With the Trump administration hoping to inject as much as $1 trillion into the economy to deal with the mounting coronavirus crisis, Vice President Pence warned on Tuesday that disruptions from the outbreak could continue until at least midsummer.
Speaking one day after President Trump unveiled sweeping new guidelines advising Americans to avoid bars, restaurants and gatherings of more than 10 people for 15 days, the vice president said the administration is bracing for a severe economic disruption.
"The 15 days is about measures we believe can impact the growth and expansion of the virus in the United States," Pence told NPR's Steve Inskeep in an interview at the White House. "But we fully expect that we will be dealing with the coronavirus in the United States for months ... according to some of our modeling, we could well be dealing with coronavirus cases in the United States well into July."
Pence's remarks came as the administration announced that it will call on Congress to approve a massive new economic stimulus package that would send direct cash payments to Americans. The $1 trillion price tag under discussion would eclipse the $787 billion stimulus package that Congress passed in 2009 at the height of the financial crisis.
While the vice president would not go into detail about how bad the administration expects the crisis to grow, he said "many thousands" of Americans will contract the illness.
But, he said, "We are still at that point in the spread of the coronavirus in the United States where strong action, common sense, personal hygiene and what they call social distancing for now, among every American, can significantly reduce the spread of the virus."
On Monday, a report by an epidemic modeling group at Imperial College London said that until a vaccine was available — which could take as long as 18 months, according to Pence — drastic restrictions on work, school and social gatherings would be needed.
The report said that with relatively modest restrictions on social activity only, deaths could top 1 million. The researchers found that if the U.S. took no action whatsoever to slow the spread of the coronavirus, as many as 2.2 million Americans would die.
With the number of cases continuing to climb, Americans appear to be losing confidence in the federal government's handling of the crisis. An NPR/PBS NewsHour/Marist poll released on Tuesday found that only 46% of Americans feel the government is doing enough to prevent the spread of the coronavirus, down from 61% in February.
And at a time when confidence in public officials is considered critical to coordinating a response to the outbreak, the poll found majorities of Americans lacking trust in President Trump. Sixty percent of Americans said they had not very much or no trust at all in what they are hearing from the president. Only 37% said they had a good amount or a great deal of trust.
That mistrust has been driven, at least in part, by comments by the president seeming to downplay the severity of the coronavirus. He has compared the virus to the flu, even though the administration's own experts have called it "10 times more lethal than regular seasonal flu"; he said in February "One day — it's like a miracle — it will disappear"; and as recently as March 7 said he was "not concerned at all" when asked about the virus spreading closer to Washington and the White House.
The president's tone has since shifted. On Monday, he described the coronavirus as "an invisible enemy" and conceded that it's "not under control for any place in the world."
The mixed messaging has apparently contributed to a deep partisan divide in how Americans perceive the threat. Despite 6,300 cases and more than 100 deaths nationwide as of Tuesday, only 56% of Americans consider the coronavirus "a real threat," down 10 percentage points from February.
Pollsters found that shift being driven by Republicans — 40% of whom now call the coronavirus a real threat, down from 72% in February. Conversely, more than 3 in 4 Democrats now say the outbreak is a real threat.
Asked about the divide, Pence said, "I don't think you have to tell any American that the threat of the coronavirus to our population is real. People understand that. And they also understand that the threat of serious illness to the average American does remain low."
Those who are most at risk for getting very sick, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, are older people and those with serious chronic medical conditions like heart disease, diabetes or lung disease.
The vice president also defended the administration's response to the crisis, saying that had President Trump not suspended travel into the U.S. from China, "We would likely look very much in this country like Europe does today."
The more serious threat, Pence said, "is that Americans who may become exposed to the coronavirus could inadvertently expose seniors with serious underlying health conditions to the coronavirus."
"No American," he added, "wants to inadvertently spread the coronavirus to a senior with a serious underlying health condition or any other American with an immunodeficiency. We're all in this together."
(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)
PRESIDENT DONLAD TRUMP: So with that, I'd like to just introduce our great vice president, Mike Pence. He'll say a few words, and then I'll make some other introductions. Thank you very much.
VICE PRESIDENT MIKE PENCE: Thank you, Mr. President. Good morning.
