CNN  — 

The White House coronavirus task force is expressing “great concern” there will be more person-to-person transmissions of the disease after two deaths on American soil – a message that strongly contrasts with President Donald Trump’s earlier rosy forecasts about the situation.

Top administration officials are also going out of their way to show they are ramping up to counter the widening threat as new cases spring up from coast to coast. Trump, for instance, says he plans to meet leaders from the pharmaceutical industry at the White House on Monday to discuss the search for a vaccine. “Progress being made!” the President tweeted. Vice President Mike Pence, who is heading the task force, plans a late afternoon televised briefing.

But Democratic presidential candidates, led by former Vice President Joe Biden, are ripping into Trump for politicizing the situation. The President, his son and his conservative media cheerleaders had earlier claimed that criticism of the administration’s efforts represented an orchestrated political campaign to bring him down.

Trump fired back on Monday, accusing Democrats of being unfair.

“I was criticized by the Democrats when I closed the Country down to China many weeks ahead of what almost everyone recommended. Saved many lives. Dems were working the Impeachment Hoax,” the President wrote. “They didn’t have a clue! Now they are fear mongering,” the President tweeted.

On Capitol Hill, negotiators moved closer to an emergency funding package – perhaps worth as much as $7 billion – far above the White House’s request for a $2.5 billion one – to battle the virus, which is on the verge of becoming a global epidemic.

Stirred by the virus, the political maelstrom gripping Washington intensified as the first two Americans perished from the coronavirus. Two men have now died from the disease in Washington state’s King County. Both had underlying health issues, with one man in his 50s and the other was 70, officials said. There are now new confirmed cases of novel coronavirus or presumptive cases in California, Massachusetts, Washington state, Arizona, Illinois, Wisconsin, Oregon, Rhode Island, New York and Florida.

“We’re seeing the beginning of community spread, which you know, is concerning,” Anthony Fauci, the head of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, said Monday on CNN’s “New Day.”

“My concern is as the next week or two or three go by, we’re going to see a lot more community-related cases. That’s of great concern.”

As the administration confronted a fast growing crisis, Pence blanketed political talk shows Sunday in his new role as the head of the coronavirus task force. He was building on an apparent administration reset Saturday with a White House press conference involving the President and top medical officials.

Trump’s earlier rambling, contentious and widely criticized first public appearance on the issue last week as well as inflammatory remarks on the virus and Democrats at a campaign rally Friday night threatened to overshadow its mitigation efforts. His previous comments that the number of US cases could soon disappear and that his administration had made “tremendous” efforts to thwart the virus arriving in the US now look premature.

On Sunday night, the President crowed about a poll that he said showed 77% of adults were confident the government could handle the situation.

“Gallup Poll numbers on the handling of this situation are outstanding, the best. Thank you!”

The poll that he was referring to, however, appeared to be one conducted between February 3-16 – well before the deaths on US soil, the spike of new cases and the stock market routs last week that exemplified growing panic about the coronavirus.

Gallup noted at the time of the poll’s release that public confidence might be based on the fact that up to that point, there had been no deaths from the virus on US soil.

Pence said an emergency effort meant that 15,000 new coronavirus tests kits were sent out over the weekend. Trump announced new travel restrictions and screenings covering Iran and parts of Italy and South Korea.

The vice president tried to keep the situation in perspective, but warned that there could be more deaths.

“For people that have other conditions – that would militate toward a worse outcome, then we could have more, we could have more sad news, but the American people should know the risk to the average American remains low,” Pence told CNN’s Jake Tapper on “State of the Union.”

There are now 88 confirmed cases of coronavirus in the US, including 44 people evacuated from the Diamond Princess cruise ship in Japan and three from the epicenter of the virus in Wuhan, China. There are an additional 19 travel-related cases in America, and 18 person-to-person transmissions. The origin of four other cases, in Illinois and Rhode Island is not yet established.

Pence won’t criticize inflammatory comments by President’s son

Pence defended the President’s son, Donald Trump Jr., for saying that Democrats were rooting for “millions” of Americans to die so the coronavirus could hurt Trump politically. And he complained that the President – who has done more to coarsen public life than any other modern politician – had been the target of “very strong rhetoric” from his opponents and the media.

Pence, who can be a talented communicator, gave a good impression of an administration that is coordinating across various government departments and is taking the threat of the virus seriously. His assessment of the situation was more coherent than the President’s comments in the news conference on Saturday, which were often light on details and sometimes contradictory. Yet like many of the President’s other political appointees, Pence’s habit of repeatedly pouring praise over the President’s role in the crisis so far – possibly in the expectation that his boss was watching – in itself politicized the response effort.

In a show of focus, Trump plans to visit the National Institutes of Health and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention this week.

But the extent to which any elected leader can control the virus, the public reaction to its spread and the political and economic reverberations that saw a stock market rout last week and fears of a global economic downturn, remains uncertain.

Biden, fresh off his victory in the South Carolina primary on Saturday, laid into Trump’s handling of the crisis.

biden sotu 3 1 2020
Biden: What in God's name was Trump talking about?
02:45 - Source: CNN

“The idea that Donald Trump said just several days ago this was a Democratic hoax, what in God’s name is he talking about? What in God’s name is he talking about? Has he no shame?” Biden said on “State of the Union.”

Trump made the comment about a supposed “hoax” at a campaign rally in South Carolina on Friday night. On the defensive at his White House news conference on Saturday, he claimed, in a statement apparently contrary to the facts, that the “hoax” reference did not refer to the virus, but the use of it by Democrats to try to damage him politically.

Another Democratic presidential candidate, Michael Bloomberg, bought prime-time exposure on CBS and NBC on Sunday night to assail Trump’s handling of the coronavirus outbreak and to argue that his blend of skills after years in business and as New York’s mayor would enable him to do a better job.

“At times like this it is the job of the President to reassure the public that he or she is taking all the steps necessary to protect the health and well-being of every citizen,” Bloomberg said.

Wary eyes on stocks after global rout

Much of the public mood going forward could depend on how stock markets regroup after the worst week since the 2008 banking crisis triggered the Great Recession. The extent of the spread of the disease inside the US will also be important. If it can be contained to hot spots and a trickle of new cases, the political impact may be moderate. But if the disease sweeps through the population, dissatisfaction with the government response could mount.

While the administration managed to largely coordinate a positive message of control over the weekend, there remain contentious questions about its handling of the crisis. For instance, there is a debate about whether the White House used the weeks between the disease’s first emergence in China to properly prepare the United States for its arrival – on issues related to hospital capacity and whether there is sufficient equipment and supplies including breathing machines for any large-scale outbreak. It remains unclear whether the public health system and hospital networks are prepared for the kind of outbreaks seen in China, South Korea and Italy for instance.

CNN’s Manu Raju contributed to this report.