As criticism mounts that the White House has turned a blind eye to the worsening coronavirus epidemic in the South and West, Vice President Mike Pence is arguing that the administration remains on top of the response.
On Friday, at the White House coronavirus task force’s first public briefing in nearly two months, Pence said that “our focus today” was on the rising Covid-19 infections in certain states. But he also used the event to tout what he said have been successful administration initiatives to minimize the damage of the virus, even as the country has not suppressed the virus as other countries in Europe and Asia have successfully done.
Pence also celebrated that all states were in the process of “safely and responsibly” reopening and pointed to improvements in certain employment and retail sales metrics as a sign of economic progress. But his remarks came just hours after state officials in Texas and Florida, facing record levels of cases and tightening hospital capacity, reimposed certain restrictions on bars and restaurants that they had earlier lifted. Other states, including Arizona, have paused their reopenings in an effort to try to control the spread of the virus as they experienced rising cases and hospitalizations.
Other task force members were more somber in their remarks. Deborah Birx, a physician who has been coordinating the White House’s efforts, urged older people and those with conditions that leave them more vulnerable to serious Covid-19 complications to “shelter as much as you can” if they live in one of the country’s hot spots. “Use your grandchildren to go and do your shopping,” she said.
In his remarks, Pence argued that the administration’s efforts had curtailed the death toll from the virus, even as some 125,000 Americans have died. He noted that federal officials have been assisting state and local health agencies and said that no American who needed a ventilator went without one. He also replayed the worst-case scenario, showing a slide that indicated that without intervention, 1.5 million to 2.2 million Americans could have died. With the measures the White House embraced, the slide indicated, that would be reduced to 100,000 to 240,000 deaths. Recent studies, however, have found that the U.S.’ slow response — including delays in physical distancing policies and a bungled testing rollout — contributed to a higher death toll.
“We slowed the spread, we flattened the curve, we saved lives,” Pence said.
Experts have noted that flattening the curve was just an immediate necessity to prevent health systems from getting overwhelmed. The U.S. has not instituted a national testing or contact tracing strategy, and states started reopening with support from President Trump even though they didn’t hit the metrics initially established by the White House.
The result, experts say, was that the curve essentially remained flat for weeks, and never dropped to levels that would have safely allowed for further stages of reopening. And now, the curve of cases is rising again, with record spread occurring in the southern and western portions of the country. Areas that were harder hit during the spring, including the Northeast and parts of the Midwest, are not facing the crises that the other parts of the country are, for the moment.
Still, Pence said that “we’re in a much better place” now than two months ago, pointing to a declining daily death toll standing in the hundreds, compared to the peak when 2,500 Americans were dying a day.
There are a number of possible reasons for the continuing drops in deaths even as cases rise, experts say. Clinicians are now better at treating severe Covid-19 cases, and perhaps those most vulnerable to dying from the coronavirus are taking more precautions — which is backed up by data that shows young people account for an increasing proportion of new cases. But experts caution that deaths, as a metric, lag behind new infections and hospitalizations, because it generally takes someone several weeks to die after contracting the virus. That means that deaths could start creeping up soon.
Pence expressed the administration’s “sympathies and deepest condolences” to those who had lost loved ones, but he said he hoped the declining number of deaths “is an encouragement.”
The briefing Friday, which Pence said Trump encouraged the task force to hold to address the increasing cases, came as even some Republicans were questioning the administration’s resolve to combat the coronavirus for the long haul. In a Wall Street Journal op-ed 10 days ago, Pence wrote that “we are winning the fight against the invisible enemy” and dismissed certain warnings. Last week, Trump claimed the virus was “dying out.”
At the briefing, Pence and the federal health officials urged younger Americans to keep up their vigilance and practice behavior that can reduce the spread of the virus, noting that a greater portion of the new cases being identified in states like Arizona, Florida, and Texas are among younger people. Younger people may think they don’t have to worry about Covid-19, but some of them will experience serious complications if infected, and they can pass the virus on to others who are vulnerable to more severe cases, they said.
“We still have work to do,” Pence said. “We say to every American, particularly those in counties and states being impacted by rising cases, that now is the time for everyone to do their part.”
Anthony Fauci, the country’s top infectious disease expert, put the impetus on individuals, saying they could be “part of the solution or part of the problem.”
“A risk for you is not just isolated to you,” Fauci said. “Because if you get infected, you are part, innocently or inadvertently, of propagating the dynamic process of the pandemic. The chances are that if you get infected, you’re going to infect someone else.”
The health officials stressed that individual decisions to keep distance from people, wear masks, and wash their hands could make a difference in transmission. When they were away from the podium and were not speaking, Birx and Fauci — as well as health secretary Alex Azar and Robert Redfield, the director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention — all wore masks. Pence did not appear to have one.
Pence faced several questions from reporters about why the Trump campaign was continuing to hold political rallies that did not comply with recommendations about mask wearing and physical distancing. One reporter asked Pence, who several times at the briefing encouraged people to listen to guidance from local and state health officials, why the campaign held a rally in Tulsa, Okla., last weekend despite local officials advising against it.
Pence said that people still had the freedoms of speech and peaceful assembly, and that the campaign wanted “to give people the freedom to participate in the political process.”