Frustrated Trump Considers Naming Coronavirus ‘Czar’

WASHINGTON — President Trump on Wednesday named Vice President Mike Pence to coordinate the government’s response to the coronavirus, and he repeatedly played down the danger to the United States of a widespread domestic outbreak of the virus that is rapidly spreading across the globe.

Mr. Trump’s announcement, at a White House news conference, followed criticism that the administration’s response has been sluggish and after two days of contradictory messages about the virus, which has infected more than 81,000 people globally, killing nearly 3,000. The president expressed confidence that scientists would develop a vaccine, but he provided no details.

“The risk to the American people remains very low,” said Mr. Trump, flanked by top health officials from several government agencies. “We have the greatest experts, really in the world, right here. We’re ready to adapt and we’re ready to do whatever we have to as the disease spreads, if it spreads.”

Several top health care experts echoed Mr. Trump’s optimism but also offered a much more sober assessment of the future risks to the health of Americans. Dr. Anne Schuchat, the principal deputy director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, warned Americans there would be more infections.

“Our aggressive containment strategy here in the United States has been working and is responsible for the low levels of cases that we have so far. However, we do expect more cases,” she said, insisting as Mr. Trump stood behind her: “The trajectory of what we’re looking at over the weeks and months ahead is very uncertain.”

Moments later, Mr. Trump contradicted that line, telling reporters that “I don’t think it’s inevitable.” He left the door open to travel restrictions beyond China, to other hard-hit countries such as South Korea and Italy.

Earlier in the day, Mr. Trump condemned the news media, accusing journalists of making the situation “look as bad as possible” even as government health experts warned that the coronavirus threat in the United States is only beginning. Alex M. Azar II, the health and human services secretary, confirmed on Wednesday afternoon a new American case, bringing to 60 the total number of infections that have been counted in the United States. Mr. Azar said that health officials were still figuring out how the new person became infected.

The politics of coronavirus shifted drastically on Tuesday when Dr. Nancy Messonnier, the director of the C.D.C.’s National Center for Immunization and Respiratory Diseases, told reporters that “it’s not so much of a question of if this will happen anymore but rather more of a question of exactly when this will happen.” She said that hospitals and schools should begin preparing for an outbreak, and that she had even spoken to her own family about “significant disruption of our lives.”

That message contrasted reassuring tweets from Mr. Trump, who has been reluctant to give in to what he considers an “alarmist” view about the virus, an administration official said. The president has repeatedly said that, like the flu, the new coronavirus will dissipate with warmer, more humid weather. Mr. Trump’s aides say he has focused on that possibility since he was first briefed on the virus, even though officials have warned him that relatively little is known about the virus, and it may not behave as others do.

The possibility of the virus spreading in the United States comes as the administration grapples with budget cuts and personnel moves that critics say have weakened the system for dealing with such health crises. The White House in 2018 eliminated a dedicated position on the National Security Council to coordinate pandemic response, the same year that the Trump administration narrowed its epidemiological work to 10 countries from 49.

  • Answers to your most common questions:

    Updated Feb. 26, 2020

    • What is a Coronavirus?
      It is a novel virus named for the crown-like spikes that protrude from its surface. The coronavirus can infect both animals and people, and can cause a range of respiratory illnesses from the common cold to more dangerous conditions like Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome, or SARS.
    • How do I keep myself and others safe?
      Washing your hands frequently is the most important thing you can do, along with staying at home when you’re sick.
    • What if I’m traveling?
      The C.D.C. haswarned older and at-risk travelers to avoid Japan, Italy and Iran. The agency also has advised against all non-essential travel to South Korea and China.
    • Where has the virus spread?
      The virus, which originated in Wuhan, China, has sickened more than 80,000 people in at least 33 countries, including Italy, Iran and South Korea.
    • How contagious is the virus?
      According to preliminary research, it seems moderately infectious, similar to SARS, and is probably transmitted through sneezes, coughs and contaminated surfaces. Scientists have estimated that each infected person could spread it to somewhere between 1.5 and 3.5 people without effective containment measures.
    • Who is working to contain the virus?
      The World Health Organization officials have been working with officials in China, where growth has slowed. But this week, as confirmed cases spiked on two continents, experts warned that the world is not ready for a major outbreak.

