WASHINGTON, D.C. – They meet in the windowless Situation Room, every day but Sunday, drawing an overflow crowd.
Fueled by coffee, doughnuts and data, members of the White House coronavirus task force fill the secure basement conference room to parse new disease patterns as they weigh next steps in the fight against a virus that has dramatically altered American lives.
On one recent morning, renowned infectious disease expert Dr. Anthony Fauci was conferenced in by telephone when he shared news that landed like a gut punch: World Health Organization data showed that younger people were becoming seriously ill at higher rates than previously reported.
Barely an hour later, Dr. Deborah Birx, the task force coordinator, stood at the White House lectern to sound the alarm publicly.
“There are concerning reports coming out of France and Italy about some young people getting seriously ill, and very seriously ill in the ICUs,” she said at Wednesday's briefing.
It was hardly the first stomach-churning revelation to require a shift in guidance from the roughly 18-member task force, whose daily briefings from the White House press room are becoming must-see events for those closely tracking the disease's spread in the U.S.
Led by Vice President Mike Pence, rotating members of the task force take the podium for the briefings, often joined in recent days by President Donald Trump himself. It has made for some discordant images: officials packed in shoulder-to-shoulder as they instruct Americans to practice social distancing.
By late in the week, the officials were at least paring back their numbers on the riser and spacing themselves out somewhat. But they were still contending with a president whose off-the-cuff pronouncements sometimes undercut their carefully crafted, stick-to-the-science messages.
On Friday, Trump offered a rosy outlook for using existing anti-malarial drugs to fight the coronavirus, only for Fauci to rebut him, saying there was no evidence to support the claim. Trump also angrily lashed out at reporters, even as the task force commended the press and highlighted the importance of accurately informing the public about the outbreak.
And then there's the president’s son-in-law and senior adviser Jared Kushner. He's been pursuing his own coronavirus efforts on a separate track, including working with private companies to set up mobile virus test sites.
The task force, for its part, soldiers on — brainstorming options, fielding calls from worried governors, trying to publicly explain the president's thinking — and sometimes working to change it. Five people involved with the task force described its operations to The Associated Press, speaking on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to publicly discuss internal operations.
From one day to the next, ideas that once seemed inconceivable to the task force — like shutting down most travel from Europe — are rolled out to the public only to days later seem grossly inadequate.
When officials saw skyrocketing infection levels in Italy and cases bubbling up nearby, political leaders at one point recommended a Level 3 travel warning advising against non-essential travel to most of the continent.
Some in the room were stunned, however, when medical professionals in the group wanted to go even further. It was an “aha” moment that drove home the gravity of the situation — and that idea was underscored when the news media responded without alarm.
Nine days later, the State Department issued a global Level 4 warning against all travel.
While Trump has been faulted for his early efforts to play down the severity of the outbreak and for his loud airing of grievances against detractors during a time of crisis, the work of the task force in recent weeks has been largely met with praise.
Fauci has trended on Twitter. Birx has been praised for her thoughtful, plain-spoken responses (and her endless array of colorful scarves.) And Pence has gotten credit, even from Democratic governors, for open lines of communication with state officials. Even so, the panel has had to contend with criticism over shortages of tests and medical equipment, the shifting advice on the potential threat to young adults and other matters.
The early days of the task force were more muddled.
When it was first created in January, the task force was seen as something of an inter-agency jumble. Health and Human Services Alex Azar, with whom Trump has sparred, was the titular head of a panel that included the acting — and soon-to-be ousted — White House chief of staff Mick Mulvaney. Deputies of various agencies were represented, but there was little consensus and a daunting array of bureaucratic hurdles.
Much of that changed after Feb. 26, when Trump ordered Pence to take control of the response. At that point, most Americans still weren't focused on the looming public health emergency.
Just a day earlier, Dr. Nancy Messonnier of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention told Americans during a briefing that they had to prepare themselves for fairly severe social distancing. The warning drew the ire of Trump, who was still trying to portray the outbreak as well contained and hoping to minimize the impact on the stock market.
Pence moved quickly, bringing on Birx, a doctor who regards Fauci as her mentor, to serve as his top adviser on the pandemic. And he expanded the task force to include officials who had been excluded earlier, including several who had feuded with Azar. He also added Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin and White House economic adviser Larry Kudlow once it became clear that the crisis would have a potentially catastrophic economic impact.
He also shifted staff work back to agencies as he reshaped the task force into a decision-making body modeled in part on the National Security Council.
The decision to hold meetings in the Situation Room was designed in part to cut down on extra staff and to prevent leaks. Task force meetings have developed a familiar routine: Pence opens with the agenda for the day and turns it over to Birx, who provides an update on the outbreak along with CDC chief Dr. Robert Redfield. Typically, the group limits its discussion to no more than three subjects that need decisions, matters ranging from which agency will run point on an issue to whether to restrict travel from another country.
Trump doesn’t usually attend, although he has turned up more often in recent days as American life has been disrupted by the crisis. So has Kushner, who last week was brought into the response effort after weeks of advising Trump to minimize the crisis to prevent public panic.
At the same time, the task force has moved to tighten the circle, cutting out deputies and staff if their bosses are represented. And while the task force originally met almost entirely in person, going forward there will be more leniency for calling in to promote social distancing, one aide said.
While Kushner's effort to work with outside businesses has drawn scrutiny as being part of a rival effort to combat the virus, officials described it as a complementary effort to the task force. They cast the Kushner group as a sandbox where the businesses can work on creative solutions.
For most people, the new coronavirus causes only mild or moderate symptoms, such as fever and cough. For some, especially older adults and people with existing health problems, it can cause more severe illness, including pneumonia.
The vast majority of people recover from the new virus. According to the World Health Organization, people with mild illness recover in about two weeks, while those with more severe illness may take three to six weeks to recover.
The Associated Press receives support for health and science coverage from the Howard Hughes Medical Institute’s Department of Science Education. The AP is solely responsible for all content.