Mar 2, 2020
Mike Pence Coronavirus Update Transcript: Pence & Task Force Hold Briefing
Mike Pence and Ambassador Deborah Birx give briefing on the coronavirus today on March 2, 2020. They provided the latest updates on efforts to contain COVID-19. Read the full transcript of the briefing here.
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Mike Pence: (02:18)
Good afternoon. We just finished the Monday meeting of the White House coronavirus task force. Since the time the President established the task force here at the White House, it has literally met daily and we continued that effort today. We added the Head of the Center for Medicaid Medicare Services, Seema Verma to the task force today as well as Robert Wilkie with the V.A. First, a few basic facts and reports and then we’ll hear from other members of the task force about ongoing efforts. At the present moment, we have 43 domestic cases of the coronavirus, 48 cases of individuals who’ve returned to the United States. Of the domestic cases, 29 of the 43 are either in California or Washington state and we have communities that are facing what the experts tell us could potentially be a cluster in those communities. Sadly today, there were four additional fatalities, raising the number that six Americans have lost their life to the coronavirus and on behalf of the President and all of the American people, we extend our deepest condolences and sympathies to the families of those that were lost.
Mike Pence: (03:43)
Despite today’s sad news, let’s be clear, the risk to the American people of the coronavirus remains low according to all of the experts that we’re working with across the government. And as the President has said, we’re ready for anything, but this is an all hands on deck effort. Today’s activity really reflects the President’s effort to bring the best minds of private industry together, the best leadership from around the country at every level. We had a good meeting this morning with governors from 50 states and three territories. I was able to convey to them the gratitude that the President and our entire administration feels, particularly for governors that are dealing with the coronavirus in their states, those that have taken repatriated personnel. I can say that what I hear from the nation’s governors is that there has been a seamless relationship between all the agencies that the federal government and states thus far and we’re encouraged to hear that. But I told them that we are committed to a full partnership with state governments and to their health officials and to local healthcare providers going forward.
Mike Pence: (05:04)
We also met today with some of the leaders of the top pharmaceutical companies in the country. The President spoke to them not just about vaccines, which many of the companies are already beginning to work on, but just as importantly, the development of therapeutics and it is remarkable to think that there may well be a vaccine going to clinical trials within the next six weeks. The nature of trials as the experts have explained to us is that the vaccine might yet not be available till late this year or early next. But the therapeutics, giving relief to people that contract the coronavirus could literally be available by this summer or early fall. The most encouraging news from that meeting was that our pharmaceutical companies, which are recognized as the greatest in the world, all have already formed a consortium to work together to share information in the development of therapeutics and vaccines. A quick update, yesterday, we were fully implementing the new travel advisories for portions of Italy and South Korea. And the implementation of screening of personnel from across those countries who are trying to take a direct flight to the United States of America.
Mike Pence: (06:27)
I was pleased in the White House task force meeting today to learn that within the next 12 hours there will be 100% screening all direct flights at all airports across Italy and across South Korea. The President has directed us to bring the full resources of the federal government and to bring the very best minds in this country to bear on this effort. And finally, today I’m pleased to welcome to our White House team, a world-renowned global health official and a physician. She will be my right arm through this effort as the President has tasked me to lead the White House response to the coronavirus and I’m grateful that Ambassador Deborah Birx, also Dr. Deborah Birx will be on our team. And even on her first day, she’s already been contributing significantly to our discussions. Dr. Birx serves as the U.S. government’s leader today for combating HIV/AIDS globally and has developed an international reputation as that. She’s a scientist, a physician, someone with three decades of public health expertise including very virulent diseases, vaccines, and has vast experience in inter agency coordination.
Mike Pence: (07:51)
And Dr. Birx and I have talked about the importance of bringing all of these various entities together to bring about President Trump’s vision for a whole of government response to the coronavirus. And so with that, I’d like to recognize Dr. Deborah Birx for a few introductory and welcome remarks and thank you for stepping up one more time to serve our country.
Deborah Birx: (08:14)
Thank you. Thank you Mr. Vice President. It’s a pleasure to be here. I just arrived from South Africa last night. Everybody took great care of being … I had computer and phone in record time. It really shows the level of efficiency and expertise here to really get moving quickly. It’s clear that the early work of the President, both with travel restrictions and the ability to quarantine has bought us this time and space to have this task force be very effective. I have never worked with such incredible scientists and thoughtful policy leaders and I got to spend the day with them. I’m trying to get up to speed as fast as possible and I look forward to the days ahead really working together to end this epidemic. Thank you.
Mike Pence: (08:55)
Great. Secretary Azar.
