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‘Our health care system has not been overwhelmed’ by COVID-19, says Pence

Vice President Mike Pence was chosen by President Trump to lead his Coronavirus Task Force. This week, the administration offered governors a plan for how to begin lifting restrictions implemented due to the pandemic. Judy Woodruff talks to Pence about persistently inadequate COVID-19 testing and his message to front-line health care workers forced to share and reuse their protective gear.

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  • Judy Woodruff:

    Earlier today, I spoke with Vice President Mike Pence, named by President Trump to head his Coronavirus Task Force.

    I spoke to him about the administration's new guidelines for governors, the lack of testing, and his message to front-line health care workers forced to reuse and share their protective gear.

    Mr. Vice President, thank you very much for joining us.

    President Trump has been clear that he's eager for the country to open back up again by May the 1st.

    You rolled out these new guidelines yesterday. How different do you think life is going to be on May 1? It's just 14 days away.

  • Vice President Mike Pence:

    Well, yesterday, by announcing our new guidelines for states across the country for reopening up America again, what President Trump laid out were essentially the criteria and what we believe would be the best preparations for states to be able to open up in a time and manner of their choosing.

    But, as you can see, it is a phased approach, and it's all based upon data and the application of the best counsel of our scientists and our broader team.

    The president also consulted with leaders from businesses across the country and also with a bipartisan group of members of Congress. And we really do believe that these guidelines will now enable governors in states across the country to craft plans for reopening their states, either on a state-by-state level or even on a county-by-county level, because, Judy, in every state, it's different.

    And the guidelines that were issued yesterday were all about equipping our governors and their health officials with our very best recommendations, all the while assuring all of their citizens and the American people that we will continue to partner with our states to make sure that they have the equipment, the medical supplies, and the testing to enter in to that reopening plan in an orderly and safe way.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    You mentioned testing.

    The plan, though, doesn't include a broad testing strategy. The president continues to say, there's plenty of testing available.

    And yet, as I'm sure you know, governors, medical experts are saying there simply is not enough testing going on, 140,000-or-some a day is nowhere near the million or more that's needed.

    Why isn't there — why isn't there more of a federal push for testing?

  • Vice President Mike Pence:

    Judy, I will tell you that, now that we have established literally an international air bridge, we're moving medical supplies into communities, now that we — we're very confident that states have the critical ventilators that they need, I can assure you, at the president's direction, our administration has no higher priority than continuing to dramatically expand testing.

    It was one month ago that we had — we had only done 80,000 tests in the United States. But, as I sit here today, more than 3.5 million tests have been performed.

    And, as you say, we're — we're doing about 120,000 tests a day. But, as we have communicated to governors around the country and will continue to reiterate, there's actually a significant amount of unused testing capacity in those very same labs…

  • Judy Woodruff:

    I…

  • Vice President Mike Pence:

    … that we're going to look to stand up and activate.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    And I…

  • Vice President Mike Pence:

    We actually believe that we could double the amount of testing that's taking place every day if we simply brought online all of the testing capabilities in all the labs.

    And that will continue to be our focus, even as the president is continuing to drive our team forward on identifying new forms of testing. In fact, very soon, we anticipate a new antibody test to be approved that could literally produce…

  • Judy Woodruff:

    But in…

  • Vice President Mike Pence:

    … 40 million antibody tests a month.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    But if I could…

  • Vice President Mike Pence:

    So it'll remain a priority.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    I do hear you, Mr. Vice President.

    But, at the same time, we are hearing from governors, we're hearing from hospital CEOs, from front-line workers that they don't have access to testing.

    They're also saying they don't have access to the protective equipment that they need.

    I want to quote to you what a nurse at a New York hospital told us on the "NewsHour" last night. Her name is Maria Lobifaro. She's an ICU nurse.

    She said: "I have worked on a weekend where we were reusing the same gown from nurse to nurse, the same protective gown." She said: "When my shift finished, I had to pass that gown on to the next nurse."

    She talked about seeing pictures of nurses in other countries overseas who were protected — protected by something that looked like a spacesuit.

    What do you say to individuals like Ms. Lobifaro who want to know why the federal government hasn't done something to order that this kind of gear, masks and testing be done?

  • Vice President Mike Pence:

    Well, what I would say to Marie (sic) and to every one of our courageous health care workers, especially in places like New York City, first and foremost, is, thank you. Thank you for what you have done to provide the level of care, even during this crisis, that any American family would — would hope for their loved ones.

    They have truly done a remarkable job. But — but I can — I can assure her, whether it — whether it be gowns, whether it be face masks or — or protective equipment, that we — we have and will continue to flow millions of supplies from around the country and around the world, particularly in hot spots like the greater New York City area.

    I was just informed by our logistics team this week that a half-a-million gowns were literally arriving. We were deploying those, I think 250,000 of those, into the New York City area alone.

