Vice President Mike Pence, the newly appointed White House coronavirus response coordinator, was preparing to leave Friday for his first trip out of Washington since President Trump tapped him for the job: a meeting with Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis to discuss preparedness for the epidemic. The meeting, at the Palm Beach International Airport, was added to Pence’s schedule late Thursday night, after Wednesday reports that Pence would be attending a fundraiser nearby for the National Republican Congressional Committee (NRCC).
There are no known cases of the coronavirus in Florida.
The Tampa Bay Times reported that tickets to the fundraising event at Rep. Vern Buchanan’s beachfront house on Longboat Key near Sarasota ranged from $2,500 to get in the door to $5,000 to take a picture with the vice president and $25,000 for dinner. An NRCC spokesperson confirmed to Yahoo News Friday morning that the event was still happening.
Local authorities have already announced road closures — and a 60-minute delay in the start time of the local theater’s “Les Miserables” production — in advance of Pence’s visit. Homes in Buchanan’s neighborhood have sold for over $10 million.
Pence was also set to deliver early afternoon remarks at the annual economic conference for the Club for Growth, a conservative lobbying organization, in West Palm Beach on Friday.
On Wednesday, President Trump said that Pence would lead the coronavirus effort, declining to call him a “czar” after criticizing former President Barack Obama’s administration for using the same language. During the announcement, Trump conflicted with messaging from health officials who have said a vaccine could take over a year by saying it was “something that we can develop fairly rapidly.”
The New York Times reported that Trump put Pence in charge because his vice president did not “have anything else to do.” Trump praised Pence’s record on health issues while he was governor of Indiana. But a federally funded study found that his administration’s slow response in 2015 helped the spread of HIV in the state.
On Thursday, California Gov. Gavin Newsom said the state was “monitoring” 8,400 people for possible coronavirus infection, based on possible exposure. Multiple outlets published a report from a Health and Human Services whistleblower who said that federal workers initially sent to assist with the processing of Americans evacuated from China lacked both sufficient training and gear.
According to the report, the whistleblower faced professional retaliation from Health and Human Services Secretary Alex Azar, a former pharmaceutical lobbyist who is also leading the White House’s coronavirus efforts.
Global stock markets have also reeled in response to the virus, with the Dow suffering its worst single-day drop ever on Thursday. Speaking at the Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC) earlier in the day, Pence expressed confidence in the White House’s ability to combat the coronavirus.
“I promise you, we will continue to bring the full resources of the federal government to bear to protect the American people. And as the president also said, it’s important to remember we’re all in this together. This is not the time for partisanship,” said Pence, before later turning to partisanship in calling for the reelection of Trump.
Speaking at CPAC Friday morning, acting White House chief of staff Mick Mulvaney tried to allay fears, saying, “What I might do to calm the markets is turn the television off for 24 hours. This is not Ebola. It’s not SARS. It’s not MERS.” Coronavirus infection has an estimated mortality rate of 2 percent, well below the rates of SARS and MERS, two other epidemic respiratory diseases of the 21st century. But it has already killed more than 2,400 people worldwide, more than the combined death total from SARS and MERS. Ebola deaths are in excess of 11,000 in the most recent outbreak.
White House National Economic Council Director Larry Kudlow said Tuesday, a day prior to Trump’s task force announcement, not to worry, telling CNBC, “We have contained this, I won’t say airtight but pretty close to airtight.”
CNN reported Friday morning that Mulvaney sent a governmentwide email Thursday saying all coronavirus-related communications must go through Pence’s press team. This coincides with a New York Times report that Anthony Fauci, MD, one of the country’s leading experts on viruses and the director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Disease, was told by the White House not to speak further without clearance, leaving Pence as the administration’s primary messenger on the coronavirus.
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