Amid final days of campaign, pandemic returns as a focus

As a top White House official declared Sunday, “We’re not going to control the pandemic,” several aides to Vice President Mike Pence tested positive for COVID-19.

Vice President Mike Pence is seen at a campaign rally held at the Tallahassee International Airport on Oct. 24, 2020. Despite positive tests among his aides, Mr. Pence, who leads the White House’s coronavirus task force, is proceeding with in-person campaigning.

The coronavirus has reached the upper echelons of the White House again, with an outbreak among aides to Vice President Mike Pence just over a week from Election Day. A top White House official declared Sunday: “We’re not going to control the pandemic.”

The candidates have demonstrated remarkably different attitudes about what they see as safe behavior in the homestretch of a campaign that, as with all aspects of American life, has been upended by the pandemic.

Officials on Sunday scoffed at the notion of Mr. Pence dialing back in-person campaigning despite positive tests among several people in his office. Mr. Pence, who leads the White House’s coronavirus task force, has an aggressive travel schedule planned for the final days of the campaign.

White House chief of staff Mark Meadows, pressed to explain why the pandemic cannot be reined in, said, “Because it is a contagious virus just like the flu.” He told CNN’s ”State of the Union” that the government was focused on getting effective therapeutics and vaccines to market.

Mr. Pence, who tested negative on Sunday, according to his office, held a rainy early evening rally in Kinston, North Carolina, a state that Mr. Trump won in 2016 and is crucial to his reelection hopes. Meanwhile, the president held a rally in New Hampshire and visited an orchard in Levant, Maine, where he signed autographs and assured a crush of mostly unmasked supporters that a “red wave” was coming on Nov. 3. He and first lady Melania Trump wrapped up the busy weekend by hosting costumed children for a socially distanced Halloween trick-or-treating on the White House grounds.

Democrat Joe Biden attended church and planned to participate in a virtual get-out-the-vote concert at night. He said in a statement that Mr. Meadows was effectively waving “the white flag of defeat” and “a candid acknowledgement of what President Trump’s strategy has clearly been from the beginning of this crisis.”

In a brief exchange with reporters before the orchard visit, Mr. Trump demurred when asked if Mr. Pence should step off the campaign trail as a precaution. “You’d have to ask him,” Mr. Trump said.

The White House said none of the staff traveling with Mr. Trump on Sunday had been in close contact with any individuals in the vice president’s office who had tested positive. But public health experts said that Mr. Pence’s decision to keep up in-person campaigning was flouting common sense.

Lawrence Gostin, a public health expert at Georgetown University’s law school, said Mr. Pence in his decision to forgoing quarantine was violating his own task force’s recommendations.

“It’s one standard for the vice president and another for all the rest of us,” Mr. Gostin said.

The United States set a daily record Friday for new confirmed coronavirus infections and nearly matched it Saturday with 83,178, data published by Johns Hopkins University shows. Close to 8.6 million Americans have contracted the coronavirus since the pandemic began, and about 225,000 have died; both totals are the world’s highest. About half the states have seen their highest daily infection numbers so far at some point in October.

Mr. Trump, campaigning in Londonderry, New Hampshire, said the rising rate of infections was nothing to be concerned about. ”You know why we have cases so much?” Mr. Trump asked a shoulder-to-shoulder crowd. “Because all we do is test.”

Entering the final full week before the Nov. 3 election, it’s clear the Trump team remains committed to full-throttle campaigning. Mr. Trump himself has resumed a hectic schedule since recovering from his own recent coronavirus case, and planned to campaign Monday in Pennsylvania. Mr. Pence will campaign in Minnesota on Monday and return to North Carolina on Tuesday.

Despite the rising virus numbers, the White House says the U.S. economy needs to fully reopen and it has tried to counter Mr. Biden’s criticism that Mr. Trump is not doing enough to contain the worst U.S. public health crisis in more than a century.

Mr. Trump and his aides again on Sunday lashed out on Mr. Biden, falsely asserting Mr. Biden was determined to lock down the economy, while the president is centering his attention on getting therapies and vaccines to market.

“We want normal life to resume,” Mr. Trump said. “We just want normal life.”

Mr. Pence has generally been more measured in public commentary about the virus. Still, he has echoed Mr. Trump’s impatience at times and sought to contrast Mr. Trump’s push to reopen the economy with Mr. Biden’s caution, including during a campaign stop in Lakeland, Florida, just hours before the White House confirmed his top adviser had tested positive. “When Joe Biden is talking about shutting down our economy, we are opening up America again,” Mr. Pence said.

Mr. Biden, in fact, has said he would only shut down the country if that is what government scientists advise. He has said that if elected, he would make the case for why a national mask mandate might be necessary and would go to the governors to help increase Americans’ mask-wearing.

Mr. Pence’s office says there are no plans to curtail campaigning. In addition to chief of staff Marc Short, who tested positive Saturday, a “couple” other aides also have also contracted the disease, Mr. Meadows said. Other news outlets reported that at least 5 Pence aides had tested positive.

Mr. Meadows said Mr. Pence will wear a mask – “because the doctors have advised him to do that” – but take it off when he gives a speech.

After consulting with the White House Medical Unit, Mr. Pence intended to maintain his schedule “in accordance with the CDC guidelines for essential personnel,” said Devin O’Malley, a Pence spokesman.

Mr. Meadows sidestepped questions about whether Mr. Pence’s campaigning fit into the spirit of the CDC’s guidelines for essential work. “He’s not just campaigning, he’s working,” Mr. Meadows said. 

“We’re not going to control the pandemic. We are going to control the fact that we get vaccines, therapeutics and other mitigation areas,” Mr. Meadows said on CNN. He added: “We are making efforts to contain it.”

When Mr. Trump emerged from his own bout with COVID-19, it was with even greater certitude that the nation has gone too far with efforts to stem the virus, and he has spoken out repeatedly that children should be in school and healthy Americans should get back to normal life with limited restrictions.

But Mr. Biden has relied on virtual events and small, socially-distanced gatherings to make his case to voters.

This story was reported by The Associated Press. Jaffe reported from Wilmington, Delaware, and Madhani from Washington.

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