Coronavirus task force makes first remarks in months

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The White House’s Coronavirus Task Force made remarks to reporters for the first time since July on Thursday, as cases and deaths continue to climb, but took no questions. The U.S. has just passed the grim milestone of 250,000 deaths from COVID-19, with winter and the holidays are rapidly approaching.

The task force tried to balance emphasizing the need to remain vigilant, as cases rises, with hope as the vaccine comes online next month. Health and Human Services Secretary Alex Azar said “hope and help” are on the way. Vice President Mike Pence echoed a similar message. 

“We’re getting there, America,” he said. 

General Gustav Perna said once the Food and Drug Administration grants an emergency use authorization for a vaccine, the government would immediately begin distribution.

“It is this effort that I can look you in the face and say to you EUA comes, 24 hours later vaccines will be distributed out to the American people and be ready for administration,” he said, adding that the vaccine would be delivered to multiple sites in every state, including local pharmacies and healthcare centers.

Pence noted that cases and hospitalizations are rising, and said President Trump — not present at the briefing — had directed the task force to speak with reporters. Pence said they’re continuing the mobilization of testing, as the country waits for the vaccine to become available. 

“Even as we see help on the way, the vaccines being developed at a historic pace, as I mentioned before, as we gather today, we are seeing cases and positivity rising across the country,” Pence said. “But we approach this moment with the confidence of experience. We know the American people know what to do. We have forged a partnership that is truly seamless with state and local health authorities. And as we’ll describe to you today, we have continued to work seven days a week, all throughout this year and up to this very moment to make sure the American people have access to the health care that we’d want any member of our family to have as we meet this pandemic.”

Dr. Deborah Birx said the COVID-19 test positivity rate has increased to about 10%. Health experts say that a positivity rate of 5% or lower suggests that a state may have enough testing capacity for the size of its outbreak and is testing enough of its population to plan for reopening.

Dr. Anthony Fauci praised the efficacy of the Pfizer and Moderna vaccines, and assured Americans that the review and approval process for a vaccine is rigorous and safe.

“I hear a lot now when we made these announcements this past Monday and then two Mondays ago about some reticence of people — ‘well, did you rush this? Was this too fast? Is it really safe? And is it really efficacious?'” Fauci said. “The process of the speed did not compromise at all safety, nor did it compromise scientific integrity. It was a reflection of the extraordinary scientific advances in these types of vaccines which allowed us to do things in months that actually took years before. So I really want to settle the concern that people have about that.”

The task force met Tuesday and warned of dire consequences if more mitigation measures aren’t taken. The task force said the country could reach up to 2,000 deaths a day by Christmas, and recommended closing indoor dining and restaurants. The task force also suggested that Pence or President Trump urge Americans publicly to take more precautions.

Mr. Trump has largely stayed out of the public eye since Election Day and his loss to President-elect Joe Biden. Mr. Trump has largely forgone meeting with the task force. He gave update last week on Operation Warp Speed, the push to fast-track the vaccine.  

Pharmaceutical companies Moderna and Pfizer in the last two weeks recently announced promising news on the vaccines they’re developing. But public health officials like Dr. Anthony Fauci have warned that the country is in for a long, dark winter, when people will spend more time inside, where the risk of spreading and contracting COVID-19 is much higher. 

Meanwhile, Mr. Biden has formed his own coronavirus advisory board, particularly since the Trump administration won’t allow him to meet with current health officials. 

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