Seema Verma, the administrator of the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services, was pressed during an interview Thursday night whether she could reassure the country that there was no shortage of medical equipment needed to treat patients who test positive for coronavirus. Instead of answering directly, one of the top US health officials offered up a word of praise for her boss, President Donald Trump.
After being asked whether she was concerned that there could be patients who don’t get a ventilator – or if “actual physical equipment that is needed to serve the people who get sick is out there” – Verma told Fox News: “And that’s why the President has taken such bold and decisive action. We’re not waiting for this to get worse. We’re not waiting for this to be a crisis in our health care systems.”
She did not answer the question. As health officials on the President’s coronavirus task force have faced tough questioning about the federal government’s ability to confront the ballooning crisis, they have at times turned to praising Trump instead.
Vice President Mike Pence has led the charge, taking the lead on presenting periodic updates on the task force’s progress and performing his perfunctory presidential praise that’s become a signature for him.
And even though flattering the boss comes with the territory in the Trump administration – a qualification on display in his first Cabinet meeting – it’s an approach health officials are now taking in the face of a major national crisis.
One official who has received praise from both sides of the political aisle for his straightforward answers is Dr. Anthony Fauci, the nation’s leading expert on infectious diseases and a member of the President’s coronavirus task force. He was one of few officials to acknowledge deficiencies in diagnostic testing and has repeatedly yet delicately corrected the President on the timeline of vaccine development.
In recent days, some lawmakers have urged the President to let Fauci be the public face of the administration’s response to coronavirus. The President has praised Fauci and pointed out the doctor’s place on the task force – but some of the lawmakers hope Trump will go further and just let Fauci do the talking.
Non-administration health officials have raised concerns about persistent delays in testing that have caused an obfuscated view of how widespread the virus is in the US, and hospital administrators have advised that they do not have the supplies or room to treat the patients they’re expecting.
But when Dr. Robert Redfield, the director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, accompanied the president to the CDC’s headquarters in Atlanta last Friday, he was asked to address the press. He took the opportunity to lavish praise on the man standing next to him.
“First, I want to thank you for your decisive leadership in helping us, you know, put public health first,” Redfield said. “I also want to thank you for coming here today and – and sort of encouraging and bringing energy to the men and women that you see that work every day to try to keep America safe. So, I think that’s the most important thing I want to say, sir.”
Then in an interview on CNN’s State of the Union, Surgeon General Jerome Adams, an anesthesiologist who is in his mid-40s, insisted the President was “healthier than I am” after being asked if Trump and other aging Democratic candidates should stop traveling given they are in a category most vulnerable to contracting coronavirus.
“Speaking of being at risk, the President, he sleeps less than I do and he’s healthier than what I am,” Adams claimed. He later walked back the remark.
In the days since Trump announced that anyone who wants a test can get a test, a bipartisan group of lawmakers have expressed frustration with the lack of availability. One Republican senator, James Lankford of Oklahoma, said the President’s claim was inaccurate.”
“People should stop saying if you want a test, you should get a test right now,” Lankford said after a briefing with administration officials. “That’s not here at this point.”