Pence Heads To Washington State As Coronavirus Death Toll Rises

Mar 4, 2020
Originally published on March 5, 2020 11:12 am

Updated at 7 p.m. ET

Vice President Mike Pence will travel to Olympia, Wash., on Thursday to meet with the governor and health officials and express support for the region that has been hit hardest by coronavirus.

"By being there on the ground, I want to assure the people of Washington State, people of California, people that are in the communities that are being impacted by the virus, that we're with them," Pence told reporters, pledging federal resources to help.

As of Wednesday, 10 people in Washington state have died after contracting the virus. The state now has 39 confirmed cases, many of which are linked to a long-term care facility northeast of Seattle. California has had one death and more than 50 positive cases, state health officials say, including 24 people who arrived in the U.S. on repatriation flights from outbreak locations in Asia.

Pence held meetings with business leaders in sectors linked to the coronavirus response at the White House on Wednesday, including CEOs from nursing homes and commercial laboratory testing companies.

President Trump joined a task force meeting with CEOs of major airlines to press for more cooperation with data that public health officials use to track down passengers when someone on a flight is later found to have coronavirus.

"What we're asking for is additional pieces of information so that the CDC ... and others can track individuals as they come into the country and as they continue on to their final destination," acting Department of Homeland Security Secretary Chad Wolf told reporters.

Asked whether the issue had been resolved, Wolf said: "I think we will continue to have conversations."

The top lobbyist for the airline industry told the task force that airlines are working on a mobile app and website to collect information. "We think there are better ways to trace the passengers coming in," said Nicholas Calio, CEO of Airlines for America.

The CDC is still working to trace people who shared a flight with a person from North Carolina who became sick with coronavirus after flying home from a visit to the Life Care Center in Kirkland, Wash., the long-term care facility that is considered to be the site of an outbreak.

"We have the manifest. Now the trick is to go find them. That's why we're having this discussion," Robert Redfield, director of the CDC, told reporters.

The airline CEOs told Trump and Pence they were taking extra steps to clean and disinfect aircraft. Oscar Munoz, CEO of United Airlines, said the issue was personal for him: He is a heart transplant survivor and has immune issues. He said his staff invented the "corona bump" – a greeting by elbow – which he called "a fun way of expressing what we all need to know."

Trump has said his decision in late January to restrict air travel from China was a key factor in slowing the spread of the disease in the United States. His administration has added screening measures for travelers on flights from Italy and South Korea — two other hot spots for the virus — and he said on Tuesday he is considering further limits on incoming travelers for those two countries and Japan.

Trump said the administration will continue to evaluate whether further restrictions are needed for international travelers entering the United States.

"As certain areas get to be more of a problem, we may close them up, as we have done with numerous areas," Trump said.

Pence met with Democratic and House lawmakers on Wednesday. Later, they approved a response package worth about $8 billion — far greater than the $2.5 billion that the Trump administration had requested. The Senate is expected to vote on the measure by the end of the week.

Some of the money will be used to buy millions of face masks and other protective gear for health workers from 3M, Honeywell and other companies. Pence plans to visit a 3M plant in Minnesota on Thursday before going to Washington state.

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A single case of coronavirus in North Carolina reveals the challenge of containing the virus. The person traveled from Washington state, which has multiple cases and 10 of the 11 U.S. deaths so far. So how did the person travel out of Washington state undetected, and what can the government do now? Vice President Mike Pence is leading the federal response to the disease and will be in Washington state today.

NPR White House correspondent Franco Ordoñez begins our coverage. He's in our studios. Good morning.


INSKEEP: What is the challenge the vice president and the rest of the government face?

ORDOÑEZ: It's a big challenge. They really need to have this information. They say they need to have this information so they can contain this virus. I mean, this meeting yesterday morning was the big meeting - one of the big meetings for the morning, and it was so big that President Trump even joined Pence in the coronavirus meeting. The task force wants more information from the airlines about travelers. Where are they going? Where did they land? Where do they go after they land?

Just an - as an example, as you pointed out, the CDC is trying to track down information about the flight to North Carolina with the person who eventually got sick. That person, as you noted, was from - it was in Kirkland, Wash., at the nursing home where there were a number of cases. I specifically asked CDC Director Robert Redfield about this and what information they had. Here's what he said.

ROBERT REDFIELD: And as we have the manifest, now the trick is to go find them. And that's why we're having this discussion.

INSKEEP: Meaning go find everybody who was on that plane.

ORDOÑEZ: Exactly. And they are having that discussion. They do not have everyone yet. And the task force made very clear that this issue of sharing data is not resolved. You know, the airlines, on the - on their part, they want the administration to say that it's safe to fly, to fly domestically. This has hurt their business. Some of the executives were just, like, nodding their head as President Trump actually said this and obliged to them. I was there, and you could see them just kind of nodding their heads.

INSKEEP: May - not - said what? That they would allow - they would welcome people to travel freely, that's what the president said?

ORDOÑEZ: The president said that it was safe to fly...


ORDOÑEZ: ...And Pence said it later today - later in the day, that it was safe to fly.

INSKEEP: All right. This is just one aspect of the federal government's response and one aspect of the challenges. What does the vice president's travel itinerary - his own travel itinerary today - say about the government's priorities?

ORDOÑEZ: Right. I mean, the vice president is traveling to Washington today to that specific area where there have been a lot of cases. He's going to travel first to Minnesota, where 3M is, and he's going to be where they're producing masks for hospitals. The bipartisan funding package - that includes money for ramping up supplies for health workers. After that, Pence will travel to Washington state to meet with the governor, Inslee, and assure the community that it has the full support of the government.

INSKEEP: OK. Thanks very much. That's NPR's Franco Ordoñez.

ORDOÑEZ: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.