DAVID GREENE, HOST:
When President Trump led a briefing yesterday, the people sharing the podium included Mike Pence. He leads the coronavirus task force. Their efforts dramatically accelerated this week. As the stock market fell, the administration called for a trillion-dollar economic stimulus. The vice president tells NPR why the president also called for social distancing measures.
PENCE: Well, we got modeling in the last several days, and that's what precipitated the president's decision.
GREENE: Pence means computer modeling, which can project how this disease can spread. The vice president spoke with our co-host Steve Inskeep, who is with me now. And, Steve, what exactly is this modelling showing?
STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:
Well, Pence didn't say in our talk. He's a very, very disciplined speaker, as you will hear. But one publicly available study predicts hundreds of thousands of deaths around the world even if there's an effort to mitigate the effects. And it's in that context that the administration wants Americans now to stay at home and avoid large groups of people for 15 days.
PENCE: Put these guidelines into practice in your personal life, in your family, in your business. We think we can really impact the size and scope of this infection rate in the United States.
GREENE: And we should note how high the stakes are here because of the number of cases - if they grow too quickly, hospitals could be totally overwhelmed.
INSKEEP: And there will be more cases, David. The administration insists that coronavirus tests really are getting out into the country this week, which assures that we're going to learn of more cases, if nothing else.
GREENE: OK. So you're sitting down with Vice President Pence to talk about all of this. Where were you?
INSKEEP: We were in one of his two offices. You know, there's a big vice presidential office that's outside the White House. But we met in his other office, which is smaller but nearer the center of power in the White House West Wing. Pence has hung portraits of Calvin Coolidge and Theodore Roosevelt over his desk, although the most important feature here is that President Trump is in the Oval Office just down the hall. And it's from there that the vice president is seeking mass cooperation from a divided nation.
Days ago, you'll recall, the president was cheering on the stock market and downplaying the virus. Now the president is saying that defeating the virus comes first and the markets will follow. What is not yet clear is what the administration will do after those 15 days are up.
Do these efforts, these measures have to continue until there is a vaccine?
PENCE: The - there - we think, based upon other similar viruses and what we know of what's taken place in China and in other countries, that we will essentially see what people see on television on a regular basis and on the Internet. We will see a curve, something of a bell curve. But given the processes for approving a vaccine, putting the safety and health of America first, a vaccine will likely not be available for more than a year - closer to a year and a half. The therapeutic medicine's relief for Americans - because our pharmaceutical industry is responding to the president's call - we believe will be available this summer.
INSKEEP: But do you have to continue the CDC guidelines, the shelter in place, those things until you have a vaccine or can you drop them soon?
PENCE: I think what we're asking the American public to do right now, based on our best information, is in the next 15 days - is to avoid...
INSKEEP: But beyond that is what I'm saying.
PENCE: ...Social gatherings of more than 10 people, avoid eating and drinking at bars and restaurants and food courts, use the drive-through and pickup and delivery for restaurants, avoid discretionary travel. Essentially, do all of those things that our task force unveiled with the president's endorsement yesterday. And we're going to give best practices to the American people.
INSKEEP: Isn't the science pointing to more than 15 days, though, Mr. Vice President? If we look at Italy, if we look at China, the science is pointing to a lot more than 15 days of this, is it not?
PENCE: Oh, well, we understand, as the president said, that we will likely be dealing with the coronavirus until midsummer.
INSKEEP: The Centers for Disease Control is recommending canceling large events for eight weeks. States and cities are closing schools for many weeks, as we know, all to slow down, not stop, the flow of patients into hospitals.
PENCE: Oh, Steve, I don't want your listeners to be confused at all. The 15 days is about measures we believe can impact the growth and expansion of the virus in the United States. But we fully expect that we will be dealing with the coronavirus in the United States for months.
INSKEEP: OK. OK.
PENCE: And that's why right after - all our focus right now is to engage every American, every American business to engage in best practices to limit the spread of the coronavirus. We'll get through this. And when we do, Steve, this economy is going to come roaring back.
INSKEEP: There's an NPR/PBS NewsHour/Marist poll which surveys American attitudes about the coronavirus, and there's an interesting finding having to do specifically with Republicans. In February, 72% of Republicans agreed that this was a real threat as opposed to something that was overblown. Today, only 40% of Republicans specifically think it is a real threat as opposed to overblown. What do you say to those are the president's supporters who think this is some kind of Democratic effort to get the president or some kind of hoax?
