Vice President Mike Pence’s office announced Thursday that Ambassador Deborah Birx, a physician and public health expert, will serve as the White House’s “coronavirus response coordinator.”
Birx will likely be coordinating with the other health professionals on the novel coronavirus, essentially taking on what appears to be a coronavirus “czar” role on the public health level, while Pence, who is not a health expert, oversees the administration’s overall preparation and response.
Pence’s office also announced three other new task force members: Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin, Surgeon General Dr. Jerome Adams and National Economic Council Director Larry Kudlow.
The announcement about Birx’s new role follows some back-and-forth within the White House over the potential appointment of a coronavirus czar.
CNN previously reported that President Donald Trump had privately expressed frustration over Health and Human Services Secretary Alex Azar’s lack of communication on key issues as the head of the White House coronavirus task force. And during a news conference Wednesday, the President announced that Pence would be the White House’s point man. Trump also said Pence would be adding a State Department specialist to the team.
But toward the end of the news conference, Azar maintained that he is still chairman of the task force, adding that he was “delighted” to have Pence “helping” him.
The comment led to questions as to who was in charge of the administration’s response to contain the virus.
And in Pence’s Thursday announcement, Birx’s chain of command muddied the waters further.
“She will be detailed to the Office of the Vice President and will report to Vice President Mike Pence. She will also join the Task Force led by Health and Human Services Secretary Alex Azar. She will be supported by the National Security Council staff,” the statement said.
Birx has been serving as an ambassador-at-Large and as United States Global AIDS coordinator since 2014. According to the vice president’s office, she has “developed and patented vaccines, including leading one of the most influential HIV vaccine trials in history.”
She also rose to the rank of colonel within the Defense Department, working as a physician, researcher and supervisor before retiring from military service.
Speaking at the Conservative Political Action Conference outside Washington Thursday afternoon, Pence offered reassurances about the administration’s efforts to contain the coronavirus.
“President Trump has no higher priority than the health, safety and well-being of Americans,” Pence said, adding that Trump had taken “unprecedented action” since the outbreak of the virus and touting the President’s decision to shut down travel from affected areas.
Pence also said Trump had directed him “to lead a whole of government approach” to the infectious disease.
“This is not the time for partisanship. The American people expect us to work together and I promise you this president, this administration is going to meet with leaders of both parties,” he pledged to the conservative audience.