Donald Trump appointed his Vice President Mike Pence to lead a task force to combat the spread of the coronavirus, the U.S. president announced Wednesday.
Speaking during a rare appearance in the White House briefing room, Trump said Pence’s experience handling health crises as Indiana governor qualified him to spearhead the growing threat of a global coronavirus outbreak. The move came as the Centers for Disease Control confirmed a coronavirus infection in California that was not linked to overseas travel, a concerning development that brought the total number of U.S. infections to 15.
The White House had been weighing the appointment of a coronavirus czar in the lead up of the announcement as it faced criticism over its inconsistent messaging during the emerging crisis. Still, Trump said Pence would not be a “czar” because “he is a part of the administration.” Instead, he will apparently oversee the task force currently managing Trump’s response to the virus.
Trump praised Pence’s handling of health crises during his time as Indiana governor.
“Look at the Indiana model, they have been very successful there,” Trump said. The White House is “using Mike because he’s very good at doing what he does,” he added.
At the press conference, the vice president talked about his experiencing handling the first case of MERS, a viral respiratory illness, when it emerged in Indiana in 2014. Pence said he would be working with the Department of Health and Human Services, Centers of Disease Control and Prevention, State Department and White House advisers to combat coronavirus. Pence added that he would continue coordinating with state and local officials to curb the spread of the virus.
“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 said.
Health and Human Services Secretary Alex Azar was previously leading the administration’s coronavirus response. Trump said later during the news conference that he wanted Azar to focus on other items on his agenda, including lowering drug prices and running the department. But Azar noted that he was still chair of the government task force coordinating the coronavirus response, indicating Pence would play a supervisory role.
Health experts are likely to quibble Trump’s assessment of Pence’s record as governor overseeing health epidemics.
While Pence was governor of Indiana, the state’s Scott County experienced the largest HIV outbreak that Indiana had seen in decades — an outbreak public health experts said was preventable. Nearly 200 people using opioids got sick after people contracted the virus by sharing dirty needles. Pence eventually lifted a ban on sterile needle exchange programs in the state at public health advocates’ urging.
More broadly, Trump boasted about the country’s ability to fend off the coronavirus. He cited Johns Hopkins University rankings showing the United States was among the most thoroughly prepared countries to handle a viral outbreak. And he tried to allay concerns by arguing the flu has had a significantly higher impact on U.S. public health this year.
The White House’s messaging of all things being under control has clashed with more wary warnings from elsewhere in the federal government. Nancy Messonnier, the director of the CDC’s National Center for Immunization and Respiratory Diseases, told reporters Tuesday that a widespread outbreak in the United States was an inevitability — remarks that outraged Trump.
More than 50 people have been diagnosed with coronavirus in the United States, many of whom were returning to the country after being quarantined on the cruise ship Diamond Princess.
Trump said of the 15 people currently infected, eight have left the hospital and five others have fully recovered. He did not address the California case, which may be the first U.S. coronavirus infection without a known link to travel abroad.
Trump lauded efforts by his administration to contain the spread of the disease, including barring entry to foreign citizens coming from China, and vowed a vaccine was being developed.
“Because of all we’ve done, the risk to the American people remains very low,” Trump said.
Trump said there were no plans to lift travel restrictions from China.
“That’s what saved us,” he said.
Other countries have also reported more cases of the disease, including one in Brazil and several in the Lombardy region of Italy. France announced the first death of one of its citizens Wednesday, in addition to a Chinese citizen who had died in a Parisian hospital. Cases in South Korea have grown to more than 1,200.
When asked if he would impose travel restrictions on South Korea and Italy, Trump said he was not the president of those countries and was not responsible for their response. He did however admit travel restrictions were not off the table.
Trump also did not directly rule out quarantining cities if the outbreak were to drastically advance, similar to the quarantine imposed on Wuhan, China, where the outbreak started.
“I think every aspect of our society should be prepared,” Trump said. “I don’t think it’s going to come to that. … The words are, ‘Just in case.’”
Sarah Owermohle contributed to this report.