By Aram Roston and Marisa Taylor
WASHINGTON, March 11 (Reuters) – The White House has ordered federal health officials to treat high-level meetings about the coronavirus as secret, an unusual step that restricts information and obstructs the official response to the contagion, according to four officials with the President Donald Trump’s government.
Officials said dozens of classified discussions have been held since mid-January on topics such as the extent of infections, quarantines and travel restrictions in a high-security meeting room at the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) , a key player in the fight against the coronavirus.
Unauthorized personnel, including government experts, were excluded from the inter-agency meetings, which included video conference calls, the sources said.
“We had some key people who didn’t have security clearances and couldn’t go,” said an official. “These should not be secret meetings. It was unnecessary.”
Sources said the National Security Council (NSC), which advises the president on security matters, ordered the restriction. “This came directly from the White House,” said an official.
The White House’s insistence on the secrecy of the country’s leading public health organization, which had not been previously disclosed, has kept some information contained and possibly delayed the response to the crisis.
COVID19, the disease caused by the virus, has killed about 30 people in the United States and infected more than 1,000 people.
(Edited in Spanish by Javier López de Lérida)