Press Briefing by Vice President Pence and Members of the White House Coronavirus Task Force
THE VICE PRESIDENT: We just completed another meeting of the White House Coronavirus Task Force. It's been a very busy and productive day here at the White House.
President Donald Trump has no higher priority than the safety and health of the American people. And the President has directed our task force — employing the full resources of the federal government, in full partnership with state and local health authorities — to make that priority a reality.
As I stand before you today, we have more than 100 coronavirus cases in the United States. That is counting domestic cases and cases of coronavirus of Americans that were returned from China or the Diamond Princess. I'm pleased to report that most of those who contracted coronavirus within our care are continuing to recover. But, sadly, we received word today that another American has passed away and their family has our deepest condolences.
That being said, thanks to the President's strong leadership and the professionalism of all of our federal agencies — Health and Human Services, CDC — and state and local health officials all across this country, the risk to the American public of contracting the coronavirus remains low.
To be clear: If you are a healthy American, the risk of contracting the coronavirus remains low. But it is still a good idea to engage in commonsense practices that are always recommended this time of year. So, as someone who has a mother who is 87 years of age, and who has married kids living around the country, a brief tutorial on prevention for yourself, for your family, and your loved ones:
It's a good idea to stay home when you're sick. Avoid close contact with people who are sick. Avoid touching your eyes, nose, and mouth. Cover your cough or sneeze with tissue; throw the tissue in the trash. Clean and disinfect frequently. Wash your hands with either disinfectant or with soap and water for at least 20 seconds.
And let me say again, as we've said before: There's no need for Americans to buy masks. And the commonsense practices that I just described are all available at CDC.gov.
Today, we — we had a series of meetings here at the White House and on Capitol Hill. We met with executives of the airline industry, the executives of commercial labs, executives of nursing homes. And our team also met with the Republican and Democrat caucuses in the House of Representatives. And we were pleased to learn that, just shortly ago, the House of Representatives passed a federal funding bill by a virtually unanimous margin. It'll now move to the Senate.
And the legislation implements the President's vision to ensure that not only do our federal agencies have the support and resources that they need, but also that our state and local partners have their support. And in my conversations with governors all the way through this afternoon, I know they're grateful for the bipartisan spirit that has characterized this funding bill and we'll continue to work through that process.
As President Trump said, we're all in this together. And he deployed a whole-of-government approach, but, thanks to the President's leadership, it has actually developed into a whole-of-America approach, and the meetings today with industry leaders is a reflection of that.
As Dr. Birx will — will indicate in just a few moments with some of the data that we're evaluating from around the world, it does appear that the elderly are the most vulnerable and especially those serious health issues.
At the President's direction, as a result, Seema Verma will describe that the Center for Medicaid and Medicare Services has issued new guidelines for nursing homes nationwide. We have raised the bar regarding infectious disease control in our nursing homes.
And in addition, Administrator Verma will explain how we are going to focus all of our inspection resources for the foreseeable future on compliance with infection control standards.
Generally, we — we monitor our nursing homes for abuse and neglect. But at the President's direction, we're going to focus exclusively on ensuring that those who are in nursing homes — people operating the nursing homes, like many of the CEOs that we met with today — are complying with the new standards to keep our elderly safe.
The President also met today with airline executives and I'll reiterate, as the President said, our profound gratitude to our partners in the airline industry. They have worked with us in, as we say, flowing Americans through particular airports, the screening. We're working very closely with the airlines on contact information. If a person is tested as positive for the coronavirus, we're working with the airlines to get all the information not just about that person, but about who they sat next to and who else was on the flight. And the President and I are very grateful.
As we announced yesterday, I'm pleased to report that, as of yesterday morning, in addition to the travel ban from China — we've suspended all travel coming in from China, we've suspended all travel coming in from Iran, and even foreign nationals who visit either one of those countries are barred from coming into this country for 14 days.
We also established a travel advisory for Italy — portions of Italy and portions of South Korea over the weekend. But even as importantly, as of yesterday morning, we fully implemented a screening process. All direct flights from all airports in South Korea and Italy are now being subject to multiple screens before passengers board to come to the United States of America.
State Department worked very vigorously to bring that about and we're grateful for the cooperation with the governments of Italy, the governments of South Korea, as well as our airline partners in making that a reality.
Finally, with regard to testing, we had a meeting today that gave us great hope for great progress in the near future on expanding testing across the country. We have a ways to go yet, and I'm pleased to report, as we've been able to convey to state governments — governors around the country — is that, thanks to the good work with the FDA and Dr. Steve Hahn, who is with me here today, now all state laboratories, all university laboratories at the state level, can conduct coronavirus tests without any additional assets or resources from the federal government. They have the FDA-approved tests; they can conduct the test all across the country in all the states.
