White House seeks to reassure amid COVID-19 spikes

The White House sought to reassure the American public on Friday that the coronavirus pandemic is under control, even as cases surge across much of the country and several states took a step back in their reopening plans.

In the first coronavirus task force briefing since May, Vice President Pence praised the efforts of governors for reopening businesses and sought to downplay the rising number of infections, because they have mostly been among young people.

As daily infections topped 40,000 for the first time in more than a month, Pence maintained that the country is in a better place than it was before.

“We have made truly remarkable progress in moving our nation forward,” Pence said.

“There may be a tendency among the American people to think that we are back to that place that we were two months ago, that we’re in a time of great losses and great hardship on the American people. The reality is we’re in a much better place,” Pence said.

Friday marked the first time the task force briefed the public in roughly two months. Pence and other health officials spoke for roughly an hour, then took only a handful of questions from the press.

The briefings had been occurring almost daily throughout March and April, but they came to a halt days after President Trump’s controversial comments about using light and disinfectants as possible cures for the virus.

Instead, the White House has held briefings a couple times a week with press secretary Kayleigh McEnany, who relays information from medical experts.

Pence’s lack of alarm on Friday was contrasted by Anthony Fauci, the top U.S. infectious disease doctor, who offered a “plea” to Americans not to let their guard down.

People can “either be part of the solution or part of the problem,” Fauci said.

The vice president said the administration is monitoring 16 states that have seen increases in cases, while the remainder of states have seen decreases or maintained a steady rate.

He plans to travel to Texas, Arizona and Florida in the coming days to get on-the-ground reports, with Deborah Birx, the task force coordinator, joining him on the trips to Texas and Arizona.

All three states have seen a record number of coronavirus cases this month, and the hospital systems are rapidly running out of space as the situation quickly spirals.

Florida on Friday reported almost 9,000 new cases in a single day, and said it will close down bars, which had been open at half-capacity since the beginning of June.

Texas also announced it will close down bars amid rising infections; the state has reported more than 5,400 new cases of the coronavirus on each of the past three days, setting successively higher one-day records.

The state will also require any gathering of more than 100 people to be approved by local governments.

Pence did not mention any of the new restrictions in his comments on Friday and insisted that the public not use a “broad brush” when viewing rising case numbers in certain states.

Birx, the task force coordinator, presented data showing spikes only in specific counties of Arizona, Florida, Texas and California.

“As dramatic as these slopes are, they are not equivalent to the original acceleration that we saw in New York,” she said. “That doesn’t mean that we aren’t absolutely focused on working with the governors in those communities to stop the spread of the virus in those four states.”

Birx also emphasized the progress that has been made in clinical treatment and research on therapeutics as positive developments, and she said the government now has a “great deal” of understanding about COVID-19 and who it most adversely affects.

Pence in multiple instances repeated the same assurances offered by the president — that the spike in cases is largely due to increased testing rather than a consequence of governors reopening states too soon.

“It is almost inarguable that more testing is generating more cases,” Pence said. “The volume of new cases coming in is a reflection of a great success of expanding testing.”

In many states, however, the number of tests being conducted has largely plateaued or even decreased, while the number of positive results has continued to climb, underscoring that more testing alone does not explain the rising number of cases.

“There may be a temptation to look at these Sun Belt states … and suggest that the reopening has to do with what we’re seeing in the last week or so,” Pence said. “But frankly, in the case of each of these states, they reopened in some cases almost two months ago.”

Pence said a rise in younger Americans contracting the virus was “encouraging news,” noting that they are in many cases asymptomatic. Health experts have noted that the overall death rate from the disease will also drop as more cases are reported.

“The fact that we are finding more younger Americans who’ve contracted the coronavirus is a good thing,” Pence said.

Still, Fauci offered a warning about younger Americans who don’t heed social distancing guidelines, saying they will inevitably infect older, more vulnerable populations.

Fauci also said the coronavirus spikes, which are currently regional, would ultimately spread widely and affect the nation if steps are not taken to address them. If Americans want the pandemic to end, everyone needs to do their part, he said.

“You have an individual responsibility to yourself but you have a societal responsibility, because if we want to end this outbreak — really end it, and then hopefully when a vaccine comes and puts the nail in the coffin — we’ve got to realize that we are part of the process,” Fauci said.

Morgan Chalfant contributed.

Tags Anthony Fauci Coronavirus COVID-19 Deborah Birx Donald Trump economic reopening Mike Pence Robert Redfield

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