PENCE: I would say to every American that now is the time for us all to focus on exactly the kind of common-sense measures that we've been advancing, that the CDC has been recommending now for many, many weeks, but that are specifically described in our 15-day plan to slow the virus, coronavirus.gov.
INSKEEP: Will you tell them this is real?
PENCE: Steve, I don't think you have to tell any American that the threat of the coronavirus to our population is real. People understand that. And they also understand that the threat of serious illness to the average American does remain low. But what we're trying to communicate is that Americans who may become exposed to the coronavirus could inadvertently expose seniors with serious underlying health conditions. We're all in this together. And with the practice of good hygiene and the social distancing the president is recommending, we'll get through it.
INSKEEP: As you know, Mr. Vice President, there are conservative media figures, there are people on Fox News, even the president himself who have said from time to time this is - they've compared it to the flu. They've said that Democrats are overblowing this. Sometimes you hear that it's a plot to get the president. Have you, as the head of this task force, reached out to any of those prominent figures and said, listen, I need you to talk about this a different way?
PENCE: We're speaking to the American people every day.
INSKEEP: But are you speaking privately to people about this?
PENCE: We're speaking to the American people every day. I'm speaking to governors, as the president is, every single day - Republicans and Democrats. And I have to tell you, I couldn't be more inspired. I mean, to see the partnership that we've forged with governors like Governor Jay Inslee of Washington - I traveled to Washington myself not long ago. We're in regular contact about the unique challenges Washington's facing.
INSKEEP: Didn't the president call him a snake at the same time you were working with him?
PENCE: Governor Cuomo - look. People will always have political differences, but I tell you, there is no daylight between this president, our administration and the governors of all 50 states and our territories in combating the coronavirus. And to see that seamless partnership that President Trump has forged, to see it being worked out every single day, and the way that businesses around the country are stepping up, making hard choices to put the health of their employees and the health of their customers first, they'd be just as inspired as me.
INSKEEP: There's another finding in this poll that speaks to the other side of the political divide. Sixty percent of Americans in this survey say they don't trust the president to provide reliable information in this crisis. Why do you think that would be?
PENCE: The American people can be confident that, as we've done from the very beginning, we're going to continue to marshal the best counsel of experts to bring forward the facts to the American people.
INSKEEP: I mean, people don't really seem to trust him.
PENCE: Dr. Fauci said this not long ago - in fact, earlier today - that when the president took the unprecedented step of suspending all travel from China in January, it's given the American people space and opportunity. Honestly, I've been told by our experts if the president hadn't taken the step of suspending all travel from China, we would likely look very much in this country like Europe does today.
INSKEEP: Well, it's a strange thing, though. People trust Dr. Fauci. In this survey, they trust public health professionals. And yet a big majority didn't trust the president.
PENCE: Well, the American people can trust that President Trump, his vice president and this extraordinary White House coronavirus task force is going to continue to bring all the facts forward. We have an opportunity to significantly reduce the spread of the coronavirus in the United States, and that'll continue to be our focus. But it's going to take all of us to do it.
INSKEEP: I have a personal question to conclude with, Mr. Vice President. I speak sometimes to people who have worked with you, who respect you greatly, who know you well, and they say that before important meetings you pray. Do you pray before meetings of the coronavirus task force? And if so, what have you been praying for?
PENCE: We pray for the American people and for all the people that are serving them every day, the health care workers that are on the frontlines coming alongside people that are being impacted by this coronavirus. We know that the prayer of faithful people across this country, it's always brought us through challenging times. And that along with the energetic efforts of government officials, the full participation of the American people, that we'll get through this and we'll come out stronger and better than ever before.
INSKEEP: Does your faith in some way inform the way that you think about this particular crisis in which there is so much at risk, so much death, so much potential destruction?
PENCE: We pray for wisdom. We pray to offer good counsel to the president of the United States. And I just know that as Americans we'll get through this.
INSKEEP: Mr. Vice President, thank you very much.
PENCE: Thank you, Steve.
INSKEEP: Vice President Mike Pence of Indiana spoke in the White House West Wing yesterday afternoon. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.