United States President Donald Trump on Wednesday reversed course on plans to wind down his coronavirus task force, telling reporters at the White House that – contrary to earlier statements by Vice President Mike Pence – the task force is not being dismantled, but instead refocused.
One day after the administration suggested that its work would be done around Memorial Day (May 25), Trump said the White House task force of public health professionals and senior government officials would continue after all, indefinitely, with its focus shifting towards rebooting the economy and the development of a vaccine.
“I thought we could wind it down sooner,” Trump said, adding, “I had no idea how popular the task force is.”
A White House official acknowledged to the Associated Press news agency that Tuesday’s statements about the task force shutting down had sent the wrong message.
While the task force has already been meeting less frequently, its medical experts, particularly Drs Anthony Fauci and Deborah Birx, have emerged as among the most trusted voices on the virus response. The Tuesday announcement of ending the task force sparked concerns that they would be sidelined as the outbreak continues amid fears of a fresh wave of illness in the fall.
Trump said Tuesday he would still seek their counsel, regardless of the fate of the task force.
“It is appreciated by the public,” he said of the task force.
Trump said membership in the group would change as the nature of the crisis evolves.
In the Wednesday tweets, Trump said, “the Task Force will continue on indefinitely.” He added that the White House “may add or subtract people to it, as appropriate. The Task Force will also be very focused on Vaccines & Therapeutics.”
The White House CoronaVirus Task Force, headed by Vice President Mike Pence, has done a fantastic job of bringing together vast highly complex resources that have set a high standard for others to follow in the future. Ventilators, which were few & in bad shape, are now being….
— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) May 6, 2020
A day earlier, Trump visited an Arizona face mask factory in an effort to demonstrate his determination to see an easing of stay-at-home orders even as the coronavirus remains a threat. Trump did not wear a mask despite guidelines saying they should be worn inside the factory at all times.
As Trump pressed the nation to reopen, Dr Tom Frieden, the former director of the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), testified Wednesday on Capitol Hill that the “war against COVID will be long and difficult”.
“We’re just at the beginning of this pandemic and must focus on the future,” he testified, predicting there will be 100,000 deaths by the end of the month. As bad as the crisis has been, he said, “it’s just the beginning”.
Democrats criticised Trump’s reopening strategy Wednesday, saying more federal support for testing and contact tracing is needed. While the daily number of new deaths in the New York area has declined markedly in recent weeks, deaths have essentially plateaued in the rest of the US.
Democratic House Speaker Nancy Pelosi criticised Trump’s approach on Wednesday. “Death is not an economic motivator, stimulus,” she said. “So why are we going down that path?”
“Everyone’s eager to get out,” she added. “To unlock the lockdown is to test, trace, treat as well as isolate [and practise] social distancing.”
US COVID-19 outbreak: Trump administration’s response criticised (3:00)
Trump on Wednesday defended his decision not to wear a face covering when he visited the Honeywell plant in Phoenix, saying he briefly donned one backstage, out of view of the press, for “not too long” a time. He said the head of Honeywell had told him that he didn’t need to wear one during the public portions of his visit.
The CDC has recommended that all Americans wear cloth masks when they cannot socially distance. In the area where Trump spoke, a large video monitor listed safety guidelines, one of which said, “Please wear your mask at all times.”
Al Jazeera and news agencies