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Trump COVID-19 outreach to governors drops off

Trump COVID-19 outreach to governors drops off
© Greg Nash

The Trump administration’s outreach to governors on the coronavirus pandemic has dropped off in recent weeks, even as cases and hospitalizations are climbing nationwide.

The White House had been holding weekly conference calls with state leaders throughout the summer and into October, offering updates on the administration’s approach to the pandemic and gathering input from governors. But there has been no call in two weeks, and Vice President Pence has been absent from the discussions for multiple weeks.

The drop off in communication with state leaders raises questions about how seriously the Trump administration will take the pandemic in its final two months before leaving office as the United States sees sharp increases in infections and public health experts warn of a dangerous few months ahead.

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The White House coronavirus task force issues weekly status reports indicating how individual states are faring in the fight against the pandemic, and state officials are in regular contact with public health agencies.

But the task force, led by Pence, has not held a call with governors since the Friday before Election Day. That call was led by Health and Human Services Secretary Alex Azar, according to multiple people on the call, and was focused mostly on vaccine development.

There was no call the week of the election, and there was no call this week. The next call is scheduled to take place on Monday, officials said, and Pence is expected to participate.

A White House official said the conference calls are one part of a broader approach to working with state leaders. An intergovernmental affairs team works with governors and local health departments, and certain governors contact the vice president directly on more pressing issues, the official said.

Officials in multiple governors’ offices also suggested the conference calls had become less useful over time. Some Democrats, such as New York Gov. Andrew CuomoAndrew CuomoMayor of Denver apologizes for holiday travel after advising residents to stay put Kamala Harris, Stacey Abrams among nominees for Time magazine's 2020 Person of the Year Denver mayor flies to Mississippi for Thanksgiving after advising against travel MORE (D), stopped participating entirely.

“Generally speaking they have over time become more carefully managed,” said one state official who has been on the calls.

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Public health experts such as Anthony FauciAnthony FauciKamala Harris, Stacey Abrams among nominees for Time magazine's 2020 Person of the Year Overnight Health Care: Biden team to begin getting COVID briefings | Fauci says he would 'absolutely' serve on Biden's COVID task force | Major glove factories close after thousands test positive for COVID-19 Fauci says he would 'absolutely' serve on a Biden coronavirus task force MORE, the government’s top infectious diseases expert, and Deborah BirxDeborah BirxWhite House largely silent on health precautions for Thanksgiving The Hill's Morning Report - Presented by the UAE Embassy in Washington, DC - Pence, Biden wage tug of war over pandemic plans Fauci, Birx urge Americans to take precautions against virus in rare White House appearance MORE, the leader of the White House Coronavirus Task Force, do speak from time to time, and the official said Birx gave state leaders a “pretty stark” overview two weeks ago of how the virus is surging.

Birx has also been on the ground meeting with state officials and university leaders to give more personalized guidance and assessments on responding to the pandemic. Since late June, she has visited 42 states. 

But the message that has been conveyed privately to governors has been absent publicly from the White House. Pence was less visible in the fight against the virus in late October as he ramped up campaign travel, though he is expected to shift his focus back to the coronavirus task force with Election Day in the rearview.

Trump has not met with the task force in months and has barely commented on the pandemic beyond tweets criticizing Pfizer and the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) after the company announced positive developments with its vaccine candidate just after Election Day.

Both Trump and Pence received an update on Friday on Operation Warp Speed and delivered remarks in the Rose Garden to tout the government effort to invest in multiple vaccine candidates and organize distribution.

The Trump administration is tasked with overseeing the pandemic response and public health agencies until President-elect Joe BidenJoe BidenHarris says she has 'not yet' spoken to Pence Kamala Harris, Stacey Abrams among nominees for Time magazine's 2020 Person of the Year Obama: Republican Party members believe 'white males are victims' MORE takes office in January. Lawmakers and experts have raised concerns that Trump, who last met with the task force months ago, will become even more disengaged from the health crisis at a time when the country faces the most risk of the virus spiraling out of control.

“The virus doesn’t care about a transition in the presidency. I think that’s the key thing here is we’re concerned about the next two months not necessarily because of the transition but it’s clear that the virus is raging across the country,” said Casey Katims, director of federal and inter-state affairs for Washington Gov. Jay InsleeJay Robert InsleeWashington county warns of at least 17 positive tests after 300-person wedding The Hill's Morning Report - Presented by UAE - US records 1 million COVID-19 cases in a week; governors crack down Washington state issues sweeping restrictions to combat coronavirus surge MORE (D).

The United States is setting records for coronavirus infections on an almost daily basis in recent weeks. The figures have steadily climbed well over 100,000, and the country’s seven-day average for infections as of Thursday was nearly 130,000.

The country on Tuesday also set a record for coronavirus hospitalizations, with around 62,000 people currently in the hospital with the virus, according to the COVID Tracking Project.

Public health experts have repeatedly warned that the winter months will be particularly challenging as Americans largely congregate indoors, where the virus is more likely to spread. Trump spent the final weeks of his campaign mocking the media for its focus on the pandemic, and experts expressed concern that the lack of federal leadership could exacerbate the crisis.

“You can’t have a microscopic organism that will be contained within a state,” said Lawrence Gostin, a professor of global health at Georgetown University. “And if you have a nation that has 50 different approaches, and probably more given the territories and cities, then no matter what one state does in terms of its good practices will be undone by neighboring states.”

Gostin suggested President-elect Joe Biden should convene a summit of state and local health commissioners in the early days of his administration to “get everybody steering in the same direction.”

Ron Klain, who Biden has tapped as his chief of staff, said on MSNBC on Thursday night that Biden plans to appoint a coordinator to oversee the pandemic response. The coordinator would have access to Biden and would manage a team of officials who separately focus on supply chain, vaccine distribution and testing, Klain said.

“He is going to begin his COVID plan on day one,” Klain said.