Official: White House didn't want to tell seniors not to fly

Vice President Mike Pence, right, along with Florida Sen. Rick Scott, left, and Gov. Ron DeSantis, center, speaks to the media after a meeting with cruise line company leaders to discuss the efforts to fight the spread of the COVID-19 coronavirus, at Port Everglades, Saturday March 7, 2020, in Fort Lauderdale, Fla. (AP Photo/Gaston De Cardenas)

NEW YORK, N.Y. – The White House overruled health officials who wanted to recommend that elderly and physically fragile Americans be advised not to fly on commercial airlines because of the new coronavirus, a federal official told The Associated Press.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention submitted the plan as a way of trying to control the virus, but White House officials ordered the air travel recommendation be removed, said the official who had direct knowledge of the plan. Trump administration officials have since suggested certain people should consider not traveling, but have stopped short of the stronger guidance sought by the CDC.

The person who spoke to the AP on condition of anonymity did not have authorization to talk about the matter. The person did not have direct knowledge about why the decision to kill the language was made or who made the call.

Administration officials disputed the person's account. In a tweet, the press secretary for Vice President Mike Pence, Katie Miller, said that “it was never a recommendation to the Task Force” and called the AP story “complete fiction." On Sunday, Dr. Anthony Fauci — the head of infectious diseases at the National Institutes of Health and a member of the White House Coronavirus Task Force — said “no one overruled anybody.”

On Friday, the CDC quietly updated its website to tell older adults and people with severe medical conditions such as heart, lung or kidney disease to "stay home as much as possible" and avoid crowds. It urges those people to “take actions to reduce your risk of exposure,” but it doesn't specifically address flying.

Pence, speaking Saturday after meeting with cruise ship industry leaders in Florida, targeted his travel advice to a narrower group: older people with serious health problems.

“If you’re a senior citizen with a serious underlying health condition, this would be a good time to practice common sense and to avoid activities including traveling on a cruise line,” Pence said, adding they were looking to cruise line officials for action, guidance and flexibility with those passengers.

Health and Human Services Secretary Alex Azar suggested older Americans and those with health problems should avoid crowds "especially in poorly ventilated spaces.”