And this week, with questions swirling about a potential surge in cases in parts of the country, Pence penned an op-ed with an optimistic headline: “There Isn’t a Coronavirus ‘Second Wave.’ ”
The vice president has long been a happy warrior on behalf of President Trump, amplifying and supporting his boss in his more phlegmatic, even-keel way. But for many public health experts, including some close to the administration, Pence’s Tuesday op-ed in the Wall Street Journal was cause for alarm — a 420-word opinion piece that, they fear, presents an overly rosy vision of a pandemic that has already killed at least 117,000 Americans — and indicative of the administration’s approach.
“We are not out of the woods, we don’t have this under control, and this remains hugely dangerous and we’re heading into a season in the fall where we could see another wave,” said Stephen Morrison, a senior vice president at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, where he directs the center’s global health work.
Pence’s op-ed was emblematic of how the administration is characterizing the outbreak right now, eager to put forth only morsels of positive news as the president urges the nation to return to normal life, less than five months before November’s election despite the continuing death toll.
In the op-ed, Pence points to a host of encouraging statistics — the daily average case rate across the country has dropped to 20,000, he writes, and deaths have fallen to fewer than 750 a day — and dismisses concerns of a second wave as “overblown,” arguing that the nation is “winning the fight against the invisible enemy.”
The vice president, who heads the administration’s coronavirus task force, goes on to tout the “great progress” the administration has made in developing therapeutics and a vaccine — “we are well on our way to having a viable vaccine by the fall” — before concluding that the media is overhyping the threat of a second wave of the virus.
“We’ve slowed the spread, we’ve cared for the most vulnerable, we’ve saved lives, and we’ve created a solid foundation for whatever challenges we may face in the future,” Pence concludes. “That’s a cause for celebration, not the media’s fear mongering.”
Many medical experts found the headline of the piece, which declared there is no second wave of the virus, to be most troubling. Pence and his team did not write the headline, aides said, but had no problem with it.
“Vice President Pence’s op-Ed highlighted the encouraging data hidden from the American people while stressing the need to reopen in a safe and responsible manner,” the vice president’s spokesman, Devin O’Malley, said in a statement. “The picture of coronavirus that Americans see in their communities is far from the grim picture painted by the media. Americans sacrificed for months, and are now clamoring to reopen the country as a result.”
Among public health officials, there were also concerns that Pence’s words — like much of the rhetoric emanating from the West Wing — offered simplistic happy talk, seeming to normalize a deadly pandemic that is still taking hundreds of American lives daily and presenting the public false reassurance that they no longer need to worry.
“This is just not a situation that’s under control, where you can be complacent and confident,” Morrison said.
The numbers — more than 2 million U.S. cases and more than 117,000 Americans dead — speak for themselves, he added.
Pence aides, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss his approach, said the vice president’s message was no different than the one he has been espousing in recent weeks in interviews as he travels the country. He consistently expresses remorse and sorrow for those who have died, while simultaneously thanking the American people for their commitment and sacrifice to fighting the virus — and highlighting the progress made. And the vice president makes an effort to spotlight the states that are opening in a safe and responsible manner.
Now, they added, if the country does face a second wave, the administration is far better prepared, with more personal protective equipment for hospitals, a National Stockpile replenished with ventilators, a better understanding of the virus and those it impacts most severely, and a growing confidence they will have therapeutics and even a vaccine ready in the coming months.
In the op-ed, Pence mentioned the possibility of a viable vaccine by the fall, referring to recent comments by Anthony S. Fauci, an infectious-disease expert on the coronavirus task force, in which he said that Phase 3 of Moderna’s experimental coronavirus vaccine will begin in July.
The reality, however, is more complicated.
In an interview with McClatchy on Thursday, Fauci promised to publicly oppose any effort by the Trump administration to announce a vaccine by November if he doesn’t believe it is “safe and scientifically sound.”
“Take that to the bank,” Fauci said.
Asked specifically in the same interview about Pence’s op-ed, Fauci offered a far more stark assessment. “When I see an increase in cases that is not fully explainable in my mind, I get concerned,” he said. “I get concerned by an increase in cases even when it is explainable, because if you look at the curve of cases in the United States, and look at the total country, that is not a sharp decline by any means.”
And earlier this month, Fauci described the coronavirus generally as “my worst nightmare.”
Public health experts and people close to the White House said the idea of a “second wave” is largely one of semantics. The United States has yet to emerge from the first wave of infections, with the country still facing about 800 deaths per day.
“A second wave implies the water is quiet between the first and second waves, and that could result in individuals not taking appropriate mitigation steps now,” said Chris Meekins, a former Department of Health and Human Services official in the Trump administration and director of health care policy at Raymond James, a financial services firm. “Cases are going to pop up over the next several months, and public health officials will have to play whack-a-mole to try to contain the spread.”
If the death rate does not slow down considerably in the next few weeks — indeed, nine states this week reported a record number of new coronavirus cases in a single day or set a record for seven-day case averages, according to a Washington Post analysis — the United States will never have finished a first wave before cases likely surge again in the fall.
“We still haven’t finished the first wave,” said Amesh Adalja, an infectious-disease expert at the Johns Hopkins Center for Health Security. “Based on the characteristics of this virus, we do think we’ll see acceleration as we get into colder months, and there will be a second wave — or the virus will never dampen enough to have a trough.”
But inside the White House, aides are working to craft a message more in line with Trump’s worldview, explaining that there may continue to be “embers” of the virus — as the president calls outbreaks in specific areas — and that while the public should heed the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention guidelines, they should not feel afraid to reenter the public square.
“As President Trump has said, the cure cannot be worse than the disease and that is why all 50 states have begun the process of a phased reopening, but we’re continuing to closely monitor the ongoing situation,” said Sarah Matthews, a White House spokeswoman, in a statement. “As we safely reopen America again, the American people will practice what they have learned about covid-19 and take the appropriate precautions, such as social distancing, face coverings, and regularly washing hands, to protect the public health and return us to a booming economy.”
Public health experts, however, have warned that the fall could be especially challenging for the U.S. health care system — not only because of a largely expected surge in cases of covid-19, the disease caused by the novel coronavirus, but because the pandemic will converge with the seasonal flu outbreak and could overwhelm hospitals.
Many coronaviruses also exhibit seasonality, experts said, and spread more easily in colder weather, partly because of how people behave during the fall and winter months. More gatherings are indoors in smaller spaces, making the spread of a respiratory disease easier than it might be outdoors. Some experts also worry that as people resume daily life during the summer months — such as dining out and seeing friends and family — there will be a reluctance to stop those behaviors in the fall and winter, even when it is no longer possible to do so outdoors.
The virus has not been around long enough for scientists to know definitively whether a second wave will be deadlier than the first. During the 1918 flu pandemic, the first wave of the virus appeared in March and reported cases dropped during the summer months. But a second wave of that virus that began in September was far more deadly than the first wave.
Trump this week ruled out the possibility of another shutdown of the economy, even as some states began reporting record coronavirus hospitalizations as they’ve started to ease restrictions, saying in a Fox News interview, “We won’t be closing the country again.”
Experts and former senior Trump officials said the administration should be preparing for outbreaks to get worse later this year.
“The message that should be going is, ‘This isn’t over. This is going to be a long battle that we need a vaccine for and, until then, we have to continue to be vigilant,’ ” Adalja said.