White House to Phase Out Coronavirus Task Force

White House coronavirus response coordinator Dr. Deborah Birx, right, listens as Dr. Anthony Fauci speaks during a meeting at the White House on April 29, 2020. (AP Photo/Evan Vucci)

WASHINGTON (CN) — Despite the U.S. Covid-19 death toll reaching 70,000 on Tuesday, Vice President Mike Pence said the White House coronavirus task force will soon disband thanks to the “tremendous progress” the nation has made in fighting the pandemic. 

Pence, who spearheads the task force, told reporters in an off-camera briefing Tuesday that a gradual winding down will unfold over the coming month with the task force expected to stop meeting around Memorial Day or early June.

“As I’ve said before, as we continue to practice social distancing and states engage in safe and responsible reopening plans, I truly believe — and the trend lines support it — that we could be in a very different place, “ Pence told reporters of the timeframe.

“We’ve already begun to talk about a transition plan with FEMA,” the vice president said, referring to the Federal Emergency Management Agency. “It really is all a reflection of the tremendous progress we’ve made as a country.”

The New York Times was first to report on rumblings of the administration’s plan to nix the task force, and the Washington Post later confirmed the timetable offered by Pence. 

Notably, however, one of the task force’s most prominent members, Dr. Anthony Fauci, said he was not aware of the plan.

In an interview with CBS correspondent Paula Reid, the director of the National Institute for Allergy and Infectious Disease denied reports of the phase-out Tuesday afternoon.  

“I’ve been in every task force meeting and that’s not what they are doing,” Fauci said, according to Reid.  

Neither Fauci nor the National Institutes of Health immediately responded to a request for comment.

On a nightly basis for weeks, the administration has held televised press conferences with its most preeminent health experts including Dr. Deborah Birx, the team’s coordinator, and Fauci, frequently relegated to the sidelines after offering typically short presentations on matters like infection rates, social distancing measures, death toll models and potential developments on vaccine protocols.

But more often than not, the coronavirus task force briefs have been an opportunity for President Donald Trump to issue vague threats or criticize Democrats. In one of the last briefings, the president openly pondered treatment of the virus through ingesting disinfectant or “bringing light into the body.” He later claimed his remarks were sarcastic.

As the number of confirmed U.S. cases of Covid-19 nears 1.2 million, according to a Johns Hopkins University tracker, the federal government is projecting more than 200,000 new cases per day by June 1.

The Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation at the University of Washington has thrown its support behind the projection, saying on Monday that it expects the U.S. to see 135,000 deaths by August. So far, 70,000 Americans have been killed by Covid-19.

House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer, D-Md., slammed Pence’s announcement late Tuesday.

“It is unthinkable that President Trump would shut down the main task force established to coordinate our nation’s response to the Covid-19 pandemic while we are still in the midst of figuring out the health and economic implications of this pandemic,” Hoyer said. “It is a shameful abdication of responsibility.”

Jenna Bednar, professor of political science at the University of Michigan, told Courthouse News in an email Tuesday night she found the developments around the task force “astonishing” in light of the new forecasts doubling the number of Americans who are expected to die from the virus.

“One might have expected that a doubling of the predicted fatalities would be met by a doubling down on efforts to stop the spread. Instead, the governors are left to manage the crisis, and they’re already strapped,” she said. “Now is the time for the federal and state governments to work together as a team on behalf of the American people, but with the White House dissolving the task force, it is as if the quarterback has left the field.”

Michael Genovese, professor of political science and president of the Global Policy Institute at Loyola Marymount University in California, said the phasing out of the task force was a “classic case of blame avoidance.”

“The administration has done a poor job handling the crisis and now they are going to shift attention, responsibility and blame to the governors of the states, especially Democratic states. They know that it is worse than they thought and that it will be a rough summer, so rather than face the November election with the burden of the coronavirus around their necks, they will ease out of the picture and let the states fend for themselves,” Genovese said Tuesday night.

He added, “Yes, this is an abdication of leadership, but President Trump has his eye on the prize: the November election. All else is secondary.”

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