The Trump administration is fighting itself alongside the coronavirus, offering conflicting messages on testing, masks and vaccine timelines as a defector from the White House task force says President Trump is too self-centered to lead an effective response.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reversed controversial guidelines on testing people who’d been exposed to infected persons but didn’t show symptoms of COVID-19, one day after The New York Times reported that political officials overruled scientists by saying in August they didn’t necessarily need a test.
The clarification capped a 72-hour period last week in which a top aide at the Department of Health and Human Services took medical leave after warning of “sedition” at CDC, while Mr. Trump scolded CDC Director Robert Redfield for suggesting masks could be more protective than a vaccine.
Also, a former aide to Vice President Mike Pence — Olivia Troye — said while the coronavirus task force tried to stamp out the disease, Mr. Trump couldn’t help but “do something that is detrimental to keeping Americans safe.”
The infighting comes at a tenuous time. Mr. Trump is trying to forestall doubts about the speedy vaccine process — he wants an approval by late October, before he faces voters — as the virus continues to circulate at a relatively high level, pushing the death toll toward 200,000.
Mr. Trump has also broken with his health officials in implicit ways, offering lukewarm support for masks and presiding over rallies without any social distancing and sporadic use of face coverings, even as administration experts plead with Americans to mask up and avoid crowds.
“It’s not unusual for there to be disagreements on policy. I would say it’s really up to the policymakers to set policy,” Tom Frieden, the CDC director under President Obama, told The Washington Times. “If the Trump administration decided, for example, that it didn’t want to recommend masks, I think that’s within their right. What’s so incoherent is to have a recommendation come out and then be undermined. It’s just bad management.”
Health Secretary Alex M. Azar II on Sunday defended the administration’s response, pointing to travel bans, earlier lockdowns and the development of drug therapies — and tried to clarify the administration’s stance on the relative merits of masks and vaccines.
“I think the point the president was making is there’s not an equivalence between masks and vaccines,” he told NBC’s “Meet the Press.” “We use masks as we do mitigation tactics, to bridge to the day of those vaccines. But the vaccines are still the end game that we’re headed towards. And we have just made absolutely historic progress towards getting these vaccines.”
The timeline for inoculating Americans stirred more controversy and conflicting messages from the president and his top disease-fighters.
Mr. Trump on Friday said the U.S. is on track to manufacture 100 million doses of coronavirus vaccine by the end of this year and have enough for “every American” by April, putting down a marker for delivery even before drugmakers gain approval of their candidate drugs.
It’s a more optimistic timeline than the one Dr. Redfield provided to senators last week, when he said widespread distribution could stretch into mid-2021, possibly the third quarter.
His testimony prompted another rebuke from Mr. Trump, who said he thinks Dr. Redfield misspoke.
Asked whether he believes he knows more than “expert” department heads in his administration, the president replied, “In many cases, I do.”
But Ms. Troye, who sat in coronavirus task force meetings led by Mr. Pence, is among Republicans who say the nominee of her party is unfit for a second term.
“No matter how hard you work and what you do, the president is going to do something that is detrimental to keeping Americans safe,” Ms. Troye said in a video from Republican Political Alliance for Integrity and Reform, or REPAIR.
Mr. Pence said Ms. Troye, who left the administration last month, sounded like a “disgruntled employee” who decided to play election-year politics.
Meanwhile, a top HHS aide, Michael Caputo, took 60 days of medical leave to focus on a physical health issue after a bizarre Facebook Live rant about possible rebellion after the election unnerved colleagues. Democrats were also investigating whether he overruled CDC scientists in develop weekly scientific bulletins on COVID-19.
Mr. Azar declined to say Sunday whether he or the White House had installed Mr. Caputo in the agency.
“Our thoughts and prayers are with Michael. He added value and helped with our COVID response,” Mr. Azar told NBC. “But we’ve got a great team in our public affairs group, and we’re going to charge forward with providing fair, balanced, accurate information to the American people about the coronavirus response and preparedness activities.”
The CDC offered more whiplash Friday, abruptly changing guidance from Aug. 24, when it said that people who were exposed to an infected person, but didn’t show symptoms themselves, did “not necessarily need a test.”
It was an unexpected change that caused an uproar among experts, who said rooting out asymptomatic infections is vital to controlling the spread.
Now, the CDC says “people who have been in close contact with someone who has COVID-19 should be tested, even if they don’t have symptoms of COVID-19. While waiting for test results, it is important to stay home to avoid spreading the disease,” the agency’s clarification document said. “Even if you have a negative test, you should stay home for 14 days and monitor your health closely if you had close contact with someone who has COVID-19.”