Washington (CNN)The White House’s capacity to control the coronavirus crisis, the credibility of its upbeat messaging and its efforts to build public trust are about to face a grave test as health officials report a spike in confirmed cases and new deaths on US soil.
Reassurances by President Donald Trump and his top aides that Americans should remain calm went only so far on a day when the number of American fatalities jumped to six, the total of cases topped 100 and experts warned that the true scale of infections was likely far higher than the spotty medical testing carried out so far shows.
The days ahead will show whether the Trump administration’s repeated shading of the truth will hamper its ability to unite the nation during an emergency. A White House often enveloped by chaos — which has stigmatized expertize and prioritized loyalty among top officials — will be called upon to unleash the power of a coordinated and unified federal government.
So far, and into Monday, Trump’s team has portrayed the novel coronavirus as a limited threat to most Americans. It has done little to prepare the country for worst-case scenarios that may not come to pass but would require a steeling of collective national nerves and a willingness to comply with federal directives and to accept the President’s leadership.
A glaring example Monday of mixed messaging, between a President fixed on political vulnerabilities and his top public health officials over his insistence that a vaccine is near, underscored Trump’s sometimes-erratic crisis management. It might also have reflected his desire to play down the crisis in the short term to placate markets and mitigate political damage.
Still, Vice President Mike Pence, who leads the coronavirus task force, made another forceful effort to calm public fear and project a picture of science-based competence in action.
“Despite today’s sad news, let’s be clear: The risk to the American people of the coronavirus remains low, according to all of the experts that we are working with across the government,” Pence told reporters.
“This President has said we are ready for anything, but this is an all-hands-on-deck effort,” the vice president said.
As detection efforts ramp up, the emotional impact of the countrywide spread of novel coronavirus will be hard for the administration to control and fast-proliferating infections could pose a stress test for the public health system.
At that point, Trump’s assurances that his government is truly ready will be judged along with the political impact of the epidemic on his presidency and reelection prospects.
Perhaps with that in mind, Pence appeared to prepare the political ground for what experts say will likely be a steep rise in confirmed cases when testing begins to increase.
“As we find more cases it will mean our health officials are doing their job,” the vice president said.
The good news Monday was the White House put on a show of focus and openness that suggested that multiple agencies of the US government are engaged and moving in the right direction.
Pence convened another news conference in the rarely used White House briefing room and introduced distinguished new team members, including Ambassador Deborah Birx, an HIV/AIDS specialist who has worked with GOP and Democratic presidents.
Trump, meanwhile, corralled pharmaceutical firms, securing an agreement that they will work together to develop a vaccine.
The experts got plenty of time to speak, and beyond obligatory praise for Trump from his subordinates, there was limited evidence that the White House was politicizing the crisis.
Stock markets, which had fanned a sense of public anxiety last week by slumping on successive days, rebounded with massive gains, though new economic data did little to quell fears of a global economic slowdown.
Yet Pence’s briefing, while showcasing an impressive corps of scientists and public health experts, failed to answer some fundamental questions about the coronavirus outbreak.
They include the failure of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention to call for widespread testing in the weeks when China’s lockdown bought time to prepare for the epidemic.
The administration’s language also raised uncertainty. What does it mean, exactly, when top officials say the risk to Americans is “low?” Is the administration talking about contracting the virus or the possibility of complications or even