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Trump names Pence to lead COVID-19 response, again downplaying threat to U.S.

Trump appoints VP Pence to be in charge of coronavirus response
At a press conference on Wednesday, President Trump announced that he's putting vice president Mike Pence in charge of the response to a possible coronavirus outbreak in the U.S.

President Donald Trump declared Wednesday that a widespread U.S. outbreak of the new respiratory coronavirus sweeping the globe isn’t inevitable even as top health authorities at his side warned Americans that more infections are coming.

Shortly after Trump spoke, the government announced a worrisome development: Another person in the U.S. is infected — someone in California who doesn’t appear to have the usual risk factors of having traveled abroad or being exposed to another patient.

READ MORE: First COVID-19 case in U.S. with unknown connection reported in California

At a White House news conference, Trump sought to minimize fears as he insisted the U.S. is “very, very ready” for whatever the COVID-19 outbreak brings. Under fire about the government’s response, he put Vice President Mike Pence in charge of coordinating the efforts.

“This will end,” Trump said of the outbreak. “You don’t want to see panic because there’s no reason to be panicked.”

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Trump doesn’t believe COVID-19 is inevitable in U.S., counters CDC
Trump doesn’t believe COVID-19 is inevitable in U.S., counters CDC

But standing next to him, the very health officials Trump praised for fighting the new coronavirus stressed that schools, businesses and individuals need to get ready.

“We do expect more cases,” said Dr. Anne Schuchat of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

If the CDC confirms that the latest U.S. case doesn’t involve travel or contact with an infected person, it would be a first in this country and a sign that efforts to contain the virus’ spread haven’t been enough.

“It’s possible this could be an instance of community spread of COVID-19,” the CDC said in a statement.

Trump details how U.S. has been able to contain the spread of coronavirus
Trump details how U.S. has been able to contain the spread of coronavirus

More than 81,000 cases of COVID-19, an illness characterized by fever and coughing and in serious cases shortness of breath or pneumonia, have occurred since the new virus emerged in China.

The newest case from California brings the total number infected in the U.S. to 60, most of them evacuated from outbreak zones.

READ MORE: Donald Trump says U.S. has coronavirus threat ‘well under control’

Trump credited border restrictions that have blocked people coming into the U.S. from China for keeping infections low so far. But now countries around the world — from South Korea and Japan to Italy and Iran — are experiencing growing numbers of cases.

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Asked if it was time to either lift the China restrictions, or take steps for travelers from elsewhere, he said: “At a right time we may do that. Right now it’s not the time.”

Trump says decision to close border to certain flights early on helped control spread of coronavirus
Trump says decision to close border to certain flights early on helped control spread of coronavirus

Trump spent close to an hour discussing the virus threat, after a week of sharp stock market losses over the health crisis and concern within the administration that a growing outbreak could affect his reelection.

He blamed the Democrats for the stock market slide, saying, “I think the financial markets are very upset when they look at the Democrat candidates standing on that stage making fools out of themselves.” And at one point he shifted to defend his overall record and predict a win in November.

READ MORE: COVID-19: Trump downplays U.S. outbreak, spurring new credibility test

A key question is whether the Trump administration is spending enough money to get the country prepared — especially as the CDC has struggled to expand the number of states that can test people for the virus. Other key concerns are stockpiling masks and other protective equipment for health workers, and developing a vaccine or treatment.

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Health officials have exhausted an initial $105 million in emergency funding and have been looking elsewhere for dollars. Earlier this week, Trump requested $2.5 billion from Congress to fight the virus. Senate Democratic Leader Chuck Schumer of New York countered with a proposal for $8.5 billion.

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COVID-19: Pelosi says Trump administration has ‘sometimes chaotic’ response to outbreak
COVID-19: Pelosi says Trump administration has ‘sometimes chaotic’ response to outbreak

Trump told reporters he was open to spending “whatever’s appropriate.”

Trump compared the new virus repeatedly to the flu, which kills tens of thousands each year. The new coronavirus has killed more than 2,700 — most in China and none in the U.S. so far — but scientists still don’t understand who’s most at risk or what the actual death rate is.

