White House looking at winding down coronavirus task force: Pence

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – The White House is having preliminary talks about when to wind down its coronavirus task force and may start moving coordination of the U.S. response on to federal agencies in late May, Vice President Mike Pence said on Tuesday.

FILE PHOTO: U.S. Vice President Mike Pence visits the General Motors Components Holding Plant that is manufacturing ventilators for use during the coronavirus disease (COVID-19) outbreak, in Kokomo, Indiana, U.S. April 30, 2020. REUTERS/Chris Bergin

Speaking to reporters in his office with members of the task force, Pence said President Donald Trump was starting to look at Memorial Day on May 25 as the time to shift management of the response to the pandemic, which has killed more than 70,000 Americans so far.

Trump placed Pence in charge of the task force, which has been meeting almost every day since it was formed in March.

Conversations are taking place 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 said, confirming a New York Times report.

“We’ve already begun to talk about a transition plan with FEMA,” he said, referring to the Federal Emergency Management Agency that has played a lead role in distributing urgently needed supplies across the country.

The U.S. death toll from COVID-19, the disease caused by the highly contagious virus, is the highest in the world.

Democratic politicians and some Republicans have criticized Trump for playing down the threat and now encouraging states to start to re-open economies that were shut down to try to curb the virus’ spread.

Pence said on Tuesday the trend lines for infections in the United States are on a positive course and that the country “could be in a very different place by late May or early June.”

The University of Washington’s influential Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation on Monday doubled its previous forecast for COVID-19 deaths in the United States, however, saying it now predicts the number could reach about 135,000 by early August as social-distancing measures are relaxed.

Deborah Birx, the coronavirus task response coordinator, said the team would “keep a close eye on the data.” Birx said the group was looking at outbreaks in Chicago and Des Moines, Iowa, as points of concern.

The focus is now on therapeutics, vaccines and addressing infection hotspots, the task force members said.

Health and Human Services Secretary Alex Azar and Food and Drug Administration chief Stephen Hahn said the Trump administration was committed to accelerating the search for a vaccine, with the goal of producing 100 million doses by the autumn and 300 million doses by the end of the year.

“Whether that can be achieved or not, it is realistic,” said Azar. “We would not be doing this if we did not think it were realistic. Is it guaranteed? Of course it is not.”

Most experts have suggested clinical trials to guarantee a vaccine is safe and effective could take a minimum of 12 to 18 months.

The White House task force has been less visible in recent days as Trump turned his attention to efforts to reopen the U.S. economy. It did not meet on Monday or Saturday.

Reporting by Steve Holland; Additional reporting by Lisa Lambert; Writing by Lisa Lambert; Editing by Jonathan Oatis and Sonya Hepinstall

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