WASHINGTON (Reuters) – The White House coronavirus task force will wind down as the country moves into a second phase that focuses on the aftermath of the outbreak, President Donald Trump said on Tuesday.
White House coronavirus task force members, including Dr. Anthony Fauci of the National Institutes of Health, White House coronavirus coordinator Dr. Deborah Birx, Centers for Disease Control (CDC) Director Robert Redfield and U.S. Surgeon General Jerome Adams listen to President Donald Trump during the daily coronavirus disease (COVID-19) briefing at the White House in Washington, U.S., April 22, 2020. REUTERS/Jonathan Ernst
Trump confirmed the plans after Vice President Mike Pence, who leads the group, told reporters the White House may start moving coordination of the U.S. response on to federal agencies in late May.
“Mike Pence and the task force have done a great job,” Trump said during a visit to a mask factory in Arizona. “But we’re now looking at a little bit of a different form and that form is safety and opening and we’ll have a different group probably set up for that.”
Asked if he was proclaiming “mission accomplished” in the fight against the coronavirus, Trump said, “No, not at all. The mission accomplished is when it’s over.”
Trump said Anthony Fauci and Deborah Birx, doctors who assumed a high profile during weeks of nationally televised news briefings, would remain advisers after the group is dismantled. Fauci leads the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases and Birx was response coordinator for the force.
“We can’t keep our country closed for the next five years,” Trump said, when asked why it was time to wind down the task force.
At least 70,000 people in the United States have died from COVID-19, the respiratory illness it causes. The U.S. death toll is the highest in the world.
Earlier, Pence said Trump was starting to look at Memorial Day on May 25 as the time to shift management of the response to the pandemic.
Trump placed Pence in charge of the task force, which has been meeting almost every day since it was formed in March.
Conversations are taking place 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.
“We’ve already begun to talk about a transition plan with FEMA,” he said, referring to the Federal Emergency Management Agency that plays a lead role in distributing urgently needed supplies across the country.
Democratic politicians and some Republicans have criticized Trump for playing down the threat and encouraging states to start to reopen economies that were shut down to try to curb the virus’ spread.
Pence said the trend lines for infections in the United States are on a positive course and that the country “could be in a very different place by late May or early June.”
The University of Washington’s influential Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation on Monday doubled its previous forecast for COVID-19 deaths in the United States, however, saying it now predicts the number could reach about 135,000 by early August as social distancing measures are relaxed.
Birx, the coronavirus task response coordinator, said the team would “keep a close eye on the data.” Birx said the group was looking at outbreaks in Chicago and Des Moines, Iowa, as points of concern.
Pence’s office announced he would visit Des Moines on Friday to discuss reopening with faith leaders and meet with agricultural and food supply leaders.
The focus is now on therapeutics, vaccines and addressing infection hot spots, the task force members said.
Most experts have suggested clinical trials to guarantee a vaccine is safe and effective could take a minimum of 12 to 18 months.
Slideshow (8 Images)
The White House task force has been less visible in recent days as Trump turned his attention to efforts to reopen the U.S. economy. It did not meet on Monday or Saturday.
Health and Human Services Secretary Alex Azar and Food and Drug Administration chief Stephen Hahn said the Trump administration was committed to accelerating the search for a vaccine, with the goal of producing 100 million doses by the autumn and 300 million doses by the end of the year.
“Whether that can be achieved or not, it is realistic,” said Azar. “We would not be doing this if we did not think it were realistic. Is it guaranteed? Of course it is not.”
Reporting by Steve Holland; Additional reporting by Lisa Lambert and Doina Chiacu; Writing by Lisa Lambert; Editing by Jonathan Oatis, Sonya Hepinstall and Tom Brown
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