Washington (CNN)A week after its chaotic and politicized start to the battle against coronavirus, a White House task force is projecting order and coherence amid a crisis that could weigh on the economy and ultimately President Donald Trump’s electoral fate.
Vice President Mike Pence, flanked by scientists and public health experts rather than political spinners, is briefing lawmakers and the press and even privately admitting early missteps. He’s also publicly tackling the most imminent issues — after complaints about his closed briefing on Tuesday, responding Wednesday to the elevated danger the disease poses to the elderly, for instance.
But the administration has still not explained why Washington has been so slow to distribute testing kits in bulk and has dragged its feet on removing restrictions for who can conduct diagnosis. And Pence’s efforts, which are winning qualified praise from some Capitol Hill Democrats, risk being undermined by the President’s inflammatory and inaccurate personal commentary on the virus, which risk further undermining public trust in his leadership at a moment of national emergency.
Trump falsely blamed former President Barack Obama on Wednesday for delays in testing for a disease that emerged in China several months ago, giving the US ample time to prepare. And Trump’s upbeat and misleading rhetoric on the economic impact of the crisis also flies in the face of the facts that key US industries — especially in the travel sector — are now experiencing real consequences from the outbreak.
And with the virus spreading — to more than 150 US cases with 11 deaths in 13 states — there is a strong sense that the White House is now facing only a fraction of the challenge that may soon hit.
Pence is trying to keep American life and commerce moving while delivering hints that the administration is prepared should things could get worse and more stringent mitigation measures might be needed.
He touted a “busy and productive” day at the White House as he appeared for a televised briefing, stressing that the risk to Americans of contracting the coronavirus “remains low.”
Trump met airline executives at the White House and assured Americans it was safe to fly in his latest apparent effort to limit the damage to the economy from the spread of the virus.
“At this moment we think we have it very much in hand,” the President said. His optimism hardly reflected the true state of affairs in the industry. United Airlines, for instance, said it would cut domestic flights by 10% and international ones by 20%.
Pence was criticized by Democrats when he was named last week as the head of Trump’s task force, not least for his performance in dealing with an HIV epidemic when he was governor of Indiana.
But in his first week on the job, and apart from his ritual and repeated praise of Trump, he has done less to politicize the White House response than his boss.
In a briefing on Wednesday he vowed to deal with complaints from health care providers and state and local authorities that they lack sufficient testing capacity to check the virus’s spread.
He said 1.5 million testing kits were on their way to health care providers and university labs and other locations. And he assured Americans that the administration had acted to make tests available for free on private health plans, Medicare and Medicaid.
Dr. Stephen Hahn, the head of the Food and Drug Administration, told reporters that by the end of the week capacity will be in place to perform 1 million tests.
Another member of Trump’s task force, Deborah Birx, said new data from Italy and South Korea was prompting the government to take further steps to shield the most at-risk patients — the elderly. She also noted that there was a very low risk of death for those under 30.
Seema Verma, administrator of the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services, announced directives for hospitals on triaging patients with coronavirus symptoms, offering information for nursing homes about limiting visitors and monitoring staff and mandating new procedu