White House plots breakup of coronavirus task force

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Video by NBC News

The White House is planning to wind down its coronavirus task force in the coming weeks as it shifts focus to reopening the economy.

The move is a more formal recognition of a strategy that has been developing in recent weeks. President Donald Trump and his aides have been shifting their attention toward jolting the country’s finances and speeding up vaccine development — even as the virus continues to spread to new areas of the country and the overall caseload climbs. On Tuesday, Trump said the task force will be replaced by advisory groups of “a different form.”

“That form is safety and opening,” Trump told reporters during a trip to Arizona. “We will have a different group probably set up.”

Efforts to mitigate the ongoing coronavirus outbreak will ultimately be shifted to agencies like the Federal Emergency Management Agency, said Vice President Mike Pence.

“We’re having a conversation about that and about what the proper time is for the task force to complete its work,” Pence told reporters at a briefing Tuesday. “We’ve already begun to talk about a transition plan with FEMA.”

Still, he characterized the discussions to dissolve the task force as “preliminary.”

Meanwhile, Trump’s top economic officials are expected to unveil this week new ideas for tax policy and regulatory changes to bolster the U.S. economy in the third and fourth quarters of the year.

Despite the change in focus, the coronavirus spread has not abated in the United States. Health officials remain concerned about an increase of cases in places like Chicago and Des Moines, Iowa, and many regions aren’t expecting their caseloads to peak for weeks. Many public health experts worry that mitigation efforts and lockdowns are being lifted too early.

A popular coronavirus tracking model done by the Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation at the University of Washington’s School of Medicine on Monday revised its projections as states have started to relax restrictions. It now projects there will be 134,000 deaths by August — twice as many as an earlier forecast.

Yet top Trump officials on Tuesday said they are seeing a decrease in hospitalizations and have already received reopening plans from 41 states so far, which they consider encouraging. And more than a dozen states are already allowing people to slowly return to businesses like hair salons and restaurants.

Slideshow by photo services

Dr. Deborah Birx, one of the leading health experts on the task force, told reporters on Tuesday that the administration is keeping a close eye on long-term care facilities, group housing, Native American communities, prisons and workers that have group housing, in the hopes of quelling any outbreaks quickly.

All these developments are being taken into account, officials said, as they determine the necessity of the task force moving forward. The future of the task force will be based on the health conditions, aides said.

“I believe we can be in a very different place in late May or early June,” Pence said. “We’re going to start to look at the Memorial Day window to transition back to having our agencies manage our response in a more traditional manner.”

Inside the White House, there has also been discussion of creating a new and smaller group to supplant the task force and focus on developing a vaccine and therapeutics. The new group would work closely with administration officials already involved in “Operation Warp Speed,” a program that aims to manufacture 100 million coronavirus vaccine doses by the end of the year and 300 million by next January. Pence on Tuesday described it as “a Manhattan Project-style effort.”

Health officials and other aides inside the White House were not happy about the plans to dissolve the coronavirus task force, given the ongoing spread of the disease, said one source familiar with the discussions. In recent days the task force had been meeting less frequently as a group, said a second person familiar with the task force.

“We’re all still talking to each other, but we’re just not coming together every day for an hour and a half to talk at each other as a group,” the person added. “For the health folks who are doing this stuff day to day, maybe from their perspective, this is more of a stand down.”

After the news broke, there was immediate concern in the medical community about the development. Health specialists cautioned that disbanding the task force could deprive the public of a prominent source of public health information. In recent weeks, two members of the task force — Birx, a global health specialist, and Dr. Anthony Fauci, the government’s top infectious disease doctor — have become trusted medical voices for the administration.

“Dissolving the task force in the midst of pandemic would likely make it more difficult to share emerging or projected data, present key messages and respond to questions,” said John Auerbach, president and CEO of Trust for America’s Health. “We already have an uneven response as a nation. We wouldn’t want that to worsen.”

Yet even before the task force’s unwinding was revealed Tuesday, Birx and Fauci had already become less accessible to the public, appearing only sporadically on television and infrequently at the White House’s reduced briefings. It was a notable change from previous weeks, when the duo was a near daily fixture at White House briefings on the pandemic.

“When people don’t receive accurate information from trusted public health officials, there is a risk of people not making informed decisions, potentially risking their health and the health of others,” said Tom Frieden, who served as head of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention during the Obama administration.

One senior White House official stressed the change did indicate medical voices were being sidelined within the administration.

“This group winding down and meeting less frequently does not mean doctors are being removed from the equation or being pushed out,” the official said. “Any reporting suggesting so is false. They will still be involved and advising.”

The official added: “The task force was always a temporary arrangement and was never designed for the vice president to be leading in person meetings daily for several months on end.”

A senior administration official noted the task force could resume its daily meetings if there is a significant resurgence of the coronavirus in the fall, as health experts have warned may occur. But until then, the official added, the White House wants to focus its messaging on the economy.

Trump on Tuesday vowed Birx and Fauci will remain a powerful voice within the administration.

“Oh sure, yeah they will be,” he said. “And so will other doctors and so will other experts in the field.”

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