WASHINGTON — President Trump on Wednesday said he had appointed Vice President Mike Pence to lead the federal government’s response to the novel coronavirus outbreak that has claimed more than 2,400 lives globally and spread to about three dozen countries in recent weeks, shaking global markets and alarming world leaders.

Trump’s decision to elevate Pence comes after days of debate over whether the administration should appoint a coronavirus “czar.” Health secretary Alex Azar had previously led the effort, and insisted in a congressional hearing earlier Wednesday that appointing another leader was unnecessary.

“As a former governor from the state where the first MERS case emerged in 2014,” Pence said at a White House press briefing Wednesday evening, “I know full well the importance of presidential leadership, the importance of administration leadership, and the vital role of partnerships of state and local governments, and health authorities in responding to potential threats and dangers infectious diseases.”

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Pence, however, has been sharply criticized for his response to public health crises during his time as Indiana governor. Most notably, Pence opposed public health officials’ calls to implement syringe exchange programs in Indiana in 2015, when the opioid crisis led to clustered outbreaks of HIV and hepatitis C. After months, he relented.

Trump cast the press conference as an effort to reassure the public that his administration is “very, very ready for an outbreak.” His tone stood in contrast to a Tuesday speech from Nancy Messonnier, director of Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s National Center for Immunization and Respiratory Diseases, in which she urged American citizens and companies to prepare for a much broader outbreak. “Disruption to everyday life might be severe,” she said. 

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So far, Trump said, public health officials have documented 15 U.S. coronavirus cases, mostly from Americans who had recently returned from travel in China. An additional 45 Americans who have tested positive for the coronavirus have been repatriated from foreign soil — 42 from a cruise ship and three from Wuhan, the Chinese city in which the outbreak originated.

“Our containment strategy has been working,” Azar said. “At the same time, what every one of our experts and leaders have been saying for more than a month now remains true. The degree of risk has the potential to change quickly, and we can expect to see more cases in the United States.”

Trump, during the press briefing, defended his decision to close U.S. borders to individuals who had recently set foot in China — a move that some public health officials had warned against.

“Because of all we’ve done, the risk to the American people remains very low,” Trump said.

The White House officials had barely ended their briefing, however, when the CDC announced a new case in California that could represent a new milestone in the outbreak: the first individual to contract the disease in the U.S. without having recently traveled to impacted areas or having contact with individuals known to be infected.

“It’s possible this could be an instance of community spread of COVID-19, which would be the first time this has happened in the United States,” the agency said in a statement. “Community spread means spread of an illness for which the source of infection is unknown. It’s also possible, however, that the patient may have been exposed to a returned traveler who was infected.”

Public health officials led by Anthony Fauci, the director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Disease, also announced at the White House briefing that the had revised its timeline for entering a vaccine candidate into initial clinical trials, which could come within two months — instead of three, as Fauci had previously predicted.

But Fauci stressed that a vaccine will not be available in the near future, and that it would likely be useful only if the Covid-19 outbreak returns in a year’s time.

Trump also peppered a series of head-scratching claims throughout the press conference. At one point, he admitted he was “shocked” to learn the fatality rate of the flu, which has been among the leading causes of death in the United States for decades.

“I think most people are amazed to hear it,” Trump said. “The flu kills from 25,000 people to 69,000 people a year. That was shocking to me.”

Later, in comparing the coronavirus outbreak with the West African Ebola outbreak of 2014-2016, Trump claimed that people who contract Ebola “disintegrate.”

  • The timing is off for Diamond Princess, but:

    “An earlier group of 201 evacuees from Wuhan, China arrived on Feb. 7 and is being housed at the Westwind Inn on the base.“

    Did this patient have contact with Travis AFB or Westwind Inn?

  • UC Davis PR states that they were unable to get a Covid-19 test from CDC for several days since patient didn’t fit criteria, even though patient was on a ventilator when transferred from first hospital. UC Davis staff suspected Covid since they had already treated a Covid patient. CDC’s policy is literally jeopardizing HC worker lives.

    This patient was from Solano County, apparently. Yep, Travis AFB. Could this possibly have come from the base. Could infection be spreading on base?

    • CDC commits one blunder after another. Knowing that there are asymptomatic infected people, and seeing what happened to Italy, all people with flu or cold like symptoms should be tested. But no, they limit it to six locations.

      It is time to replace some people in CDC who are responsible for all these blunders. It is time that congress pass a bill that government employees can be fired. Had this happened in private setup, many people would have already been fired. They are playing with the lives of the people.

    • I was wondering if this is traceable to Travis since there was so many infected people over there. Maybe some crew get sick but was asymptomatic, then went around and infect other people.

    • The CDC is pathetic. UC Davis is a premier medical institution. They know what they’re doing. When they call and ask for the test, you don’t say, “no.”

      What’s worse is that 4 or 5 days of contact tracing was lost because of those CDC morons.

  • I’ve noticed that “hot zones” tend to develop where local health authorities are weakest. I had predicted that would be the case in Northern California. I think you’ll see the same pattern in other such places. I can tell that LA would be another likely candidate.

  • Qiagen just submitted for EUA. Let’s hope Pence can untangle the legal and bureaucratic impediments quickly. I’m thinking an executive order of some kind to override the usual holdups. That’s really the only hope of preventing widespread disease.

  • When politicians mishandle a public health crisis, then it becomes about politics. Damn you cowardly Trumpists anyway for being so close-minded in your foolish devotion to Trump, regardless of his bungling, lies and overweening narcissism. Blocking replies is cowardly – no other word suffices.

    • When people does not agree with your view of condemning Trump, they became Trumpists in your view. Trump did impost travel ban, he was criticize by China, WHO, and some people has racist.

      I watch the conference call, and he did asked for both parties to work together.

      It is sick people like you that will stick to politics even on you deathbed, refusing to work together with a president and the party that you hate.

      For this country to move forward and survive this pandemic with less casualties, both parties must put aside their hate and differences and work together. People like you will never understand what working together is.

  • To have listened to Trump’s briefing on coronavirus was as if Satan was God briefing on how to save a society of sinners of the virus of wickedness. One cannot believe a pathological liar and a projector of self-evil on to decent folks like he does on to Obama, Pelosi, and Shumer. Trump is an irresponsible disease to America.

    • Andy, it is people like you who always insert politics on things that is the true evil. Trump have his shortcomings, I am glad he finally open up instead of saying everything is fine. He still try to make things sound positive to avoid market panic.

      But in this time, the country has to come together instead of politician trying to score political points like Pelosi and Schumer. They were doing the impeachment when a pandemic is on the making in China. It was a very big distraction. They want to score political victory, but it was done on the wrong time. There vicious impeachment are partly to blame for where we are now. The country got distracted by impeachment instead of preparing for the Covid-19.

      I am glad he finally replace the Alax guy as the head the committee. The HHS and State Department made a big mistake in bringing the infected people on the same plane with the healthy people. Now more people from Diamond Princess evacuees are showing more symptoms.

  • Trump has no idea what’s going on nor what to do about the virus. Even spelled it wrong on a tweet. The markets don’t care for his stupidity and ineptitude either. Hold onto your 401(k). It’s going to be bumpy ride.

    • Not a helpful comment.

      Putting Pence in charge lends more presidential authority to the leadership effort. Azar just didn’t have the clout to apply the whip hand. I think you’ll see things move faster now that this is run directly out of the WH. Only problem is, as we’ve seen, this virus can attack very quickly, so time is short.

      Plus, this is definitely Pence’s time to shine if he’s going to be a contender in 2024.

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