In November, a task force at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, which included five current and former Republican senators and House members, warned that “the United States remains woefully ill prepared to respond to global health security threats” and recommended the reinstatement of an N.S.C. coordinator and a recommitment of funding and attention to global health programs.

Instead, the president’s budget request this month for the fiscal year that begins in October would cut the C.D.C.’s budget by almost 16 percent, and the Health and Human Services Department’s by almost 10 percent. The proposal’s $3 billion in cuts to global health programs included a 53 percent cut to the World Health Organization and a 75 percent cut to the Pan American Health Organization.

It has fallen to Mr. Azar to make the case that the government is up to the task of containing the virus as anxiety grew around the world about vulnerability to a still-mysterious affliction that does not respect international borders.

New cases popped up across Europe, dozens of infections in Iran raised fears of an unbridled spread through the Middle East, and the first confirmed case was reported in Latin America — a Brazilian man who had returned from Italy just as Brazil is in the midst of its Carnival celebrations.

For the first time, more new cases were reported outside China — where the outbreak began two months ago — than inside, according to figures from the World Health Organization.

The Chinese authorities cautioned that the falling infection rate might be only temporary, while South Korean officials scrambled to contain the largest outbreak of cases outside China — including an American soldier deployed in South Korea. Across the United States, universities began bringing students home from abroad and canceling overseas study programs.

Mr. Trump has privately expressed frustration to numerous officials about his administration’s efforts confront the virus, and has discussed appointing a “czar” to manage the response, according to someone familiar with his comments. But a spokesman denied that Mr. Trump was looking to hire a White House coronavirus coordinator, saying the president was “pleased” with Mr. Azar’s work as the head of a coronavirus task force.

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transcript

‘Someone Needs to Be in Charge’: Alex Azar Grilled in Coronavirus Hearing

The secretary of health and human services, Alex M. Azar II, testified to lawmakers about efforts to respond to the coronavirus outbreak.

“So as you know, I was one of the architects of the original pandemic plans back in the Bush administration. That work is foundational. That’s what has set up our entire state and local and federal preparedness program for any type of viral outbreak like this. And so it’s really the feds — it is the blueprint for how we are operating today, including my role leading through the Emergency Support Function 8, under the national response plan, which is the doctrine that we’ve had in place now for 15 years. Innovation is vitally important, and that’s why two of the key legs of the supplemental request are to develop vaccines and therapeutics for this novel virus. Interesting —” Lawmaker: “So what happened is they flew back in 14 Americans, maybe more, who were infected with the coronavirus. That’s why someone needs to be in charge. And you know what, I think it should be you.” “They — I, I just, with respect. I want — the deputy chief of mission had a very difficult decision to make there.” Lawmaker: “I understand that. I don’t need you to explain that to me. What I’m saying is as this goes along, there needs to be someone who can overrule Homeland Security and State, who can make these decisions for the American public based on public health.”

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The secretary of health and human services, Alex M. Azar II, testified to lawmakers about efforts to respond to the coronavirus outbreak.CreditCredit…T.J. Kirkpatrick for The New York Times

One senior administration official insisted that Mr. Trump has been pleased with Mr. Azar in the last few days, and that any conversation related to a czar or a new point person would come if there is a significant uptick in infections or if the virus’s impact expands. Still, as recently as last weekend, the president grew furious that he had been sidelined from a decision to return some Americans infected with the virus to the United States, and he made his anger to Mr. Azar known. Officials in the White House have since wrestled with how best to present Mr. Trump with information during a fast-moving situation, one aide said.

The White House’s muscular internal messaging efforts kicked in on Wednesday. Supporters were pelted with multiple emails assuring them that Mr. Trump was overseeing an “aggressive coronavirus response,” and that the “full weight of the U.S. government” was working to safeguard Americans from illness, according to one message.

Mr. Trump’s attempts to calm the American public have also occasionally been laced with a degree of alarm, with Mr. Trump telling reporters at a news conference in India on Tuesday that “there’s a very good chance you’re not going to die.”