Beyond that, as we announced, through the efforts of HHS, 2,500 kits of tests are going out this week that — 2,500 kits including tests has gone out this week. That's roughly 1.5 million tests that will be available this week. We'll continue to build on that number.
But perhaps most significantly, thanks to Dr. Birx's efforts and leadership, we brought together, today at the White House, the leaders of all of the largest commercial laboratories in this country — companies like Quest that have vast capabilities, logistics and testing capabilities. And we were pleased to report today that they have created a consortium to share information and to share resources and literally have told us that, as they go through what is called the "validation process" on testing that, by next week, individual companies will be able to do, as they said to me, thousands of tests of coronavirus if they are needed and required, and many, many multiples more of that in the not-distant future.
Our objective here, as Dr. Birx raised with the task force is we've got hospitals in affected areas and those that are requesting that have kits — we've got universities and state labs that now can perform the test on a requested basis. But our objective, ultimately, and as quickly as possible, is to have tests made through these commercial laboratories and commercial providers that your local doctor, your CVS, your MedCheck is able to have a coronavirus test. And that isn't there yet; we're working to make that a reality.
But again, it's one more example — it's not just a whole-of-government approach; it's a whole-of-America approach. And whether it be our nursing home industry, whether it be our airline industry, whether it be our commercial laboratories, I can speak on behalf of President Trump and our entire task force when I say we are profoundly grateful for the spirit that's being reflected by companies all across the United States of America, grateful for the leadership at the state level. And the American people should be confident that that spirit of partnership is going to continue to drive this at every level as we work our way through dealing with the coronavirus in the United States.
With that, I'm going to recognize Dr. Deborah Birx for her comments.
DR. BIRX: Thank you, Mr. Vice President. Good evening. Over the — over the last 12 hours, we've been able to receive information, both from South Korea and Italy, adding to our China information. And it's as we thought: The elderly and preexisting conditions have a more serious illness when confronted with the coronavirus.
Reassuringly, in South Korea, no one has died under 30. This is reassuring to us. And the median age in Italy was 81, of those who succumbed. Those who became ill, the median age was 60.
So we find this data reassuring but it also has has really caused us to focus on the Americans who might be most vulnerable. So we're focusing resources, attention, and all of our capacity to ensure those who have preexisting conditions and those who are elderly have access to the best prevention and treatment options.
The prevention options flow right through all of us to ensure that we have good protective hygiene for our elderly clients around the globe.
THE VICE PRESIDENT: Thank you.
ADMINISTRATOR VERMA: Thank you. And as you heard, because of the risk for our nation's seniors, we are doubling down on our efforts. Today, we put out three memos. One was to hospitals about triaging and placement for patients with suspected or confirmed coronavirus. We also put out some information to nursing homes about limiting visitors to nursing homes, monitoring staff. And then, finally, we put out some information to our state surveyors that are going to be surveying our nation's nursing homes and hospitals around infection control.
So all of that information went out this morning.
THE VICE PRESIDENT: Very good. Thank you, Seema.
CDC. Bob Redfield.
DR. REDFIELD: Thank you, Mr. Vice President. I think what I'd like to highlight today is that — first, echo what the Vice President started with when he was giving the American people the advice that he did as he went through that we do have listed out on our CDC website: CDC.gov.
It really is very important, it's very pragmatic about washing your hands 20 seconds in soap and water or using the other disinfectants. Obviously, training yourself to cover your sneeze or cough either in your elbow or with a Kleenex that you will dispose of. These are very important things. Working hard not to touch your face.
I think the most important thing for many of those individuals that might be a little type A: If you get sick, stay home. You're not helping your colleagues by going to work sick.
And again, I think these are just very pragmatic. We've listed them. They're absolutely no different than what we ask the American public to do for the flu.
The second thing I would like to do is continue to get the help from you to get those messages out. The one that's the most important that the Vice President also talked about is the role of masks. We need these N95 masks for the healthcare workers that are taking care of these patients. We do not recommend them to be used by the general public.
And again, you all — if you tell the stories — are able to be great communicators of that, so that the American public gets accurate information and gets good guidance from your experts that you'll reach out to for your stories. So that's what I would ask you to do.
And I'll reiterate what the Vice President said at the beginning: that although we're continuing to see new community cases in this nation, the overall risk to the American public at this time still remains low.
THE VICE PRESIDENT: Thank you very much.