Without a vaccine, CDC’s Schuchat advised people to follow “tried and true, not very exciting” but important precautions: Wash your hands, cover your coughs and stay home when you’re sick.

‘We can expect to see more cases’: U.S. Health Secretary on coronavirus spread in U.S.
‘We can expect to see more cases’: U.S. Health Secretary on coronavirus spread in U.S.

A day earlier, another CDC official, Dr. Nancy Messonnier, was even more blunt, telling Americans to get ready for some of the same steps as occurred during the 2009 flu pandemic, such as school closings.

“It’s not so much a question of if this will happen anymore, but rather more a question of exactly when this will happen — and how many people in this country will have severe illness,” she said.

READ MORE: CDC officials say coronavirus is likely to spread in U.S.

The National Institutes of Health’s top infectious disease chief cautioned a vaccine won’t be ready for widespread use for a year or more. But Dr. Anthony Fauci said even if the virus wanes soon, it’s “quite conceivable” that it might “come back and recycle next year.” By then, he said, “we hope to have a vaccine.”

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Democrats were quick to condemn Trump’s response to the outbreak. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi called it “opaque and chaotic.”

“Instead of listening to public health and medical experts, the president has been downplaying the potential impact of the virus for over a month,” said Democratic Rep. Bennie Thompson of Mississippi, chairman of the House Homeland Security Committee.

Thompson added that putting Pence, “someone with no public health expertise, in charge of the response will not instill confidence with the American people and raises questions about the administration’s ability to coordinate an effective response to a complex public health threat.”

Trump says media trying to make novel coronavirus look bad
Trump says media trying to make novel coronavirus look bad

Trump said Pence will be working with CDC, NIH and other government agencies to coordinate the response. In previous outbreaks, the White House has appointed a “czar” to pull together the different departments’ work.

Trump said he didn’t view Pence as a czar, but said he will have all officials involved in the country’s coronavirus response report to the vice president.

“When Mike was governor of Indiana, they established great health care, they have a great system there, a system that a lot of the other states have really looked to and changed their systems, they wanted to change to the Indiana system,” Trump said of Pence, while calling him an “expert” in the health care field.

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During his time as Indiana’s governor, Pence faced criticism for his response to a public health crisis in the southern part of the state.

In 2015, Scott County saw the number of people infected with HIV skyrocket, with nearly 200 people testing positive for the virus in a span of months. Indiana law at the time prohibited needle exchanges, exacerbating the outbreak, which primarily infected intravenous users of the painkiller Opana.

Pence had long opposed needle exchanges but was eventually persuaded to issue an executive order allowing one in Scott County. Despite his own misgivings — Pence said he didn’t support the exchanges as an “anti-drug policy” — he signed a law allowing the state government to approve them on a case-by-case basis.

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READ MORE: China, South Korea report total 767 new COVID-19 cases as virus clings to hardest-hit areas

Health and Human Services Secretary Alex Azar will continue to lead the coronavirus task force Trump convened last month, but will also work with Pence, an arrangement the health secretary told reporters he was “delighted” by.

“Having the vice president gives me the biggest stick one could have in the government on this whole government approach,” Azar said as officials were attempting to leave the press conference.

He said he didn’t feel like he was being replaced “in the least.”

This week, the NIH received a shipment of test doses of a vaccine candidate from Moderna Inc., in preparation for first-step safety testing in a few dozen people aimed to begin by April. But Fauci cautioned reporters that in a best-case scenario, “you’re talking about a year to a year and a half” before any vaccine would be ready for widespread use.

COVID-19: Pelosi says Trump’s action on Coronavirus is ‘too late’
COVID-19: Pelosi says Trump’s action on Coronavirus is ‘too late’

Fauci said that while only a few cases have turned up in the U.S. from travelers outside the country, “we need to be able to think about how we will respond to a pandemic outbreak.”

“It’s very clear. If we have a global pandemic, no country is going to be without impact,” Fauci said.

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A pandemic involves the continual spread of sustained transmission from person to person in multiple regions and hemispheres throughout the world simultaneously, Fauci noted.

With files from Global’s Sean Boynton. Associated Press writer Jonathan Lemire, Zeke Miller and Andrew Taylor contributed to this report.