In their first official briefing since July, members of the White House Coronavirus Task Force addressed the nation on Thursday, publicly acknowledging the current surge in coronavirus cases as a group for the first time.
A number of familiar faces spoke in the briefing room, including Vice President Mike Pence, Dr. Anthony Fauci of the National Institutes of Health, Dr. Deborah Birx, Coronovirus Response Coordinator, and Health and Human Services Secretary Alex Azar.
President Trump did not attend the briefing. He has only made three public appearances since the election, and he hasn’t taken questions from reporters since before that.
“This is really a call to action for every American to increase their vigilance,” Dr. Birx said, showing a graph of the recent spike, which includes more than a million new cases reported in just the last ten days.
“This is more cases, more rapidly than what we had seen before,” she added. “Like before, we do know what to do, and we’re asking every American to do those things.”
Nearly every task force member advised Americans to double down on public health measures, such as wearing a mask and keeping a safe distance, echoing the nation’s top health experts in recent weeks.
“We approach this moment with the confidence of experience,” Pence said. “We know the American people know what to do.”
Pence referred to one of the task force’s first plans from this past spring, dubbed “45 Days to Slow the Spread,” and he highlighted how the U.S. has managed two spikes so far this year. But his comments came as the country sees its worst surge yet, with more daily cases, deaths and hospitalizations than ever before.
On average, the U.S. is now reporting more than 150,000 new COVID-19 cases and more than 1,000 new deaths per day. Nearly 80,000 Americans are hospitalized with the virus, the highest number ever recorded, as many hospitals report they’re overwhelmed and short-staffed.
Members of the task force highlighted smaller, indoor gatherings and asymptomatic cases as causes of recent spread, as opposed to cases linked to large crowds earlier in the pandemic.
“Our big threat for transmission is not the public square,“ Director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention Robert Redfield said. “It’s small family gatherings where people become more comfortable.”
On Thursday, the CDC issued a new recommendation advising against Thanksgiving travel, and the agency has also warned against large family gatherings for the holiday.
Both Vice President Pence and CDC Director Redfield said the task force does not recommend a national lockdown or closing schools.
“It’s really important [we’re ] following the data, making sure we don’t make emotional decisions about what to close,” Redfield said. “The data strongly supports that K-12 schools … really are not where we’re having our challenges. And it would be counterproductive from my point of view.”
Task force members also highlighted this week’s news about two effective vaccines from the companies Pfizer and Moderna, both of which reported their vaccines are about 95% effective.
Pharmaceutical companies Pfizer and BioNTech will seek emergency government approval for their coronavirus vaccine, as the U.S. aims to begin administering doses by the end of the year.
Health and Human Services Secretary Alex Azar said the companies would seek an emergency use authorization Friday from the Food and Drug Administration. The application and clinical trial data will be reviewed by an independent board of scientists before approval is granted.
Azar says: “Hope and help are on the way.”
Dr. Fauci emphasized that any approved vaccine will be safe, due to its data being reviewed by an independent body of experts, reiterating what he said in a conversation with Spectrum News this week.
“The process of speed did not compromise at all safety nor did it compromise scientific integrity,” Fauci said. “I really want to settle that concern that people have.”
General Gustave Perna, who oversees vaccine distribution, also said the country is fully prepared to send out a vaccine, which he said could happen within 24 hours of FDA approval.
Members of the task force did not take questions from reporters at the end of the briefing, despite it being their first appearance since July.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.