DR. FAUCI: Thank you, Mr. Vice President. Just to reiterate what was said by several of our colleagues here is that we make policy recommendations and analysis of what we're going to recommend based on accumulation of data. Data is very important. What Dr. Birx just told you is data is that underscores some of the things that we've been telling you.
You know, when you talk about risk — you know, risk is something that's vague to people. And we've said many a time, if you talk about risk of infection throughout the country, it's a low risk. If you talk about someone who is infected — and we do have infected people in this country. You've heard that from Dr. Redfield. You understand the situation that we have in Seattle.
If you do get infected, if you're infected as — taking Seattle as the microcosm of that — it is exactly what Dr. Birx said: The risk of getting into difficulties is very heavily weighted towards people with underlying conditions and people with the elderly, where the young people — and there will be an exception here or there, the same way we see with influenza — but the risk for a young person who gets infected to getting into trouble is really low, based on a lot of data that's coming out of foreign countries, particularly out of China.
THE VICE PRESIDENT: Great. Thank you, Dr. Fauci.
ADMINISTRATOR CARSON: I want to thank the Vice President and the President for very aggressive and careful leadership. Now, I was involved throughout my neurosurgical career with a lot of very, very complex cases and dealt with a lot of renowned physicians, but I must say the people on this task force are extremely impressive. Have been considering all the various different possibilities — outlining scenarios for all the possibilities that can occur. And it's very comforting — and recognize that the risk to a healthy adult still remains quite low, largely because of the aggressive actions that have been taken and are continuing to be taken every day.
And just one last point and that is: The pharmaceuticals, who normally are rivals, have worked together voluntarily. Wouldn't that be a great lesson for the politicians?
THE VICE PRESIDENT: Great.
Quick informational announcement: I'll be traveling with many members of the task force to Minnesota tomorrow. We'll be visiting 3M, which is poised to literally begin manufacturing millions more masks for our healthcare workers. And then we'll be traveling on to Washington State.
We'll be meeting with Governor Inslee and with his health team to ensure that the full resources of the federal government are being brought to bear in support of their efforts to protect the health of the people across the Seattle area.
So, with that, let me start right here.
Q: Thank you, Vice President Pence. I have two questions: one about Washington and then one about Florida. I'll start with Washington. Can you tell us a little bit more about how that meeting came to be? Will Secretary Azar be with you? Is that a meeting that the governor asked you to come there? Can you explain?
THE VICE PRESIDENT: The — I've spoken to Governor Inslee, who I know well from our time in Congress together, several times since being tapped to lead the White House effort on the coronavirus a week ago.
He's been providing strong leadership for the State of Washington. They have an outstanding health department.
But after meeting with members of the Senate and the House, particularly those from the Washington State delegation, we thought it would be important to bring our team out to meet with their team on the ground, and to make sure that they have the full support.
The — our hearts go out to those that have been infected with the disease in the Seattle area. But also we understand the anxiety this has created in the full community and we're going to be going out just to make sure — and sitting down with the governor and with his team — that they have everything they need and all the support they need to see to the health of their people.
Q: Thank you, sir.
And, on Florida, you will have a meeting on Saturday — is that correct? — with the cruise liners? Which companies are coming to that meeting? What's the goal of that meeting? Is there something that you'd like to see them do differently that they are not doing now?
THE VICE PRESIDENT: Well, we'll talk about just that. Obviously, with the Diamond Princess issue, there are unique challenges — that our experts tell us — in a closed environment of a cruise liner. But we're going to talk about best practices.
And I thought it was timely to spend some time with people in that industry as we're meeting with the others in industries around the country. Okay?
Back there, please.
Q: Mr. Vice President, thanks so much.
THE VICE PRESIDENT: Sure.
Q: Two quick questions. The first one, I've been looking online at hand sanitizer and soap. There is some — there are some sites like Amazon where these prices have just skyrocketed. What's your advice to Americans who are trying to just buy the soap and water, and the hand sanitizer that they're telling them buy, but that they're — but can't afford it at this point or can't find it?
THE VICE PRESIDENT: That's great. I'm going to ask CDC to respond to that, because they've got some very clear guidance.
DR. REDFIELD: Thank you, Mr. Vice President. I want to make it really clear. I don't think — soap and water, vigorously washing your hands for 20 seconds is what the American public needs to do. If they want to use the hand sanitizers, that's another option, but I don't want people to think it's inferior to what we've recommended for decades, which is vigorous washing your hands with soap and water for 20 seconds.
THE VICE PRESIDENT: Okay. Another one. Another one? Go ahead.
Q: You were talking about working on getting testing so that doctors and other places will be able to have it. How far along are you in that goal? And what should Americans expect — how soon should Americans expect to be able to go to their doctor's office to get tested?
