US Vice President Mike Pence listens as US President Donald Trump speaks during the daily briefing on the novel coronavirus, which causes COVID-19, in the Brady Briefing Room at the White House on April 9, 2020, in Washington, DC.
See difference between Trump and Pence's response to same question
04:20 - Source: CNN

Editor’s Note: Jennifer Lee is a CNN Medical Analyst and clinical associate professor of emergency medicine at The George Washington University. She is the former Deputy Under Secretary for Health for the Department of Veterans Affairs and the former Medicaid Director and Deputy Secretary of Health for the Commonwealth of Virginia. Follow her @DrJenLee. Opinions expressed in this commentary are her own. View more opinion on CNN.

CNN  — 

On Tuesday, the Trump administration announced that it would wind down the White House coronavirus task force. Confirming this to CNN, a senior White House official said the task force “will be phased down around Memorial Day.”

Jennifer Lee

This came as a shock as, according to the New York Times, a Trump administration model predicted deaths in the US to be almost twice as high as it previously estimated, with the daily toll rising to nearly 3000 by the beginning of June.

Luckily, President Donald Trump seemed to change course on Wednesday, tweeting that “the Task Force will continue on indefinitely with its focus on SAFETY & OPENING UP OUR COUNTRY AGAIN.”

This tweet is a huge relief to those of us who appreciate the benefit of having a task force in times of crisis. Disbanding it would have been a dangerous move that would have made it even harder to contain this virus in the weeks and months to come.

Here’s why the task force is vital:

We are battling fatigue and complacency

Though we are far from being out of the woods, we are already battling fatigue and increasing complacency when it comes to the virus. State and local leaders are under extreme pressure to reopen their communities and some have made concessions to relax restrictions whether they meet the criteria suggested by the White House or not.

When the White House coronavirus task force let the national social distancing guidelines expire on April 30, and provided only the less stringent state guidance for reopening, it sent an implied message that the situation has improved enough that there is no need for further federal direction and the rest is up to the states.

Winding down the task force would have entirely reinforced this message and left state leaders with even less top cover. It would have also signaled that the virus is no longer a top priority, which could have made it harder for some state leaders to emphasize that the virus is a very real and ongoing threat.

Coordination and decision-making are crucial right now

Effective coordination and communication between federal agencies – and between federal and state agencies – has been an ongoing challenge throughout this crisis.

This is not a new phenomenon. Having served in leadership positions in both federal and state government, I can attest to how difficult it is to achieve seamless cooperation among the most competent and well intended public servants even in the best of times. Often, agencies will have different ideas about how to solve a problem – and someone at a higher level needs to make a decision quickly about how to move forward.

That’s why in the event of an emergency or crisis it often takes the formation of a task force or similar command structure to bring together disparate agencies to share information, clarify roles, and work together towards a common purpose. In the absence of this, agencies tend to quickly default to working in siloes. One of the reasons testing has been such a difficult nut to crack is because it is so dependent on collaboration and coordination between the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the US Food and Drug Administration, the Federal Emergency Management Agency, state and local governments, and the private sector. Dissolving the task force would have made this even harder.

Covid-19 spreads at a frightening speed

The speed of viral spread is one aspect that makes Covid-19 difficult to contain. On March 5th, there were 12 deaths due to Covid-19 in the US. Nine weeks later, there have now been over 71,000 deaths.

At every point along the way, the virus has moved faster than our ability to contain it. Speed and agility are not often strengths of government agencies. Concerns over shortages of resources, like the protective personal equipment needed by medical personnel, were not taken seriously enough by leaders who could have prioritized acquiring the necessary supplies.

As anyone who has worked in government knows, there is a chain of command. Important decisions often must be approved by agency leaders or the White House. These processes are typically slow and it is all too easy for key insights or pieces of information to get lost along the way, even unintentionally. That’s why a task force structure that allows for subject matter experts to come together, share information and brief political leaders is most efficient way to inform decision making during a time of crisis.

The crucial importance of how we observe Memorial Day

As more states loosen restrictions, we may be entering an even more dangerous phase of this pandemic, potentially setting ourselves up for serious outbreaks across the country.

Hokkaido, Japan, provides a perfect example of what can happen if lockdowns are lifted too early. According to TIME, in late February, the island had the highest number of Covid-19 cases among all prefectures in Japan.

On February 28, the governor declared a state of emergency, closed schools and encouraged people to stay at home.

Many restaurants and businesses also closed. By mid-March, the situation had turned the corner; the health crisis largely stabilized and pressure from businesses to reopen began to grow. In response, on March 19, the governor of Hokkaido lifted the state of emergency but asked residents to continue social distancing and stay home if they felt sick.

Unfortunately, the announcement came just before a three-day weekend, when many residents ventured out to celebrate the lifting of the restrictions. As TIME reported, Dr. Kiyoshi Nagase, chairman of the Hokkaido Medical Association, believes this likely started a second wave of infections in Hokkaido. On April 14, 26 days later, the governor announced a second state of emergency and reimposed restrictions.

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    The upcoming Memorial Day weekend in the US is not only a national holiday to honor those who have died in military service, but it is also the start of the summer season. Many Americans will be planning travel and recreational activities for that weekend which could lead to further spread of the virus. By then, some states will also have relaxed restrictions for weeks, enough time for an outbreak to have surfaced, assuming that testing is in place to detect one fast enough.

    It is entirely possible that the continuation of the task force will lead to new national guidelines for protective measures as the summer starts. We can only hope that this is the case, otherwise we may find ourselves facing a second wave of the pandemic – and countless more deaths to come.

    Correction: A previous version of this article incorrectly identified a coronavirus model that predicted deaths in the US to be almost twice as high as it previously estimated. It was a Trump administration model.