As the nation’s coronavirus death toll neared 200,000, top administration health officials on Sunday delicately sidestepped President Trump’s ambitious declaration last week that a coronavirus vaccine would be available for every American by April.
Instead, Adm. Brett P. Giroir, who heads up national testing efforts, and Alex M. Azar II, the secretary of health and human services, offered a slightly more conservative timetable for vaccine availability.
Both seemed to defend the forecasts made by experts including Dr. Robert R. Redfield, the head of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, who was publicly rebuked by the president for estimating that an effective vaccine might not be widely available to the general public until the middle of next year.
On CNN’s “State of the Union,” Admiral Giroir told the host, Jake Tapper, that “in front of the Senate, Dr. Redfield and I both said that a vaccine that would be widely available in hundreds of millions of doses would not likely happen until mid-2021. That is a fact.”
However, he said, the president was correct in saying that “We could have as many as a hundred million doses by the end of this year. That is correct.”
“I think everybody is right,” Admiral Giroir said.
Mr. Trump has often promised that the United States would produce a vaccine before Election Day on Nov. 3. But his optimism and projections for widespread availability have been roundly disputed. At the White House on Friday at a news conference, Mr. Trump said that once a vaccine is authorized, “distribution will begin within 24 hours after notice.”
He added: “We will have manufactured at least 100 million vaccine doses before the end of the year. And likely much more than that. Hundreds of millions of doses will be available every month, and we expect to have enough vaccines for every American by April.”
That translates to delivering vaccines to an estimated 330 million Americans by spring.
Those pronouncements have fueled public wariness over a rushed vaccine, evident in recent polls showing an eroding confidence in a coronavirus vaccine. In a new ABC News/Ipsos poll, fewer than one in 10 Americans had a great deal of confidence in the president’s ability to confirm vaccine effectiveness; 18 percent reported only a “good amount” of confidence.
And in an apparent response to calls for transparency that could address those concerns, several vaccine makers publicly released traditionally secret protocols in the last week. Those efforts also are aimed at quelling scientists’ fears that the accelerated timetables under discussion could lead to a vaccine that is either unsafe, doesn’t work or isn’t fully vetted.
The question of whether politics is overriding science in the race for a vaccine and research on treatments has dogged the Trump administration for months. And Mr. Azar has been a focal point for such criticism, drawing attention again this weekend after issuing a stunning declaration of authority that barred the nation’s health agencies from signing any new rules regarding the nation’s foods, medicines, medical devices and other products, including vaccines.
Public health experts and lawmakers have expressed alarm at other H.H.S. policies put in place by Mr. Azar and his deputies: censoring and altering C.D.C. researchers’ reports on the virus; a recent contretemps over testing of asymptomatic people; and overruling the Food and Drug Administration by promoting largely unproven treatments or lab tests.
Mr. Azar did not address the uproar over his efforts to rein in decisions made by the C.D.C. and the F.D.A. during the pandemic, nor did he talk about his new order restricting agencies’ authority.
But both Admiral Giroir and Mr. Azar also reiterated the need for the public to wear masks, a practice the president often mocks. Mr. Trump’s recent campaign rallies are full of supporters who do not wear face coverings, in violation of mask requirements in some localities.
On the issue of testing, Admiral Giroir seemed to come down on the side of the C.D.C., with an unambiguous endorsement of testing people without symptoms, a matter of conflict between the White House and the agency.
Documents obtained by The New York Times showed that top administration officials had inserted recommendations onto the agency’s website that people without symptoms did not need testing even when they had been exposed to someone infected with the virus.
The C.D.C. reversed itself on Friday, recommending testing even when exposed people are asymptomatic.
Admiral Giroir said on CNN that the government had supported surge testing for 19 different cities, “primarily focusing on the younger population that could be asymptomatic because we know they’re very important in the spread of this infection.”
Masks have also been a point of contention, yet again. Mr. Trump clashed last week with Dr. Redfield on the value of masks, saying that Dr. Redfield had been mistaken when he compared the value of masks to a vaccine.
Mr. Azar told Chuck Todd on NBC’s “Meet the Press” that masks were clearly important. “I think the point the president was making is there’s not an equivalence between masks and vaccines,” he said.
He was asked on Sunday whether the White House had forced him to hire Michael Caputo, the assistant secretary for public affairs at H.H.S. who did not have public health experience. Mr. Caputo went on medical leave last week after posting a Facebook video in which he accused scientists at the C.D.C. of “sedition” and warned of a leftist uprising after the presidential election. Mr. Caputo later apologized for the tirade, in which he had said, “There are scientists who work for this government who do not want America to get well, not until after Joe Biden is president.”
Mr. Azar said he wouldn’t discuss personnel matters and added: “Our thoughts and prayers are with Michael. He added value and helped with our Covid response.”