Vice President Mike Pence, the leader of the administration’s coronavirus task force, is publicly painting a rosy picture of the pandemic through his words and actions amid President Donald Trump’s push to reopen the country and resume campaigning.
But despite the administration’s efforts to declare the pandemic over, 18 states are currently experiencing an increase in cases. And health officials have implored Americans to heed task force guidelines – including wearing a mask and social distancing – to slow the spread, and a key model used by the White House is now projecting more than 200,000 deaths by October.
“We may be done with the pandemic, but the pandemic is not done with us,” Dr. Ashish Jha, director of the Harvard Global Health Institute, said during a STAT Conversation on Tuesday.
“It makes sense why so many Americans are feeling like we’re done, and they’re feeling a certain sense of apathy,” he said.
Jha said it boils down to three things.
“First, is that they were told that if we shut down and really kind of bend the curve, that we will we will be passed the worst and everything will work out,” he said.
Secondly, early data and models “seemed to imply that all of a sudden the virus would go away in June, July and August.” But that’s not likely.
And third, Jha said Americans are over it because of “communication from our president, who has clearly has moved on.”
“The reality is that the virus is with us. The reality is that the first wave only hit a small number of places – now it’s coming to every other place. It’s coming to a county or a city or a state near you,” Jha said.
Pence makes the case
On Monday, Pence urged governors to take increased testing into account for increased cases. And on Tuesday, he penned an op-ed in the Wall Street Journal claiming there is “no second wave” of coronavirus. Pence also traveled to Iowa Tuesday, where he had lunch at a local restaurant with Republican Gov. Kim Reynolds and made remarks at Winnebago Industries touting US “recovery.”
At the restaurant, neither Pence nor Reynolds nor the restaurant’s owner or patrons wore a mask, and he did not practice social distancing as he greeted diners. Pence also openly flouted social distancing guidelines last week with a trip to Trump campaign headquarters, posting a since-deleted photo with a large group of tightly clustered campaign staff, none of whom wore masks.
Pence attributed a rise in US coronavirus cases to an increase in testing during a Monday call with the nation’s governors. But those comments came in the context of an extensive conversation between Pence, Health and Human Services Secretary Alex Azar and Dr. Deborah Birx on rising cases that weren’t attributed to increased testing.
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“I would just encourage you all, as we talk about these things, make sure to explain to your citizens the magnitude of increase in testing and in that, in most of the cases where we are seeing some marginal rising number, that’s more a result of the extraordinary work you’re doing, expanding testing using that public-private partnership that the President forged months ago,” Pence told the governors, according to audio of the call obtained by CNN.
Increasing the numbers of tests is likely to find more cases. Another key figure is the rate of positive tests – if it’s high or growing, it indicates a community isn’t doing enough of the testing needed to identify and isolate cases, which is what can slow an outbreak. While a state’s overall case numbers or positivity rates may appear steady or improving, more specific data is required for particular communities to understand where outbreaks are occurring and at risk of growing.
Pence also said on the call that there are specific areas where there has been “some increase in cases that are not necessarily accounted for entirely by an increase in testing,” pointing to areas in North Carolina, California and Arizona, where, he said, the CDC has redeployed additional personnel.
An official familiar with the work of the task force was more blunt and told CNN that the surge in cases is also due to more infections.
“They just don’t want to deal with the reality of it,” the official said of Trump, Pence and other top officials. “They’re in denial.”
And a senior US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention official told CNN that Pence is selectively choosing data to make his point.
“I don’t know what his source is on that information, but that’s not accurate,” the senior CDC official said of Pence’s assertion that only a small percentage of places in the US are seeing an uptick in cases. “You can cherry-pick a handful of counties and use that as way to say things are not as bad as they look. But that’s not the reality.”
The senior CDC official added, “Our data shows that there continues to be spread, particularly in communities of color. It’s both higher rates and disproportionate numbers. By state, the numbers are absolutely increasing and they’re increasing in states that opened up earlier.”
Azar pointed to concerns about increased trends in positive testing in certain areas.