THE VICE PRESIDENT: Well, I'm going to ask to Deborah Birx to address that. But just so you know, there's three levels here. Number one is that we do have about 1.5 million test kits going out as we speak to hospitals, particularly hospitals in areas that have seen coronavirus cases.
In addition to that, thanks to the good work of the FDA and the change that President Trump authorized this weekend, now every state health lab and university lab can conduct a coronavirus test and that expands the capacity. But ultimately, as Dr. Birx will explain, our objective is — in addition to those tests being available — that we want to get to a place where — where any American who has a concern is able to go to their doctor, is able to go to a medical clinic, and know that there's a coronavirus available.
We think we could get there in a matter of weeks. And in partnership with the commercial labs, we're challenging them to do just that.
DR. BIRX: Thank you, Mr. Vice President. Just briefly, because I think you were interested also in cost. And I think what we've heard from CMS and from HHS — that this will be an essential lab test, so fully reimbursable.
What we talked about with the commercial laboratories is exactly your question. And we asked them — and they are in validation this week. They — some of them thought they would have tests available on Friday, and the rest on Monday.
I've asked them to prioritize the areas where we've had these clusters so that people can be reassured in those areas where there is — where we have identified virus has been circulating. In those cases, they will have it available at doctor's office and all of our pediatric offices that would need it. And they will transport it through a logistics network to make sure that they can be run.
Q: Follow-up on testing and —
THE VICE PRESIDENT: With regard to — with regard to the cost, let me be very clear: HHS has designated the coronavirus test as an essential health benefit. That means, by definition, it's covered in the private health insurance of every American, as well as covered by Medicare and Medicaid. And so, what — but we're — we're working with members of Congress and we'll be monitoring the cost very carefully. Please.
Q: You've put travel restrictions on travel Italy and South Korea. Are you considering more — imposing more restrictions on travel?
THE VICE PRESIDENT: Well, I'm going to ask Dr. Fauci to speak to that. At this time, they're not recommending that the President impose additional travel advisories or restrictions. But as Dr. Fauci can explain, we're going to follow the data on that very closely and follow the cases.
Did you want to speak to that?
DR. FAUCI: Yeah. So this is something that's really evaluated in real time. I mean, you can make a decision now that you're going to project what's going to be. You — just based on the data. And it became very clear that the situation in Northern Italy and in Korea was actually unique, compared to what we were seeing in several of the other countries. That's why that was done.
We reevaluate this literally every single day.
THE VICE PRESIDENT: We do. We do.
Q: Thank you, Vice President —
Q: Mr. Vice President —
THE VICE PRESIDENT: No, right here.
Q: Thank you. Thank you.
Q: Thank you.
THE VICE PRESIDENT: Right here.
THE VICE PRESIDENT: Please.
Q: Thank you. So I was wondering: What sort of progress was made with your meeting with the airline CEOs today about coordinating the collection of passenger data?
And then also there's been reports that the CDC is investigating a potential cluster of cases from a cruise ship in California that could be linked to the state's first death. Could you confirm that and how many people might the CDC be investigating in that case?
THE VICE PRESIDENT: I'll let CDC respond to your second question. But, on the first question, I know the President was also very moved by the level of commitment from our airlines for customers' health and safety as well as their crews' health and safety there. They described to us their activities in cleaning the aircraft and sanitizing aircraft. And we believe, as President Trump said today, that it's safe to fly. It's safe to fly in America and it's safe to fly internationally apart from the travel advisories that are available to the public.
With that being said, we — it's a work in progress about having contact information. But we were assured today by the airlines that they'll continue to work very closely with us to provide manifests of passengers on an individual flight in the event of a coronavirus infection. And the cooperation has been just what the American people would expect from our airlines.
But let me — let me let CDC speak to the other issue.
DR. REDFIELD: Thank you, Mr. Vice President. So, we are working in support of the California Health Department that's in the process of evaluating another cruise ship where they do have confirmed cases. We're at the very beginning of that — looking at the manifest — to make sure we understand who has gotten off the cruise and where they got off the cruise. And we're really involved in that entire contact follow up as we speak, right now.
MS. MILLER: Last question, guys.
THE VICE PRESIDENT: Right here. Right here.
Q: Thank you very much. It's possibly a question for Dr. Birx, regarding it being safe to fly.
THE VICE PRESIDENT: Please.
Q: You have spring break coming along. A lot of grandparents may be coming to visit family members to help watch over kids — older adults. Is it safe? If it's unnecessary travel, should they still hop on a plane and travel?
