WASHINGTON – Vice President Mike Pence on Sunday implored Americans to wear face masks, practice social distancing and stay away from senior citizens protect them amid a new spike in coronavirus infections, as the United States surpassed 2.5 million confirmed cases.
At an event in Dallas, Pence commended Texas Gov. Greg Abbott, a Republican, for his “decisive action” in reopening the state’s economy in early May. But with the state’s hospitals experiencing a surge in patients amid skyrocketing infection rates, Pence praised Abbott for scaling back some reopening measures, including ordering bars to close and restaurants to reduce occupancy.
The virus has killed more than 123,000 people in the United States, and U.S. cases make up by far the largest share of the worldwide caseload. In Texas, coronavirus-related hospitalizations reached a record high for the 16th day in a row on Saturday, with 5,523 patients being treated.
“It’s a good time to steer clear of senior citizens and to practice the kind of measures that will keep our most vulnerable safe,” Pence said at the University of Texas Southwestern Medical Center, where he was joined by Abbott, White House coronavirus response coordinator Deborah Birx and Housing and Urban Development Secretary Ben Carson.
All four were wearing masks as they entered and left the briefing room, a striking contrast with the image Trump administration officials have presented in recent months. Members of the White House coronavirus task force have typically not worn masks and have stood near one another at media briefings, and President Donald Trump has frequently ridiculed reporters and others who have worn face coverings during the pandemic.
Earlier Sunday, a “Celebrate Freedom” rally Pence attended at First Baptist Church in Dallas featured a large choir that did not wear masks while singing, despite evidence that some choir practices have served as “superspreader” events.
Members of the choir put on their masks after they finished singing, and about two-third of attendees were wearing masks during the event, though many were sitting side-by-side in the pews. Face coverings and social distancing were urged but not required.
As he opened Sunday’s news conference, Abbott defended his decision to reopen the state – as well as his abrupt reversal.
“Families need to put food on the table. They need to pay rent. . . . We know that we can do both – continue to allow businesses to open while containing the coronavirus. But it does require all Texans to go back to those strategies that we mastered,” including wearing masks and maintaining good hygiene, Abbott said. He added: “If you don’t need to get out, there’s no reason to go out at this particular time.”
As other Trump administration officials have done in recent days, Birx sought to put a positive spin on the situation facing the country, noting that the United States has “additional tools that we didn’t have just two months ago,” including various therapeutics and knowledge of social distancing measures.
The event comes as Arizona, Florida and Texas have emerged as the country’s latest epicenters after reporting record numbers of new infections for weeks. It also comes as some testing centers in those states have become overwhelmed by an influx of patients, with residents reportedly waiting several hours in their cars or on foot receive a test.
The campaign of presumptive Democratic presidential nominee Joe Biden criticized Pence’s trip, saying in a statement that his decision to go ahead with events in Texas “epitomizes the dismissive attitude this administration has taken in addressing this crisis from the onset.”
“Our leaders should be tackling this pandemic head on and laying out concrete recovery plans for the American people – not jet setting across the country to hold events that go against basic public health guidance,” Kate Bedingfield, Biden’s deputy campaign manager, said in the statement.
Meanwhile, Pence’s spokeswoman, Katie Miller, appeared to dispute reports that the vice president would cancel upcoming trips to Arizona and Florida over virus concerns, saying on Twitter that Pence will still travel to both states this week.
Trump remained largely out of the public eye on Sunday, spending the day at Trump National Golf Club in Sterling, Va., where Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., was among the president’s guests.
On the morning news shows, Pence and Health and Human Services Secretary Alex Azar defended Trump’s claim that increased testing is to blame for the recent surge in coronavirus cases.
In an interview on CBS News’s “Face the Nation,” Pence was asked about Trump’s statement at a rally in Oklahoma this month that when more coronavirus tests are conducted, “you’re going to find more cases.” Pence replied by disputing that Trump’s comments were effectively undermining Americans’ confidence in testing.
“I think it’s inarguable that the historic increase in testing that we’ve accomplished in this country has played a role in the new cases, particularly among younger Americans,” Pence said.
Azar said on CNN’s “State of the Union” that “the surveillance and testing is actually bringing out this information” about the recent spike in cases and acknowledged that “the window is closing for us to take action and get this under control.”
But he also appeared to play down the significance of the surge, saying it includes “younger and asymptomatic cases in many instances” and disputing the notion that it is related to states reopening their economies too quickly.
“It is not really about reopening,” Azar told host Jake Tapper. “We can and we have to get back to work, back to school and back to health care. . . . And if we act irresponsibly, if we don’t social distance, if we don’t use face coverings in settings where we can’t social distance, if we don’t practice appropriate personal hygiene, we’re going to see spread of disease.”
Despite the comments about testing by Trump and members of his administration, the numbers paint a different picture. In some states, the average number of new cases has increased while the average number of tests has gone down. In others, the number of new cases is increasing at a higher rate than the number of tests. And in others, such as New York, cases of the disease are going down while the number of tests has continued to rise.
While Azar put the onus on individuals to behave in ways that help slow the spread of the novel coronavirus, some Democrats on Sunday called for the federal government to do more.
House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., said in an interview on ABC News’s “This Week” that the wearing of masks should be mandatory nationwide, arguing that it is “long overdue for that.”
“My understanding [is] that the Centers for Disease Control has recommended the use of masks but not . . . required it, because they don’t want to offend the president,” she added. “And the president should be an example. You know, real men wear masks.”
As cases of the virus surge in parts of the country, testing centers have been overwhelmed with an influx of patients, leading to long wait times and huge lines.
The Texas Tribune reported over the weekend that several problems have plagued the state’s testing program. Many people have been waiting in long lines, the newspaper reported, and some sites have closed early. Video footage shared on social media by Houston Chronicle reporter Alex Stuckey shows throngs of people crowded in huge lines for testing.
The Miami Herald reported that some people waited up to four hours for a swab in Miami Beach last week. In Phoenix, patients waited up to 13 hours for a test last week, and some were turned away because of a shortage of tests, the Arizona Republic reported.
Tom Frieden, a former director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, warned Sunday that the outbreaks in states that eased restrictions – and have since reinstated many of them – will continue to worsen in the next few weeks because such figures tend to lag.
Frieden also pushed back against Trump’s claim that increased testing is the reason for the spikes, telling Fox News Channel’s Chris Wallace that the positive cases identified through testing are only “a tip of the iceberg.”
“As a doctor, a scientist, an epidemiologist, I can tell you with 100% certainty that in most states where you’re seeing an increase, it is a real increase,” Frieden said on “Fox News Sunday.” “It is not more tests. It is more spread of the virus.”
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The Washington Post’s Karen DeYoung, Rachael Bade, Meryl Kornfield and Philip Bump contributed to this report.