White House shifts focus from coronavirus

Bonnie Cash

The White House’s focus on the coronavirus has faded from public view in recent days as national unrest dominates headlines.

The administration’s task force has scaled back its meetings, and its top infectious diseases expert, Anthony Fauci, said he hasn’t met with President Trump in weeks.

The White House’s designated testing czar, Brett Giroir, likewise said Monday he is set to return to his regular duties this month, and the president has shifted his focus to quashing protests nationwide in response to the death of George Floyd.

Experts warn the country is not out of the woods yet, and cases may spike as states reopen businesses and thousands of Americans gather in close quarters at protests around the country. But the administration and swaths of the public appear ready to move on from the pandemic.

The White House said in early May that it intended to disband the coronavirus task force by Memorial Day as it projected optimism the pandemic would largely have passed by then. While Trump quickly backtracked and said the group would remain intact indefinitely, its work has been scaled back significantly.

The cohort of health officials and Cabinet secretaries meets about once per week after meeting almost daily for most of April. And the task force has reduced interactions with Trump, who weeks ago appeared ready to turn the page from the health crisis in hopes of reviving the lagging economy.

But the virus is still widespread. While new cases, deaths and hospitalizations have decreased from their peak nationally, there are still around 20,000 new cases reported each day, and experts are warning the country needs to be prepared for a renewed surge in the fall. 

And while testing has improved after the Trump administration faced widespread criticism for an extremely slow initial rollout, experts say it is still not where it needs to be. 

Reacting to the announcement that Giroir is returning to his regular role, Ashish Jha, director of the Harvard Global Health Institute, tweeted, “The Federal government could not muster up the energy to get Americans the testing they needed. So it feels like we are just throwing in the towel.”

The country is now performing around 400,000 tests per day, but that is still well below the 900,000 tests per day that Jha’s team estimates are needed. 

The administration has said it is distributing millions of needed testing supplies such as swabs. 

Labs say the supply shortages have lessened but are still persistent. 

“It is getting better, but it is rare for an academic lab to not have intermittent supply chain issues along the entirety of the chain,” said Heather Pierce, senior director of science policy for the Association of American Medical Colleges, which represents academic labs. 

There are still shortages of swabs, a chemical needed to perform the tests known as reagent and in some cases a lack of enough testing machines themselves, she said.

At the height of the crisis, Fauci met with Trump about four times a week, but he told Stat News in an interview published Monday that his meetings with the president have been “dramatically decreased.”

Giroir, who was designated to coordinate the government’s coronavirus testing efforts, said this week he would return to his regular duties at the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) later this month, while a spokesperson said his testing responsibilities would be transferred elsewhere in the department.

“At this point it’s mostly focused on the vaccines, the therapeutics and getting those across the finish line,” said one former administration official, who said the task force was “not as active” but suggested it no longer needed to be.

“It’s not every day they need to have a conversation and solve a shiny ball issue,” the official said.

The coronavirus task force held a meeting on Tuesday, and Trump was scheduled to meet with HHS Secretary Alex Azar in the Oval Office. 

White House counselor Kellyanne Conway told reporters at the White House that the coronavirus task force could soon hold additional press briefings to update the public on the state of the pandemic. The last such briefing was more than a month ago, and they have largely ended since Trump suggested on April 23 that scientists study how injecting disinfectant could be used as a coronavirus treatment.

“I’d be surprised if there weren’t task force briefings soon so that everybody can ask their questions and get some information about everything from a next possible wave to the decrease in hospitalizations, new cases, deaths all across this country, vaccine and therapeutic developments,” Conway said. “There are many things to say.”

Giroir has projected that the country will be able to perform as many as 40 to 50 million tests by September ahead of the looming fall surge. But Democrats say they are skeptical of the administration’s claims given a string of missed benchmarks in the past on testing. 

“I would like to give them the benefit of the doubt, but with this track record, the administration simply has no credibility on this matter,” Rep. Diana DeGette (D-Colo.) said during a hearing on continued needs on the coronavirus on Tuesday. 

Michigan Gov. Gretchen Whitmer (D) said at the hearing that her state is now doing almost 15,000 tests per day but has the capacity for 25,000 per day that it has not been able to meet because of supply shortages. 

In May, the state did start getting significant amounts of testing supplies from the federal government, she said, but the shipments are unpredictable, and sometimes inaccurate information is provided about which specific supplies are being shipped. It would be easier to hit testing targets “if supplies could be allocated more quickly and if we had a detailed breakdown of what was actually in the shipment,” she said. 

Trump, meanwhile, has largely been consumed with matters besides the virus over the past week. He offered little more than a cursory tweet to recognize the grim milestone of 100,000 coronavirus deaths in the U.S., and he has spent the last several days fixated on tense protests across the nation, threatening to send in the military to restore order.

His most extended commentary on the virus in the last week came when he announced the U.S. would “terminate” its relationship with the World Health Organization because of allegations of bias in favor of China, a move allies cheered and experts decried as counterproductive in the middle of a pandemic.

Trump has traveled over the past month to three states to tour facilities being used to manufacture or distribute supplies to fight the virus, and he will visit a Maine swab factory on Friday despite Gov. Janet Mills (D) expressing concerns on a conference call with the president that his presence would lead to security problems. 

Tags Alex Azar Anthony Fauci Association of American Medical Colleges Brett Giroir Coronavirus COVID-19 Diana DeGette Donald Trump Health and Human Services Heather Pierce Kellyanne Conway the white house White House coronavirus task force
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