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Transcript Of NPR's Full Interview With Vice President Pence

Vice President Pence speaks during a press briefing with the coronavirus task force at the White House Tuesday.

Vice President Pence talked with NPR's Steve Inskeep at the White House Tuesday about the Trump administration's response to the coronavirus pandemic. Pence is leading the administration's task force in charge of responding to the threat.

Steve Inskeep: Why don't we dive right in because I know your time is short. Can I get you to address a parent who's now at home with their kids and wondering about this and wondering how long this is going to last, how many cases there are going to be, how big is it. That's the question that's on their mind. What are your assumptions about that?

Vice President Pence: Well, we're continuing to study every day, data from around the world about the coronavirus. And what we know now is that the risk of a serious illness for the average American remains low. And in fact, looking at some of the global data, the risk to children also remains very low.

But for seniors with chronic underlying health conditions or anyone with an immunodeficiency, there is a real threat of serious health outcomes. And it's one of the reasons why yesterday the president unveiled our coronavirus guidelines for every American. And we want every American in every state and every territory to embrace these personal habits and practices over the next 15 days. Because while younger Americans, younger families, may not be particularly at risk, the possibility that people would contract the coronavirus would, as the experts tell me, would shed virus or otherwise convey it to people in our vulnerable population is a priority.

So we're just encouraging every American — people can go to coronavirus.gov and get these very straightforward guidelines encouraging Americans to avoid groups of 10 or more. If you feel sick, stay home. If you're an older person, we encourage you to stay home as much as possible and away from other people. And then there's also a broad range of recommendations.

But it really is all about trying to focus on two things, Steve. Number one, we really believe if every American will take strong steps now over the next 15 days that we can significantly impact the spread of the coronavirus in the United States. And also, as every American puts these common sense personal habits and hygiene into practice, we're going to protect the most vulnerable among us.

But this is my question, you have changed and I think accelerated your response to this over the last several days. I know you've also been modeling this. You have to make policy assumptions. How many people are on their way to being sick, for example, how serious the damage to the economy will be if nothing is done. What are your assumptions about how bad this is?

Well, we got modeling in in the last several days, and that's what precipitated the president's decision. But let me say in Dr. Tony Fauci and Dr. Deborah Birx, two of the leading experts in the world on infectious disease, tell us is that we are still at that point in the spread of the coronavirus in the United States, where strong action, common sense, personal hygiene and what they call social distancing for now, among every American, can significantly reduce the spread of the virus in our country.

But is that taking it from catastrophe to still a disaster? What is on the horizon here?

Well, look, there will be many thousands of Americans that contract the coronavirus. We know that. And as we expand testing, those numbers are going to be more evident to the American public every day. But what your listeners should know is that most Americans who contract the coronavirus will either have mild to serious flu-like symptoms and completely recover. Many will have no symptoms at all.

I respect that —

But our objective here, really, Steve, is — and the president has done this all along the way. It was before the end of January when this coronavirus was just coming into the consciousness of the American people. President Trump took the unprecedented step of suspending all travel from China, within designated areas of South Korea and Italy for travel advisories and began screening all passengers from all airports in those countries. The president last week took action to suspend travel from Europe, now the U.K. and Ireland. And this has, we really believe, our experts tell me every day, this has bought us a significant amount of time for us to give the guidance the president published yesterday to the American people and reduce the risk of this epidemic in our country and particularly reduce the risk of serious consequences to the most vulnerable.

Do these efforts, these measures have to continue until there is a vaccine?

We think, based upon other similar viruses and what we know of what's taken place in China and in other countries, that we will essentially see what people see on television on a regular basis and on the Internet. We will see a curve. Something of a bell curve. And we believe that by this spring, because the president brought together pharmaceutical companies and asked for their collaboration, we're going to see therapeutics already being introduced into the market to give people relief —

Treatment as opposed to —

That contracted the coronavirus. But as the president announced just a day ago, we are already in clinical trials in record time for the development of a vaccine. But given the processes for approving a vaccine, putting the safety and health of America first, a vaccine will likely not be available for more than a year, closer to a year and a half. But therapeutic medicines, relief for Americans, because our pharmaceutical industry is responding to the president's call, we believe will be available this summer.

But do you have to continue the CDC guidelines, the shelter in place , those things until you have a vaccine? Can you drop them soon?

I think what we're asking the American public to do right now, based on our best information, is in the next 15 days is to —

But beyond that is what I'm saying.

Avoid social gatherings of more than 10 people, avoid eating and drinking at bars and restaurants and food courts, use the drive-through and pickup and delivery for restaurants, avoid discretionary travel.

Essentially, do all of those things that our task force unveiled with the president's endorsement yesterday. And we believe that those measures are appropriate right now. We think we are early enough in this epidemic that we can significantly reduce the infection rate. But all along the way, I just promise your listeners, we're going to continue to be driven by the science, by the experts, by the datas, and we're going to give best practices to the American people.

Isn't the science pointing to more than 15 days though, Mr. Vice President? If we look at Italy, if we look at China, the science is pointing to a lot more than 15 days of this, is it not?

