Even as Vice President Pence and others caution Americans that their risk of contracting COVID-19 remains low, the experts on the White House coronavirus task force are striking a more urgent tone.
Dr. Anthony Fauci, the head of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, told reporters during a Tuesday briefing at the White House that communities nationwide would need to take precautions to avoid spreading the virus, regardless of whether cases had been reported locally.
Testifying before the House Oversight Committee on Wednesday, Fauci made clear the virus would continue to spread across the country.
"I can say we will see more cases, and things will get worse than they are right now,” he told lawmakers.
Surgeon General Jerome Adams offered a stark warning during Tuesday’s briefing as well while urging Americans to assess whether they are at risk or pose a risk to others.
“Unfortunately, we are likely to see more deaths,” he said. “We have not hit the peak of this epidemic quite yet, but if we follow this prescription, then we will decrease the number of people who are impacted, we will decrease the number of people who will die, and we will more quickly get to the end of this situation.”
The commentary from the surgeon general and the government’s top expert on infectious diseases reflect the growing severity of the virus in the U.S., where more than 1,000 people have been diagnosed with the virus and roughly 30 have died from it.
The World Health Organization (WHO) on Wednesday declared the virus a global pandemic and local governments are increasingly banning large gatherings.
It also underscores the risks of the Trump administration allowing political appointees to comment on a public health crisis, a sparse occurrence in recent days.
The president is set to make remarks at 8 p.m. on Wednesday addressing the coronavirus outbreak and laying out measures to combat the health and economic effects.
Trump has repeatedly touted his decision to curb travel to the U.S. from China as a critical maneuver that has saved lives. While public health officials have agreed it was an important decision, Trump has continually downplayed the imminent threat of the coronavirus to the public, at times contradicting his top officials.
The president predicted during a news conference on Feb. 26 that the number of confirmed cases in the U.S. — 15 at the time — would soon “be down to close to zero.”
During a visit last Friday to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), Trump donned a “Keep America Great” hat as he lashed out at Washington Gov. Jay Inslee (D), whose state has seen the greatest outbreak, compared the coronavirus statistics to those of the common flu, and claimed anybody who wanted to get tested for coronavirus could do so, a statement his Health and Human Services secretary had to clarify a day later.
“I like this stuff. I really get it. People are surprised that I understand it,” Trump said at the CDC. “Every one of these doctors said, ‘How do you know so much about this?’ Maybe I have a natural ability. Maybe I should have done that instead of running for president.”
Top White House economic adviser Larry Kudlow caused a stir when he declared in late February that the containment of the virus was “pretty close to airtight” in the U.S. As the number of cases steadily increased in the following days, Kudlow said in a television interview last week that he still believed it was “contained.”
White House counselor Kellyanne Conway offered a similar sentiment to reporters last Friday, asking one journalist if she was a doctor when she suggested the virus was no longer contained.
Trump, during a meeting Wednesday with banking executives, did not answer a question about concerns that his statements don't match health experts, instead criticizing the reporter who asked it as "fake news."
And Pence's press secretary earlier dismissed the suggestion that Fauci was contradicting the White House's talking points, noting that he's appeared at briefings alongside Pence for the past two weeks.
As the vice president’s office has taken over coordinating the messaging strategy, political appointees have been booked on television less frequently to speak about the virus. Instead, Fauci, Health and Human Services (HHS) Secretary Alex Azar and Pence have conducted television interviews. White House press secretary Stephanie Grisham has continued to do Fox News appearances, though other White House officials have appeared on the network sparingly this week.
Republican senators this week urged Trump to make Fauci in particular a more central part of the administration’s messaging on the virus.
One former administration official noted that a consequence of centering the coronavirus response in the president’s or vice president’s office is that politics could influence decisions and aides could feel pressure to repeat the same lines as Trump.
Reuters reported on Wednesday that the administration was treating information shared in high-level coronavirus meetings as classified.
“I think they’re doing a lot of the right stuff… but they really just have to be honest with people,” the former official said.
“It feels like they’re turning a corner, but the question is if it’s too little too late,” the official added.