WASHINGTON - Adm. Brett Giroir, the White House’s coronavirus testing chief is stepping down from his role overseeing coronavirus testing at FEMA and returning to his regular post at the Department of Health and Human Services.
An HHS spokesperson confirmed the move in a statement saying, “While Adm. Giroir will remain engaged with the COVID-19 testing and related efforts, many of the day-to-day management and operations of testing are being transitioned to HHS operating divisions.”
Giroir said in a statement that he expects to be "demobilized from FEMA in mid-June."
Giroir was the assistant secretary of the Department of Health and Human Services before being appointed the nation’s testing czar in March after President Donald Trump falsely claimed that coronavirus tests were available to anyone who wanted one.
Trump assured Americans in early March that the COVID-19 test developed by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention is “perfect” and that “anyone who wants a test can get a test.” But more than two months after the first U.S. case of the new disease was confirmed, many people were still not able to get tested.
In early May, just weeks before the country reached a tragic milestone of surpassing 100,000 deaths from the virus, Trump declared “we have met the moment, and we have prevailed” in increasing and improving virus testing, even as the availability and effectiveness of some tests remained in question.
At that time, Giroir said the U.S. could be performing at least 40 million to 50 million tests per month by September.
But a lack of testing has dogged the U.S. response from the beginning, when a test kit developed by the CDC ran into numerous problems.
Despite the rapidly increasing number of coronavirus cases and deaths in the country, Giroir stepping down as testing czar comes as Vice President Mike Pence said the White House Coronavirus Task Force would wind down its work by early June.
“I think we’re having conversations about that and about what the proper time is for the task force to complete its work and for the ongoing efforts to take place on an agency-by-agency level," Pence said
Dr. Deborah Birx, the task force coordinator, said the federal government would still keep a close eye on the data if the task force disbands.
"It took us a while to build that capacity and we’ll make sure that we’re watching that at a federal level," she said.
The nation’s top infectious disease expert and a key member of the White House Coronavirus Task Force said his meetings with President Donald Trump have “dramatically decreased” in recent days.
Dr. Anthony Fauci said in an interview with Stat, a health and science-related news website, that the task force used to meet every single day — including on the weekends. About 75% of the time, it would meet with the president afterward.
“So I was meeting with him four times a week back, a month or so ago,” Fauci said in the interview published Monday.
“But as you probably noticed, the task force meetings have not occurred as often lately. And certainly my meetings with the president have been dramatically decreased,” he said.
The task force hasn't held a public briefing since late April, according to logs of the official White House schedule.
Trump and his White House team have been operating in an ostensibly virus-safe bubble, thanks to the rapid coronavirus tests provided to senior staff and anyone who meets with the president, though questions about the accuracy of that very test have been raised.
A study published in May from New York University researchers regarding Abbott Labs rapid COVID-19 tests used by the White House cast doubt on the tests’ accuracy.
The study came as 1.7 million tests were shipped to all 50 states and District of Columbia, according to Abbott Labs.
Researchers said that they were looking for a testing platform with the shortest turnaround time. They found that the Abbott ID NOW test was capable of producing positive results in as little as five minutes.
But researchers said that Abbott’s ID NOW test missed a third of samples detected as positive when using nasopharyngeal swabs by Cepheid Xpert Xpress, another infectious disease test that produces results in 45 minutes. The Abbott test also missed 48 percent of positive samples when using dry nasal swabs.
If confirmed, the study indicates a high rate of false-negative results.
"Based on our findings we could argue that the Abbott ID NOW detects samples with high viral load or possibly viable virus that could be of importance for transmission," the researchers concluded. "But, the fact that it misses positive samples on patients being admitted to the hospital with clinical picture of COVID19 makes this technology unacceptable in our clinical setting.“
Abbott Labs disputed the findings, saying that what the researchers discovered does not match their own research. An Abbott spokesperson told FOX Business that their findings reported a rate of false negatives at 0.02 percent.
Trump has been repeatedly talking up the administration's response to the virus, despite persistent criticism that he dragged his feet and failed to rapidly and adequately increase production of personal protective equipment and testing supplies.
With roughly 40 million people out of work because of the economic crisis caused by coronavirus lockdowns, Trump has worked to rush the reopening of the country contrary to warnings from medical experts.
The impact of the virus on lives lost, on the economy and on society as a whole has led many to wonder how long it will take as a population to get out of this current outbreak. When will things return to some sense of “normalcy?”
According to Dr. Gabe Kelen, director of the Department of Emergency Medicine at Johns Hopkins, not as soon as we’d hope.
“We are nowhere near the peak. And there are several peaks. We just hit the first one, generally, and we’re sliding a bit downward,” Kelen, who specializes in emerging infections, explained.
“We just saw a little mini peak now, with maybe 1 to 12, 13, 15% of the population in some sections infected. So it’s inevitable that unless a vaccine comes in, there’s still a huge swath of people remaining to be infected before this thing peters out. So a second wave is virtually inevitable, possibly even a third and a fourth,” Kelen said.
“At the same time, it’s different in all parts of the country. In New York, it’s gone down a bit. They’re wondering how come there are 50,000 new infections in the last two weeks. I mean, that’s a large number even though things are going down. Whereas in the more spatially populated areas, suddenly things are going up in places that have opened up a little bit.”
As the virus began making its way around the world earlier this year, the U.S and other countries began implementing major mitigation strategies, such as social distancing guidelines and stay-at-home orders, in order to slow the spread of COVID-19. But “flattening the curve” doesn’t mean a sooner end to the outbreak.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.