Vice President Mike Pence put a rosier picture on the U.S. response to the coronavirus than that of a number of health officials, saying that states are “opening up safely and responsibly,” even as health officials reported a single-day record of 39,327 new infections on Thursday.
Pence made the remarks as the White House coronavirus task force held its first briefing in two months, an acknowledgement of the alarming rise in new outbreaks in a number of states, including Texas and Florida.
He insisted that the shutdowns of the economy and social distancing measures, followed by states gradually reopening public places, had worked.
“We slowed the spread, we flattened the curve, we saved lives,” he said. But the renewed concern in some states was apparent as Florida, which reported nearly 9,000 positive cases on Thursday, and Texas, which also has seen a spike, placed new restrictions on bars.
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But he acknowledged that “we have now started to see cases rise precipitously across the South.”
Pence, who was tasked by President Donald Trump to chair the task force, did talk about those new infection rates and focused on the necessity of young people in particular to practice social distancing measures. He called it “encouraging news” that half of the new cases were from people under 35, but also implored them to take precautions.
Dr. Anthony Fauci, a member of the task force and director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, said that he did not want to make it seem like anyone was at fault. But he said, “You have an individual responsibility to yourself, but you have a societal responsibility.”
Pence was reluctant to explicitly encourage wearing of masks in public spaces, leaving that up to local and state officials. Trump has declined to wear a mask, and Pence has rarely been seen publicly wearing one.
“The first principle is that people ought to listen to their state and local authorities,” Pence said.
He also suggested that the recent surge was due to increased testing, an argument that has been made by Trump.
“We want the American people to understand that it’s almost inarguable that more testing is generating more cases,” Pence said. But epidemiologists have challenged that notion, noting that the positivity rate has not yet dropped.
Pence also defended Trump’s recent rally in Tulsa and, earlier this week, and the president’s appearance in a packed Phoenix church auditorium before young supporters.
“The freedom of speech, the right to peaceably assemble, is enshrined in the Constitution of the United States,” he said. “And we have an election coming up this fall.”
CBS News White House correspondent Paula Reid, however, pressed him further.
“It really does sound like you are saying, ‘Do as we say, not as we do.’ You are telling people to listen to local officials, but in Tulsa you defied local health officials to have an event that even though you say it didn’t result in a spike, dozens of Secret Service agents, dozens of campaign staffers are now in quarantine after positive tests. And then in Arizona, one of the hardest hit states, you packed a church with young people who weren’t wearing masks. So how can you say that the campaign is not part of the problem that Dr. Fauci laid out?”
Pence responded, “Even in a health crisis the American people don’t forfeit our Constitutional rights, and working with state officials, as we did in Oklahoma, as we ddi in Arizona, we’re creating settings where people can choose to participate in the political process, and we’ll continue to do that.”
After Pence wrapped up the briefing, CNN’s Dr. Sanjay Gupta was particularly direct in his criticism of the failure of efforts to stop or even slow the spread.
“Despite what you hear, we are in the middle of a public health disaster,” Gupta said on CNN, just after the briefing wrapped up.