The latest news from the White House on the ongoing spread of the novel coronavirus, which the Centers for Disease Control has warned is likely to hit the U.S. imminently, is not very reassuring: Vice President Mike Pence, whose poor epidemiological instincts helped fuel an HIV outbreak in his home state of Indiana, will lead the White House response to COVID-19.
During a press conference this evening, Trump, who had tweeted earlier today that he believed his enemies in the media were conspiring to start a panic over the virus that could hurt him politically, downplayed concerns that the U.S. is anything less than fully prepared for domestic spread of the virus or that such a thing is likely at all. Then Trump announced he was appointing Vice President Mike Pence as his administration’s point man on the federal coronavirus response.
The coronavirus, which is known as SARS-CoV-2 and causes a disease called COVID-19, is believed to cause minor symptoms in over 80 percent of infected individuals. But it has spread rapidly from the outbreak epicenter in China’s Hubei province, with over 81,000 confirmed cases and a recorded death toll of over 2,700. Major outbreaks have now been reported outside of China, in Italy, South Korea, and Iran.
While Trump was speaking this evening, the Washington Post reported that the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention had been informed of the first known person in the U.S. to have contracted the virus from an unknown source, a sign that the virus is now spreading locally. According to WaPo, this patient is in California.
Trump also challenged the idea that his administration would stand in the way of extra funding—perhaps a rebuttal of reports that White House officials sent Democrats in Congress a document requesting cuts to other programs, such as a $37 million slash from a program that provides heating assistance to poor families, before it would authorize $2.5 billion in federal emergency funds. Trump said that the White House is open to engaging with congressional Democrats on their request for up to $8.5 billion in spending, though he ultimately left it unclear whether that meant the White House was reversing its position or would continue to insist on cuts to pay for it. (While even some Republicans were reportedly alarmed by the sparseness of the White House’s funding proposals, Trump has held government funding hostage before in the hopes the blame will fall on Democrats.)
“We’ll spend whatever is appropriate,” Trump said. “Hopefully we won’t have to spend so much, because we really think that we’ve done a great job in keeping it down to a minimum.”
“It is what it is. We’re ready for it. We’re really prepared,” the president said, per a CNN transcript. “We have, as I said, we have the greatest people in the world. We’re very ready for it. We hope it doesn’t spread. There’s a chance that it won’t spread, too. And there’s a chance that it will. It’s just a question of at what level.”
Trump also noted that, so far, the U.S. has only seen a small number of cases: “So far, we’ve done a great job. When you have 15 people—with this whole world coming into the United States—and the 15 people are either better or close to being better, that’s pretty good.”
As for Pence, Trump told reporters that, “When Mike was governor, Mike Pence of Indiana, they have established great health care, they have a great system there—a system that lot of the other states have really looked to and changed their systems.”
Pence’s record is, in fact, not so positive. As governor of Indiana, Pence held up funding for state needle exchanges, which played a role in ensuing HIV and hepatitis C outbreaks in the state. Pence only caved after immense pressure. The vice president has also issued bizarre pronouncements on human health in the past, such as a 2000 op-ed arguing smoking doesn’t kill, and he’s made numerous other statements on issues ranging from global warming to abortion drugs that ignored consensus in the scientific community.
“I know full well the importance of presidential leadership, the importance of administration leadership, and the vital role of partnerships of state and local governments and health authorities in responding to the potential threat of dangerous infectious diseases,” Pence told reporters. He added that he would be working with the Department of Health and Human Services, Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, State Department, White House, and state governments. Later in the conference, Health and Human Services Secretary Alex Azar noted that he would still be chairman of the coronavirus task force and that Pence would be “helping.”
Yale epidemiologist Gregg Gonzales was among those to respond to the Pence announcement, tweeting: “This is a man that totally botched HIV outbreak in Indiana. This is not a good idea and speaks to a lack of seriousness” by the White House.
Trump also told the public “There’s no reason to be panicked,” saying “we have it so well under control and we really have done a very good job.” As the Guardian noted, he also blamed other factors, such as the performance of Democratic candidates on the debate stage in recent days, for continued drops in global markets. Health experts have questioned whether the U.S. is actually ready for domestic spread of the virus, arguing that health officials are not prepared to test large numbers of people and that U.S. hospitals have a poor record on transmission of infections in medical environments.
Earlier in the day, Azar told members of Congress that the White House won’t take steps to ensure that a coronavirus vaccine—which is likely to take at least a year to a year and half to develop—is affordable for all Americans, citing some mumbo-jumbo on how price controls might interfere with returns to pharmaceutical investors.
“We would want to ensure that we work to make it affordable, but we can’t control that price, because we need the private sector to invest,” Azar said. “Price controls won’t get us there.”