Secretary Azar: (08:59)
Well, thank you Mr. Vice President. I just want to first start out by saying how delighted we are that Ambassador Birx is going to be leading, coordinating these efforts across the government. Dr. Birx and I go way back, Dr. Birx and basically every leader at the Department of Health and Human Services go way back together, so we already have established relationships and maybe not too way back, right? We already have very established, productive working relationships that I think are going to keep the inter agency process working incredibly smoothly. And as the Vice President said, Dr. Birx already has been asking the right questions and challenging us on all the right scientific and policy matters that we need to focus on. I just want to begin by recapping the current situation that we face with COVID-19. As the Vice President mentioned as of this morning, we have 43 confirmed or presumptive cases of the virus in the United States, excluding our repatriated cases.
Secretary Azar: (09:57)
17 of those cases are travel related in one way or another. 26 are believed to be person to person spread. Because of the President’s strong leadership and all of the hard work that our public health professionals have done at the local, the state, the federal level, the immediate risk to any individual American has been and does continue to be low. But the risk for people with possible exposure to identified cases can be high. What every one of our experts and leaders have been saying for more than a month now remains true. The degree of risk has the potential to change quickly, especially if we see sustained spread of the disease around the world, which could qualify this disease as a pandemic. As Dr. Fauci said this morning, we will see more cases of community spread in the United States. As we’ve emphasized for some time now, we all need to prepare for the potential need, prepare for the worst, hope for the best.
Secretary Azar: (10:59)
In some places we will have to use the range of our mitigation efforts. In fact, we already are working closely with Santa Clara County and the State of Washington and particular King County to assist them in thinking through some of the best practices from our pandemic action plan, as well as learnings from Singapore and Hong Kong around the most effective community mitigation efforts. Such as temporary school closures or even more titrated responses Dr. Schuchat has talked to you about, such as having school but perhaps not having assemblies in school. That’s why the President has taken an unprecedented whole of government approach to protecting the American people, including the steps in the last few days to radically expand and improve the testing that we have and to improve access to respirators needed by healthcare workers. The Vice President, Dr. Schuchat of the C.D.C. and I spoke with basically almost every governor that we have this morning and we greatly appreciate their close cooperation with us. I also wanted to now introduce-
Secretary Azar: (12:03)
I also wanted to now introduce an individual who I asked the vice president to have join this task force because the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services play such a vital role, $1.3 trillion of spending here in the United States, providing healthcare to 60 million American seniors, and as we’ve seen, this disease can have a disproportionate severity impact on the elderly, as well as the medically frail. And so Seema Verma, our administrator, has a very important responsibility with regard to funding of care, whether it’s therapeutics or vaccines or diagnostics for our senior citizens, but also a vital role that you may not know of in regulating long-term care facilities, such as nursing homes and other healthcare facilities. Very important regulatory function, so I’m delighted that Administrator Verma is formally joining the task force.
Secretary Azar: (13:01)
And let me turn it over to Seema now. Seema.
Seema Verma: (13:05)
Thank you, Secretary Azar. For the Trump administration and CMS, patients come first, and the health and the safety and welfare of America’s patients and provider workforce is our highest priority. Let me start with what CMS is, and as the secretary said, we are the nation’s largest insurer, covering over 130 million Americans between Medicare, Medicaid, and the individual insurance market. And some of these are our nation’s most vulnerable populations, those in poverty, the elderly, and children, and so forth. Critically, we do have a regulatory responsibility for pretty much every healthcare institution in America. This includes facilities such as hospitals, critical access hospitals, nursing homes, home health agencies, dialysis facilities, surgery centers, and the list goes on.
Seema Verma: (13:55)
And that gives us a very critical role in addressing the coronavirus. We are responsible for enforcing the quality guidelines based in part on information from partner agents like the CDC. And so let me stress that CMS has longstanding infectious disease policies already in place that we have used effectively for other outbreaks, such as influenza. And so healthcare facilities already have these procedures in place and should be prepared for what they may see. And we’re going to continue to proactively update our regulations. We’re going to be working with CDC. Right now, like I said, those are already in place, and it’s our job to make sure that healthcare facilities are effectively implementing those guidelines, and we will work with the CDC to determine whether we need to update or change those.
Seema Verma: (14:46)
Also, we are looking at what we cover in clarifying the types of products and services that our programs will be able to pay for in terms of Medicaid and Medicare. And with that, I’ll turn it over.
Mike Pence: (14:58)
That’s very good.
Seema Verma: (14:58)
Mike Pence: (15:03)
Thank you, Seema. Thank you for stepping up. I want to recognize a couple other members of our team. Tony Fauci. National Institute of Health. Thank you, doctor.
