Pence absent from Covid-19 planning calls for more than a month

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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.”

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