The White House Coronavirus Task Force presented its first briefing in months on Thursday, just as the US faces an unprecedented surge of cases in the final months of the Trump administration.
Headed by Vice President Mike Pence, members of the task force presented the current dire outlook, with the US passing more than 11 million cases on Sunday. They offered reassurances about coming vaccines and mixed messages of calling for people to wear masks and stay 6 feet apart, without endorsing the CDC's "strong" recommendation earlier in the day not to travel over the holidays. The briefing adjourned without taking questions from reporters.
"We've continued to be on the same mission we've been on throughout the course of this year and that is to save American lives," said Pence to begin the show, held in the White House press briefing room. "Let me say personally not a day has gone by that I haven't thought personally about families that have lost loved ones, and I want to assure each of you that you will always be in our hearts and you will remain in our prayers."
More than 250,000 Americans have now died of COVID-19 since February. A surge of cases is now killing more than 1,100 people a day nationwide, a figure expected to double within the next month. Projections suggest that 150,000 more people will die from the beginning of November through the end of Trump's term in January.
Task force members such as Deborah Birx, who outlined the steep trajectory of current cases increases exceeding past surges, Anthony Fauci, and CDC chief Robert Redfield implored people to wear masks, stay 6 feet apart, and avoid gatherings to blunt the increase in cases. However, they also hewed to Trump administration favorites, underlining they wanted to avoid lockdowns of business and calling for schools to remain open, even amid the surge in cases that have discouraged older teachers and staff from such moves in school districts nationwide.
"I understand that parents and teachers may feel great anxiety," said Elinore McCance-Katz, head of the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration, who called for reopening schools to forestall child abuse and provide services to millions of children with serious emotional disturbances who receive counseling from school systems. She did not suggest that the White House back funding, however, to provide those services directly to children outside of school during the pandemic.
Recent news of extraordinarily efficacious vaccine candidates, one from Pfizer that appears 95% effective and one from Moderna that appears 94.5% effective in blocking COVID-19, was also discussed by several presenters, who asked the American people to redouble their efforts to wear masks and avoid gatherings until they arrived.
"If you're fighting a battle and the cavalry's on the way, you don't stop shooting, you keep going until the cavalry gets here," Fauci said. "You might even want to continue fighting."
Much went unaddressed during the briefing, perhaps due to the lack of questions.
Pence and members of Operation Warp Speed, the $10 billion public–private partnership to provide COVID-19 vaccines and treatments, touted the delivery plans once those vaccines receive FDA authorization, expected sometime next month. Millions of Americans would receive shots within two days of that authorization, Pence said.
Unmentioned was that most Americans won't get those shots until the spring or summer, as the CDC estimates it will take six weeks to ramp up vaccine distribution and most of the early month's shots will go to healthcare personnel and people most vulnerable to COVID-19 in a nation of 320 million people.
One familiar figure absent from the task force briefing was President Donald Trump, mentioned only by Pence and HHS chief Alex Azar during the event. Also absent was any mention of the transition to the Biden administration in January.
This story has been updated to include more details about the projected number of COVID-19 deaths through January.