“We have been concerned about looking at data showing in many states, increasing trends of cases, but increasing trends of positive testing … that causes us to take a very deep dive at the data at a county level, and it reveals that we do have issues going on at particular counties in states,” Azar said.
“My message just would be as governors, you can’t just be looking at your state level data to feel that you’re in a good position, you’ve gotta actually get down to the county level because that’s where you’re going to see if you’re facing an actual outbreak scenario that might be meatpacking, nursing homes, and might be of other origin,” he added.
Birx did explain that because of an increase in testing, more cases, including asymptomatic and presymptomatic cases, are being found in the community, rather than in hospitals.
“So, I don’t ever get discouraged that the case numbers are going up when you’re test positivity rate is going down. Really an extraordinary job you’re doing and I think you should be commended for that. We do have isolated counties, and I’m just gonna mention a couple of them,” she said.
Birx said that North Carolina’s Wake County and Mecklenburg County, where the Republican National Convention was scheduled to be held later this summer, were experiencing increased positivity.
‘Such panic is overblown’
And in the Wall Street Journal, Pence blamed the media for inciting “panic” regarding a second wave of coronavirus.
“In recent days, the media has taken to sounding the alarm bells over a ‘second wave’ of coronavirus infections. Such panic is overblown. Thanks to the leadership of President Trump and the courage and compassion of the American people, our public health system is far stronger than it was four months ago, and we are winning the fight against the invisible enemy,” Pence wrote, citing expanding testing, supply production and medical research.
Hundreds of Americans continue to die from coronavirus each day, and many public health experts, including the administration’s own experts, are predicting a second wave.
The latest coronavirus forecast by the Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation at the University of Washington takes into account seasonality predictions. The institute’s model has been frequently cited by the White House.
Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation director Dr. Christopher Murray said “seasonality will be a very big driver of the second wave, we believe,” during a briefing last week outlining a death toll model that has since been increased.
“The increase in daily deaths really starts to gather more momentum from mid-September, onwards,” Murray said.
And Dr. Robert Redfield, the director of the CDC, warned of the importance of the flu vaccine in the context of a second wave earlier this month, telling a House Appropriations Committee hearing: “If a second wave of coronavirus hits when flu season is under way, it could really strain hospitals.”
Pence touts roughly 500,000 tests performed each day, and 23 million tests total, in the op-ed, though that is far short of what experts say is needed. He also claimed that the US is “well on our way to having a viable vaccine by the fall,” though Dr. Anthony Fauci has suggested that timeline is too soon.
During an interview with CNN’s Wolf Blitzer last week, Fauci expressed confidence that a trial will have accrued a large number of subjects and there will be an answer on whether it works “by the end of the year.”
But, he cautioned: “There is never a guarantee that a vaccine – and we have multiple candidates, it isn’t just one – that is going to be safe and effective.”
After crucial weeks when the President downplayed coronavirus earlier this year and actively lied to Americans about its potential impact, losing time as the virus spread to the US, the administration hamstrung key efforts by the CDC to mount a coordinated response to the pandemic.
Yet Pence on Tuesday blamed the media, which has sought to provide information from those experts to the American people, for fear-mongering.
“The media has tried to scare the American people every step of the way, and these grim predictions of a second wave are no different,” Pence wrote.
It points to an administration that is taking political considerations ahead of public health.
Trump and Pence are set to hold a packed rally in Tulsa, Oklahoma, later this week, where social distancing will be unlikely and face masks will be optional.
“It really is time, Ainsley, for us to begin this campaign. The President wants to be out, he wants to be connecting to our supporters. Literally over a million people have signed up to try and obtain the opportunity to come and attend the rally,” Pence said during an appearance on Fox News Tuesday.
“The freedom of speech, the right to peacefully assemble is enshrined in the First Amendment of the Constitution and the President and I are very confident that we’re going to be able to restart these rallies to tell the story of what the president has done thorough these unprecedented times but also over the last three and a half years,” he continued.
The administration official close to the task force said it has not been asked to give their blessing to the campaign rally.
“They know better,” the official said.
This story has been updated with additional reporting Tuesday evening.
CNN’s Jim Acosta, Nick Valencia, Maggie Fox and Jamie Gumbrecht contributed to this report.