Vice President Mike Pence took control of the U.S. response to the coronavirus Thursday by pledging an “all hands on deck” effort, hoping to contain panic over the outbreak that fueled another rout on Wall Street.
Mr. Pence toured an operations center that is tracking the disease known as COVID-19 and said he has reached out to Republican and Democratic congressional leaders to forge a united front against the virus.
“I want to assure you in the days ahead the full resources of the government will be brought to bear,” Mr. Pence told reporters at a meeting of his new team at the Department of Health and Human Services.
President Trump on Wednesday tapped Mr. Pence to lead the response and ensure Americans that COVID-19, which has sickened more than 80,000 worldwide, will not spiral out of control as the virus strains South Korea and Iran and presses into Europe through Italy.
Japan announced Thursday it will close all elementary, junior high and high schools through March.
Even as Mr. Pence took the reins, however, the Dow Jones Industrial Average plummeted by almost 1,200 points amid worries about global supply chains and news of a California patient who likely contracted the disease in the community. State officials are trying to track down people who might have crossed with the woman hospitalized in Sacramento.
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California Gov. Gavin Newsom and his health team said she had not traveled to Asia or been exposed to an infected person, at least knowingly.
The woman lives in Solano County, home to Travis Air Force Base, where many people infected in China or on cruise ships have been treated. But Sonia Y. Angell, director of the California Department of Public Health, said there was no evidence the woman had any connection to the base.
Federal and state officials said that means the source of the infection is unknown, though it’s likely she got it from someone who had traveled to the hot zone.
“This particular case could be the first possible instance of community transmission of COVID-19 in the United States and it’s here in California,” Dr. Angell said.
California authorities said there were days when the woman was in the community, though officials said they are not allowed to disclose her place of work or the specific number of contacts that investigators are tracking down.
“This a fluid situation at this time and I want to emphasize that the risk to the general public remains low,” Dr. Angell said. “In the event that that risk changes, we will communicate with you.”
The U.S. is monitoring 60 cases, including 15 detected on U.S. soil and 45 repatriated from China and Japan.
Mr. Pence told supporters at the Conservative Political Action Conference that “one patient is hospitalized” before pivoting to patients who have recovered, echoing Mr. Trump’s assertion that federal measures are working.
“While the risk to the American public remains low, as the president said yesterday we’re ready. We’re ready for anything,” Mr. Pence told CPAC.
Mr. Trump wants Mr. Pence to serve as an overarching point-man who can ensure that agency heads are speaking to each other amid the “all-of-government” response, according to aides.
The vice president started his first day in charge by appointing Ambassador Debbie Birx, the U.S. global AIDS coordinator and special representative for global health diplomacy, to serve as the White House coronavirus response coordinator.
The selection was well-received, though it led to some confusion about who is leading the response since Health and Human Services Secretary Alex Azar is at the helm of the White House’s coronavirus task force.
“I’m leading the task force. We’ll continue to rely on the secretary’s role as chairman of the task force,” Mr. Pence told reporters.
During their meeting, Mr. Pence asked the National Institutes of Health’s director for infectious diseases, Dr. Anthony Fauci, to describe how the virus likely jumped from bats or another animal to humans and has a higher fatality rate than influenza.
The vice president said he is in touch with Republican and Democratic leadership on Capitol Hill, as the administration calls for a bipartisan approach to tackling the virus.
“This is not the time for partisanship,” Mr. Pence said. “The American people expect us to work together.”
Yet some Democrats are slamming his appointment, citing their belief he exacerbated a 2015 outbreak of HIV/AIDS among injectable drug users in Indiana by slow-walking a needle-exchange effort while he served as governor.
The highest-ranking Democrat on the Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee asked Mr. Trump to reconsider the appointment.
“At a time when science and public health considerations should be driving all decision-making and the public is looking to the federal government for clear, fact-based communications, it is clear that Vice President Pence is neither a responsible nor a reliable selection to lead the coronavirus response. I strongly urge you to reconsider this appointment,” said Sen. Patty Murray of Washington.
At the White House, Mr. Trump said Thursday the country is rallying around the fight, so Democrats shouldn’t make it a political issue.
He also said the media didn’t give him credit for containing the virus by restricting travel from China.
“I think it’s an incredible achievement what our county’s done,” he said during a meeting with African-American leaders and personalities.
A whistleblower complaint from a senior health official added to questions about the federal response on Thursday.
The complaint says federal health workers who interacted with Americans in quarantine for possible COVID-19 exposure did so without proper medical training or protective gear and then dispersed into the population outside of military bases, according to a portion of the filing obtained by The New York Times.
They were sent to Travis Air Force Base and March Air Reserve Base, including the hangar where the repatriated passengers from Asia were received, but did not receive safety training until later on, the report says.
Meanwhile, the Dow Jones Industrial Average closed down 1,190 points, 4.4%, on Thursday, continuing a series of big selloffs this week. The S&P 500 also fell 4.4%, extending a selloff that puts the index 12% off the record high it set a week ago.
Investors are skittish about the soaring case counts in South Korea, Italy and elsewhere and lasting damage to global supply chains from the virus that popped up in China in December.
Reports from California only added to anxiety about the COVID-19 epidemic.
Hospital workers said the new California patient was brought to UC-Davis on Feb. 19 but was not tested for the virus until Sunday.
The CDC said it is checking into claims that an earlier request for testing was turned away.
“CDC is concerned about reports that testing for COVID-19 for the California patient announced on Feb. 26 was delayed as a result of CDC,” agency spokesman Richard Quartarone said. “We are investigating this carefully, however, a preliminary review of CDC records indicates that CDC was first informed about this case on Sunday, February 23.”
The patient’s test came back positive Wednesday, prompting federal officials to announce it to Congress and the public as the 15th case discovered within the U.S.
Before transferring to UC-Davis, the patient had spent three days at the NorthBay VacaValley Hospital.
“During the course of the three-day stay, the patient’s condition worsened, prompting our physicians to seek transfer to UC Davis where a higher level of monitoring and care could be delivered. The patient was transported via ambulance,” said Aimee Brewer, president of the NorthBay Healthcare Group.
“Immediately after learning that a former patient taken to UC Davis Medical Center had been tested by the CDC and found to be carrying the coronavirus, we launched a meticulous tracing of anyone in our Vacaville hospital who may have had any contact with that patient,” she said.
People who might be at moderate or high risk because of their contact with the patient were asked to stay home and monitor themselves for signs of COVID-19.