Andy Slavitt was on the phone at his Edina home recently lamenting how politics is eroding trust in a potential COVID-19 vaccine and the federal agencies overseeing its development.
Slavitt, a former health official in President Barack Obama's administration and a phone guest on former Minnesota Sen. Al Franken's podcast, blamed President Donald Trump for politicizing the process and casting doubt on those charged with ensuring a vaccine is safe and effective.
"Everybody wants a vaccine, but nobody wants a vaccine that people can't trust," the 53-year-old former health care executive said. "I don't want people to lose confidence in these institutions because we really, really need them."
At a time when the nation is reeling from the spread of a virus that's claimed more than 210,000 U.S. lives and infected more than 7 million people, including Trump and much of the White House, Slavitt's profile is on the rise.
With more than 600,000 Twitter followers and the phone numbers of some of the country's most influential leaders at his fingertips, he wields enormous influence on public opinion and public policy regarding COVID-19. He's built his network in recent years by going beyond politics to find common ground on health care policy — cooperation he said is vital in the coronavirus fight.
"I'll get in the room with anybody if they're well-intended," he said recently. "If we don't figure out how to bridge these gaps, we are going to have trouble finding solutions."
Ezra Golberstein, a University of Minnesota health policy professor, said Slavitt's experience in both the public and private sectors "gives him credibility with a lot of people."
But critics argue that Slavitt, who has no background in medicine or epidemiology, is no bipartisan champion. His inaccurate forecasts (he highlighted scientists predicting up to 1 million U.S. deaths if steps weren't taken), the strategies he's advocated (nearly complete lockdowns of businesses and schools for several weeks) and regular tweets criticizing Trump betray a liberal bent that fuels the divisiveness he decries, they say.
"What he says has clearly often not been right and the recommendations that he's made about the extent of lockdowns I think are literally insane — in terms of the damage they would do to the population as a whole," said Kevin Roche, a local health care investor who has used his website healthy-skeptic.com to blast Slavitt and Gov. Tim Walz's response to the virus. "The policies he is recommending are wrong and harmful."
The married father of two adult sons, Slavitt is a relative newcomer to public health policy.
He was executive of UnitedHealth Group's Optum division when he was tapped to help rescue the healthcare.gov website following its disastrous 2013 launch. From 2015 to 2017, he was acting administrator for the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services (CMS), leading an agency providing services for 130 million people while he also steered implementation of the Affordable Care Act.
Upon leaving CMS, he hosted town hall meetings seeking to preserve as much of the ACA as he could. He also was named senior adviser for the Bipartisan Policy Center in Washington, D.C., and launched a nonprofit called the United States of Care. He hosts a podcast called "In The Bubble."
Slavitt calls the two years he spent at CMS "one of the great privileges of my life," but claims no political plans and covets no future government position. His role now? "Helper" to 330 million people.
"I love that feeling of serving the country. I never lost that feeling," he said. "I'm just somebody who cares deeply about this issue."
From early in the pandemic, Slavitt has been critical of Trump and aligned with those pushing for a national strategy that includes a six-week lockdown and coast-to-coast mask-wearing, both of which would significantly mitigate the virus' effects and help the economy get back on track, he said.
"If someone would have said 'Six weeks,' like they did in the rest of the world — Czech Republic, Greece, Italy, England, New Zealand, Australia, Thailand, Singapore, Vietnam, Japan, Hong Kong — 'six hard weeks. If you do this, you crush the virus,' " Slavitt said. "That was never an option."
Instead, states have muddled through with disparate responses as hospitalizations and deaths have mounted.
A recent surge in cases in countries like Spain and France, where cases plummeted after more complete lockdowns, has some questioning that approach. But not Slavitt, who said that while those countries didn't end the pandemic, they gave themselves more options to address future surges.
"Fighting this from zero [cases] vs. from 50,000 cases is like fending off a rabid dog vs. a pack of dogs," he said.
Slavitt stepped up his criticism of Trump this week after the president returned to the White House from a three-day hospital stay after contracting the virus and tweeted: "Don't be afraid of COVID. Don't let it dominate your life."
Slavitt responded with a tweet of his own: "He would like us to believe he can manage this pandemic. We've known he can't. Now we know he can't even manage a pandemic in the fully staffed house we lent him."
Walz, who considers Slavitt a friend and trusted adviser, said he appreciates Slavitt's passion, as well as his relationships with other governors, which helps Walz better understand his counterparts' thinking and strategies.
Still, he acknowledges "a healthy tension" between the two because Walz didn't shut down the state to the degree Slavitt believed would eradicate the virus.
"I don't think it's any secret that [Slavitt] was pushing pretty hard, but that's the role he's supposed to play," Walz said. "A governor has to find a more manageable approach."
Dr. Mark McClellan, another former FDA commissioner who advised President George W. Bush and who now advises Texas Gov. Greg Abbott, a Republican, said Slavitt's commitment to finding common cause is genuine. Together, they've pushed to increase testing capacity and convinced Republican and Democratic governors that masks are an effective tool.
"He is a great combination of having a deep commitment to making a difference and being a plain-spoken, easygoing guy," he said.
Adam Boehler, chief executive of the U.S. International Development Finance Corporation, and a Trump appointee, is also a fan.
Boehler met Slavitt when Slavitt was still at CMS and Boehler was a health care entrepreneur who contracted with the agency. When a new COVID test came out, Boehler said, Slavitt called to urge him to look at it.
"He has unfettered access to me and to others [in the Trump administration]," Boehler said. "Andy is dedicated to coming to the right answer and doing the right thing. Do I agree with everything that Andy suggests? No. But he suggests them for the right reasons."
But Roche scoffs at the idea that Slavitt rises above ideology.
After Disney recently announced it was laying off 28,000 employees from its parks, Slavitt tweeted that Florida's governor "doesn't get it." In an e-mail last week, Roche wrote: "Today he tweets about the Disney layoffs and tries to dump on Florida, but the only problem is, almost all the layoffs are occurring in California … Florida has a Republican governor, California a Democrat."
Besides overstating the virus' expected U.S. death toll (1 million vs. 210,000-plus actual), Roche said Slavitt advocates a "sky-is-falling" response that is harmful to the economy and not supported by data. COVID-19 is deadly for a few groups of people who could be protected by a more focused strategy, he said.
"I think he's got a particular point of view, a particular objective," said Roche, who also once worked at UnitedHealth and has no background in epidemiology. "So, what he does is oriented toward that."
State Rep. Steve Drazkowski, a Mazeppa Republican, recalls attracting Slavitt's ire during a debate about health care mandates a few years back.
"Mr. Slavitt turned his liberal echo chamber loose on me via his Twitter account, criticizing my approach, creating fear in his messaging, and advocating for socialized medicine," Drazkowski wrote in an e-mail.
Drazkowski said politics drive the models used by officials to justify government mask mandates and business restrictions.
"Imagine if you had the government take the role of helper instead of dictator," he said. "You could allow people to decide, based on what they know about their susceptibility to the disease caused by this virus, whether they wanted to be limited in their exposure to other people or not."
During a recent interview, Slavitt not only acknowledged mistakes, but said he notes them monthly on Twitter. Miscalculations happen, he said, especially involving a virus no one has seen before.
He's relieved it hasn't killed 1 million people in the United States. And while lockdowns and mandates have upset daily life, he said he hopes people share a renewed sense of "seeing each other as members of a community.
"It's so tempting to look at this as a political issue," he said. "But it really does come down to caring and saying, 'What are we going to do to help?' "
James Walsh • 612-673-7428