Pence bolsters coronavirus team following criticism

The Trump administration on Thursday sought to bolster its coronavirus response team in the face of criticism of Vice President Pence's qualifications to lead the effort.

The White House spent Thursday adding officials to its coronavirus task force to report to Pence amid sustained skepticism over its preparedness for a possible outbreak.

Pence appointed career health official and Obama-era State Department appointee Deborah Birx to coordinate the response, seeking to soothe concerns over his own lack of public health expertise. 

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While the shuffling of responsibilities was intended as a display of competence, it’s done little to quell the unease over President TrumpDonald John TrumpUS reimposes UN sanctions on Iran amid increasing tensions Jeff Flake: Republicans 'should hold the same position' on SCOTUS vacancy as 2016 Trump supporters chant 'Fill that seat' at North Carolina rally MORE’s handling of this potential crisis.

“My objection is [Pence],” said Rep. Donna ShalalaDonna Edna ShalalaShakespeare Theatre Company goes virtual for 'Will on the Hill...or Won't They?' Hillicon Valley: Dems seek to expand DHS probe after whistleblower complaint | DHS rejects House subpoena for Wolf to testify | Facebook rolls out new features for college students Democrats call for narrowing digital divide to help students during pandemic MORE (D-Fla.), who served as Health and Human Services (HHS) secretary under former President Clinton. 

“He's anti-science. He has a terrible record on AIDS and needle exchange,” Shalala said, but added she was “reassured” by the presence of Birx. 

Birx, who spent decades working as a physician and health expert for the military with a focus on HIV/AIDS, has served since 2014 as the U.S. special representative for global health diplomacy.

Those who worked with Birx during the Obama and Trump administrations praised her professionalism and qualifications.

“I’m very impressed with Dr. Birx’s history of achievement in public health. She’s really an extremely effective leader,” said Thomas Frieden, the former director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) under President Obama and CEO of Resolve to Save Lives. “She is a real resource.”

On Thursday afternoon, the vice president attempted to project a sense of control over the situation, assuring attendees at the Conservative Political Action Conference that the administration was taking the coronavirus seriously. 

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He later led a meeting of the White House’s coronavirus task force alongside HHS Secretary Alex Azar, and toured the agency’s facilities.

Meanwhile, reports emerged of a chaotic initial response to the virus. 

A woman was diagnosed with coronavirus in California after a four-day wait for a test, because she did not meet CDC’s narrow criteria for testing.

Additionally, an HHS whistleblower alleged workers met the first evacuees from China’s Wuhan province without proper training for infection control or appropriate protective gear.

Public health experts said it’s not unusual to have a government official take charge of an emergency situation. But Pence’s critics point to his record on health care while in Congress, and his handling of a major public health crisis as Indiana’s governor.

“I don't have a lot of confidence in the vice president, when it comes to public health threats,” said Rep. Anna EshooAnna Georges EshooDemocratic chairman says White House blocked FDA commissioner from testifying Hillicon Valley: Zuckerberg acknowledges failure to take down Kenosha military group despite warnings | Election officials push back against concerns over mail-in voting, drop boxes Democrat asks intel agencies if they're surveilling members of Congress MORE (D-Calif.). “You look at his record in the state of Indiana, and how HIV spread … it was a very sad and dangerous thing that happened.” 

The worst HIV outbreak in the state’s history occurred in 2015 while Pence was governor, and public health experts said it could have been prevented if Pence and other state leaders had acted sooner to declare a public health emergency and approve needle exchanges. 

Critics said the closure of the Scott County’s only Planned Parenthood clinic after funding cuts helped jump-start the crisis, and Pence’s opposition to a needle exchange program prolonged it. 

He reportedly spent time praying on the issue before reversing his opposition.

Speaker Nancy PelosiNancy PelosiSunday shows preview: Justice Ginsburg dies, sparking partisan battle over vacancy before election Trump is betting big on the suburbs, but his strategy is failing 'bigly' Trump orders flags at half-staff to honor 'trailblazer' Ginsburg MORE (D-Calif.) on Thursday told reporters she spoke with Pence and “expressed to him a concern that I had of his being in this position” of leading the coronavirus response.

Later Thursday, the White House announced that Treasury Secretary Steven MnuchinSteven Terner MnuchinLawmakers fear voter backlash over failure to reach COVID-19 relief deal United Airlines, unions call for six-month extension of government aid House Democrats plan to unveil bill next week to avert shutdown MORE, National Economic Council Director Larry KudlowLarry KudlowMORE and Surgeon General Jerome Adams, who previously served as Pence’s health commissioner in Indiana, would also join the task force.

The inclusion of Mnuchin and Kudlow are a nod to Trump's fixation on the potential economic ramifications of the virus. The Dow plunged more than 1,100 points Thursday, continuing its slide over virus-related uncertainty. 

Pence’s role as the face of the government response was intended to centralize the administration's efforts on messaging and information flow, according to officials familiar with the decision. 

The vice president and his familiarity with the federal and state governments lend credibility to the administration’s efforts, officials said, particularly compared to Trump’s spotty track record handling past crises like Hurricane Maria.

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Media requests on the coronavirus are being directed to the vice president’s office, and other administration officials are reportedly expected to clear their public comments with the White House.

The Department of Health and Human Services, which has been giving regular updates to members of Congress and the media, declined to comment.

The effort to better control the flow of information follows days of contradictory statements from Trump and some of his top officials that fed into criticism that the White House was ill-equipped to handle a potential outbreak.

On Tuesday, CDC officials said the spread of the coronavirus in the U.S. was inevitable. 

“It’s not a question of if this will happen but when this will happen and how many people in this country will have severe illnesses," said Nancy Messonnier, a top CDC official.

But on Wednesday, Trump had a different message.

“I don’t think it’s inevitable,” he said. “It could be at a very small level.”

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CDC Director Robert Redfield told a House panel on Thursday that Messonnier’s message “could have been done much more articulately.”

As the White House coronavirus response team coalesces, questions remain about how the administration will function should an outbreak occur. 

Multiple former government officials suggested that the White House merely created further confusion about who is actually in charge with the addition of Pence and Birx.

While Pence is overseeing the whole of government approach, Birx is in charge of coordinating the White House response. She will report directly to the vice president, even though Azar remains the chairman of the task force and the head of the government’s health agency.

“I'm leading the task force and will continue to rely on the secretary's role as chairman of the task force and the leader of Health and Human Services,” Pence told reporters at Thursday’s meeting.

Further feeding criticism that the administration lacks the strategy for an outbreak are Trump’s proposed cuts to the CDC and other agencies, as well the elimination of the National Security Council position tasked with responding to health-related issues and epidemics.

“This government’s not staffed to deal with this,” said a former State Department official who requested anonymity to speak candidly. 

“Homeland Security is not staffed for it because they’re all about migrants. HHS … we have a lot of government experience built around response to SARS, and MERS and Ebola, but most of it has been dispersed or driven out of government already,” the official said. “You’d think they’d be willing to pull people together trying to find ways to understand what the response can and should be.”

Morgan Chalfant contributed