The Trump administration struggles to deliver consistent messages about who is doing what.
The Trump administration is bringing more agencies into the fold of its response to the novel coronavirus spreading in parts of the country, though the White House has shown signs it is struggling to get on the same page with the rest of its government.
Vice President Mike Pence, who is leading the administration's response and preparedness efforts, in recent days brought leaders from the departments of Housing and Urban Development and Veterans Affairs, as well as the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services and the Food and Drug Administration, onto the White House’s task force. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, and its parent agency, the Health and Human Services Department, continue to spearhead the administration’s coronavirus-related activities.
The White House said on Tuesday the Federal Emergency Management Agency was preparing to deploy more than 50 teams around the country to assist with response efforts. A FEMA spokesperson, however, subsequently tamped down the agency’s involvement. Asked for specifics about the deployments, the spokesperson instead said FEMA is involved only in supporting HHS to provide planning, reporting, coordination, situational awareness and supply chain analysis at the department's operations center. The spokesperson also pushed back on the reports that FEMA is preparing an emergency declaration that would ease the process of getting federal dollars directly to state and local governments, saying it will instead follow HHS’ lead.
The White House did not respond to questions asking to explain the discrepancy. It previously said it was seeking to coordinate all messaging centrally, while still allowing federal experts to speak freely.
VA Secretary Robert Wilkie recently confirmed to Congress the Veterans Health Administration has not seen any confirmed cases of COVID-19, the disease that results from the novel coronavirus, but the department has begun taking steps to prepare for an outbreak. The department activated its emergency management coordination cell to help oversee its national and regional level response efforts in the event it begins to see widespread cases. Wilkie is now sitting on the White House’s coronavirus task force.
He is joined there by HUD Secretary Ben Carson. The White House said on Tuesday HUD is ramping up its efforts to communicate with public housing authorities and homeless service providers.
FDA Commissioner Stephen Hahn, another new addition to the task force, told a Senate committee on Tuesday his agency is working to dramatically increase the number of testing kits available for medical professionals to diagnose COVID-19. CDC originally sent faulty kits out to laboratories across the country, but has since rectified that glitch. It has now tested thousands of potential patients, but FDA is hoping to approve private sector test kits by the end of the week. Hahn said that would give the country the capacity to conduct up to 1 million tests.
The two agencies have butted heads in recent weeks, with one FDA scientist raising concerns CDC’s testing was contaminated. Politico reported on Tuesday the scientist had trouble accessing CDC headquarters in Atlanta after he was detailed there.
CMS Commissioner Seema Verma also joined the task force this week. The agency has been involved in the administration's response from the get go, helping to coordinate testing efforts and providing the private sector and state agencies with safety and care standards. The Wall Street Journal reported on Tuesday CMS may use emergency powers to provide health care to uninsured Americans diagnosed with COVID-19.
A U.S. Postal Service worker on Saturday became the first federal employee confirmed to have the novel coronavirus, though a spokesperson told KIRO 7 the individual did not interact with the public and other employees were not facing any immediate risk.
Anne Schuchat, CDC's principal deputy director, told a Senate committee on Tuesday the government takes seriously the health and safety of its employees and provides guidance to protect them prior to, during and after potential exposure to infected patients. Her comments followed questioning about a whistleblower who said HHS employees were not provided proper training or equipment before interacting with quarantined individuals. Rober Kadlec, the assistant secretary for preparedness and response at HHS, said the department is looking into “what may have been a breach.” Administration officials have subsequently vowed to protect all federal employees involved in response and containment efforts.
Read more about the federal government’s coronavirus response here.