What we know about the White House coronavirus task force now that Mike Pence is in charge

Jeanine Santucci, USA TODAY

WASHINGTON — President Donald Trump assured the nation on Wednesday that the coronavirus task force put together by the White House was "very ready" to respond to growing concerns about the new virus, and he announced Vice President Mike Pence would take the lead.

Public health officials have warned that the virus could reach the level of a pandemic, the first U.S. case of the illness was transmitted through unknown exposure, and risks to the economy have begun to loom.

"We're very, very ready for this, for anything, whether it's going to be a breakout of larger proportions, or whether we're at that very low level," Trump said at the press conference. He added that he didn’t believe it was inevitable that the virus would spread in the United States but acknowledged that it “probably” would.

Fact check: Trump's national address on coronavirus

So why does the U.S. need a coronavirus task force? What's all this talk of a public health "czar?" And how can the administration address a potential public health crisis?

Here's what we know so far about how the White House is handling coronavirus:

What is the White House coronavirus task force and who is on it?

The White House announced it had established a task force in late January to "monitor, contain, and mitigate the spread of the virus, while ensuring that the American people have the most accurate and up-to-date health and travel information." 

It was headed up by Health and Human Services Secretary Alex Azar, a former pharmaceutical executive who was appointed by Trump about two years ago, and comprised 11 other administration officials:

  • National Security Adviser Robert O'Brien
  • Center for Disease Control and Prevention Director Robert Redfield
  • National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases Director Anthony Fauci
  • State Department official Stephen Biegun
  • Acting DHS Deputy Secretary Ken Cuccinelli
  • Department of Transportation official Joel Szabat
  • Deputy National Security Adviser Matthew Pottinger
  • Adviser to the chief of staff Robert Blair
  • Domestic Policy Council Director Joseph Grogan
  • Deputy Chief of Staff for Policy Coordination Christopher Liddell
  • Office of Management and Budget official Derek Kan.

On Wednesday, though, Trump announced Pence would be in charge. Thursday, the vice president attended his first meeting to oversee the task force, which he noted has met every day since it was established. 

The White House also announced that Ambassador Deborah Birx will be the coronavirus response coordinator. Birx is a public health expert who worked in the State Department as the U.S. global AIDS coordinator under the Obama and Trump administrations.

Also added to the task force Thursday are Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin, Surgeon General Jerome Adams and National Economic Council Director Larry Kudlow.

Dems disagree on virus funding: Schumer counters Trump, announces $8.5-billion proposal

What's a health 'czar?'

There's been talk of the need for an individual to head up the government's response to the coronavirus who would devote their full attention to the issue, also sometimes known as a "czar" in government. So-called czars have been employed in the past throughout the government to coordinate a response to significant issues.

"The Trump administration must appoint a point-person—a czar—to implement a real plan to manage the coronavirus: an independent, non-partisan, global health expert with real expertise." Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer said on the Senate floor Tuesday.

A TIME article from 2009 noted the term is largely a media creation and is shorthand for a high-level official assigned to a policy matter, though it's hardly an official title.

John Holdren, the senior science and technology adviser to former President Barack Obama, told USA TODAY a czar should be “somebody who wakes up every morning thinking about how to fix that problem, and nothing else.”

Trump's task force of more than a dozen members seemed without any such individual. But in response to reporting by Politico that White House officials had been considering naming a coronavirus czar, White House spokesperson Judd Deere said on Twitter that this was false. 

"This is not true!" Deere wrote. "The President took decisive action by creating the Coronavirus Virus Task Force a month ago and is pleased with the leadership of [Azar] to protect the public health."

Trump announced Pence's role later the same day. And Birx's title of White House coronavirus response coordinator, reporting to Pence, further muddles the question of leadership on the coronavirus front.

Azar has maintained he still holds the title of chairman, and Pence says he's leading the group and he will "will continue to rely on the secretary's [Azar's] role," according to pool reports from the task force meeting Thursday.

"The president wanted to make it clear to the American people that we're going to bring a whole of government approach to this," Pence said at the meeting in response to a reporter question about who was leading the effort.

There is precedent for a public health czar; Ronald Klain was named the Ebola response coordinator, and dubbed "Ebola czar," in 2014 during the Obama administration, drawing some early criticism for his lack of medical expertise.

Klain tweeted Thursday, "Amb. Brix is great. But who, exactly, is in charge? Her? Pence? Azar?"

President Donald Trump, with members of the president's coronavirus task force, speaks during a news conference in the Brady Press Briefing Room of the White House, Wednesday, Feb. 26, 2020, in Washington.

What is Pence's experience dealing with public health issues?

Trump said at his Wednesday press conference that Pence isn't a czar, but touted the vice president as "very good, very adept" with his record as the former governor of Indiana. 

"I don’t view Mike as a czar," Trump said. "Mike is part of the administration. But I’m having them report to Mike. Mike will report to me."

Pence brought up his response to the first Middle East Respiratory Syndrome (MERS) case in the United States, which emerged in Indiana in 2014. 

He said he learned from that experience the importance of presidential leadership, and of partnerships with state and local governments and health authorities in responding to dangerous infectious diseases.

But he's also drawn heavy criticism for his response to an epidemic of HIV infections among intravenous drug users in 2015 in his state. 

Pence initially opposed a needle exchange program, in which users could exchange dirty needles that were the source of infection with clean ones provided by the government, saying that it was akin to "handing out drug paraphernalia." It was his position despite the recommendation of public health officials and advocates that needle exchange could reduce rates of infection.

The state banned needle exchange, and after significant backlash, including from the CDC, Pence declared a public health emergency in Scott County that allowed for needle exchange.

Pence in charge: Critics remember HIV response as Trump picks Pence to lead on coronavirus

Physician Leana Wen, a former Baltimore health commissioner and current visiting professor of health policy and management at the George Washington University, said coronavirus response will require quick decision making, and pointed to Pence's track record.

Wen said low public health funding and reluctance to allow a needle exchange were key reasons “HIV epidemic was raging on his watch” as governor.

She also praised the CDC’s warnings this week that Americans’ coronavirus risk remained low but would likely cause severe disruptions as it spreads in the United States.

“The CDC did exactly the right thing,” Wen said. “There will be cases in the U.S. ...  I wish the president yesterday had supported the (CDC’s) message.”

What will the task force do? 

Pence said at the task force meeting on Thursday that the risk to Americans, as of now, "remains low."

But the coronavirus task force stands prepared to make sure that resources are available at the local and state levels, Pence said on Wednesday. Pence and the task force will be coordinating different governmental agencies in their preparations against coronavirus. He said, "our containment strategy has been working."

He said the task force will be working with Congress on funding, which has been a point of contention between Democrats, who believe more funding should be allocated to address the virus, and the administration's original $2.5 billion proposal. Trump has since appeared willing to compromise on the amount.

"I want to assure you in the days ahead the full resources of the government will be brought to bear,” Pence said Thursday.

Pence says his role "is to help lead this effort with the White House corona task force, but also engage our governors, engage local officials, including mayors around the country, and work with members of Congress on Capitol Hill, to make sure that all the agencies represented here in our state and local partners have the resources they need.”

But the specifics of what the task force will do are still not clear. Wen said that the officials tasked with responding to coronavirus will need to be quick in their decision making and inform their decisions with scientific evidence.

Contributing: Michael Collins, Nicholas Wu, Ken Alltucker, Maureen Groppe

This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Coronavirus: What we know about Mike Pence and the task force