(Bloomberg) -- The Trump administration has assured states they’ll have enough hospital beds and equipment to handle the alarming nationwide surge in coronavirus cases, but it isn’t advocating for additional measures to slow the virus’s spread and continues to shut out Joe Biden’s advisers.
Several American governors have imposed new restrictions on businesses and social life, and New York City announced Wednesday it would close schools. In a call with governors two days earlier, Vice President Mike Pence, who leads the federal pandemic response, said that the nation has thousands of hospital beds in reserve and ample supplies of protective gear, with vaccines around the corner.
“I want to assure you at the outset that America has never been more prepared to fight this virus,” Pence told the governors, according to a summary provided by Washington Governor Jay Inslee’s office.
“The cavalry is on the way,” he added, in reference to a pair of vaccines nearing Food and Drug Administration approval.
The optimism belies the grave situation confronting the country. The U.S. recorded more than 148,000 new infections on Tuesday alone. And the nation’s death toll from Covid-19 has surpassed 250,000 since February, Johns Hopkins University reported on Wednesday.
Deborah Birx, the State Department immunologist who coordinates Pence’s task force, told governors that cases rose 50% week-over-week and that more than half of U.S. counties are now categorized as “red” with rampant spread.
The administration’s response, though, has minimized or even discouraged efforts to curb the spread of the virus -- masks, social distancing, restricting Americans’ movements and activities -- while focusing heavily on treatment. Trump’s team has at the same time prevented Biden’s advisers from coordinating with federal health officials whilef the president continues to insist, falsely, that he won re-election.
Biden says the dispute risks lives. He held a video conference with front-line health workers on Wednesday and warned that Trump’s delay in conceding defeat could impede the pandemic response.
Pence’s call with governors on Monday was the first in two weeks, while his coronavirus task force met Tuesday for only the second time this month. In that meeting, they discussed which populations may first receive a vaccine, though that’s a decision that will be made by an independent panel, according to people familiar with the matter. White House Chief of Staff Mark Meadows pushed task force members for clarity on who they recommend to be first in line for a shot, the people said.
The task force is scheduled to meet again on Thursday, according to Pence’s schedule.
‘Worst Rate of Rise’
Pence said in the meeting on Tuesday that he thinks the media have been “crying wolf” about the virus, leaving Americans less likely to take the latest surge seriously, the people said. A day later, another administration official publicly used the same phrase to stress the urgency.
“We are in an absolutely dangerous situation that we have to take with the utmost seriousness,” Admiral Brett Giroir, an assistant secretary at the Department of Health and Human Services who led efforts to ramp up testing, said in an MSNBC interview.
“This is not crying wolf,” he said. “This is the worst rate of rise in cases that we have seen in the pandemic in the United States.”
In the call with governors on Monday, both Robert Redfield, director of the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, and Alex Azar, the HHS secretary, encouraged the state leaders to help build confidence in vaccines and, in a departure with the president, to encourage Americans to wear masks.
“Masks do work. There’s no doubt about that anymore,” Redfield said, according to the summary Inslee’s office provided.
Trump and his closest medical adviser, Scott Atlas, have regularly disparaged masks, and the president has discouraged any precautionary measures that he views as impediments to normal social or economic life. He announced Tuesday in a tweet that he had overruled Army officials who canceled a wreath-laying event at Arlington National Cemetery this weekend out of concern about the pandemic.
Atlas, a fellow at Stanford University’s conservative Hoover Institution who has encouraged states to more aggressively reopen schools and businesses, tweeted on Nov. 14 that every state except Rhode Island and Washington, D.C., are below 80% of maximum hospital capacity.
He also tweeted this week that people in Michigan should “rise up” against new restrictions imposed by the state’s governor, Democrat Gretchen Whitmer, who has been the subject of violent threats by right-wing extremists. He later clarified that he was not encouraging violence and deleted the tweet.
Stanford issued a statement this week saying that Atlas speaks for himself.
The past two weeks have broadly shown how Trump reversed his initial approach to the the pandemic. In March, with then-record caseloads and a mounting death toll, the administration had unveiled a “15 Days To Slow The Spread” campaign, later extended, that encouraged Americans to adopt social distancing practices in order to curb transmission of the virus.
Through the end of April, Trump and medical advisers including Birx and Anthony Fauci gave daily briefings on the pandemic.
But now, with daily case growth far surpassing any earlier point in the pandemic, Trump has sidelined most of his advisers besides Atlas. Since losing re-election, he has seldom been seen in public and has not taken questions from reporters.
His refusal to concede defeat has delayed a transition that would give Biden’s advisers a closer look at data and planning at federal health agencies as they prepare to take over the response. “Unless it’s made available soon, we’re going to be behind by weeks or months,” Biden said Wednesday.
©2020 Bloomberg L.P.