WASHINGTON — Vice President Mike Pence encouraged governors on Monday to adopt the administration’s explanation that a rise in testing was a reason behind new coronavirus outbreaks, even though testing data has shown that such a claim is misleading.
“I would just encourage you all, as we talk about these things, to make sure and continue to explain to your citizens the magnitude of increase in testing,” Pence said on a call with governors, audio of which was obtained by The New York Times. “And that in most of the cases where we are seeing some marginal rise in number, that’s more a result of the extraordinary work you’re doing.”
He added: “But also encourage people with the news that we are safely reopening the country. That, as we speak today, because people are going back to hospitals and elective surgery and getting ordinary care, hospitalization rates may be going up. But according to our most current information, hospitalizations for coronavirus are going down across the country.”
It was a misleading message publicly emphasized by President Donald Trump at a meeting earlier in the day.
“If we stop testing right now,” Trump said, “we’d have very few cases, if any.”
In fact, seven-day averages in several states with coronavirus outbreaks have increased since May 31, and in at least 14 states, positive cases have outstripped the average number of tests that have been administered, according to an analysis of data collected by The New York Times. Data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention show that coronavirus hospitalizations have decreased nationally, though positive cases have increased and the number of deaths attributed to the disease caused by the coronavirus, COVID-19, could increase as more data becomes available.
As the head of the administration’s virus task force, Pence has frequently used his public appearances to play down the seriousness of the pandemic, even though several members of his staff have tested positive. Last week, he was criticized for taking a picture with dozens of Trump campaign staff members who were standing close together without wearing masks.
This Saturday, Pence is scheduled to join the president at a rally in Tulsa, Oklahoma, despite concerns that the enclosed venue could promote the virus’s spread. The Trump campaign has asked attendees to assume the risk should they contract it.
And on the private call with governors, Pence again played down the overall size of the new outbreaks, stressing that some states were seeing what he called “intermittent” spikes. Rather than pointing to community spread as a culprit, as officials in several areas — including Washington, D.C. — have, the vice president focused on specific outbreak locations, like nursing homes.
He added that CDC employees would be redeployed to states experiencing new outbreaks and encouraged governors to think “on a county level” when dealing with them. The vice president also said that the virus’s spread was now well contained, and he adopted a term that Trump has used for the virus — “embers,” which can be quickly snuffed out.
“The president often talks about embers,” Pence added. “As we go through the summer, as we see, overall, as you all know, around the country, that despite a mass increase in testing, we are still averaging roughly 20,000 cases a day, which is significantly down from six weeks ago.”
Experts, including some in the Trump administration, have warned that stamping out the coronavirus is not that simple. In fact, Dr. Anthony S. Fauci, the nation’s top infectious disease expert, warned last week that “we have something that turned out to be my worst nightmare,” a reference to the virus’s ability to spread rapidly.
On the call, Pence instructed Alex Azar, the health secretary, to address the problem in a “constructive” way. Azar said that localized outbreaks at meatpacking plants and nursing homes would continue to be a focus for officials. “If any of them light on fire,” Azar said, “we’ve got to get there right away.”
Dr. Deborah L. Birx, who is coordinating the administration’s response, reiterated that hospitalization rates for the virus had been declining across the country, though some states had seen an uptick.
“You’re finding cases in the community rather than finding them in the clinic and the hospital,” she said, adding that more people had been identified as asymptomatic or presymptomatic in recent weeks.
She said protest sites across the country had not yet seen a rise in coronavirus cases, though she said data had begun to show “early upticks” in Minneapolis.
Birx asked governors to “ensure that all the law enforcement that has been engaged in protecting your citizens have been tested,” adding, “I really appreciate having most of you call for the protesters to get tested.”
Gov. Larry Hogan of Maryland, a Republican who has publicly criticized the Trump administration’s early response to the virus, told the vice president that there was an “urgent need” to have the administration and members of Congress working together on another coronavirus relief bill.
“States are going to be faced with laying off tens of thousands of state workers,” Hogan said, adding that many governors were finalizing state budgets at the end of June. Pence said that any further legislation would most likely happen in the middle of July and that the door would be open for negotiations between the administration and Congress.
Sen. Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., the Senate majority leader, has indicated that negotiations would not take place before a two-week recess scheduled for early July.
Other governors, including J.B. Pritzker of Illinois, who has been critical of the administration’s handling of the virus, did not speak on Monday’s call.
“Illinois was the first state in the nation to meet the federal metrics laid out by the White House for reopening and right now is showing the largest decline in COVID cases,” Pritzker’s office said later in a statement. “The governor will continue to follow the science and data and rely on the public health experts when it comes to reopening the state.”
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