“The biggest current threat to the president’s reelection is this thing getting out of control and creating a health and economic impact,” said Chris Meekins, a Raymond James financial analyst and former Trump administration HHS emergency-preparedness official.
An HHS spokesperson said the administration is committed to protecting public health and preparing for multiple scenarios due to the novel nature of the virus. “As we’ve said all along, the risk to Americans is low, but we expect the numbers to increase,” the spokesperson said, declining to characterize the nature of the discussions.
But there has been tension within the Trump administration over the response so far. Four officials acknowledged that the process has hit bumps, with high-pressure debates over resources and planning occasionally reopening fault lines between the White House and HHS that first emerged over Trump’s broader health agenda.
Some of the biggest challenges have been within the health department, with the Centers for Disease Control revising its quarantines, opposing the evacuation of the Diamond Princess cruise ship — despite evidence that a quarantine imposed by Japanese authorities had failed and infections were spreading — and raising general questions about the agency’s level of preparedness.
Only 34 cases have been confirmed in the United States, including those brought home from the cruise ship. But the outbreak, now in its third month, has exploded overseas. More than 75,000 cases of the respiratory illness have been confirmed in China and at least 2,200 people have died. Infections are surging in areas outside the epicenter in Hubei Province, spreading rapidly to South Korea, Singapore, Iran and Japan in recent days.
The virus currently has no cure, can be spread by people who have no outward symptoms and appears to pose a significant risk to the elderly. CDC Director Robert Redfield acknowledged last week that officials expect person-to-person transmission in local communities, whether this year or next.
The White House stressed that its inter-agency response team led by Health and Human Services Secretary Alex Azar is working “around the clock.”
“President Trump’s top priority is the health and welfare of the American people, which is why he established the President’s Coronavirus Task Force to contain the spread of the virus,” a spokesperson told POLITICO. “Every precaution is being taken as this situation continues to change hourly.”
Meanwhile, the White House remains worried about growing economic risks, with Chinese production plunging in recent weeks and U.S. companies like Apple and Walmart with significant investments in the country reporting they’re taking financial hits. Senior officials fear that a sustained outbreak could slow global markets and upend a strong U.S. economy that has been central to Trump’s political pitch.
The administration’s fumbled evacuation of about 400 Americans from the marooned cruise ship brought into focus multiple gaps in preparedness, said four individuals with knowledge of the episode.