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Trump appoints Vice President Mike Pence to head coronavirus emergency response

"I don't think it's inevitable," President Trump says of the spread of deadly COVID-19 in the United States.

Susan Morse, Managing Editor

President Donald Trump on Thursday appointed Vice President Mike Pence to lead the emergency response to the coronavirus in the U.S.

The Trump Administration has been debating whether the role is necessary and the president, speaking during a news conference late Thursday, downplayed the title of czar.

"This isn't a czar, Mike is part of the administration," Trump said.

Trump cited Pence's experience as governor of Indiana to head and coordinate efforts to stop the spread of the coronavirus.

Pence was governor of Indiana when that state had the first outbreak of the coronavirus MERS in 2014.

"I know full well the importance of presidential leadership, the importance of administration leadership and the vital role of partnerships of state and local governments and health authorities in responding to the potential threat of dangrous infectious diseases," he said.

Pence said his role will continue to bring that team together, to work with members of Congress, Health and Human Services Secretary Alex Azar and to reach out to governors and other state and local officials to make sure they have the resources to respond.

An estimated $2.5 billion is slated for the response, though Democrats and some Republicans have suggested more, Trump said.

Health officials have made large scale plans, including quarantining cities if necessary, as Chinese officials did in Wuhan, where the virus originated.

"We don't think we're going to need it," Trump said.

The U.S. has ordered protective masks.

The president made no commitment to add Italy and South Korea to the current travel ban on China, as cases in those countries climb.

"At the right time we may do that," he said.

He also made no recommendation for Americans to change their travel plans abroad.

As Trump outlined steps being taken to scale up efforts to combat the spread, he often commented that it might not be necessary.

Of the 15 current cases in the U.S., not counting more than 40 infected repatriated Americans who were aboard the Diamond Princess cruise ship or brought home from China, all but one are recovering. Eight have returned home, five have fully recovered and one is in the hospital.

"One is pretty sick, the others are in great shape," he said.

To a question about a widely reported comment made by a senior health official yesterday that the spread is inevitable, Trump said, "I don't think it's inevitable."

Dr. Nancy Messonnier, director of the CDC's National Center for Immunization and Respiratory Diseases said of the spread in the U.S., "It's not so much a question of if this will happen anymore but rather more a question of exactly when this will happen and how many people in this country will have severe illness."

COVID-19, which has infected more than 81,000 people worldwide and killed 2,771, is so far being contained here due to an early decision to close U.S. borders, a move that was ridiculed in the beginning, Trump said.

Of the hits the stock market has taken, due in large part to threats to the supply chain from China, Trump said, "I think the stock market will recover. The economy is very strong."

The coronavirus threatens the United States, the stock market and the economy during a presidential election year, and the president struck out at Democrats, saying they're willing to give money to fight the virus, but not to build a border wall.

Trump indicated that the market is reacting to the field of Democratic presidential contenders and blamed House Speaker Nancy Pelosi for not saying she's willing to work together to combat the coronavirus.

"She's trying to create a panic, there's no reason to panic," he said. "All they're trying to do is get a political advantage."

Dr. Anthony Fauci, head of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, said vaccines should be ready for trial in about two months but that it would take another three months to determine if they're safe and an additional six to eight months to determine efficacy.

Since the country can't rely on a vaccine this year and the virus could come back and recycle next year, Fauci said, "The answer to containing is public health measures." 

Twitter: @SusanJMorse
Email the writer: susan.morse@himssmedia.com