Coronavirus task force offers an even keel to a zigzag Trump

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President Donald Trump takes questions during press briefing with the coronavirus task force, at the White House, Thursday, March 19, 2020, in Washington. (AP Photo/Evan Vucci)

WASHINGTON, D.C. – They meet in the windowless Situation Room, every day but Sunday, drawing an overflow crowd.

Fueled by coffee, doughnuts and data, members of the White House coronavirus task force fill the secure basement conference room to parse new disease patterns as they weigh next steps in the fight against a virus that has dramatically altered American lives.

On one recent morning, renowned infectious disease expert Dr. Anthony Fauci was conferenced in by telephone when he shared news that landed like a gut punch: World Health Organization data showed that younger people were becoming seriously ill at higher rates than previously reported.

Barely an hour later, Dr. Deborah Birx, the task force coordinator, stood at the White House lectern to sound the alarm publicly.

“There are concerning reports coming out of France and Italy about some young people getting seriously ill, and very seriously ill in the ICUs,” she said at Wednesday's briefing.

It was hardly the first stomach-churning revelation to require a shift in guidance from the roughly 18-member task force, whose daily briefings from the White House press room are becoming must-see events for those closely tracking the disease's spread in the U.S.

Led by Vice President Mike Pence, rotating members of the task force take the podium for the briefings, often joined in recent days by President Donald Trump himself. It has made for some discordant images: officials packed in shoulder-to-shoulder as they instruct Americans to practice social distancing.

By late in the week, the officials were at least paring back their numbers on the riser and spacing themselves out somewhat. But they were still contending with a president whose off-the-cuff pronouncements sometimes undercut their carefully crafted, stick-to-the-science messages.