    But make no mistake about it. The fact that our health care system has not been overwhelmed is a tribute to our doctors and nurses, just like Maria.

    But it's also a real tribute to the fact that the American people, over the last month and more, have embraced those social distancing — those guidelines. We have slowed the spread, so our health care workers can have what they need.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    It…

  • Vice President Mike Pence:

    And we have created a vast array of resources, flowing millions of supplies into our hot spot areas around the country.

    And I want Marie and every other health care worker to know that we're going to continue to do that, even as we work with states as they make decisions to responsibly reopen…

  • Judy Woodruff:

    Two other…

  • Vice President Mike Pence:

    … in the months ahead.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    Excuse me.

    Two other things I want to ask you about.

    We have been looking ahead, but I also would say it's important to look for a moment at how we got here.

    The United States today has more coronavirus cases than the major countries in Europe combined, more deaths than anywhere.

    In January, as you know, Mr. Vice President, there were pervasive warnings from the intelligence community here, from top administration officials. There were mistakes made, no question about it, in China. There were delays at the World Health Organization.

    But the president did stop travel to the U.S. on January 30. But, for days and even weeks after that, he said, the U.S. is in a good place. He said — he assured Americans everything is OK.

    How many lives do you believe were lost as a result of the delay by this administration?

  • Vice President Mike Pence:

    Judy, I will tell you that we're — we're going to get to the bottom of what happened with the World Health Organization and why the world wasn't informed by China about what was happening on the ground in Wuhan with the coronavirus.

    There'll be time for that in the days ahead. And the president has made it clear that we're going to hold the World Health Organization and — and China accountable for that.

    But I have to tell you, having — having been asked by the president to lead the White House Coronavirus Task Force in late February, that the actions that our president took in January, where he suspended all travel from China, the first time any American president had ever done that, bought us an invaluable amount of time to stand up the national response that has us here today, at a time when our health care system has not been overwhelmed.

    And while — while you — you cite statistics from Europe, the reality is, when you look at the European Union as a whole, which is roughly the size of the United States, thanks to the commitment of our health care workers, thanks to the response of the American people, while we grieve the loss of more than 33,000 Americans today, the truth is, the mortality rate in the United States today is — is far less than half of that in Europe.

    It's a tribute to our — our system. It's a tribute to the American response. And, frankly, it's a tribute to the fact that President Trump suspended all travel from China, initiated efforts to get our CDC into China by mid-February.

    And so, by the time we — we learned of the first community spread in late February in the United States, we were able to surge the resources and — and raise up the kind of countermeasures that have us in the place that we are today.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    If I could just ask one question about the economy, as you know, the United States is experiencing now the worst job loss we have had since the Great Depression.

    And yet there is a political stalemate on Capitol Hill with the administration over what to do to help small businesses.

    Republicans say $250 billion. Democrats are saying, that's fine, but we also need money for hospitals and for state and local governments.

    Mr. Vice President, why not do what both sides want at this moment of crisis for the American worker?

  • Vice President Mike Pence:

    Judy, we're working very closely with members of Congress in both parties.

    And I know President Trump is truly grateful for the bipartisan spirit that animated all three of the different bills that he signed into law. We provided resources for our initial response to the coronavirus. We provided free testing for every American, free paid family leave.

    But the economic relief in the third package has been speeding resources to American families. Checks are already being received. The average family of four is receiving $3,400.

    But the Paycheck Protection Program has been so successful that, while the president and I were — were in a conversation yesterday with Republicans and Democrats on a conference call, we learned that the money is completely gone in the initial $250 billion.

    And it's absolutely imperative that Democrats in Congress come to the table and provide the additional $250 billion, and do it now.

    The reality is that this fund was designed to make sure that small businesses deeply impacted by this epidemic could keep their employees on the payroll for a period of two months.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    But why not take care of this…

  • Vice President Mike Pence:

    As I said, it's been incredibly popular.

    And — and right now, though, it's out of money. And it's unconscionable for Democrats in Congress to hold that funding up and to make small business owners, and most especially their hardworking employees, live with the uncertainty of whether they will have the payroll support.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    And with the need so urgent, why not do both?

  • Vice President Mike Pence:

    Judy, I will tell you, the negotiations are under way. We will continue to — to work with leaders in both parties.

    And — and, as the president said last night, we — we believe that we will be able to reach an agreement. That's only going to happen if Democrats in Congress come to the table, make a deal, and do it now to expand the Paycheck Protection Program.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    Mr. Vice President, we thank you very much for talking with us.

  • Vice President Mike Pence:

    Thank you, Judy.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    And a coda to that interview.

    Late this afternoon, Republicans and Democrats agreed that federal money will go toward hospitals as part of that $250 billion plan to help small businesses.

    We will have more on these developments a little later in the program.

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