Tony Fauci: (15:11)
Thank you very much, Mr. Vice President. I just want to make three comments and points. First of all, to underscore what the vice president, and with Secretary Azar said, we had a really extraordinary meeting with the CEOs, a variety of individuals in the pharmaceutical and biotech business, several of whom in the room were people we’re actually already actively collaborating with. And their enthusiasm about getting involved and helping us along with the development of products and the availability of products, be they vaccines, monoclonal antibodies, or therapeutics. It was very gratifying.
Tony Fauci: (15:46)
Second, I’m very pleased that the president and vice president will be visiting the NIH tomorrow. We’re going to have the opportunity to show them firsthand, in real time, the kinds of things that we’re doing. And finally, just one comment about Ambassador Dr. Birx. A couple of people up here have said, you know, I go back a long time with Dr. Birx. Nobody goes back as long as I go with Ambassador Birk. She was actually a fellow in my program as a trainee, and we knew she was a star then, and now what has happened over the years, she’s become a superstar. Together, we saw the first patients with HIV back in the early ’80s. We were involved in a vaccine trial that was the first successful trial with HIV. We’ve known each other through PEPFAR. I had the privilege and the honor, among others, of putting together the PEPFAR program for President Bush, and she was the ambassador in charge of the PEPFAR program, so I can’t tell you how excited I am to finally, once again, get back in being a partner with Debbie Birx.
Debbie Birx: (16:50)
Mike Pence: (16:50)
Great. Thank you, Dr. Fauci. And finally, Dr. Bob Redfield, CDC. Bob.
Bob Redfield: (16:56)
Thank you, Mr. Vice President. What I would like to do is just recognize that CDC continues to work and provide support to really the backbone of our public health system in this nation, which is the state, local, tribal, and territory health departments. And these teams continue to work to identify new cases, isolate and contact trace these, together, to work together to try to limit the transmission of the coronavirus. And working with our public health partners, we continue to be able to identify new community cases, as the secretary said, we always anticipated, and use our public health assets to aggressively, again, confirm those cases, isolate, do contact tracing to use our public health tools to limit the spread of this virus.
Bob Redfield: (17:56)
I want to echo what was said by the vice president and the secretary, that despite seeing these new community cases, that shows you we have a public health community across this country in action. The risk to the American people is low. I also want to add my, looking forward, and I know my entire agency is looking forward to the president and the vice president’s and the secretary’s visit, to come to Atlanta on Friday and get to meet a lot of the wonderful people that form the backbone of this great agency. Thank you.
Mike Pence: (18:29)
Thank you, Bob. We’ll take a few questions. Steve Holland, Reuters. Where are you, Steve?
Steve Holland: (18:35)
Based on what you’ve seen so far, how quickly do you expect this virus to spread throughout the United States?
Mike Pence: (18:44)
Let me, let me refer that to the experts. Go ahead, Bob.
Steve Holland: (18:48)
Are there any details about this cluster in Washington State that [inaudible 00:18:51].
Bob Redfield: (18:52)
I think the important thing is, the secretary has said, from the beginning, we’ve anticipated to see community cases pop up, and now we have a number of new community cases, which the health departments are aggressively evaluating, to see if they can understand the linkage, who are the contacts, how is this virus spreading. And I think the American public should rest assured, we have one of the finest public health programs in the world, when you look at the state and local, territorial. So we’re going to continue to see these cases as a consequence of them doing their job. And we’re going to use the public health strategies that we can to limit that transmission.
Bob Redfield: (19:31)
And I think we should focus on that right now. We’re still working very hard and trying to contain these community outbreaks, but as the secretary has said, we are blending that now with various strategic mitigation strategies.
Mike Pence: (19:44)
Tony Fauci: (19:46)
Just to underscore something I said the other day, there are two aspects of this. It’s about cases coming in, and then controlling the situation of the spread of what’s already in here. And there are two things that are going on. It’s the kind of restrictions of travel to areas where there are hotspots in the rest of the world. Just like the original inhibition of travel here with China, I think is going to mitigate against the question of the wider spread.
Tony Fauci: (20:11)
And the contact tracing and the isolation that’s very aggressively going on. I mean, we hope, you can never predict 100% of anything. But I think what’s going on right now with the CDC, and particularly, the state and local health authorities is going to really, I think, get us through this.
Mike Pence: (20:28)
Steve, it’s something I learned along the way is that when we have cases that emerge, state and local health officials are in the lead, but CDC is on the ground immediately, helping to identify how that might have originated with that individual, to find out any other people that they’ve been exposed to. But we know there will be more cases. President initially took unprecedented action to do all that we could to prevent the coronavirus from coming into the country, and now we’re focused on mitigation of the spread, as well as treatment of the people that are affected.
