When Vice President Mike Pence first took charge of the White House’s coronavirus task force, among his earliest moves was establishing a standing call with all 50 governors aimed at closely coordinating the nation’s pandemic fight.
Yet as the U.S. confronts its biggest Covid-19 surge to date, Pence hasn’t attended one of those meetings in over a month.
Pence – who has been touting the Trump administration’s response effort on the campaign trail for weeks – is not expected to be on the line again Friday, when the group holds its first governors call since Oct. 13, said a person with knowledge of the plan. It’s a prolonged absence that represents just the latest sign of the task force’s diminished role in the face of the worsening public health crisis it was originally created to combat.
Once a driving force behind the White House’s coronavirus messaging, the group hasn’t held a collective press briefing in months. Inside the West Wing, task force members’ growing alarm over the virus’ resurgence has gone largely ignored. And among health officials on the front lines, there is mounting consensus that the federal government has little new aid to offer – leaving states to face the pandemic’s third and potentially worst wave increasingly on their own.
“There’s not any acknowledgment or appreciation of the severity of the surge,” said an official in one governor's office long frustrated with the federal response. “The stark reality that we’re facing is the White House – from top to bottom – has stopped governing and is only campaigning.”
The task force’s shrinking stature comes amid warnings that the nation is headed toward its darkest days since the beginning of the pandemic, as cases hit record highs and hospitals across several states struggle to deal with a fresh crush of Covid-19 patients.
The U.S. on Thursday recorded a record 88,452 cases, bringing its average over the past week to around 76,000 — the highest point so far this year. Hospitalizations are on the rise too, reaching numbers not seen since mid-August.
It’s a more expansive outbreak than during previous waves, when the coronavirus swamped the Northeast in April and tore through the South and West in July. On Thursday, cases were increasing across three dozen states.
Hospitals in states like Idaho, Utah, Texas and Wisconsin, which had been left relatively untouched by the pandemic in its early days, are now at risk of being overrun – with governors preparing to have the National Guard repurpose convention centers as field hospitals. In Montana, the nearly 300-bed Kalispell Regional Medical Center found itself so short-staffed earlier this month that it stopped quarantining employees exposed to Covid-19.
Indiana, meanwhile, has nearly 1,700 people in its hospitals and 470 patients in the ICU, the latter figure up 70 percent in the five weeks since Republican Gov. Eric Holcomb removed most coronavirus-related restrictions.
“This is the most worrisome of the three surges so far,” said Bruce Siegel, the CEO of America’s Essential Hospitals, which represents safety net providers. “This is the first time we’ve had such widespread outbreaks across America.”
A White House spokesperson defended the administration's pandemic response, adding that Pence regularly chairs task force meetings and updates Trump frequently on coronavirus-related issues.
"The task force proactively reaches out to, meets with, and has calls with jurisdictions across America to ensure they are receiving data, supplies, medication, and personnel," the spokesperson said.
The administration has also continued shipping supplemental testing supplies to states monthly, and authorized the National Guard's continued deployment to aid relief efforts -- albeit at a higher cost to some states than earlier this year.
But as the crisis mushrooms, state and local health officials say there’s no indication that the Trump administration’s response is growing with it. In media appearances and meetings, task force coordinator Deborah Birx and other officials have mostly offered the same advice – emphasizing the need for personal responsibility, mask wearing and continued avoidance of large gatherings.
Though the administration in September celebrated shipping millions of rapid tests around the country to slow the virus' transmission, cases have continued to spread uncontrolled. Roughly a dozen states have seen their positive test rates soar well above the 10 percent benchmark the task force initially targeted.
Perhaps most distressingly for cash-strapped states headed into their eighth month of the pandemic response, there is little promise of new funding to alleviate the cutbacks and furloughs that have hit health departments across the country. Congress has deadlocked for months over how much aid to send states – with the Trump administration balking at Democrats' push for hundreds of billions of dollars in funding. In the meantime, health officials say, they've seen no new efforts to find existing federal funds that could go toward reinforcing the state and local response.
“We still are having huge issues with money getting down to the local health departments, and that has continued to be the theme since the first Covid supplemental dollars were released,” Lori Tremmel Freeman, who heads the National Association of County and City Health Officials, said, adding that there is little federal communication about what dollars are still available and how to access them.
For many state leaders, the White House’s relative detachment from the crisis on the ground is unsurprising. Trump made clear early on that despite creating the task force, his administration would not coordinate a national response. Most states have long since set up their own supply lines and procedures instead. In recent months, the White House has only pivoted further away from leading a comprehensive effort – embracing a narrower approach that prioritizes protecting the elderly and vulnerable populations while otherwise pushing for the country’s broader reopening and pouring efforts into developing a vaccine.
Still, health officials say the contrast between the White House’s view and the pandemic reality is increasingly jarring – especially as task force members themselves voice dire worries about the surge.
In stops in Wyoming, Montana and North Dakota this past week, Birx has implored people to wear masks – scolding those in North Dakota this week for their “deeply unfortunate” lack of adherence to masking recommendations in a state where the governor has refused to mandate them. She’s traveled to dozens of universities to promote social distancing and urged more frequent testing to control on-campus outbreaks.
And over the last month, Birx began holding private calls with the heads of a handful of organizations representing state and territorial health officials to discuss their needs and offer guidance – meetings that one participant said reflect the depth of the current crisis, but also represent the kind of basic outreach that should have taken place in the pandemic’s first months.
Asked whether those meetings brought the promise of new resources or support, the participant was blunt: “No.”
Other task force members like HHS testing czar Brett Giroir and infectious disease expert Anthony Fauci have issued similarly grim outlooks of late, with Giroir saying Wednesday the U.S. has reached a “critical point.”
A status update on the pandemic sent nightly by Trump’s health department to state and local health officials, meanwhile, raised eyebrows after its reliably upbeat tone turned dour earlier this month.
“Mask skeptics remain, but the data is strong: wearing a mask decreases your exposure to the virus,” said its Oct. 13 email, which was later obtained by POLITICO, adding that the department was seeing a “very concerning” uptick in cases.
The next week, health officials characterized the nation as at a “very sobering” stage, stressing in an Oct. 19 email the need for Americans to “double down” on mitigation measures.
Yet for governors and public health officials on the front lines, those warnings have more often been frustrating than helpful – a reminder that the pandemic’s bleak outlook appears to be hitting home everywhere except at the top levels of the White House.
As Trump stumps through the final days of his re-election campaign, his consistent dismissals of the virus as a nuisance that will soon go away are drowning out any competing message that Birx and the rest of the task force try to send during small group meetings and local radio hits.
And as for Pence, just his presence on the campaign trail alone has dismayed public health officials, coming soon after five members of his inner circle contracted Covid-19.
“The communications coming out of the federal government continue to be confusing and, in some cases, a detriment to what locals are saying,” said Chrissie Juliano, executive director of the Big Cities Health Coalition, which represents metropolitan health departments. “It’s problematic when you see the vice president on the campaign trail. … Do as I say, not as I do: that’s a really complicated message.”
It’s a conflict not lost on members of the task force who have grown exasperated with the White House’s dismissive attitude of the virus down the campaign’s home stretch – and their own increasing irrelevance amid a pandemic surge.
“There is no task force. It’s not serving any role at all,” one Republican close to the task force said. “You’ve got a bunch of very thoughtful, intelligent people who want to contribute twiddling their thumbs.”