Greenville residents get most of their public-health advice on coronavirus from the city of Greenville, the Greenville County school board and the state’s health department.

That’s by design, an advisor to President Donald Trump says.

Dr. John Fleming, deputy chief of staff in the White House and Trump’s assistant for planning and implementation, reached out to The Post and Courier earlier this month from the West Wing to talk about case trends and to provide information on infection mitigation and updates on vaccine development. Ahead of the interview, a White House communications aide identified Fleming as a member of the White House’s COVID task force.

“It’s just, there’s no way in Washington that we can design a one size fits all for everybody,” Fleming said when asked about school-attendance strategies. “It really has to be something that decisions are made by smart, responsible, well-educated people locally with the help of their local health officials.”

The interview late last week — originally scheduled for Oct. 4, the same day Trump announced his own COVID-19 diagnosis — came as several members of the coronavirus task force have struck out on their own to encourage safety protocols and research on the disease. Dr. Deborah Birx, a high-profile member of the task force, was at Clemson University in September as part of an ongoing multi-state tour of research universities.

Fleming, a former Louisiana Congressman who first joined the Trump administration as assistant secretary of commerce, said he does five or six interviews a week with local media outlets. Fleming’s first career was as a Navy doctor, for which he was briefly stationed in Charleston.

“I mean today alone I’ve done interviews with Wyoming and Texas,” Fleming said.

Fleming said everyone is balancing the risk of exposure to coronavirus against the risks that come with isolation — depression, substance abuse and, if avoiding doctors’ offices, a late diagnosis on other serious illnesses. 

From left, the director of special media for Dr. Deborah Birx, Mallory Blount, photographs Clemson University Associate Vice President of Government Affairs Mark Cothran, Birx and Clemson University Vice President of External Affairs Angie Leidinger on Friday, Sept. 25, 2020. Birx, the White House’s coronavirus response coordinator, was visiting the university to observe and talk about community response to the coronavirus pandemic.

By Anna B. Mitchell

Asked how much his routine had been turned upside down the previous week by the president’s illness, Fleming said he is an “essential worker” and had been reporting to duty as usual at the West Wing. He said he gets tested daily and is “healthy as a horse.”

“Just, to be honest, I’m not sure why this interview was postponed because I’ve been here every day,” Fleming said.

He said the administration’s top priority is to deliver a vaccine as soon as possible. One could be ready by year’s end, he said, and career scientists are driving that timeline.

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“They didn’t get their jobs through political appointment, and they can’t lose their jobs by a political firing,” Fleming said. “Their jobs are secure. They don’t have to worry. In fact, the only way they would lose their jobs is if they lost credibility, which would be to respond to political influence. So that’s the reason why it’s actually very, very data-driven.”

Four vaccines are in the last stage of testing, which can extend several months as scientists monitor test and control subjects for efficacy of the vaccine and side effects, Fleming said. But once a vaccine clears the development stage, the federal government is ready for mass distribution, Fleming said, because doses are already being manufactured. He said that has never been done before.

“We are producing them while we are testing them,” he said. “We are not going to release any vaccines unless they are proven safe and effective, but we are going to the cost and trouble of making them. That way there’s no delay. Once it’s approved, we’re not going to wait weeks and months to produce them.”

Critics of the administration have said the president has over-promised on the vaccine’s development and distribution, dubbed “Operation Warp Speed.” Trump suggested at a September press briefing that a vaccine could be ready this month.

Fleming said scientists are not going to put their reputations on the line to meet a political outcome.

President Donald Trump speaks during a campaign rally at Harrisburg International Airport, Saturday, Sept. 26, 2020, in Middletown, Pa.

Steve Ruark

“I can tell you being inside the Trump administration, nobody — now we are anxious to save lives, you better believe that — but we are not going to expose people unnecessarily to risk just in order to do that,” Fleming said.

Trump’s reelection efforts have rendered the White House Coronavirus Task Force all but invisible in recent weeks, according a report this week from CNN. Vice President Mike Pence, the task force’s leader, skipped the group’s weekly call with governors on Monday, the network reported, and the task force’s high-profile infectious disease doctors, Birx and Anthony Fauci, have not appeared publicly with the president in weeks. The group’s weekly reports with state-specific recommendations also remain closed to the public, though the Center for Public Integrity posts leaked excerpts regularly.

Fleming said that the young and healthy, if willing to follow Centers for Disease Control guidelines, should return to work and school, use common sense and follow the “three Ws”: wash your hands, watch your distance and wear a mask.

“If, on the other hand, you’re a shut-in, you’re an invalid, you’re immuno-compromised or whatever, you need to take some special precautions, but people around you who are healthy should help you out,” Fleming said. “They should make sure that you get your food, your groceries, your needs met in whatever way you might want from home.”

As of Tuesday, according to the Center for Public Integrity, South Carolina remained in the “red zone” for community spread of coronavirus along with 25 other states. Last week the total was 24.

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