Mike Pence: (21:04)
Kristin Fisher. Kristin Fisher here? Oh, she walked out? Let me go, let me go with Hallie Jackson.
Hallie Jackson: (21:12)
Thank you. Two questions for you, sir, and if anybody else wants to jump in. Number one, President Trump hinted today at the potential for new travel restrictions on top of what we’re already seeing, related to Italy, South Korea, China, Iran. Can you elaborate on specifically what countries you’re looking at? Is Germany, for example, which has seen some cases of community spread, is that on the table? And then I have a follow-up, as well.
Mike Pence: (21:33)
The president is very clear. We’re going to follow the facts and listen to the experts every step of the way. The action the president authorized this weekend, raising the travel advisory. The American people should know that we are saying that you should not travel to certain sections of Italy or South Korea. Those advisories may expand, but we’ll allow the caseload in those countries to define that. In addition to that, by establishing the screening protocol, which will be in full force and effect within the next 12 hours, in both countries, will ensure that anyone traveling on a direct flight to the United States of America receives multiple screenings at all airports in Italy and South Korea.
Mike Pence: (22:23)
But, to your point, the nature of the European Union is one doesn’t require a passport to move around, so our task force spoke today about new cases, and there were some in several European countries. We’re following that very closely, and again, we’ll listen to the experts. We’ll watch the cases, and I know the president will make the decisions with regard to both travel advisories or restrictions on the basis of those facts.
Hallie Jackson: (22:54)
And my second question, sir, is just on the word pandemic. Do you, do your experts behind you here, do you consider this now a pandemic in all but designation only?
Mike Pence: (23:03)
I would just refer to the experts that, our view is that would be for the World Health Organization to define, and our team, our task force team, was in touch with the World Health Organization today.
Secretary Azar: (23:15)
Do you want me to mention that?
Mike Pence: (23:17)
Let me let the secretary address that. But this isn’t so much about semantics. I think our briefing today was we’re in more than 60 countries at this point. And so, we’re going to continue to focus on ensuring that we do all we can to prevent people coming into the country with the disease, to mitigate any spread of the disease once we identify cases, and of course, to provide treatment. Did you want to speak to that?
Secretary Azar: (23:43)
You bet, Mr. Vice President. I spoke with Dr. Tedros today, and Dr. Mike Ryan, the incident manager for the World Health Organization, about this precise question, because wanted to get a sense of their thinking, how they’re assessing the designation of pandemic status. And I’ll let them fully speak for themselves, but at the moment, while we’re seeing community spreading in multiple-
Speaker 1: (24:03)
And while we’re seeing community spreading in multiple regions of the world, there are many definitions that people use around pandemic. And one issue that the WHO is focused on is just sheer magnitude. And while we’ve had very large numbers of cases and spreading within China, the actual absolute number of cases outside of China, while reflecting community spreading, are not of the magnitude comparable to any other pandemics that had been declared before. For instance, even the H1N1 where you have billions of individuals infected across the world. So that’s how they are thinking about this. And we’re just going to keep working with them. We don’t have a view as to whether they should designate it a pandemic or not a pandemic. I made that very clear. I just wanted to get a sense how they’re thinking about it and assessing it, and that’s, I think, reflective of their current thinking there. But I’ll let them, I asked them if they could put out some points about how they’re assessing this stuff.
Speaker 2: (25:00)
Can you take a follow up to that?
Mike Pence: (25:00)
Good answer. Good answer. Hang on. How about Ben with ABC, where are you Ben? Go ahead.
On screening passengers from Italy and South Korea. What exactly would that screening look like? Is that people taking temperatures? Is that every single passenger? Who will be conducting it, and will it be expanded to other countries? And then how many number … how many tests have been conducted? Last week I believe Secretary Azar said there were 3,600. What’s an update on that?
Mike Pence: (25:27)
Well, let me just … Our State Department and an interagency group has worked out that arrangement with both Italy and South Korea. South Korea actually about three hours ago fully implemented the screening on all direct flights, all airports. And as I mentioned, within the next 12 hours or so Italy will have implemented the same thing. It will be multiple temperature checks in the airports for people before they are boarding. And we’re working very closely to assist them in implementing that.
