WASHINGTON – President Donald Trump's administration is considering plans to wind down its coronavirus task force as early as this month, a major shift in the White House strategy for responding to the greatest health crisis in a century.
Vice President Mike Pence, who has led the group since it was created in January, told reporters Tuesday thatthe work of the group will be transferred to other parts of the government, including the Federal Emergency Management Agency.
That could take place later this month or early June, he said.
"I think we’re having conversations about that and about what the proper time is for the task force to complete its work and for the ongoing efforts to take place on an agency-by-agency level," Pence told reporters.
"And as I’ve said before, as we continue to practice social distancing and states engage in safe and responsible reopening plans, I truly believe – and the trend lines support it – that we could be in a very different place," he said."And by late May and early June – and that probably represents the timetable for our agencies."
Trump announced the task force Jan. 29, saying its goal was to "monitor, contain and mitigate the spread of the virus." The group has met virtually every day – bringing together not only White House officials but also top public health experts within the Trump administration. White House press secretary Kayleigh McEnany said the administration would continue to rely on a "data-driven approach" to reopening.
"We can't keep our country closed for the next five years," Trump told reporters in Arizona when asked why now is the right time to unwind the group.
Trump said he will continue to receive advice from public health officials and other experts even if the task force is disbanded. The president said he would continue to hear from experts such as Anthony Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, and Deborah Birx, the White House coronavirus response coordinator, as well as "other doctors."
Pence's briefing followed a report in the New York Times that White House officials are telling members and staff of the group that the administration plans to wind down in coming weeks, despite evidence that the threat posed by the virus continues.
News of the change drew fire from critics who cited concerns that coronavirus death rates will spike as states roll back restrictions on businesses and people. More than 70,000 people have succumbed to the disease, according to Johns Hopkins University.
"We have weeks ahead of us of 1,000+ deaths/day but sure, let's shut down the task force," tweeted national security lawyer Bradley P. Moss.
"Really?" tweeted Leana Wen, the former president of Planned Parenthood and former Baltimore health commissioner. "We still have a pandemic, with record numbers of Americans dying, and infections and deaths escalating by the day. We still don’t have a national coordinated effort to get testing, tracing, treatment."
Trump addressed the task force during a trip to Arizona on Tuesday, one of his few departures from the White House since the virus first struck in the United States. The president has been eager to reopen businesses and recharge the U.S. economy, frequently praising governors who have lifted or eased orders requiring non-essential businesses to close.
Pence's briefing came minutes before Trump touched down in Arizona. He toured a Honeywell aerospace facility in Phoenix that makes respirator masks.