When Vice President Mike Pence first took charge of the White House’s coronavirus task force, among his earliest moves was establishing a standing call with all 50 governors aimed at closely coordinating the nation’s pandemic fight.
Yet as the U.S. confronts its biggest Covid-19 surge to date, Pence hasn’t attended one of those meetings in over a month.
Pence – who has been touting the Trump administration’s response effort on the campaign trail for weeks – is not expected to be on the line again Friday, when the group holds its first governors call since Oct. 13, said a person with knowledge of the plan. It’s a prolonged absence that represents just the latest sign of the task force’s diminished role in the face of the worsening public health crisis it was originally created to combat.
Once a driving force behind the White House’s coronavirus messaging, the group hasn’t held a collective press briefing in months. Inside the West Wing, task force members’ growing alarm over the virus’ resurgence has gone largely ignored. And among health officials on the front lines, there is mounting consensus that the federal government has little new aid to offer – leaving states to face the pandemic’s third and potentially worst wave increasingly on their own.
“There’s not any acknowledgment or appreciation of the severity of the surge,” said an official in one governor’s office long frustrated with the federal response. “The stark reality that we’re facing is the White House – from top to bottom – has stopped governing and is only campaigning.”
The task force’s shrinking stature comes amid warnings that the nation is headed toward its darkest days since the beginning of the pandemic, as cases hit record highs and hospitals across several states struggle to deal with a fresh crush of Covid-19 patients.
After peaking at more than 85,000 cases in a single day last week, the U.S. is now averaging around 71,000 new daily diagnoses – the highest point so far this year. Hospitalizations are on the rise too, reaching numbers not seen since mid-August.
It’s a more expansive outbreak than during previous waves, when the coronavirus swamped the Northeast in April and tore through the South and West in July. On Thursday, cases were increasing across three dozen states.
Hospitals in states like Idaho, Utah, Texas and Wisconsin, which had been left relatively untouched by the pandemic in its early days, are now at risk of being overrun – with governors preparing to have the National Guard repurpose convention centers as field hospitals. In Montana, the nearly 300-bed Kalispell Regional Medical Center found itself so short-staffed earlier this month that it stopped quarantining employees exposed to Covid-19.
Indiana, meanwhile, has nearly 1,700 people in its hospitals and 470 patients in the ICU, the latter figure up 70 percent