Trump, seeking to tamp down fears of coronavirus, names Pence to lead response

President Trump and Vice President Mike Pence
President Trump discusses the coronavirus threat at a news conference Wednesday. He named Vice President Mike Pence to lead the administration response.
(AFP/Getty Images)

Desperate to stanch anxieties on Wall Street and public fears that the White House is unprepared for a major coronavirus outbreak, President Trump on Wednesday named Vice President Mike Pence to coordinate the administration’s response while asserting that “the risk to the American people remains very low.”

Public health officials who flanked Trump at a rare news conference in the White House briefing room were noticeably less upbeat, repeatedly warning of the risk that the deadly COVID-19 virus — which has infected 60 Americans, including a newly confirmed case Wednesday in California — could still spread quickly in the United States.

“The trajectory we’re looking at in coming weeks and months is very uncertain,” said Dr. Anne Schuchat, principal deputy director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.


“We can expect to see more cases in the United States,” said Alex Azar, the secretary of Health and Human Services.

Minutes after Trump spoke, the CDC confirmed a new case of the virus in California in a person who reported no travel to an affected country or exposure to another known patient. The CDC did not say where the person lived, but said the case could be the first so-called community transmission of the disease in the United States.

Officials urged Americans to take basic precautions, such as washing hands and staying home if sick. And Trump acknowledged that the administration has plans for “large scale” quarantines should they be needed.

“Whatever happens, we’re totally prepared,” he said, but later suggested schools, hospitals and other facilities needed to take their own precautions.

“I think schools should be preparing just in case” of a major outbreak, he said.

“Every aspect of our society should be prepared,” he added. “I don’t think it’s going to come to that.”

Trump, who has downplayed the threat of the coronavirus for weeks, sought to reassure Americans and to calm stock markets, which have plunged more than 6.5% in the last three days on fears of the disease.


“I think the stock market will recover,” Trump said, although he later conceded that the disease “will have an impact” on the nation’s gross domestic product.

Trump did not rule out possibly barring visitors from South Korea, Italy and other countries with confirmed outbreaks. The U.S. already has stopped accepting visitors from China, where the epidemic has spread widely.

All told, more than 80,000 people in about three dozen countries are known to be infected. More than 2,700 have died.

Trump blamed Democrats and the media for stoking public fear, accusing House Speaker Nancy Pelosi of “trying to create a panic,” even as his administration faces increased bipartisan concern over its disjointed response.

The fast-spreading COVID-19 virus appears on track to test the competency of an administration that has proposed large budget cuts to the CDC, shut down an office assigned to track deadly diseases around the world and is rocked by constant turnover in top positions responsible for handling emergencies and potential emergencies.

Trump, who has claimed credit for the rising stock market of the last three years, has been preoccupied with its abrupt drop, complaining to business leaders during his trip to India this week that the stomach-churning fall-off was beyond his control.


CDC officials warned Tuesday that it’s virtually certain the coronavirus outbreak will spread to pockets in the U.S. and that Americans should brace for major disruptions to everyday life, possibly including restricted travel, closed schools and work slowdowns.

Allies counseled Trump to put his political and economic frustrations aside to focus on the public health threat, arguing that ancillary problems will fix themselves once the public is convinced the administration is prepared for what may prove a significant crisis.

“This is not a garden-variety routine event,” said Ari Fleischer, former press secretary for President George W. Bush, who saw his popularity plummet after a botched response to Hurricane Katrina’s battering of New Orleans in 2005. “This can grow into people being legitimately scared into wondering what to do to protect their health, to protect their family’s health.”

Fleischer was among many experts and former officials jarred by the administration’s sluggish reaction so far and the conflicting messages from the White House, which insists the situation is under control, and federal health officials, who have issued increasingly dire warnings.

“A situation like this is extremely volatile and dynamic,” said Dr. Irwin Redlener, who heads the National Center for Disaster Preparedness at Columbia University. “And to have all these mixed messages from the administration is mind-boggling. It seems they are so muddled at the White House about the political and economic consequences of this that they’ve resorted to just making stuff up.”

