Vice President Mike Pence threw every metaphor he had at the pandemic in the first public briefing of the coronavirus task force since the Nov. 3 election, but at the end he stalked out of the White House briefing room, ignoring shouted questions from the gathering of reporters.
“As we see that finish line, we see light at the end of the tunnel, as President Trump often says. And you should see evidence here that we are rounding the corner to that day when we have a vaccine for the American people,” Pence said. “We are all in this together, and as I’ve said many times from this podium over many, many months, I know that with the cooperation of the American people, with our incredible doctors and nurses and first responders, with the extraordinary partnership with federal and state and local health officials, and with God’s help, we will get through this and we will get through this together.”
Neither Pence nor President Trump has taken any questions from the White House press pool since President-elect Joe Biden’s Election Day victory. Since that time, new cases of COVID-19 have risen by 77 percent nationwide, and deaths in the U.S. from the disease have topped 251,900. Yet Pence, as he has in the past, sought to emphasize the positive aspects of the government’s effort to combat the pandemic — in particular the progress on a vaccine under the government’s “Operation Warp Speed.”
When he closed his remarks, he snapped shut his notebook and stepped off the podium. But after having sat through presentations by Pence, Dr. Deborah Birx, Dr. Anthony Fauci, CDC Director Robert Redfield, Health and Human Services Secretary Alex Azar, military leaders and a mental health expert, reporters vented their frustration.
Here's the question I *tried* to ask the vice president and the other officials at the end of that event at the White House: None of them had an answer. pic.twitter.com/bDXU93InWp
— Hunter Walker (@hunterw) November 19, 2020
The anger at the Pence for refusing to allow reporters to ask questions of the task force has been building in tandem with disheartening numbers being reported in the U.S. On Wednesday, 172,391 new cases of the virus and 1,923 new deaths were reported.
Justified outrage. 2k people a day expected to be dying from COVID by Christmas, yet Vice President won’t let his task force members answer questions about the pandemic. @CBSNews https://t.co/dfxy5LKCvi
— Paula Reid (@PaulaReidCBS) November 19, 2020
At the beginning of the briefing, Pence acknowledged that “we see cases and hospitalizations rising,” but he remained largely upbeat about the prospect of a vaccine, which he said could be “a few short weeks away.” At least two candidate vaccines have shown efficacy rates of better than 95 percent in large-scale clinical trials.
A more sober assessment of the challenges facing the country was left to Birx, who had not been seen at public briefings for weeks.
“It’s really a moment when we want to call on all Americans to increase their vigilance,” said Birx, who presented a grim slide show detailing the rise in cases and hospitalizations in much of the country, adding, “This is more cases, more rapidly, than we had seen before.”
Birx said the nationwide test positivity rate for the coronavirus had risen to “around 10 percent.” That is double the target rate set by health experts for governments to safely lift coronavirus restrictions.
“People are spreading the virus because they don’t know they’re infected with the virus,” Birx said. “And so people are coming together indoors, everyone looks healthy, but among those individuals could be individuals that already are infected, have no symptoms and are unknowingly spreading the virus to others.”
With the Thanksgiving holiday just days away, Birx noted that large indoor gatherings were particularly dangerous, as the data shows that “over 50 percent of the individuals, particularly among those under 35, could be infected.”
In his remarks, Fauci sought to reassure Americans, many of whom have been skeptical of the administration’s push to develop a vaccine in record time, that the vaccine would be safe.
“The only way you can get an effective program is when people take the vaccine,” Fauci said, adding, “I hear a lot now when we made these announcements this past Monday and then two Mondays ago about some reticence among people — ‘Well, did you rush this?’ ‘Was this too fast?’ ‘Is it really safe and is it really efficacious?’ The process of the speed did not compromise at all safety, nor did it compromise scientific integrity.”
A Yahoo News/YouGov poll taken in September found that just 32 percent of Americans planned to get vaccinated for COVID-19. But as deaths have risen sharply since then, a Gallup poll released Tuesday showed that 58 percent of Americans would be willing to get the vaccine. Estimates vary, but most epidemiologists believe the threshold for “herd immunity,” which protects the entire population, is an inoculation rate of at least 60 to 70 percent.
Before a vaccine does arrive, however, Fauci said the U.S. “needs to actually double down on the public health measures as we’re waiting for that help to come.” He predicted high-priority cases — health care workers and those at increased risk, presumably — could start receiving the vaccine “by the end of December.”
Azar said in his remarks that Pfizer, one of two companies that is completing phase III clinical trials, would be asking for emergency-use authorization for its vaccine on Friday. “We would expect to see Moderna filing soon also,” Azar added.
Lavishing praise on Trump, Azar also sought to stress the positive.
“We are much better prepared today than we were months ago,” Azar said, adding, “My message to the American people is to hang in there with us.”
While Pence promised that a distribution network could begin sending out the vaccine across the country a day after it received FDA approval, he also conceded that might still be “a few short weeks away.”
The vice president, who in June proclaimed, wrongly, that there would not be a second wave of coronavirus infections, offered a somewhat equivocal reassurance to the country with the highest death toll in the world.
“America has never been more prepared to combat this virus,” he said.
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