Some of Mr. Trump’s political allies tried to question the motivation of some of his top health officials for warning the public about the spread of the virus. Rush Limbaugh, the conservative talk radio host, on Wednesday argued without foundation that Dr. Messonnier was being purposely alarmist to undermine Mr. Trump because she is the sister of Rod Rosenstein, the former deputy attorney general who was a frequent target of Mr. Trump’s ire.

“In that town, I’m telling you, everything is incestuous. Most of that town is establishment oriented or rooted, which means they despise Trump,” Mr. Limbaugh said on his show.

Mr. Trump’s reassurances to the public appear at least in part aimed at calming global markets. On Tuesday, a day after its worst one-day slide in two years, the S&P 500 closed down 3 percent. The S&P 500 ended Wednesday down about 0.4 percent, bringing its losses for the week to close to more than 6 percent.

Moody’s Analytics predicted a 40 percent chance that the virus would grow into a global pandemic that would push the United States and the world into a recession.

For a second day, Mr. Azar was on Capitol Hill Wednesday defending his work, telling lawmakers that he was overseeing “the smoothest interagency process I’ve experienced in my 20 years of dealing with public health emergencies.”

Mr. Azar said that the C.D.C. had already exhausted the $105 million rapid response fund that the federal government had been using in its initial response efforts. He has proposed shifting $136 million from other health programs to the coronavirus to replenish the government’s efforts.

A day earlier, he told a Senate panel that medical supplies were badly needed for the nation’s emergency stockpile, including 300 million masks for health care workers alone.

But on Wednesday, he faced bipartisan concern about the administration’s $2.5 billion request for additional funding.

Lawmakers from both parties have said the White House request is far short of what is needed and relies on the transfer of existing funds — including $535 million intended to counter the spread of the Ebola virus. In a briefing on Tuesday morning with senators, administration officials said that they understood that the package would need to grow, according to a Senate aide familiar with the exchange but unauthorized to discuss it publicly.

Representative Rosa DeLauro, Democrat of Connecticut and the chairwoman of the House Appropriations subcommittee that funds health programs, criticized the White House’s funding proposals as “unacceptable.”

“These cuts are shameful,” Representative Anna G. Eshoo, Democrat of California, said Wednesday evening at a separate House hearing with Mr. Azar.

Senator Chuck Schumer of New York, the Democratic leader, proposed on Wednesday to increase the president’s emergency request drastically, to $8.5 billion in new funds, including$3 billion for a public health emergency fund, $1.5 billion for the C.D.C., $1 billion for vaccine development and $2 billion for reimbursing states and cities for efforts they have so far made to monitor and prepare for potential cases of the virus.

Lawmakers have expressed alarm that the Trump administration has yet to appoint a czar-like position at the White House, which President Barack Obama did in 2014 to handle the Ebola virus. That role, and a global health expert slot on the National Security Council, have been vacant for years.

“This is probably something that justifies having one person in the government who can work cross the various departments and agencies,” Senator Mitt Romney, a Utah Republican, said.

Senator Mazie K. Hirono, Democrat of Hawaii, said Tuesday as she left a briefing with federal health officials that she was not sure who was actually on the administration’s task force.

“This is why we do need somebody that’s like a coronavirus czar,” she said.

Ronald Klain, who held the Ebola position in the Obama White House, said: “One cabinet secretary cannot run an interagency response. Azar has the biggest civilian job in the American government. Is he doing this in his spare time?”

At the Wednesday morning hearing on the health department’s budget, lawmakers questioned Mr. Azar about public health-related cuts the Trump administration had proposed, in addition to his plans to fund the coronavirus response, for which the White House had sought billions of dollars from Congress.

A chart obtained by The New York Times on Tuesday showed that Mr. Azar was proposing shuffling money from key health programs to fund the administration’s response, including some that were central to Mr. Trump’s agenda, like H.I.V. and AIDS prevention, rural health and cancer research.

The 2021 health and human services budget calls for broader public health cuts separate from the White House’s plans to transfer money to handle coronavirus efforts. Tens of millions of dollars would come from the department’s Office of Public Health Preparedness and Response and its Hospital Preparedness Program, which helps hospitals handle surges of patients during disease outbreaks.

Reporting was contributed by Jim Tankersley, Sheryl Gay Stolberg, Catie Edmondson and Eileen Sullivan.

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