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Trump administration officials seek to calm public as new US virus cases reported

UPDATED: Sun., March 1, 2020

Vice President Mike Pence speaks during a news conference with President Donald Trump on coronavirus in the press briefing room at the White House, Saturday, Feb. 29, 2020, in Washington. Pence appeared on the Sunday morning talk shows as new coronavirus cases in Illinois and Rhode Island were reported. (Andrew Harnik / AP)
Vice President Mike Pence speaks during a news conference with President Donald Trump on coronavirus in the press briefing room at the White House, Saturday, Feb. 29, 2020, in Washington. Pence appeared on the Sunday morning talk shows as new coronavirus cases in Illinois and Rhode Island were reported. (Andrew Harnik / AP)
By Darlene Superville Associated Press

WASHINGTON – Vice President Mike Pence sought Sunday to reassure the American public the federal government is working to make sure state and local authorities are able to test for coronavirus, as the number of U.S. cases grew following reports of the first infections in Illinois and Rhode Island.

Fanning out across the Sunday talk shows, Health and Human Services Secretary Alex Azar disclosed the latest case in Chicago but offered no other details. Azar and Pence, who also made the rounds, said thousands more kits to test for coronavirus had been distributed to state and local officials, with thousands more to come.

Rhode Island state public health officials announced the state’s first virus case Sunday in someone in their 40s who had traveled to Italy in mid-February. The person is hospitalized and receiving treatment.

The Trump administration officials appeared on television as Washington declared a state of emergency Sunday following the virus-related death of a middle-aged man there Saturday, the first in the U.S.

Azar said officials have yet to determine how the man contracted the virus, but stressed that the risk from coronavirus remains low for the “average” American.

“They should know we have the best public health system in the world looking out for them,” the secretary said, adding that additional cases will be reported.

Pence, named by the president to be the point-person overseeing the government’s response, said more than 15,000 virus testing kits had been released over the weekend. And, the administration is working with a commercial provider to distribute 50,000 more, he said.

The vice president said testing was among the first issues raised by governors with whom he’s spoken so far.

“We’re leaning into it,” Pence said.

Azar said more than 3,600 people already have been tested for coronavirus and the capability exists to test 75,000 people. He forecast a “radical expansion of that” in the coming weeks.

Pence and Azar spoke a day after President Donald Trump approved new restrictions on international travel to prevent the spread within the U.S. of the new virus, which originated in China. There are now more than 80,000 cases worldwide and nearly 3,000 deaths.

The new U.S. travel restrictions apply to Iran, although travel there by Americans already is severely limited, as well as heavily affected regions of Italy and South Korea. Trump tweeted Sunday that any travelers from those countries will be screened when they arrive in the U.S.

The number of known coronavirus cases in the U.S. reached 70 as of Sunday.

Trump said Saturday at a White House news conference he was thinking about closing the southern border with Mexico as a precaution. Azar said Sunday Mexico has few coronavirus cases and that it would take a dramatic change in the circumstances there to prompt serious consideration of a border shutdown.

The president, Azar said, “was trying to say everything’s on the table.”

“We will take whatever measures are appropriate and necessary to protect the American people, but we don’t forecast doing that any time soon,” he said of closing the border.

Pence noted an infectious disease expert is joining an existing White House coronavirus task force on Monday. Last week, Pence announced the addition of Debbie Birx, a State Department ambassador-at-large and medical doctor who is the administration’s global HIV/AIDS response coordinator, to the virus panel.

Despite calls by Trump and Pence for political unity in the face of the viral threat, the issue has become mired in the partisan rancor in Washington, with both Republicans and Democrats accusing each other of mining the issue for political gain.

Trump, at a political rally last week, accused Democrats of “politicizing” the issue and said their criticism of his handling of the public health challenge was their new “hoax.”

At the White House on Saturday, Trump said he was not trying to minimize the threat from the virus.

“Again, the hoax was used in respect to Democrats and what they were saying,” he said Saturday.

Democratic presidential candidate Joe Biden, who emerged victorious Saturday night from South Carolina’s presidential primary, criticized the administration over the availability of testing kits.

Biden also panned the administration’s decision to have political appointees Pence and Azar, neither of whom are scientists by training, appear on the Sunday shows, instead of an expert like Dr. Anthony Fauci, the National Institute’s of Health infectious disease chief.

Biden claimed the administration doesn’t have testing kits. Pence and Azar said thousands of kits had been distributed. Biden also accused Trump of not allowing his scientists to speak.

“This has been outrageous, the way they proceeded,” Biden said. “They should let scientists speak.”

Azar said he didn’t know what Biden was talking about when the former vice president said testing kits didn’t exist. Azar said the Center for Disease Control and Prevention had developed a lab test for coronavirus with “historic speed.”

Fauci answered a question at a White House news conference last Wednesday by saying the administration hasn’t “muzzled” him. Fauci said he had been scheduled to appear on some Sunday shows but that he stepped back after Trump on Wednesday named Pence to be the administration’s point-person on the issue.

Pence was interviewed on CNN’s “State of the Union” and Azar commented on “Fox News Sunday,” CBS’ “Face the Nation” and ABC’s “This Week.” Biden commented on CNN.

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