DR. BIRX: Well, that's why we're talking about the commonsense approach. So if you have preexisting medical conditions or you're of the elderly and frail, that is something that they need to take into context. And that's why we were very clear about providing that information, because we really want everyone to know what we know, that we've received this new data, we've gone through it carefully. It does look like there is significant greater risk of serious illness as you become older, and if you have other medical conditions.
Now, what I talked about also was protecting the elderly and protecting those with other medical conditions. And I want to be clear, the other medical conditions included people recovering from cancer. So just as you would protect them when they have their chemotherapy and their immun- — immune responses are lower, you would do that with careful handwashing, again, and ensuring, if you have children in the household, that they're following those same procedures.
I have a nine-month-old and a two-year-old grandchild and they're — the two-year-old has learned to wash her hands carefully. And I think these are just things we need to ensure are happening every day in households.
THE VICE PRESIDENT: Right here.
Q: Do you have any hesitations traveling to Washington State tomorrow — I mean, for your own personal health? And are you trying to send a message to all Americans that you believe it is safe to fly?
THE VICE PRESIDENT: No, I have no hesitation at all. I have to tell you that the job that Washington State has done in confronting the coronavirus infections in the Seattle area has really been inspiring. They've got an outstanding health facility, outstanding health department. And we're going to be sitting down with all of their health officials.
But I'm — I'm a real believer, just as the President is, in and sitting down and sitting nose to nose, as President did today, with executives and asking the questions and making sure. The American people expect nothing less. They expect us to be there for that community. And we'll be bringing our task force out to make sure that Washington State has all the support that they need. And that's the purpose of the trip.
MS. MILLER: Okay, guys, last question.
THE VICE PRESIDENT: Last one.
Q: Thank you, Mr. Vice President. I appreciate it.
THE VICE PRESIDENT: Sure. Sure.
Q: In light of what Dr. Redfield said yesterday about how quickly this virus has been spreading, what will need to happen specifically for you to declare this a "national emergency"? What — what's the threshold? Will it be the number of deaths? Will it be the number of cases?
THE VICE PRESIDENT: Let me — let me let Dr. Fauci speak to that, in terms of a determination of when a recommendation to the President — we've declared a public health emergency. But maybe you might speak to whether we —
DR. FAUCI: Yeah, you know, a public health —
Q: But — hi, so you know what I'm asking, with regard to a national emergency?
DR. FAUCI: What preciously do you mean?
Q: Well, to declare a national emergency, will it — what's the threshold — the number of cases, the number of deaths — where you're going to take decision making out of the hands of the states and you're going to make — "Okay, we're going to quarantine a city."
DR. FAUCI: Sure.
Q: Or, "We are shut down big events or we're going to say 'no travel.'"
DR. FAUCI: This — well, let me just tell you —
Q: Major decisions.
DR. FAUCI: — how that would be made. That would be made by very serious discussions among the task force. I would think that, if we were in a situation — and hopefully we never even approach that — where you have clear, wide, diffuse community spread throughout the country and you have to have federal mandates that come in to essentially enforce certain types of social distancing, I think it would have to come to that.
But I'm a bit humble about that. I would like to discuss it with a variety of other people who have more of a handle on the implications of that.
Q: Would you say —
Q: Can you please supply some guidance to the uninsured?
THE VICE PRESIDENT: It's probably a very — it's probably a very good place — it's probably a good — very good place to step off. We're going to go back to work.
But let me — let me end where I began. And that is to say: Today, in the United States, the combination of domestic cases and people that we have brought home from China and from the Diamond Princess, we have slightly more than 100 cases. And the vast majority of those people either have recovered or are continuing to recover.
Now, that's not going to lessen the focus that President Trump has charged us to continue to put on this issue. We're continue to work closely with members of Congress to make sure that we have the resources to confront the spread of the coronavirus.
But, at this moment, I have to tell you, our state and local governments around the country are just doing an exceptional job. And as a former governor, I can tell you that the people that are on the ground — the healthcare workers, the health officials at the state level — are responding to this with compassion, with professionalism.
And a big part of our job right now is just make sure that they have the support, that we come alongside them, that they have the personal protective equipment and gear to be able to minister to anyone who has the virus.
But I think — I think the American people — the American people can take some comfort that the reality is, today, that the risk of the coronavirus to the average American remains low. And as we continue to take these steps, as Americans continue to take commonsense practices to protect their own health, the health of their family, we'll work to keep it there.
Mike Pence, Press Briefing by Vice President Pence and Members of the White House Coronavirus Task Force Online by Gerhard Peters and John T. Woolley, The American Presidency Project https://www.presidency.ucsb.edu/node/348413