Becerra takes a back seat while others steer Covid response

www.politico.com
7 min read
fairly difficult
The nation's top health official has seldom been the one giving orders.
Administration officials say Becerra's limited role has left the government without a strong intermediary between a fast-moving White House and HHS' methodical scientific agencies — contributing to breakdowns in coordination that have hampered the response and fueled accusations of political interference.

Becerra has steered clear of internal policy debates that have raged between HHS' public health agencies, according to interviews with a dozen current and former administration officials and others familiar with the situation. And he's played a secondary role in selling those Covid-19 policies to the public, often taking a back seat to subordinates like Murthy, Walensky and top infectious disease doctor Anthony Fauci.

"They brief him," one person close to the pandemic response team said. "But he's not a decider on response activities."

Becerra's reticence represents a sharp contrast from past administrations, where the HHS secretary had historically been highly visible in tackling top-tier health issues. And it's noteworthy as health agencies under him feud with the White House over key aspects of the response.

That shift reflects the degree to which the White House has consolidated power over the response under coronavirus coordinator Jeff Zients, a Biden confidant who oversee his own pandemic team. It's also the consequence of a concerted effort to lean on the administration's top medical experts to steer the Covid-19 effort — and a recognition of Becerra's own lack of experience as a public health policymaker and communicator.

But the results have proved particularly painful in recent weeks, as disagreements within the government over boosters left the public confused and Biden's plans for the vaccination campaign's next critical step up in the air.

"Normally, there'd be an internal process to figure out where we're all going to land" led by the HHS secretary, said a person familiar with the situation. "Instead, it's playing out in public."

In an…
Adam Cancryn
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