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Spread of virus gives White House a grave stress test

Posted March 3, 2020 12:02 a.m. EST

— The White House's capacity to control the coronavirus crisis, the credibility of its upbeat messaging and its efforts to build public trust are about to face a grave test as health officials report a spike in confirmed cases and new deaths on US soil.

Reassurances by President Donald Trump and his top aides that Americans should remain calm went only so far on a day when the number of American fatalities jumped to six, the total of cases topped 100 and experts warned that the true scale of infections was likely far higher than the spotty medical testing carried out so far shows.

The days ahead will show whether the Trump administration's repeated shading of the truth will hamper its ability to unite the nation during an emergency. A White House often enveloped by chaos -- which has stigmatized expertize and prioritized loyalty among top officials -- will be called upon to unleash the power of a coordinated and unified federal government.

So far, and into Monday, Trump's team has portrayed the novel coronavirus as a limited threat to most Americans. It has done little to prepare the country for worst-case scenarios that may not come to pass but would require a steeling of collective national nerves and a willingness to comply with federal directives and to accept the President's leadership.

A glaring example Monday of mixed messaging, between a President fixed on political vulnerabilities and his top public health officials over his insistence that a vaccine is near, underscored Trump's sometimes-erratic crisis management. It might also have reflected his desire to play down the crisis in the short term to placate markets and mitigate political damage.

Still, Vice President Mike Pence, who leads the coronavirus task force, made another forceful effort to calm public fear and project a picture of science-based competence in action.

"Despite today's sad news, let's be clear: The risk to the American people of the coronavirus remains low, according to all of the experts that we are working with across the government," Pence told reporters.

"This President has said we are ready for anything, but this is an all-hands-on-deck effort," the vice president said.

As detection efforts ramp up, the emotional impact of the countrywide spread of novel coronavirus will be hard for the administration to control and fast-proliferating infections could pose a stress test for the public health system.

At that point, Trump's assurances that his government is truly ready will be judged along with the political impact of the epidemic on his presidency and reelection prospects.

Perhaps with that in mind, Pence appeared to prepare the political ground for what experts say will likely be a steep rise in confirmed cases when testing begins to increase.

"As we find more cases it will mean our health officials are doing their job," the vice president said.

A focused White House

The good news Monday was the White House put on a show of focus and openness that suggested that multiple agencies of the US government are engaged and moving in the right direction.

Pence convened another news conference in the rarely used White House briefing room and introduced distinguished new team members, including Ambassador Deborah Birx, an HIV/AIDS specialist who has worked with GOP and Democratic presidents.

Trump, meanwhile, corralled pharmaceutical firms, securing an agreement that they will work together to develop a vaccine.

The experts got plenty of time to speak, and beyond obligatory praise for Trump from his subordinates, there was limited evidence that the White House was politicizing the crisis.

Stock markets, which had fanned a sense of public anxiety last week by slumping on successive days, rebounded with massive gains, though new economic data did little to quell fears of a global economic slowdown.

Yet Pence's briefing, while showcasing an impressive corps of scientists and public health experts, failed to answer some fundamental questions about the coronavirus outbreak.

They include the failure of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention to call for widespread testing in the weeks when China's lockdown bought time to prepare for the epidemic.

The administration's language also raised uncertainty. What does it mean, exactly, when top officials say the risk to Americans is "low?" Is the administration talking about contracting the virus or the possibility of complications or even death?

Pence's position as the mouthpiece of administration efforts also introduces unavoidable politicization. He is a deeply partisan figure with a record of flattering and praising Trump -- and is part of a White House that has assaulted truth for years.

Nothing is more important during a public health crisis than for people to trust and believe what they are being told by their leaders and have confidence that they are hearing the truth.

A need for honesty

Dr. James Phillips, who practices emergency medicine at George Washington University, in the nation's capital, explained why it was so crucial that medical experts addressed the American people.

"It is important for people to have confidence and honesty," Phillips said on CNN's "The Situation Room." "The more we can get the physicians and the scientists at the podium, and having consistency so that every day the American public is getting the same people to get the message and knowing when the message is coming again. It is imperative to instill confidence."

Another problematic aspect of the White House's anti-virus messaging -- caused when experts are not the primary communicators -- was revealed in Trump's on-camera meeting with pharmaceutical executives at the White House.

The President was repeatedly corrected by Dr. Anthony Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, over his overly optimistic predictions about a coronavirus vaccine.

"I've heard very quick numbers, that of months. And I've heard pretty much a year would be an outside number," Trump said.

"So I think that's not a bad range. But if you're talking about three to four months in a couple of cases, a year in other cases."

But Fauci intervened to contradict the President.

"So he's asking the question -- when is it going to be deployable? And that is going to be, at the earliest, a year to a year and a half, no matter how fast you go," Fauci said.

The President repeatedly asked pharmaceutical company chiefs whether they could get out a vaccine within months, only to be told that proper testing procedures were vital.

He also advanced his theory that the virus is seasonal. Experts have not discounted the possibility that warmer weather could slow the spread of the coronavirus. But they've said there is no evidence yet to support the theory.

Trump's interventions were the latest example of how his desire for an alternative reality or a more optimistic scenario often causes him to fog the facts or to ignore science. And they were signs of a President who is often hazy on the details of complex situations and disdainful of the expertise of others.

The capacity of the federal government to provide sufficient testing kits to local health authorities is also in question, despite Pence's assurances that 15,000 were sent out over the weekend. Health and Human Services Secretary Alex Azar said 75,000 testing kits would soon be available.

Dr. Amy Compton-Phillips, chief clinical officer and executive vice president of Providence St. Joseph Health, who administers 51 hospitals, was asked by CNN's Jake Tapper how many of those tests kits she would like.

"All of them. We really want to be able to test pretty much everybody who has the symptoms so we understand where the reservoirs of infection are," she said.

The answer by Compton-Phillips suggested that the administration's expansion of testing capability would be far short of what is needed as the coronavirus spreads.

There are also significant unknowns about the White House's capacity to quickly manage surge capacity in hospitals should the epidemic significantly ramp up and lead to crowding in the nation's hospitals in the coming weeks.

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