres­i­dent and be avail­able to an­swer re­porters’ ques­tions.

Still, the change means a grow­ing role for Kush­ner, who is look­ing for a czar­like ap­pointee to over­see the de­vel­op­ment of a vaccine and ther­a­peu­tic treat­ments, as well as for top eco­nomic of­fi­cials like Trea­sury Sec­re­tary Steven Mnuchin and White House ad­vis­ers Larry Kud­low and Kevin Has­sett.

Since it was formed in Jan­uary, the task force has been the scene of bu­reau­cratic and pol­icy bat­tling, its in­flu­ence only as great as Trump’s episodic will­ing­ness to ac­cept its ad­vice.

“The task force has been ham­pered by in­con­sis­tent mes­sag­ing,” said Dr. Joshua M. Sharf­stein, a for­mer top Food and Drug Ad­min­is­tra­tion of­fi­cial who teaches on pub­lic health crises at the Johns Hop­kins Bloomberg School of Pub­lic Health. “There were too many times when what the sci­en­tists said and what the pres­i­dent said were at odds.”

JIM WAT­SON/GETTY-AFP

Pres­i­dent Trump leads a brief­ing by the White House Task Force cre­ated to deal with the coro­n­avirus out­break. The task force is ex­pected to wind down by the end of May.

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