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Ex-Obama chief of staff says communication and speed are keys in health crisis

Posted March 16, 2020 1:17 p.m. EDT

— A former White House chief of staff who served during the Ebola outbreak has some advice for the Trump administration as it fights the coronavirus pandemic: communication and speed are key during a health crisis.

"The American people are thirsty for information. So it's not only that you can't spin it, but you also have to be very candid about what we know and what we don't know," Denis McDonough, who served in the Obama administration, said to CNN's David Axelrod on an episode of "The Axe Files" podcast released Monday.

McDonough said that had the Trump White House not disbanded a National Security Council team in 2018 that was responsible for pandemics, the office "would have allowed us to be in a much better position (to) understand precisely what was happening much more quickly than we appear to have been."

The comments come as the novel coronavirus continues to take hold in the US, with more than 3,000 reported cases in the country as of Monday morning and at least 65 deaths from the disease. The Trump administration has set up a task force headed by Vice President Mike Pence to handle the crisis, but it has been criticized for at times providing mixed messages on the matter.

Commenting on President Donald Trump's Oval Office address last week in which he caused widespread confusion on new travel restrictions aimed at curbing the spread of the virus, McDonough said that although it was a good opportunity to communicate information, "the content ... did not deliver."

"The danger here is you don't get a lot of opportunities to do that before people start to question whether they can get good signal, not noise, but good signal from that channel," he said.

Listen to the CNN Coronavirus: Fact vs. Fiction podcast with chief medical correspondent Dr. Sanjay Gupta here.

CNN has reached out to the White House for comment.

The former official also speculated that the scrapped Obama-era White House office on pandemics could have prevented recent issues regarding testing regulations, saying it's "a perfect example of why you want to have a ... table at which all the agencies involved in a crisis are debating, deliberating and deciding about issues that need to get resolved."

"Absent a place to elevate ... questions, to resolve them, what too often happens is stasis," McDonough said. "And when you're in a race for time, stasis is obviously not your friend."

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