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COVID-19 Task Force To End Soon, Scientist Files Whistleblower Complaint

DAVID GREENE, HOST:

President Trump yesterday signaled that he is turning the page on the coronavirus crisis. He is moving toward winding down the White House Coronavirus Task Force that's been led by the vice president, putting the focus on the economy and on moving forward.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

PRESIDENT DONALD TRUMP: But we're now looking at a little bit of a different form, and that form is safety and opening. And we'll have a different group probably set up for that.

UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER: Are you saying...

GREENE: The president was speaking there in Arizona. This was actually his first Air Force One flight in a little more than a month, since the country effectively shut down because of the virus. NPR White House correspondent Tamara Keith is with us this morning. Hi, Tam.

TAMARA KEITH, BYLINE: Hi.

GREENE: OK. So moving on here, moving away from this task force setup - when might this be wrapping up?

KEITH: So Vice President Pence, who has been leading it since late February, told reporters yesterday that things would wind down around Memorial Day or early June. The White House has been aiming for summer as sort of a new phase in the response. Pence said that agencies like FEMA would be ready by then to manage their response in a more traditional manner.

You know, this task force is a group that includes Dr. Deborah Birx and Dr. Anthony Fauci, scientists with real experience in epidemics, and they're the ones who convinced the president that he should back those guidelines to slow the spread. And they're also the ones who developed these gradual reopening plans that would only reopen the country once things were stable. The task force met almost every day since early March but, a little more than a week ago, stopped briefing the public.

GREENE: So if they're talking about approaching this with a more traditional response - I mean, you listen to medical experts, they say this crisis is nothing close to traditional, and it's going to stay that way in the coming months. I mean, there's still a crisis here, right?

KEITH: There's absolutely still a crisis. If you look at national charts, it looks like there's a plateau. But in many parts of the country, case numbers continue to rise significantly. They haven't met the metrics, many states, that the task force recommended for beginning to lift restrictions on activities, but many governors are lifting those restrictions anyway. The president has said he's leaving it up to the governors, and he has clearly decided not to use his bully pulpit to pressure them to slow down. In fact, he's made no secret of his desire to see things return to some kind of normal.

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TRUMP: And yes, will some people be affected? Yes. Will some people be affected badly? Yes. But we have to get our country open, and we have to get it open soon.

KEITH: And he says there is more testing - and there is not enough, many say, but there is more testing - and that the country has learned a lot since this began.

GREENE: So what about the people on this task force, like Dr. Anthony Fauci? I mean, are they still going to be playing their role of advising that they've been doing from this task force?

KEITH: Yeah, a senior administration official insisted to me that doctors - that the doctors will, quote, "continue to play an important advisory role." Dr. Fauci was on CNN on Monday night, and he warned against decisions that could cost some people their lives.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

ANTHONY FAUCI: It's the balance of something that's a very difficult choice - like, how many deaths and how much suffering are you willing to accept to get back to what you want to be some form of normality sooner rather than later?

KEITH: And on those deaths, there are now more than 71,000 Americans who have died from the virus, and some models say there could be a sharp increase as people relax the social distancing measures that have been in place and go back to work and church and social life.

GREENE: Well, how does the president address that very idea, that more people could actually die because of the decisions to push ahead and open the economy?

KEITH: He is essentially saying that, yeah, he knows people will be affected; some people will be affected badly. But he simply says that people are being affected badly by having everything shut down, too.

GREENE: I want to ask you before you go about that whistleblower complaint filed by - suggesting the administration ignored warnings about the coronavirus. What's happening there?

KEITH: Yeah, this is a scientist - Dr. Richard Bright. He says he was demoted after he refused to promote hydroxychloroquine That is the drug that President Trump had been promoting but isn't anymore.

GREENE: All right, a lot to cover with NPR White House correspondent Tamara Keith. Tam, thanks.

KEITH: You're welcome. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.