He warned that until the federal government issues clear guidance, state and local health officials are unable to make plans for a potential public health emergency.


Tom Ridge, who served as the nation’s first Homeland Security secretary under Bush and co-chairs a bipartisan commission on biodefense, faulted Trump for his breezy response to the threat and Democrats for what he called their “sky is falling” complaints.

“I just don’t recall when public health issues have ever been politicized like they are now,” Ridge said. “It is a real crisis” worldwide.

Underscoring the political risks for the president, new polling shows substantial public anxiety about the risk of an epidemic.

More than half of Americans expressed concern that there will be a widespread U.S. outbreak of coronavirus, according to a survey by the nonprofit Kaiser Family Foundation, which was conducted Feb. 13-18, before the recent stock market declines.

More than 4 in 10 said they were concerned that they or someone in their family will get sick from the virus.

“People don’t do well with the unknown,” said Craig Fugate, who led emergency response efforts for President Obama. “Tell them what you know. Tell them what you don’t know,” he advised.


In November, a task force at the nonpartisan Center for Strategic and International Studies, which included five current and former Republican senators and House members, warned of gaping holes in the country’s defenses against a major health crisis.

“The American people are far from safe,” the report concluded. “To the contrary, the United States remains woefully ill-prepared to respond to global health security threats.”

It recommended the reinstatement of a National Security Council official to coordinate pandemic response, and renewed funding and attention to global health problems

Earlier Wednesday, Azar testified on Capitol Hill for the second day and defended the administration’s response so far, saying he was overseeing “the smoothest interagency process I’ve experienced in my 20 years of dealing with public health emergencies.”

But other officials told Congress that they lack basic supplies such as respiratory masks and functioning testing kits. Only about a dozen state and local laboratories can run tests outside of the CDC in Atlanta because the kits it sent out nationwide this month included a faulty component.

While Trump tried to ease concerns over coronavirus, he fanned public panic over Ebola in 2014, claiming at the time that the Obama administration lied about the danger. He repeatedly urged officials to bar U.S. health workers and others who had contracted the virus overseas from returning home for treatment.


Democrats warned that the administration’s response is insufficient — citing prior administration cuts to the CDC — and that its request to Congress for $2.5 billion in special funding doesn’t address the scope of the problem.

Sen. Kamala Harris (D-Calif.) said Trump has “not done nearly enough” and said California communities are responding to the virus “despite poor coordination and vague guidance from the federal government.”

“More than any other state, California has been on the front lines of the COVID-19 response,” she wrote in a letter to Trump on Wednesday. “Your administration has yet to reimburse state and local entities for costs incurred as part of the federal response to COVID-19 — or even provided written assurances of any plan to do so.”

Republicans suggested that Democrats were too eager to criticize the administration. No sooner did the White House release the funding request “than some politicians were on the air criticizing you for not asking for enough,” said Rep. Greg Walden (R-Ore.).

House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy (R-Bakersfield) said he expects the funding to land at about $4 billion. He called a request for $8 billion from Senate Minority Leader Charles E. Schumer (D-N.Y.) a political ploy. Trump said Wednesday that he would take whatever Congress gives him.

Michael Brown, who lost his job as emergency management director and saw his reputation savaged during Hurricane Katrina, said the lack of clear direction compounds pressure — already immense — for those trying to respond to urgent national threats and crises.


Brown, now a conservative radio host in Denver, said his biggest regret after Katrina was reciting the Bush administration’s upbeat talking points rather than explaining the logistical obstacles he faced after the hurricane devastated Louisiana and other Gulf Coast states, killing an estimated 1,800 people.

“I think the American public would rather hear that than a bunch of B.S. talking points,” he said.

Brown said CDC officials were right to offer unvarnished warnings, even if it meant resisting or defying White House pressure.

Scientists at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration were embarrassed last September after officials there disavowed official forecasts to back a false claim by Trump about the projected path of Hurricane Dorian.

“In the final analysis, who are the experts? The experts are the people at CDC,” Brown said. “You want to have confidence ... that they are going to tell you the truth.”

Times staff writer Eli Stokols contributed to this report.