White House coronavirus task force fades further as fear of second wave emerges

WASHINGTON — At the height of the coronavirus pandemic, the White House task force that President Donald Trump assembled to manage the health crisis met every day. But in recent weeks, as the virus continues to spread and health experts warn of a potential surge in cases across the country this summer, the group has met formally just three times.

And in a new sign that the task force's work may be nearing an end, its members have begun drafting a final after-action report highlighting the president's response that’s expected to be completed in the coming weeks, according to two senior administration officials.

At the same time, the White House’s effort to reshape the task force to more closely align with Trump’s optimism about possible vaccines and treatments for the virus has been rocky. Just days after the White House announced Dr. Peter Marks as a new member the task force, Marks quietly left because of concerns that his participation could present a conflict of interest with his current job at the Food and Drug Administration, according to a person familiar with the move.

Marks, whom Trump has described as “highly accomplished," left the group three weeks ago, but remains in the administration as director of the Center for Biologics Evaluation and Research. Marks also distanced himself as a member of Trump’s “dream team” working on his administration’s fast-track vaccine, called Operation Warp Speed, because of his concerns it might conflict with his role in vaccine oversight at FDA.

"Operation Warp Speed is a critical endeavor that I have been grateful to help stand up over the past few months, and there is now an exceptional team of vaccine development, manufacturing, and clinical trial experts in place advancing the program," Dr. Marks said in a statement.

“With knowledge that some of our population is skeptical of vaccine development efforts, I believe that the American public is best served by my return full time to the FDA," he continued. "In my role as a regulator there, I will continue to work advancing the development and availability of vaccines against COVID-19 that people can trust as being safe and effective."

The task force report being drafted is expected to be far more of a highlights reel from the perspective of the president, who has chafed at criticism of his handling of the pandemic, officials said. It is unlikely to be a critical retrospective of what may have gone wrong and lessons learned that could be applied in a future pandemic, they said.

The dubious standing of the White House’s coronavirus task force comes as some health officials have watched with alarm as thousands of people crowd into streets and public spaces to protest the death of George Floyd, a black man from Minneapolis who died at the hands of a white police officer just over a week ago.

Over the past week, even as American deaths exceeded 100,000 from the respiratory illness, no health experts have appeared from the White House to offer advice or guidance on what these large protests may mean for health risks.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention said it was “monitoring closely” the huge gatherings that for the last three months were explicitly prevented by its own guidance, acknowledging that the “risk” of the coronavirus remains serious.

Once a near-constant presence, Dr. Anthony Fauci has done a handful of media interviews in recent weeks, but he hasn’t spoken to or met with the president in over two weeks, according to a person close to the infectious disease expert. Earlier this month, the two also hadn’t been in touch for a similar stretch of time.

Fauci told Stat News, in an interview published this week but conducted earlier, that his meetings with Trump have been “dramatically decreased.” Trump has, at times, tried to tether himself to Fauci when it serves his defense of the administration’s handling of the coronavirus, but that has not been the case in recent weeks.

White House officials have tailored Fauci’s media appearances to outlets that aren’t regularly watched by the president’s core supporters, in hopes of avoiding renewed calls for his firing.

The president also has privately shown a preference for Dr. Deborah Birx, the task force’s response coordinator, particularly for the way she briefs him. Birx also has a deftness at smoothing the edges of pushback on an idea the president proposes. She’s also among the members of the task force that officials talk about for a higher-profile job in the administration should there be a void, such as Health and Human Services secretary.

Another indication the task force is winding down: Brett Giroir, an assistant secretary of health, is stepping away from his role as the day-to-day COVID19 testing czar and will instead return to his original post at Health and Human Services, per an agency spokeswoman.

Birx appeared on the Sunday political programs two weekends ago but hasn’t since, and only weighed in Tuesday on the dangers of a second wave because of the Floyd protests, warning against a “false sense of security.”

While administration officials stayed silent on the issue over the weekend as the clashes grew exponentially, the CDC conceded the possibility of another outbreak but said it was too soon to know the impact.

“Protests and large gatherings make it difficult to maintain our recommended social distancing guidelines and may put others at risk,” a spokesman for the CDC told NBC News. “It is too early to know what, if any, effect these events will have on the federal COVID-19 response. Every local situation is different. State and local officials will make decisions to protect public health and safety based on circumstances on the ground.”

Surgeon General Jerome Adams was more blunt, saying “there is every reason to expect that we will see new clusters.”

The task force met Tuesday, but the daily briefings that long followed the Situation Room discussions were shelved in late April once the White House decided to pivot to an economic message that focused more on the re-opening of the country and less on the health risks associated with the pandemic.