President Donald Trump tapped Vice President Mike Pence to lead the country’s response to the coronavirus and told Americans that the risk of infection remained low, despite warnings from public health officials that it is only a matter of time before the disease spreads in the United States.
“The number one priority from our standpoint is the health and safety of the American people,” Trump said during a press briefing at the White House on Wednesday. “Because of all we’ve done, the risk to the American people remains very low.”
“We’re very, very ready for this, for anything, whether it’s going to be a breakout of larger proportions or whether it’s not,” he continued.
The briefing came as the coronavirus, also known as COVID-19, continues to spread around the globe. The number of worldwide cases has topped 81,000, and nearly 3,000 people have died. The number of new cases outside China, where the virus originated, surpassed the number inside the country for the first time on Tuesday. The World Health Organization said 38 countries have reported infections.
Trump said Wednesday that a vaccine was being developed “rapidly,” but health officials cautioned that it will likely not be available for at least year.
“This is the fastest that we have ever gone,” Dr. Anthony Fauci, the director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, said during the briefing. “We can’t rely on a vaccine over the next several months to a year.”
Members of the Trump administration have been claiming the coronavirus is “contained” in the United States, despite warnings from public health officials that it is only a matter of time before it begins to spread domestically.
“Ultimately, we expect we will see community spread in this country,” Dr. Nancy Messonnier, a director with the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s National Center for Immunization and Respiratory Diseases, told reporters on Tuesday. “It’s not so much a question of if this will happen anymore, but rather more a question of exactly when this will happen and how many people in this country will have severe illness.”
Community spread, in public health terms, means people become infected with a virus without knowing how or where they caught it.
Just after the press conference began, the CDC said it had been informed of the first case of coronavirus in a person in California who didn’t recently return from international travel or have contact with a confirmed case, The Washington Post reported.
Pence, who does not have medical experience but helped handle Indiana’s response to the first MERS case in the U.S. and coordinated health officials’ response when he was the state’s governor in 2014, said he would work with all members of the White House’s coronavirus task force to help contain its spread in the country. He praised Trump’s efforts to combat any domestic spread so far.
“President Trump’s made clear that there’s no higher priority than the safety, security health and well being of the American people,” Pence said.
The vice president has also been criticized for his handling of health crises in the past. As governor in 2014, he was in charge during Indiana’s worst HIV outbreak in state history and refused to implement clean needle exchanges until the virus had already spread widely in one Indiana county.
Democrats have lambasted the Trump administration’s response to the coronavirus, pointing to White House efforts to slash the budgets for the CDC and the National Institutes of Health. The president’s budget proposal earlier this year — which came before the coronavirus response kicked into high gear — included $3 billion in cuts to global health programs, including a 53% reduction in funding for the WHO.
Trump accused the media of doing “everything possible” to make the virus look as “bad as possible” in a tweet on Wednesday, saying the country was in “great shape!”
When asked during the press briefing about reports that the spread of the coronavirus in America were inevitable, Trump pushed back and said there was a “chance” things could grow more dire.
“I don’t think it’s inevitable, I think we’re doing a really good job in terms of maintaining borders,” the president said. “I think there’s a chance that it could get worse. There’s a chance that it could get fairly, substantially worse.”