U.S. President Donald Trump and Vice President Mike Pence give a thumbs up after speaking during the first day of the Republican National Convention, in Charlotte, North Carolina, August 24, 2020.
Chris Carlson | Pool via Reuters
As the White House coronavirus task force privately warned state officials that they faced dire outbreaks over the summer, top Trump administration officials publicly downplayed the threat of Covid-19, documents released Monday by the House Select Subcommittee on Coronavirus show.
The subcommittee published eight weeks of internal White House coronavirus reports, which are prepared by the task force and sent privately to governors. The newly published reports begin on June 23 and the most recent report that’s published is from Aug. 9. The White House has declined to make all the reports public.
“Rather than being straight with the American people and creating a national plan to fix the problem, the President and his enablers kept these alarming reports private while publicly downplaying the threat to millions of Americans,” subcommittee Chairman James Clyburn, D-S.C., said in a statement.
Each report contains data on confirmed cases, testing, the mobility of a state’s residents and more for every state. The reports also break out data for each county within a state and put forth recommended policy responses for state officials.
“The Task Force reports released today show the White House has known since June that coronavirus cases were surging across the country and many states were becoming dangerous ‘red zones’ where the virus was spreading fast,” Clyburn said.
President Donald Trump and others in his administration have repeatedly advocated for the swift reopening of large parts of the economy regardless of the threat posed by the coronavirus, which has infected more than 6 million people in the U.S., killing at least 183,300 of them. The U.S. has reported more confirmed cases of the coronavirus and more deaths caused by Covid-19 than any other country in the world.
The data contained in the reports and policy recommendations prescribed by the task force often directly contradict statements made by Trump and other administration officials at roughly the same time.
In the June 23 report, the task force privately warned seven states that they were in the “red zone,” indicating a severe outbreak. On June 16, though, Pence wrote in a Wall Street Journal op-ed that the “panic” over a resurgence of the virus was “overblown.”
On July 5, the task force warned that 15 states were now in the red zone, adding that Florida “has seen a significant increase in new cases and a significant increase in testing positivity over the past week continuing from the previous 4 weeks.” But two days later, Trump said “we’ve done a good job. I think we are going to be in two, three, four weeks, by the time we next speak, I think we’re going to be in very good shape.”
On Aug. 9, the most recent of the newly published reports, the task force warned that 48 states and the District of Columbia were in either red or yellow zones. On Aug. 3, Clyburn points out, Trump tweeted that “Cases up because of BIG Testing! Much of our Country is doing very well. Open the Schools!”
The subcommittee added that a number of states, including Georgia, Florida, Tennessee and Oklahoma, have failed to heed the task force’s advice, including recommendations to issue a statewide mask mandate and to close bars.
“Fourteen states that have been in the “red zone” since June 23 have refused to impose statewide mask mandates per Task Force’s recommendations — including states with severe case spikes like Arizona, Florida, Georgia, Oklahoma, South Carolina, and Tennessee,” the subcommittee says.
Regardless of how the reports line up with the administration’s messaging, public health specialists have repeatedly called for the reports and data contained in them to be made public. Such information can help local and state officials as well as individuals to better respond to the outbreak, advocates for the full release of the reports say.
“We’ve got a lot of Covid response-related data that’s all ready and prepped to be shared with the public and it just isn’t being shared,” Ryan Panchadsaram, who helps run a data-tracking site called Covid Exit Strategy, told CNBC in an interview in July.
Panchadsaram served as the deputy chief technology officer under former President Barack Obama and was among the early members of the team credited with fixing the failed launch of Healthcare.gov. He said the American public is entitled to public health data and called on the Trump administration to make it public.
“There are a set of officials that are acting as gatekeepers to data that you and I and taxpayers have paid for,” he said. “That’s critical to a public health response.”