Vice President Mike Pence claimed on Monday that much of the American public has a “misunderstanding” of his March 9 claim that 4 million coronavirus tests would be distributed by the end of that week.
Pence was doing again on Monday what he had done on March 9 and has done regularly since: leaving out a critical piece of information. This time, he failed to explain that it had been his own words that created the “misunderstanding” – instead laying the confusion at the feet of the media and average citizens.
Pence’s comments on the subject of testing, including the remarks he was asked about on Monday, have consistently painted a picture that is far rosier than the actual situation on the ground.
Unlike President Donald Trump, Pence has not been flat lying. Rather, he has misled by omission.
Playing cheerleader for Trump, whose leadership he has unfailingly complimented, Pence has hailed incremental progress while declining to explain to the public that there are also serious problems.
The ‘distributed’ tests
At a White House briefing on March 9, Pence said that in addition to 1 million coronavirus tests already distributed, 4 million would be distributed by the end of that week – and that commercial labs were going to help produce “a dramatic increase” in the availability of testing.
“With the deployment of the commercial labs, we literally – we literally are going to see a dramatic increase in the available – availability of testing, and that’s all a direct result of the President’s leadership,” he said.
Pence’s “4 million” number was misleading. A month later, Trump announced that 2 million tests had been conducted. (Trump put the number of conducted tests above 4 million only in mid-April.) And Pence had strongly suggested that the commercial labs he invoked would be able to process these 4 million tests.
But when he was asked by a reporter on Monday what had gone wrong after the “4 million” promise, Pence blamed the reporter and “a lot” of the public, not himself, for the “misunderstanding” – claiming he had never meant that 4 million tests could actually be completed quickly, since the “old” laboratory system was not then able to process so many.
If Pence had wanted to make clear on March 9 that he did not mean 4 million people could actually get tested fast, he could have said so. Instead, he conveniently omitted it.
Pence’s office did not respond Tuesday to a request for comment.
The testing website
At a coronavirus news conference on March 13, Pence touted a website that he claimed would allow Americans to type in their symptoms, get informed whether they should be tested and then be “directed to one of these incredible companies that are going to give a little bit of their parking lot so that people can come by and do a drive-by test.” He said that Walmart, CVS, Target and Walgreens were now “going to come together to meet the needs of the American public.”
The website was ready only for people in the San Francisco Bay Area; it did not expand beyond California until late April. And a full month after Trump and Pence had spoken, the companies they mentioned had opened fewer than a dozen parking lot testing sites.
An overly cheery picture
Politicians of both parties and public health experts have raised alarm throughout the pandemic of major impediments to conducting coronavirus tests – and have consistently said that not enough are being conducted. At various points in the crisis, they have reported insufficient laboratory capacity leading to long wait times for results, and shortages of required testing materials such as swabs and reagents.
Pence’s prepared remarks at White House briefings have tended to omit these complaints entirely in favor of cheery, Trump-praising progress reports. He declared March 19, for example, that “testing is available in all 50 states and is becoming increasingly available literally every hour of the day,” on March 24 that “we have done more tests in the last eight days than were done in the previous eight weeks. And it’s because of the public-private partnership that the President forged with commercial labs.”
Pence is correct that there has been real progress in testing during the month of April. The number of tests conducted has increased from March and is now more than 5 million total, according to the White House. But Pence’s relentlessly upbeat updates since March have not clearly communicated to Americans that there have been significant problems around the country.
His latest comments
At Monday’s briefing, Pence touted a comment from Assistant Secretary for Health Brett Giroir, their testing coordinator, that governors’ plans for next month mean that the US will easily reach a total of 8 million tests conducted in the month.
“But what the President brought about with this public-private partnership has brought us to the point where we’ve done 5.4 million tests to date. And, literally, you just heard that by next month it could – we could be doing as many as 2 million tests a week all across the country to give the American people confidence that we can reopen and get our economy moving again,” Pence said.
Some experts say the US needs to do more than 2 million tests per week to safely reopen – from at least 3 million per week, in the view of a Rockefeller Foundation analysis, to as many as 20 million tests per day, according to one Harvard University analysis.