White House plans to scale back coronavirus task force

The White House is in the early stages of winding down its coronavirus task force, Vice President Pence's office confirmed Tuesday.

The surprise decision comes as most states are preparing to loosen restrictions meant to slow the spread of the virus, while a number of areas continue to see increases in new COVID-19 cases and deaths.

Pence's office told reporters at a limited briefing that his plan is to scale back the task force's role by Memorial Day. Pence has been leading the task force since late February.

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Members are likely to return to their respective departments and manage the coronavirus response from there.

"I think we're having conversations about that and about what the proper time is for the task force to complete its work and for the ongoing efforts to take place on an agency-by-agency level," Pence said at the briefing. "And we've already begun to talk about a transition plan with [the Federal Emergency Management Agency]."

"It really is all a reflection of the tremendous progress we've made as a country," he added.

The Hill was not invited to Pence's briefing with reporters, but his office provided a transcript of his remarks. The vice president had previously said he thought the coronavirus outbreak could largely be over by Memorial Day.

Deborah Birx, who was brought in from the State Department to coordinate the White House virus response, will "continue to review and analyze data and work with the departments in agencies to help that data inform their decision making processes," a spokesman for Pence's office said.

There appeared to be some confusion about the plan, as Anthony FauciAnthony FauciTillis appears to reinforce question about COVID-19 death toll Overnight Health Care: Trump signs largely symbolic pre-existing conditions order amid lawsuit | White House puts off action on surprise medical bills | Rising coronavirus cases spark fears of harsh winter NY health officials to review any vaccine approved by Trump MORE, the government's top infectious diseases expert and a task force member, told CBS News that he was unaware of any proposal to wind down.

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President TrumpDonald John TrumpNew Biden campaign ad jabs at Trump's reported 0 income tax payments Ocasio-Cortez: Trump contributed less in taxes 'than waitresses and undocumented immigrants' Third judge orders Postal Service to halt delivery cuts MORE praised the task force's work when asked about its dissolution during a trip to Arizona. He said a new group may be set up to focus on the reopening of the economy but was adamant that the time for a health-oriented group was passed.

"We can't keep our country closed for the next five years," Trump said, defending the timing of the move.

White House press secretary Kayleigh McEnany sought to address some initial criticism of the decision, saying it was false to suggest Trump would no longer involve medical experts as he looks toward reopening the economy. Trump said Birx and Fauci would continue to advise on the response.

The New York Times first reported on the expected demise of the task force.

The task force was formed in late January, when Trump was still downplaying the likelihood COVID-19 would cause problems for the U.S. Pence was put in charge of the group in late February, and it has been expanded periodically. It includes nearly two dozen officials from various government agencies.

The group held near-daily press briefings for more than a month but has been less visible in recent weeks as Trump and others transition their focus to the economic consequences of the pandemic.

There have been no coronavirus task force briefings in more than a week, and the daily meetings have become less frequent. The group was scheduled to meet Tuesday afternoon.

But the decision to formally disband the task force is sure to raise concern among public health experts who have warned the coronavirus will likely be part of life in the U.S. until there is a widely available vaccine, which could take a year or longer to develop.

There were more than 1.1 million confirmed coronavirus cases in the country as of Tuesday afternoon and nearly 70,000 deaths. The numbers are expected to increase as dozens of states begin loosening restrictions intended to slow the spread of the disease, allowing certain businesses to reopen at limited capacity.

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A University of Washington model often cited by White House officials revised its projections on Monday to account for the increased mobility as businesses reopen. The model now forecasts nearly 135,000 deaths through August, nearly double the previous estimate.

Winding down the task force focused on the public health response aligns with the push from Trump and other administration officials to turn the page toward the economic recovery. 

"We did everything right," Trump told reporters on Tuesday morning. "But now it’s time to go back to work."

Updated at 5:20 p.m.