With the James S. Brady Press Briefing room at the White House full of correspondents, President Donald Trump replaced Vice President Mike Pence as the opening speaker at a briefing by the Coronavirus Task Force. The briefing had only been announced earlier in the afternoon of the same day.
Trump’s role was a last-minute change. Reporters had watched as the vice presidential seal was attached to the lectern while the flag of the vice president was put on display across from the U.S. flag, framing the White House plaque that acts as a backdrop on the briefing room stage. Shortly thereafter, however, the vice president’s official trappings were taken down. Not long after, the presidential seal and flag were installed, showing that Trump had decided to open the meeting himself.
The president was flanked by nearly all of the members of the Task Force, who crowded the tiny stage en masse.
Trump opened the briefing by telling reporters that “we are seeing the Senate tomorrow” to discuss a wide range of economic measures that need to be taken to mitigate effects from the coronavirus.
Of those, a “very substantial” payroll tax cut will be discussed as a measure to offset financial losses from the virus.
The issue of hourly wage earners in particular is being discussed. The president said it’s important that hourly workers be in a position where “they won’t have to miss a paycheck.”
“They shouldn’t get penalized for something that’s not their fault, not this country’s fault,” Trump said, in a clear swipe at China. The Chinese government has been blamed for allowing the disease to reach pandemic levels through its initial refusal to acknowledge doctors’ warnings in Wuhan that a new coronavirus strain was making people sick.
To drive home the virus’ origins, some of Trump’s fellow Republicans – including Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, Senator Tom Cotton, and Representative Paul Gosar — call it the “Wuhan virus,” to the chagrin of critics who say the term stigmatizes people from Wuhan and Chinese in general.
At the press conference, Trump also said that the Task Force is working on a plan to support small businesses through Small Business Administration (SBA) loans created for the task.
Saying that “we want people to travel to certain locations and not to others,” the president said that the Task Force is meeting directly with the airline and cruise ship industries, and to some extent with the hotel industry, on issues related to the spread of the virus.
“The main thing,” the president said, “is we’re taking care of the American public.”
Perhaps not surprisingly, Pence credits the president’s “unprecedented” actions in January, including border closures, travel advisories, and screenings, with having bought the United States a considerable amount of time to prepare for the virus.
Pence stressed, as he has in the past, that “the risk of contracting [the new virus] remains low, and the risk of serious disease also remains low.”
He also announced that the “whole-of-America approach” is seeing pharmaceutical companies already working on therapeutics that will “bring relief to people who contract the virus.”
Critically, the commercial labs, such as LabCorps and Quest, have already taken a test for the virus forward, “and are taking that to market, effective today,” Pence said.
The president, he said, has also met with the CEOs of hospitals and health insurance companies as part of the economic package that is being built and which will be announced March 10.
In addition, the Task Force engaged in a conference call today with 47 of America’s governors.
They confirmed with the governors that “testing is now available in all state labs.”
In fact, over 1 million tests have been distributed, and “another four million will be distributed by the end of this week,” Pence said. The Trump administration has faced criticism for an initial shortage in testing capabilities.
That testing capacity and availability will see a “dramatic increase” with the deployment of the commercial labs.
Dr. Deborah Birx, who was appointed to the Task Force in late February, said that they had outlined community guidance designed to inform people in practical but detailed ways how to keep safe at home, at work, at school, and in public areas and institutions.
This information can be found on the website www.coronavirus.gov. People are urged to read and follow the guidelines.
We believe, she said that “communities are at the center” of the prevention efforts.
Dr. Anthony Fauci, another member of the Task Force, noted that “these [recommendations] are really simple low-tech things, there’s nothing in there that’s complicated.”
Asked if the president had been tested, Pence said he didn’t know, but would find out. He did confirm that he himself has not been tested.
It was also announced that the Grand Princess cruise ship docked Monday afternoon in Oakland, California.
All 25 children on board have been found to be healthy. The 21 people who have tested positive for the disease are all in proper isolation.
By the end of Monday, all California passengers were to be moved to Travis Air Force Base for quarantine. At the same time, Canadians are being readied to return home charter flight; other foreign citizens will be similarly returned to their home countries.
The remaining American passengers will be sent to Georgia and Texas; all will be tested.
The crew of the Grand Princess will be quarantined onboard, the Task Force said.
Turning to the economy, Secretary of the Treasury Steve Mnuchin said that yesterday’s stock market decline was due to an “unprecedented move in the oil markets.”
All in all, Mnuchin said that the United States “has the most resilient economy in the world.”
Not only that, he said, “We are committed that whatever support we need to provide to the U.S. economy, we will use all the tools” available.
“There are parts of the economy that are going to be impacted,” Mnuchin said, but “we’ll be working on a program to address that.”
Another press conference will be held today by the president and his Task Force, focusing on the outcomes of the Senate meetings that will take place.
It is very hard to imagine Xi Jinping chairing a free-flowing news briefing like the one which Trump and Pence held last night and will hold again tonight. Tough questions were asked, and mostly answered (with the exception of Trump’s own testing status, after he was seen shaking hands with a congressman who is now in self-isolation). Plans and discussions with other members of the government were announced, even if the results are yet inconclusive.
Mostly, however, briefings such as these, however imperfect or incomplete the information may be at the time of the update, let a population know that their government is on the job, and serving them.
In the wake of over 3,000 deaths worldwide, but mostly in China, one would hope the Chinese government would heed the calls from many within its own borders to respect freedom of expression, and professional insights when they are given.
Ironically, even Dr. Li Wenliang, who raised an early warning about a new coronavirus, and who later died of the disease, knew he was taking a risk by informing his former medical school classmates about the new strain of what he originally called SARS. Li, reported to be a Party member himself, seemed to have known that he couldn’t trust his own CCP to handle the information wisely, and with the health of the nation as its first priority.