Vice President Mike Pence will be the White House point person quarterbacking the administration’s response to COVID-19, although President Donald Trump was quick to dismiss the notion that he is a so-called coronavirus “czar.”
President Trump introduced Vice President Pence in this role during a Feb. 26 press conference. The same night, officials at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention announced the first case of possible community spread of the novel coronavirus in the United States.
“I am going to be putting our vice president, Mike Pence, in charge, and Mike will be working with the professionals, the doctors, and everybody else that is working” on this, President Trump said.
“Mike is going to be in charge and Mike will report back to me, but he’s got a certain talent for this,” President Trump continued, noting that while Vice President Pence was governor of Indiana, his was the first state to have a patient affected by the 2014 Middle East Respiratory Syndrome coronavirus (MERS-CoV) outbreak, so he has experience in a similar situation.
“I know full well the importance of presidential leadership, the importance of administration leadership, and the vital role of partnerships of state and local governments and health authorities in responding to the potential threat of dangerous infectious diseases,” Vice President Pence said.
He said that his role will be to continue to meet with the Coronavirus Task Force and bring to the president “the best options for action and to see to the safety and well being and health of the American people. I will also be continuing to reach out to governors [and] state and local officials.”
Vice President Pence said he will also be working with Congress to ensure that resources are available.
It was noted during the press conference that some members of Congress consider the $2.5 billion in emergency appropriations requested by the White House to be inadequate and that the legislative branch is working to provide more funding.
Vice President Pence’s new role does not change the command structure of the Coronavirus Task Force, which is currently led by Department of Health & Human Services Secretary Alex Azar.
Speaking at the press conference, Secretary Azar noted that he is still chairman of the task force. “Having the vice president gives me the biggest stick one can have in the government on this whole-of-government approach.”
He emphatically stated, “not in the least,” in response to a question about whether he felt he was being replaced. “When this was mentioned to me, I said I was delighted that I get to have the vice president helping in this way. Delighted.”
The announcement came as President Trump continued to downplay the threat of the coronavirus to U.S. citizens, going so far as to contradict CDC officials who have stated that it is a matter of when, not if, there will be community spread in the United States.
“I don’t think it’s inevitable,” President Trump said. “I think that there’s a chance that it could get worse. There’s a chance it could get fairly substantially worse, but nothing’s inevitable.”
Immediately after President Trump wrapped up his statement, however, the CDC formally announced the first case of possible community spread of the coronavirus. In a statement issued to the press, the agency announced the 15th confirmed case in the United States, a person in California “who reportedly did not have relevant travel history or exposure to another known patient” with the coronavirus.
“This case was detected through the U.S. public health system – picked up by astute clinicians,” CDC added, noting it will continue to provide updates on the evolving situation.