President Trump on Wednesday appointed Vice President Mike Pence to lead the administration's response to the coronavirus outbreak, assuring the public that officials were "very, very ready" to quash a flare up in the US.
At the White House, the president touted Pence as an "expert" in public health who has "a certain talent for this," citing his experience as the governor of Indiana. Public health experts, however, quickly balked at Trump's praise and immediately recalled Pence's widely admonished handling of his state's HIV outbreak in 2016.
During his time as governor, Pence came under fire for resisting the CDC's urging to allow clean needles to be distributed because of his conservative, religious beliefs. At the time, needle exchanges were illegal in Indiana. But after mounting pressure from health officials and praying on it, the Republican eventually lifted the ban.
Trump, however, credited Pence with establishing a "great" health care system.
“When Mike was governor, Mike Pence of Indiana, they have established great health care, they have a great system there," Trump said. "A system that a lot of the other states have really looked to and changed their systems. They wanted to base it on the Indiana system. It’s very good. And I think he is really very expert in the field."
Pence's appointment comes as the Trump administration works to bolster its response to the coronavirus amid criticism from both parties that it has so far been disjointed, late, and inadequate.
The president has continued to underplay the severity of the outbreak's threat to the US, again reiterating Wednesday that the risk to Americans is “very low." However, on Tuesday, CDC officials issued a more dire warning, saying in a press briefing that the virus's spread in American communities was "inevitable."
Earlier Wednesday, federal health officials said they had documented a patient in Northern California who somehow contracted the coronavirus without traveling to a foreign country or having been in contact with a confirmed case. According to the CDC, there are 60 total confirmed cases in the US.
In accepting his role, Pence said he understood the "vital role of partnerships of state and local governments and health authorities in responding to the potential threat of dangerous infectious diseases."
Public health experts have said otherwise.
"My first take on this is that if you’re choosing someone who’s going to lead a response for a major epidemic that has the potential to become a pandemic…then you choose somebody who has a lot of experience, maybe with a medical degree, or at least someone who has a long track record dealing with infectious disease outbreaks, global health, pandemic preparedness, or biosecurity. I don’t put those kinds of skills on Pence’s CV," Steffanie Strathdee, associate dean of global health at UCSD School of Medicine, told BuzzFeed News.
Strathdee, a trained infectious disease epidemiologist, called the move "hasty" and a politically-motivated decision given that the vice president will "follow the party line." Like many other leaders in her field, she pointed to Pence's handling of Indiana's HIV outbreak.
"Based on Pence’s response to the HIV outbreak in Indiana — 200 infections in that outbreak could have been prevented if that response had been earlier — that concerns me," she said. "We’re already getting a lot of mixed signals. The public really needs to be reassured right now."
Other public health advocates and critics of the administration's coronavirus response also cited Pence's op-ed in 2000 declaring that "smoking does not kill," the fact that he does not believe in climate change, and his distrust in the effectiveness of condoms.
In response to Trump's comments about the virus, the Infectious Diseases Society of America said that US "leadership of comprehensive and evidence-based actions will be critical to reducing the spread and impacts of the disease" and that the challenges "must be met with appropriate resources."
"We urge the president to address this crisis in ways that unify Americans in the face of the shared challenges ahead," the group said.
As of Wednesday, the coronavirus, which first emerged in China, has killed more than 2,700 people and has been detected in 37 countries. The US has taken "unprecedented steps" to contain the outbreak, according to the CDC, such as travel restrictions, mass quarantines, and declaring a public health emergency.
Azeen Ghorayshi contributed reporting.