Rather than spend the briefing providing detailed guidance on how the country should confront the rising number of cases, Vice President Pence and others instead tried to cherry-pick national data and spin the numbers in a positive direction. Some of the points they made were strictly accurate. Many of them, though, completely skirted the realities in hard-hit states — not to mention the fact that very few countries are dealing with a continued outbreak as we are.
At the start of the briefing, Pence sought to emphasize two facts:
- Deaths are declining overall.
- Most of the new cases are in younger people, who generally have better outcomes.
“One of the things that we’re seeing among the cases … is that roughly half of the new cases are Americans under the age of 35,” Pence said, “which is, at a certain level, very encouraging news, as the experts tell us, because as we know so far in this pandemic that younger Americans are less susceptible to serious outcomes of the coronavirus. And the fact that we are finding more younger Americans who’ve contracted the coronavirus is a good thing.”
Setting aside the inartful phrasing of that final sentence, it’s true that young people fare better with the virus than others. But White House coronavirus task force member Anthony S. Fauci offered a very different spin on this fact Tuesday during an appearance at a congressional hearing. He testified that we’re seeing many causes for concern among young people who contract the virus, and he also noted that their lack of symptoms may actually make them more likely to spread the virus.
“But even though the majority — the overwhelming majority of them — do well, what you can’t forget is that if you get infected and spread the infection, even though you do not get sick, you are part of the process of the dynamics of an outbreak,” Fauci said at the hearing.
Pence also argued that while we just set yet another record for confirmed cases, the number of deaths continues to drop.
“There literally was a day two months ago this week where we lost 2,500 Americans in a single day,” Pence said, adding, “This week, there were two days where we lost less than 300 Americans.”
So Pence is comparing one of the worst dates for deaths to the absolute best days of late. What Pence didn’t disclose is that mortality rates regularly dip significantly on weekends, apparently because of lags in reporting. So while there were two days under 300 deaths early this week, the average for the week remains more than 600 per day. And while the death rate in the United States has declined, it hasn’t declined nearly as much as in most other countries — particularly in Western Europe. It’s clearly an improvement; it’s just not nearly the improvement other advanced countries have seen.
Pence continued to echo Trump’s past “mission accomplished”-esque remarks.
“The reality is we’re in a much better place with the efforts President Trump mobilized at the federal level, with the efforts of this team, this whole-of-government approach — the efforts of governors across the country are incredible — health-care workers and the cooperation of the American people,” Pence said. “We’re in a much stronger place. The truth is, we did slow the spread. We flattened the curve.”
What was as striking about the briefing’s attempt to spin the positive was its dearth of actual guidance. As was the case with Trump’s briefings, it devoted considerably more time to credit-seeking and downplaying than to actually providing prescriptions about what comes next for concerned Americans.
To the extent Pence did have a message, it was very generally that people — and particularly young people — should remain vigilant. This message was eventually offered, though, when he was pressed on Fauci’s recent comments that “something’s not working” about our current approach.
“If there’s one message that comes through today, I hope it is saying to younger Americans in these states and in these counties in particular, that they are a big part of the numbers that we are seeing in new cases,” Pence said, “and while there may not be a significant threat of a serious health outcome to them … urging them to take countermeasures and heed what their governors and local officials are directing will be our continued strategy.”
Perhaps the most telling exchange came when a reporter gave Pence an opportunity to offer a message about masks. The issue has become significantly politicized, with Republicans in particular — and especially most recently Trump supporters who have attended his rallies — flouting the guidance to wear them.
“Wearing a mask has kind of become a political statement, or I guess the decision not to wear a mask,” a reporter noted. “Are you concerned about that? And is there a message that you would like to send to people about the importance of wearing masks?”
Pence talked around the question, never once directly urging people to wear masks.
“We think that the first principle is that people ought to listen to their state and local authorities,” Pence said, adding, “We just believe that what’s most important here is that people listen to the leadership in their state and the leadership in their local community and adhere to that guidance, whether they have to do with facial coverings, whether it has to do with the size of gatherings. And we’ll continue to reinforce that message.”
Except this isn’t just a state and local issue — or even an issue of mandates. Indeed, the federal guidelines encourage wearing masks. Yet Trump has conspicuously and steadfastly declined to urge people to do that — even suggesting recently that masks are a “double-edged sword,” as if they may actually be harmful.
Pence didn’t seem to want to strike a tone different from Trump’s, but it’s a message that even the leading GOP officials in the most hard-hit states — Arizona, Florida and Texas — are increasingly embracing. Other GOP officials, such as North Dakota Gov. Doug Burgum and Ohio Gov. Mike DeWine, have also decried the politicization of masks.
About the closest we got to a stern, firm message, as has often been the case in these briefings, was when Fauci spoke. The doctor repeatedly suggested that states should be following the guidelines in a way they haven’t as they’ve pushed forward with reopening.
“Pulling back a couple of months ago, when we showed about the guidelines to safely reopen the country, we’ve got to make sure we drop back a few yards and think about that, that this is part of a process that we can be either part of the solution or part of the problem,” Fauci said.
That’s the kind of message you might have expected from a briefing taking place in the middle of the resurgence of a pandemic. But it wasn’t really the message that the whole team set out to promote.
Its overwhelming absence was particularly shocking, given that the reason we appear to be in this situation is that people aren’t taking the situation seriously enough. There was very little genuine leveling with the American people or political officials about their responsibilities in this. The moment calls for some urgency, but that was hardly the message conveyed.