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Opinion The case for getting rid of the coronavirus task force

From left, Robert Kadlec, the assistant secretary for preparedness and response for the Health and Human Services Department; Robert Redfield, director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention; and HHS Secretary Alex Azar at a news conference at the White House on Feb. 26. (Jabin Botsford/The Washington Post)
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UPDATE: Alas, President Trump did a 180-degree turn and now says the task force will continue “indefinitely.” The original piece from this morning follows.


The Post reports: “Vice President Pence told reporters today that the coronavirus task force created to manage the federal government’s response to the pandemic could be disbanded within a month because ‘of the tremendous progress we’ve made as a country.’ ” He says this at a time when the number of deaths in many states continues to rise, when we lack an effective national testing/tracking strategy and when more than 30 million remain unemployed — all made worse by Trump’s botched response to warnings of the impending pandemic.

On one hand, this is another “Mission Accomplished” moment akin to White House adviser Jared Kushner’s chest-thumping over the “success” in addressing the coronavirus pandemic (which //has now passed the 70,000-fatalities mark, heading toward 100,000 deaths, according to even the most optimistic projections). It is the triumph of magical thinking over realistic governance, the futile effort to wish away death on a scale we have not seen since World War II (more deaths than from the Vietnam War and about double that of the Korean War).

Full coverage of the coronavirus pandemic

Nevertheless, rational observers can acknowledge that the task force did not serve to educate the president nor to shift his decision-making to a data-driven approach. Mostly, they served as a backdrop to Trump’s horrific daily news conferences in which he imparted dangerous misinformation — including ingestion of disinfectant to cure the coronavirus. Yes, those appearances gave us access to Anthony S. Fauci of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases (although he could have appeared separately in media interviews without the president), but it also did great damage to the reputation of the task force’s coordinator, Deborah Birx, who too frequently showered the president with false praise. (Who can forget her far-fetched assertion that he is “attentive to the scientific literature and the details” and her soft-pedaling of glaring errors from Trump, such as his suggestion to use ultraviolet light and disinfectant as treatments for covid-19?)

By trying to reassign seats in the White House briefing room, the Trump administration is attempting to stifle real journalism, says media critic Erik Wemple. (Video: The Washington Post, Photo: Jabin Botsford / WP/The Washington Post)

On balance, the task force’s disappearance has the benefit of clarity. Its disbandment reaffirms that science, data and human life are not top priorities for the president. Trump craves wants yes-men and yes-women to boost his chances of reelection, which he imagines is achievable by declaring the worst of the virus over and throwing open the doors of industry. He wanted props, not a true task force with authority.

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The uselessness of the task force was underscored by the coincidental release on Tuesday of a formal whistleblower complaint made by now-former HHS official Rick Bright, who charged the administration had pushed quack remedies for political purposes.

The Post reports: “A former top vaccine official removed from his post last month alleged in a whistleblower complaint on Tuesday that he was reassigned to a less prestigious role because he tried to ‘prioritize science and safety over political expediency’ and raised health concerns over a drug repeatedly pushed by President Trump and other administration officials as a possible cure for coronavirus.”

The complaint charges that he was forced to “buy drugs and medical products for the nation’s stockpile of emergency medical equipment from companies that were linked politically to the administration and that he resisted such efforts.” Most damning, he points the finger at the administration and specifically at the task force for failing to take the pandemic seriously. Per the complaint:

Unlike [HHS Secretary Alex] Azar, Dr. Bright and other public health officials were fully aware of the emerging threat of COVID-19 by early January 2020. It was clear to Dr. Bright almost immediately that the virus was highly contagious, spreading rapidly, and could have a high mortality rate. Dr. Bright and his staff recognized the urgent need to obtain genetic sequencing information about the virus and to acquire viruses and clinical specimens from people infected with the virus to share with laboratories and companies. While obtaining both was absolutely critical to being able to develop reliable diagnostic tools and medicines to combat the virus, Dr. Bright initially encountered indifference which then developed into hostility from HHS leadership, including Secretary Azar, as Dr. Bright and his staff raised concerns about the virus and the urgent need to act.

Through mid-March, the complaint claims the administration rebuffed Bright’s urgent efforts to obtain everything from masks to testing kits to needles and syringes. While trade representative Peter Navarro took his side, “memoranda to the White House Chief of Staff and Task Force members urging immediate action and implicitly criticizing HHS leadership for its failure to act” went unheeded. And to top it off, neither Azar (a member of the task force) nor Trump heeded warnings about hawking hydroxychloroquine as a treatment for covid-19, despite lack of evidence.

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In sum, Bright makes a convincing case that the task force was not only ineffective, but part of the problem. The atmosphere of magical thinking and pandemic denial won over efforts to prepare for and then battle a deadly pandemic. Bright was fired, and tens of thousands of Americans died.

Good riddance to the task force.

Read more:

Dana Milbank: ‘I believe I am treated worse,’ Trump says. As if.

Max Boot: Trump’s dithering proves one thing: We’re at war without a leader

David Von Drehle: I usually ignore all Trump’s tweets. Not this one.

Mitch Daniels: When this pandemic is over, let’s avoid the partisan blame game