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Trump names Mike Pence to coordinate US response to coronavirus

President Trump and Vice President Mike Pence listened during a press briefing Wednesday in the White House.
President Trump and Vice President Mike Pence listened during a press briefing Wednesday in the White House.Tasos Katopodis/Getty Images/Getty Images

WASHINGTON — President Trump on Wednesday named Vice President Mike Pence to coordinate the government’s response to the coronavirus, and he repeatedly played down the danger to the United States of a widespread domestic outbreak of the virus that is rapidly spreading across the globe.

Trump’s announcement, at a White House news conference, followed criticism that the administration’s response has been sluggish and comes after two days of contradictory messages about the virus, which has infected more than 81,000 people globally, killing nearly 3,000. The president expressed confidence that scientists would develop a vaccine, but he provided no details.

“The risk to the American people remains very low,” he said. “We have the greatest experts, really in the world, right here. We’re ready to adapt and we’re ready to do whatever we have to as the disease spreads, if it spreads.”

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But top health care experts standing by the president’s side offered a much more sober assessment of the future risks to the health of Americans. Dr. Anne Schuchat, the principal deputy director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, warned Americans there would be more infections.

“Our aggressive containment strategy here in the United States has been working and is responsible for the low levels of cases that we have so far. However, we do expect more cases,” she said, insisting as Trump stood behind her: “The trajectory of what we’re looking at over the weeks and months ahead is very uncertain.”

Moments later, Trump contradicted that line, telling reporters that “I don’t think it’s inevitable.”

He left the door open to travel restrictions beyond China, to other hard-hit countries such as South Korea and Italy.

Earlier in the day, Trump condemned the news media, accusing journalists of making the situation “look as bad as possible” even as government health experts warned that the coronavirus threat in the United States is only beginning.

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Shortly after Trump’s briefing, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention identified a 60th case in the US. A person in California who was not exposed to anyone infected with the coronavirus, and had not traveled to countries in which the virus is circulating, tested positive for the infection. It may be the first case of community spread here in the United States, the CDC said.

“At this point, the patient’s exposure is unknown,” the CDC statement said. “The case was detected through the US public health system and picked up by astute clinicians.”

The politics of coronavirus shifted drastically on Tuesday when Dr. Nancy Messonnier, the director of the CDC’s National Center for Immunization and Respiratory Diseases, told reporters that “it’s not so much of a question of if this will happen anymore but rather more of a question of exactly when this will happen.” She said that hospitals and schools should begin preparing for an outbreak.

That message contrasted reassuring tweets from Trump, who has been reluctant to give in to what he considers an “alarmist” view about the virus, an administration official said. The president has repeatedly said that, like the flu, the new coronavirus will dissipate with warmer, more humid weather. Trump’s aides say he has focused on that possibility since he was first briefed on the virus, even though officials have warned him that relatively little is known about the virus, and it may not behave as others do.

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The possibility of the virus spreading in the United States comes as the administration grapples with budget cuts and personnel moves that critics say have weakened the system for dealing with such health crises.

The White House in 2018 eliminated a dedicated position on the National Security Council to coordinate pandemic response, the same year that the Trump administration narrowed its epidemiological work to 10 countries from 49.

In November, a task force at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, which included five current and former Republican senators and House members, warned that “the United States remains woefully ill prepared to respond to global health security threats” and recommended the reinstatement of an NSC coordinator and a recommitment of funding and attention to global health programs.

Instead, the president’s budget request this month for the fiscal year that begins in October would cut the CDC’s budget by almost 16 percent, and the Health and Human Services Department’s by almost 10 percent.

The proposal’s $3 billion in cuts to global health programs included a 53 percent cut to the World Health Organization and a 75 percent cut to the Pan American Health Organization.

It has fallen to Alex M. Azar II, the health and human services secretary, to make the case that the government is up to the task of containing the virus as anxiety grew around the world about vulnerability to a still-mysterious affliction that does not respect international borders.

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New cases popped up across Europe, dozens of infections in Iran raised fears of an unbridled spread through the Middle East, and the first confirmed case was reported in Latin America — a Brazilian man who had returned from Italy just as Brazil is in the midst of its Carnival celebrations.

For the first time, more new cases were reported outside China — where the outbreak began two months ago — than inside, according to figures from the World Health Organization.

Trump has privately expressed frustration to numerous officials about his administration’s efforts confront the virus, and has discussed appointing a “czar” to manage the response, according to someone familiar with his comments.

As recently as last weekend, the president grew furious that he had been sidelined from a decision to return some Americans infected with the virus to the United States, and he made his anger to Azar known.

Officials in the White House have since wrestled with how best to present Trump with information during a fast-moving situation, one aide said.

Trump’s attempts to calm the American public have also occasionally been laced with a degree of alarm, with Trump telling reporters at a news conference in India on Tuesday that “there’s a very good chance you’re not going to die.”

For a second day, Azar was on Capitol Hill Wednesday defending his work, telling lawmakers that he was overseeing “the smoothest interagency process I’ve experienced in my 20 years of dealing with public health emergencies.”

But on Wednesday, he faced bipartisan concern about the administration’s $2.5 billion request for additional funding.

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Lawmakers from both parties have said the White House request is far short of what is needed and relies on the transfer of existing funds — including $535 million intended to counter the spread of the Ebola virus.

Senator Chuck Schumer of New York, the Democratic leader, proposed on Wednesday to increase the president’s emergency request drastically, to $8.5 billion in new funds.

Lawmakers have expressed alarm that the Trump administration has yet to appoint a czar-like position at the White House, which President Barack Obama did in 2014 to handle the Ebola virus.

“This is probably something that justifies having one person in the government who can work cross the various departments and agencies,” Senator Mitt Romney, a Utah Republican, said.

Ronald Klain, who held the Ebola position in the Obama White House, said: “One Cabinet secretary cannot run an interagency response. Azar has the biggest civilian job in the American government. Is he doing this in his spare time?”