In January and early February, the person running the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention's coronavirus task force was not a medical professional. Alex Azar, President Donald Trump's Health and Human Services Secretary, picked Brian Harrison, who was a dog breeder before joining the administration, to lead the group. Azar and Harrison are no longer running the task force, which is headed by Vice President Mike Pence now.
Harrison was Azar's surprising choice for his Chief of Staff when Azar took over HHS in January 2018. According to Reuters, officials in the white House called Harrison "the dog breeder," due to his experience in the field. Before joining the administration, Harrison had no formal education in public health, management or medicine and only had limited experience in government. In 2006, he worked as a "confidential assistant" to Azar, who was deputy secretary at the time. He also worked for Vice President Dick Cheney and the Department of Defense and had a job with a Washington public relations firm.
Harrison's personal financial disclosure forms revealed that he owned Dallas labradoodles from 2012 to 2018. The company sells Australian Labradoodles. In April 2018, Harrison sold the company for $225,000, HHS said in an email to Reuters.
When Azar took over HHS, Harrison was brought in as deputy chief of staff under Peter Ubanowicz, a former hospital executive who worked in public health in the past. Urbanowicz left last summer, and Harrison was promoted. By January, Harrison was a "key manager" for the HHS' coronavirus response. One HHS official told Reuters "everyone had to report up through him."
Sources told Reuters it was Harrison's decision not to include FDA Commissioner Stephen Hahn on the coronavirus task force. Harrison felt Hahn "didn't need to be included," one official said. Hahn did not join the task force until February, when Pence took over. However, both CDC director Robert Redifeld and Dr. Anthony Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, were included. The HHS told Reuters excluding Hahn and the FDA was not his decision, while Hahn said the FDA was still focused on the coronavirus even though it was not included on the taskforce.
Harrison refused to answer Reuters' questions when contacted. He later sent a statement, writing he was proud of his work. "Americans would be well served by having more government officials who have started and worked in small family businesses and fewer trying to use that experience to attack them and distort the record," he said.
"From day one, Brian has demonstrated remarkable leadership and managerial talents," Azar wrote in a statement to Reuters.0comments
Urbanowicz defended Harrison's record to the Dallas Morning News, explaining that Harrison's job on the task force was to "keep the trains moving." Michael Reilly, who hired Harrison at HHS during the Bush administration, called Harrison a "no-brainer pick" for the job. "His private sector experience is irrelevant.…He was a complete known commodity who had extensive experience," Reilly added.
The Trump administration has fought off criticisms of its early response to the coronavirus pandemic. The number of cases has continued to grow, with more than 890,000 confirmed as of Friday afternoon, reports Johns Hopkins University. The death toll stands at 51,017, with more than 16,600 deaths reported in New York City alone. Just over 4.69 million Americans have been tested.