Mike Pence: (26:10)
But let me speak about … yeah, Doctor Hahn can speak to you about the status of tests because one of the things I heard from governors last week was the whole issue of of test kits, the availability of testing, and I really want to commend Doctor Hahn and the FDA for some very swift work, making many more tests available, more kits that include multiple tests, and also authorizing local testing, which will now make it more possible, as our experts told us, to identify additional cases. As we find more cases, it will mean our health officials are doing their job in large part, and the availability of those tests will contribute to that.
Dr. Hahn: (26:57)
As you heard from the Secretary and the Vice President this weekend, we had the capacity in state public health labs to perform between 75,000 and 100,000 tests. On Saturday we issued a new policy allowing us to have some flexibility, regulatory flexibility, around the development of those tests, so academic centers, private companies can develop these tests, tell us that they validated those tests, and then begin to use them. They alert us of that, and then later on within 15 days we can look at the validation data. They’re having the responsibility to show the validation of those tests. With this new policy we’ve heard from multiple companies and multiple academic centers, and we expect to have a substantial increase in the number of tests this week, next week, and throughout the month. There’ll be a sig- the estimates that we’re getting from industry right now, by the end of this week, close to a million tests will be able to be performed.
Okay. Real quick follow up with the list and we’re talking about risk and you guys came out and said that, well, risk is low, but with so few tests being done and the incubation rate being as much as two weeks, how can we accurately say that the risk is low at this point? We haven’t put out a million tests. [inaudible 00:28:07].
Dr. Fauci: (28:11)
If you talk about the entire country, the whole 360 million people in this country, the risk is a low risk. I think the point you’re making is that since we haven’t done yet, but will happen really soon, the testing into the community, how do we know the risk is low? I would imagine it’s still going to be low regardless of that. What happens in real time, which is the reason why we do this so frequently, is that things can change. But right now, today, on this day, Monday, if you look at the country as a whole, the risk is low.
Speaker 3: (28:47)
All right, guys, last question.
Mike Pence: (28:47)
We’ve got one more. Ashley. Go right ahead, Ashley.
Families across the country are worried about spring break, they’re worried about spring break and wondering if they should book travel or cancel their travel. It’s sort of two parts. One is what is the expert opinion from the task force on sort of spring break travel and even domestic travel? And secondly, would you yourself feel comfortable bringing your family right now, including your three grandchildren and their partners, on a week-long trip to Disney World?
Mike Pence: (29:13)
Well, I can say there’s been no recommendation about any limitations on travel within the United States of America. But let me let the experts speak to recommendations with regard to travel. You want to get that?
Would you feel comfortable bringing-
Mike Pence: (29:30)
I travel across this country all the time. My kids live all over the country. Look, this is a time to use common sense. It’s a good time to wash your hands and, but this time of year, that’s always a good decision. But as we said, the risk remains low. And while we’ve had a tragic losses, four today, the reality is, as I said, 29 of the 43 domestic cases are in California and in Washington State and are centered in very specific areas that we’re working to identify the source on. But I don’t, I think people should just continue to use common sense this time of year. But with regard to international travel, let me yield to the expert.
Dr. Redfield: (30:21)
Well, I just want to echo what the Vice President said, that we want people to go about and live their normal lives in this nation right now. The Secretary’s right, even before the coronavirus, if you had asked CDC what you should do about preparedness, we would give that every individual should think ahead and prepare. Whether it’s a hurricane. Those recommendations haven’t changed. And I really want people to reflect that. In going to, you’re allowed, there’s no travel restrictions in the United States.
Dr. Redfield: (30:53)
The CDC and the State Department and the task force have worked hard to recognize those areas where there’s significant community transmission, where we give you advice that we would recommend you not travel there. And you know that China is that. We now have South Korea as a level three. We have Italy, Japan and Iran as level three travel advisories, which we would ask you to reconsider those travel plans. But in the United States there’s no travel restrictions. I want to echo again what everyone said. The risk to the American public at this point is low. We are going to increase substantially surveillance similar to what we do for flu. We have multiple different surveillance systems with Doctor Hahn and the FDA getting more and more tests out. Those surveillance systems are going to be activated in the near future. And we’ll have eyes on whether there is any significant new evidence of community pockets around this nation.
Mike Pence: (31:53)
Ashley, with regard to international travel. We just, we’ll continue to monitor the cases. We’ll follow the facts, the experts in the science, and determine whether additional travel advisories or restrictions are warranted. That being said, folks, we’re going to slip out. We will be back. Let me tell you, we will be back here. If I may. We’ll be back here every day. Get used to seeing us. We’re going to bring the experts in. We’re going to make sure and give you the best and most high quality real time information from the best people in the world. So thank you all for being here.
Speaker 4: (32:32)
Thank you. You’re welcome back any time.
Speaker 4: (32:34)