Health and Science

White House says U.S. is prepared for surge as CDC warns of accelerating Covid deaths

Key Points
  • Vice President Mike Pence sought to reassure Americans on Thursday evening that the country is "prepared" to handle the worsening coronavirus outbreak.
  • The event at the White House marked the first press briefing from the coronavirus task force since July.
  • But the presentation from the White House appears out of step with messaging from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
U.S. Vice President Mike Pence stands in front of a map of the United States indicating the spread of coronavirus disease (COVID-19) portrayed as new cases per 100,000 population as Pence leads a briefing by the White House coronavirus task force in the Brady press briefing room at the White House in Washington, U.S., November 19, 2020.
Leah Millis | Reuters

Vice President Mike Pence sought to reassure Americans on Thursday evening that the country is "prepared" to handle the coronavirus outbreak even as the nation's top health agency warns that new deaths caused by Covid-19 are accelerating into the winter.

The event at the White House marked the first press briefing from the coronavirus task force since July, as well as the first such briefing since Covid-19 cases surged to their highest-ever levels in the United States. The U.S. reported more than 170,100 new cases of the virus on Wednesday, the second-highest one-day spike reported to date, according to data compiled by Johns Hopkins University.

As of Wednesday, more than 79,400 people nationwide were hospitalized with Covid-19, more than at any other point during the pandemic, according to data compiled by the COVID Tracking Project, which is run by journalists at The Atlantic. Hospitals in some parts of the country are overwhelmed, moving to surge capacity to provide care to as many patients as possible.

Pence, who officially leads the task force, and other officials at the briefing repeatedly assured Americans that the U.S. is well equipped to combat the crisis.

'Never been more prepared'

"America has never been more prepared to combat this virus than we are today," Pence said at the beginning of the briefing. "Our pledge to each and every American looking on today is we're going to work around the clock to keep it that way."

While Pence acknowledged the rising number of infections and hospitalizations across the country, he focused instead on the positive vaccine developments in recent weeks, saying that the country could have one or more safe and effective vaccine "in a short period of time."

"We're getting there, America," Pence said. 

Members of the task force, including coordinator Dr. Deborah Birx and Dr. Anthony Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, presented on varying aspects of the outbreak.

Birx, who wore a mask as she spoke, noted that cases are rising more rapidly than at any time before in the outbreak, but added that "we do know what to do." She called on Americans to "remain vigilant" and follow public health precautions such as wearing a mask and practicing physical distancing.

She added that about half of people admitted to hospitals across the country are between the ages of 40 and 69, while half are above the age of 70, putting them at increased risk of death. Though Pence noted that the country has "decreased the fatality rate by more than 70%" in those over the age of 70 compared with April, when the U.S. reported more than 2,000 deaths on a number of days.

Fauci also urged Americans to take precautions as they await vaccines.

"Now I've used that metaphor that the cavalry is on the way. If you're fighting a battle, and the cavalry is on the way, you don't stop shooting," Fauci said. "You keep going until the cavalry gets here and then you might even want to continue fighting."

Dr. Robert Redfield, director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, said, "we are seeing the light at the end of the tunnel," referring to vaccines. But he echoed Fauci and Birx's points that now is the time for "Americans to redouble their efforts to be vigilant."

He added that it's important to make data-informed decisions, especially when considering more restrictions on businesses and society. For example, he said the data show that K-12 schools can responsibly and safely operate with in-person learning. He said "small family gatherings" are driving much of the outbreak.

'With God's help'

But neither Pence nor any other member of the task force took questions after the lengthy briefing, and President Donald Trump, who once regularly led the briefings, did not appear.

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"We are rounding the corner to that day that we have a vaccine," Pence said before encouraging Americans to continue to take precautions, such as wearing masks and maintaining social distance.

"I know that with the cooperation of the American people, with our incredible doctors and nurses and first responders, with the extraordinary partnership of federal and state and local health officials, and with God's help, we will get through this, and we will get through this together," Pence said.

He then turned and left the room, followed by the other White House officials, all of whom neglected a bombardment of questions being shouted by the pandemic-limited number of journalists allowed in the area.

"Are you really not going to take questions?" yelled one reporter as Pence departed. "What is going on?" another shouted.

CDC is 'alarmed'

The presentation from the White House appears out of step with messaging from the CDC. Earlier Thursday, the agency broke its silence, holding a rare news briefing in which Dr. Henry Walke, the CDC's Covid-19 incident manager, said "we're alarmed" about the state of the U.S. outbreak. He added that the nation is seeing an "exponential increase in cases and hospitalizations and deaths."

The CDC updated its forecast for Covid-19 deaths earlier this week to say that "newly reported COVID-19 deaths will likely increase over the next four weeks, with 7,300 to 16,000 new deaths likely to be reported in the week ending December 12, 2020."

In a worst-case scenario, that could mean more than 2,000 deaths per day by mid-December. In the best-case CDC estimate, that would mean the country continues to report more than 1,000 deaths per day.

Trump has been virtually silent on the rising threat of the virus since well before the Nov. 3 election between him and President-elect Joe Biden. As temperatures dropped and cases swelled across the nation, Trump continued to hold in-person, large-scale campaign rallies before thousands of his supporters in a series of key swing states.

During the final suite of rallies in those states, Trump spent relatively little time discussing the pandemic that had engulfed the final year of his presidency, other than to assure that vaccines would soon be on their way.

Since Election Day, Trump has not publicly taken questions from reporters and has made few on-camera appearances.

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