The Trump administration’s coronavirus response coordinator, appearing at the White House with other top federal health officials for the first time in months, issued a dire assessment of the pandemic Thursday, along with an urgent warning for Americans to “increase their vigilance” as they await the approval of a vaccine.
Dr. Deborah L. Birx made the remarks after the White House coronavirus task force met with Vice President Mike Pence — who offered a far rosier assessment as he defended the administration’s handling of a pandemic that has now claimed more than 250,000 lives in the United States, and killed nearly 2,000 Americans on Wednesday alone.
“America has never been more prepared to combat this virus than we are today,” Pence declared, adding: “We approach this moment with the confidence of experience. We know the American people know what to do.”
The late-afternoon news conference, in the White House briefing room, came after President-elect Joe Biden denounced President Donald Trump’s “incredible irresponsibility” in contesting the results of the presidential election and delaying the beginning of a transition process. Biden singled out the administration’s refusal to grant his team access to its planning for vaccine distribution.
Calling the vaccine distribution effort “one of the greatest operational challenges we will have faced as a nation,” Biden said, “There is no excuse not to share the data and let us begin to plan.”
The White House briefing offered a stark reminder of the toll the pandemic has taken on the nation and of vast disconnect between Trump and Pence and the federal health officials who advise them. Even as Birx implored Americans to wear masks — and stood at the lectern wearing one as she spoke — Pence greeted reporters with his face uncovered.
Birx, who has a penchant for data, came armed with sobering statistics. Flipping through a series of charts, she displayed a map of the United States that was a vast expanse of bright red — a signal that the entire country, with the exception of the East and West coasts, is being crushed by the virus.
The briefing, nine months into the pandemic, amounted to a full-court press by an administration that, despite its success in helping develop two promising vaccine candidates, has been knocked back on its heels by the virus.
A string of top officials appeared, including Dr. Anthony Fauci, the government’s top infectious disease specialist; Health Secretary Alex M. Azar II; Dr. Robert R. Redfield, the director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention; Gen. Gustave F. Perna, who is coordinating logistics for the vaccine effort; and Dr. Elinore F. McCance-Katz, the head of the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Administration. (Dr. Scott Atlas, Trump’s lightning rod coronavirus adviser, was not, however, in evidence.)
Fauci sought to reassure Americans about the two vaccines nearing approval, saying that neither scientific integrity nor safety had been compromised. “We need to put to rest any concept that this was rushed in an inappropriate way,” he said. “This is really solid.”
Turner pledged that the government would begin distributing the vaccines within 24 hours after they receive emergency approval from the Federal Drug Administration. He did not mention that the doses will be scarce at first, and that the vaccines do not take effect right away.
One of the vaccine developers, Moderna, has said it will have 20 million doses ready by the end of 2020; the other, Pfizer, said it would have about 50 million by then — half for Americans. Both vaccines require two shots, so 20 million doses would be enough for 10 million people.