Vice President Mike Pence hailed “remarkable progress” toward returning the nation to normalcy at the first public briefing of the coronavirus task force in nearly two months on Friday, a day the U.S. saw a new high for coronavirus cases recorded.
“We have made truly remarkable progress in moving our nation forward,” Pence told reporters at a briefing held at the Department of Health and Human Services. “We’ve all seen the encouraging news as we open up America again — more than 3 million jobs created in the last jobs report and retail sales are rolling.”
Pence said that “all 50 states are opening up safely and responsibly,” but “with cases rising, particularly over the past week throughout the South,” President Trump had asked him to brief the nation on the ongoing emergency.
In some of the states where cases are rising fastest, notably Texas and Florida, governors have slowed or reversed measures to reopen businesses and relax social distancing rules.
On Friday, the country reported a record 40,000 new cases of COVID-19. That milestone came nearly two months after the coronavirus task force stopped holding public briefings and Trump began describing the pandemic as “over” in America.
The death toll from the pandemic in the United States stands at around 125,000, the highest in the world by far.
The briefing included remarks from other members of the task force, including Dr. Anthony Fauci and Dr. Deborah Birx. Fauci and Birx wore face masks that they removed when they were at the microphone. Pence did not.
“This moment in the coronavirus pandemic is different than what we saw two months ago,” Pence said. “We slowed the spread, we flattened the curve, we saved lives. In the midst of that, we exponentially scaled testing capacity.”
Pence cited Trump’s “leadership” and “direction” numerous times during his remarks, noting that the president had “made clear we want to open our economy up,” but acknowledged that 16 states were currently seeing “rising percentages” of COVID-19 cases.
Pence said he would “urge every American to continue to pray.”
Birx, one of the top infectious disease experts on the coronavirus task force, also touted the positive news, saying a “great change for us” was the number of young people stepping forward to get tested for COVID-19, which has helped provide a better understanding of “who is at risk for great disease.” As the geographic center of the epidemic has moved from the Northeast to the South and West, the infection has been striking more people in their 20s and 30s.
But Fauci, another infectious disease expert on the task force, painted a darker picture.
“As you can see, we are facing a serious problem in certain areas,” Fauci said. He said the rising number of infections among younger Americans was not a good development. Although healthy younger adults are at less risk of dying from COVID-19 than people in their 60s or older, Fauci said it was important for them to avoid exposure to the virus so as to stop it from spreading to others who might be more vulnerable.
“I think what we’re missing in this is something that we’ve never faced before, is that a risk for you is not just isolated to you, because if you get infected you are part, innocently or inadvertently, of propagating the dynamic process of a pandemic,” Fauci said. “Because the chances are if you’re going to get infected, you’re going to infect someone else.”
Noting that the reproduction rate of the virus was “not less than one,” meaning the pandemic continues to grow, Fauci said Americans “have a societal responsibility to end this outbreak.”
In states like New York, which have seen cases and deaths drop dramatically in recent weeks, as well as others that have not experienced severe outbreaks, Fauci cautioned that the risk of the reemergence of COVID-19 remained high.
“If we don’t extinguish the outbreak, sooner or later, even the ones that are doing well are going to be vulnerable to the spread,” Fauci said.
The briefing was held at the Department of Health and Human Services rather than at the White House, and Trump did not make an appearance.
On Friday, Texas Gov. Greg Abbott ordered bars in his state to close immediately and banned outdoor gatherings of 100 or more people.
“At this time, it is clear that the rise in cases is largely driven by certain types of activities, including Texans congregating in bars,” Abbott said in a statement.
Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis on Friday also suspended the sale of alcohol at bars after the state reported a doubling in the number of new COVID-19 cases detected.
Nationwide, the number of new COVID-19 cases is up 54 percent over the last 14 days, a stunning reversal not seen in countries throughout Europe that were also hard-hit by the coronavirus.
Campaigning in Wisconsin on Thursday, Trump continued to portray the fight against COVID-19 in a favorable light.
“If we didn’t test, we wouldn’t have any cases,” Trump said at a shipyard in Marinette. “But we have cases because we test. We’ve done an incredible, historic job.”
On Friday, he canceled a planned trip to his golf resort in Bedminster, N.J., where the governor has enacted a mandatory 14-day quarantine protocol for visitors from states with high numbers of COVID-19 cases.
Last week, Pence spoke at Trump’s reelection rally in Tulsa, Okla., despite warnings from public health experts that a large indoor rally would increase the transmission of COVID-19. While the campaign boasted that upwards of 1 million people had sought admission to the rally, just 6,200 attended, a number that is still far beyond CDC recommendations.
Days later, Trump held another indoor rally in Phoenix, where approximately 3,000 people packed into Dream City megachurch, few of them wearing face masks, to cheer on the president. On Friday, Birx noted that the bulk of Arizona’s new cases were concentrated around Phoenix.
A reporter at Friday’s briefing pressed Pence on the seeming contradiction between telling Americans to “listen to state and local authorities” about social distancing measures and promoting campaign rallies that defy them.
“Well, I want to remind you again that freedom of speech and the right to peacefully assemble is enshrined in the Constitution of the United States,” Pence responded, “and even in a heath crisis Americans don’t forfeit our constitutional rights.”
Several Trump staffers and Secret Service members who attended Trump’s Tulsa rally have tested positive for COVID-19, and dozens more who came in contact with them are now self-isolating.
Asked if he expected U.S. deaths to rise in the coming weeks in conjunction with the spike in new cases, Pence again turned to faith.
“Our hope and our prayers is that is not the case,” Pence replied.
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