Trump says Coronavirus Task Force will continue “indefinitely” but shift focus

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President Donald Trump walks on the South Lawn of the White House after stepping off Marine One, in Washington.. (AP Photo/Patrick Semansky)

(CBS News) — President Trump said Wednesday the White House Coronavirus Task Force will continue its work “indefinitely” but shift its focus to reopening the U.S. economy, an about-face that comes a day after the White House acknowledged internal discussions about shutting down the task force altogether.

In a string of tweets, the president heralded the work of the task force for doing a “fantastic job of bringing together vast highly complex resources that have set a high standard for others to follow in the future.”

“Because of this success, the Task Force will continue on indefinitely with its focus on safety & reopening up our country again,” Mr. Trump tweeted. “We may add or subtract people to it, as appropriate.”

The president added that the task force will also focus on vaccines and therapeutics to fight the coronavirus.

During an event in the Oval Office later in the day to honor National Nurses Day, Mr. Trump told reporters there would be two or three members added to the task force by next week, and said public support for the panel helped drive his decision to keep it intact.

“I thought we could wind it down sooner, but I had no idea how popular the task force is until actually yesterday when I started talking about winding down,” he said. “It is appreciated by the public.”

The task force has been leading the federal government’s response to the coronavirus pandemic, which has claimed more than 71,000 lives in the U.S. But as states begin to ease restrictions imposed to mitigate the spread of the virus — even as the number of cases in many states continues to rise — Vice President Mike Pence told reporters Tuesday that “conversations are being had about winding down the work of the task force.”

The vice president said the White House was looking at Memorial Day as a window for disbanding the panel.

“I think we’re having conversations about that and about what the proper time is for the task force to complete its work and for the ongoing efforts to take place on an agency-by-agency level,” Pence told reporters.

But Dr. Anthony Fauci, one of the nation’s leading experts on infectious diseases and one of the task force’s most visible members, told CBS News before Pence’s comments that he was unaware of discussions about breaking up the task force.

“I’ve been in every task force meeting, and that’s not what they are doing,” he said.

Mr. Trump, meanwhile, told reporters during a trip to Arizona to tour a Honeywell plant that “we’ll have something in a different form” that is a combination of “safety and reopening” the U.S. economy, which has been brought to a halt.

When pressed on why the task force should be dissolved now, with experts warning another coronavirus outbreak could occur in the fall, the president said, “because we can’t keep our country closed for the next five years.”

The White House formed the task force in January when there were 68 confirmed cases in just over a dozen countries. Since then, the virus has spread to 187 countries with more than 3.6 million cases worldwide. 

As the coronavirus epidemic spread to all 50 states and the number of cases in the U.S. mounted, the task force held daily briefings with members of the press to provide updates on its efforts. Those briefings, however, stopped late last month. Mr. Trump has since begun focusing on aspects of the economic recovery.

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