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–Vice President Pence
It sounds like we are really gearing up on testing capacity, from thousands to a million tests possible by the end of this month. With the large expansion Vice President Pence brought his team back to the White House Press Briefing Room, announced the updated numbers: 43 cases not including the 48 brought back from overseas, and 4 new deaths, bringing the death total in the United States to 6. He introduced two new coronavirus task force members: Seema Vera, administrator of the Center for Medicare and Medicaid Services, and the Department of Veterans’ Affairs secretary, as these two programs provide medical care to an enormous number of Americans, and have oversight for procedures in health care facilities within their programs.
The scene in the room was one of a group of seasoned medical experts who had known each other for decades. The two most senior were there for the beginning of the HIV/AIDS epidemic. Ambassador Deborah Birx:
I just arrived from South Africa last night. Everybody took great care of me. I had computer and phone in record time. . . I have never worked with such incredible scientists and thoughtful policy leaders.
VP Pence controlled the briefing sequence and dominated the Q&A. He transitioned from briefing to Q&A by calling on the first reporter by name and affiliation, then called on a second and finally a third reporter. He did not allow any yelling or posturing, closing swiftly with the words quoted above.
Highlight from the March 4 briefing shows the importance of bringing Seema Vera into the taskforce:
As Dr. Birx will — will indicate in just a few moments with some of the data that we’re evaluating from around the world, it does appear that the elderly are the most vulnerable and especially those serious health issues.
At the President’s direction, as a result, Seema Verma will describe that the Center for Medicaid and Medicare Services has issued new guidelines for nursing homes nationwide. We have raised the bar regarding infectious disease control in our nursing homes.
And in addition, Administrator Verma will explain how we are going to focus all of our inspection resources for the foreseeable future on compliance with infection control standards.
Generally, we — we monitor our nursing homes for abuse and neglect. But at the President’s direction, we’re going to focus exclusively on ensuring that those who are in nursing homes — people operating the nursing homes, like many of the CEOs that we met with today — are complying with the new standards to keep our elderly safe.
But perhaps most significantly, thanks to Dr. Birx’s efforts and leadership, we brought together, today at the White House, the leaders of all of the largest commercial laboratories in this country — companies like Quest that have vast capabilities, logistics and testing capabilities. And we were pleased to report today that they have created a consortium to share information and to share resources and literally have told us that, as they go through what is called the “validation process” on testing that, by next week, individual companies will be able to do, as they said to me, thousands of tests of coronavirus if they are needed and required, and many, many multiples more of that in the not-distant future.
Our objective here, as Dr. Birx raised with the task force is we’ve got hospitals in affected areas and those that are requesting that have kits — we’ve got universities and state labs that now can perform the test on a requested basis. But our objective, ultimately, and as quickly as possible, is to have tests made through these commercial laboratories and commercial providers that your local doctor, your CVS, your MedCheck is able to have a coronavirus test. And that isn’t there yet; we’re working to make that a reality.
But again, it’s one more example — it’s not just a whole-of-government approach; it’s a whole-of-America approach. And whether it be our nursing home industry, whether it be our airline industry, whether it be our commercial laboratories, I can speak on behalf of President Trump and our entire task force when I say we are profoundly grateful for the spirit that’s being reflected by companies all across the United States of America, grateful for the leadership at the state level. And the American people should be confident that that spirit of partnership is going to continue to drive this at every level as we work our way through dealing with the coronavirus in the United States.
With that, I’m going to recognize Dr. Deborah Birx for her comments.
DR. BIRX: Thank you, Mr. Vice President. Good evening. Over the — over the last 12 hours, we’ve been able to receive information, both from South Korea and Italy, adding to our China information. And it’s as we thought: The elderly and preexisting conditions have a more serious illness when confronted with the coronavirus.
Reassuringly, in South Korea, no one has died under 30. This is reassuring to us. And the median age in Italy was 81, of those who succumbed. Those who became ill, the median age was 60.
So we find this data reassuring but it also has
has really caused us to focus on the Americans who might be most vulnerable. So we’re focusing resources, attention, and all of our capacity to ensure those who have preexisting conditions and those who are elderly have access to the best prevention and treatment options.
The prevention options flow right through all of us to ensure that we have good protective hygiene for our elderly clients around the globe.
THE VICE PRESIDENT: Thank you.
ADMINISTRATOR VERMA: Thank you. And as you heard, because of the risk for our nation’s seniors, we are doubling down on our efforts. Today, we put out three memos. One was to hospitals about triaging and placement for patients with suspected or confirmed coronavirus. We also put out some information to nursing homes about limiting visitors to nursing homes, monitoring staff. And then, finally, we put out some information to our state surveyors that are going to be surveying our nation’s nursing homes and hospitals around infection control.
So all of that information went out this morning.