Well, we understand as the president said that we will likely be dealing with the coronavirus until midsummer. Just based upon what we know about its path. But that point at how many people can contract the coronavirus, how severe it becomes, we really believe, and this is why we're asking everybody to go to coronavirus.gov and put these guidelines into practice in your personal life, in your family, in your business. We think we can really impact the size and scope of this infection rate in the United States. Spare tens of thousands of Americans from contracting the coronavirus and ultimately save lives.

I want to try this one more time. If you're asking Congress for a trillion dollars in stimulus funding, it sounds like you're expecting a lot more than 15 more days of severe economic disruption.

Oh, Steve, I don't want your listeners to be confused at all. The 15 days is about measures we believe can impact the growth and expansion of the virus in the United States. But we fully expect that we will be dealing with the coronavirus in the United States for months. And as the president said yesterday, according to some of our modeling, we could well be dealing with coronavirus cases in the United States well into July.

And that's why, right after all — our focus right now is to engage every American, every American business, to engage in best practices to limit the spread of the coronavirus. And we're working with Congress as we speak to make sure that we're supporting vital industries, infrastructure, our supply chains.

And ultimately, I share the president's confidence. Fundamentals in this economy are so strong that as we put the health of the American people first, as we bring the very best experts to bear and the best guidelines to bear for the American people to do everything we can to mitigate the spread of the coronavirus, we'll get through this. And when we do, Steve, this economy is going to come roaring back.

There's an NPR/PBS NewsHour/Marist poll which surveys American attitudes about the coronavirus. And there's an interesting finding having to do specifically with Republicans. In February, 72% of Republicans agreed that this was a real threat as opposed to something that was overblown. Today, only 40% of Republicans specifically think it is a real threat as opposed to overblown. What do you say to those of the president's supporters who think this is some kind of Democratic effort to get the president, or some kind of hoax?

I would say to every American that now is the time for us all to focus on exactly the kind of common sense measures that we've been advancing, that the CDC's been recommending now for many, many weeks, but that are specifically described in our 15 day plan to slow the virus, coronavirus.gov.

Will you tell them this is real, this is real?

Steve, I don't think you have to tell any American that the threat of the coronavirus to our population is real. People understand that. And they also understand that the threat of serious illness to the average American does remain low. But what we're trying to communicate is that Americans who may become exposed to the coronavirus could inadvertently expose seniors with serious underlying health conditions to the coronavirus.

And that's why we really want to make it clear and everyone in the sound of my voice today should share with their family members and their friends on social media the president's guidelines to 15 days to slow the spread. Because it's not so much that an average healthy American has a great threat of the coronavirus. They may contract it. As I said, they may have flu-like symptoms. But no American wants to inadvertently spread the coronavirus to a senior with a serious underlying health condition or any other American with an immunodeficiency. We're all in this together. And with the practice of good hygiene and the social distancing the president is recommending, we'll get through it.

As you know, Mr. Vice President, there are conservative media figures, there are people on Fox News, even the president himself, who have said from time to time, this is, they've compared it to the flu. They've said that Democrats are overblowing this. Sometimes you hear that it's a plot to get the president. Have you, as the head of this task force, reached out to any of those prominent figures and said, "Listen, I need you to talk about this a different way."

We're speaking to the American people every day.

But are you speaking privately to people about this?

We're speaking to the American people every day. I'm speaking to governors, as the president is every single day. Republicans and Democrats. And, Steve, as the president said many times, we're all in this together. And I have to tell you, I couldn't be more inspired. I mean, to see the partnership that we've forged with governors like Gov. Jay Inslee of Washington. I traveled to Washington myself not long ago. We're in regular contact about the unique challenges Washington's facing —

Didn't the president call him a snake at the same time you were working with him?

Gov. Cuomo — look, people will always have political differences. But I tell you, there is no daylight between this president, our administration and the governors of all 50 states and our territories in combating the coronavirus and to see that seamless partnership that President Trump has forged to see it being worked out every single day. I spoke today to the governor of New Jersey. Now that we're seeing the advent of many coronavirus cases in New York, more cases in New York than any other state, sadly, and the impact that that's beginning to have in New Jersey.

But I can tell you if your listeners could see what I see every single day and the way that dedicated public health officials at the federal level, at this president's leadership, governors and state and local health officials, and the way that businesses around the country are stepping up, making hard choices to put the health of their employees and the health of their customers first, they'd be just as inspired as me.

Two questions before I let you go, Mr. Vice President. There's another finding in this poll that speaks to the other side of the political divide. Sixty percent of Americans in this survey say they don't trust the president to provide reliable information in this crisis. Why do you think that would be?

The American people can be confident that, as we've done from the very beginning, we're going to continue to marshal the best counsel of experts to bring forward the facts to the American people. And they're also going to be confident, Steve, that President Trump is going to continue without hesitation to take steps that put the health and well-being of the American people first.

People don't seem to trust him though —

I mean it really is, Dr. Fauci said this not long ago, in fact, earlier today, that when the president took the unprecedented step of suspending all travel from China in January, when he took the recent step of suspending all travel from Europe, it's given the American people space and opportunity, working with one another, working with government agencies at every level to confront the coronavirus.

I mean, honestly, I've been told by our experts, if the president hadn't taken the step of suspending all travel from China, we would likely look very much in this country like Europe does today.

This is the strange thing, though. People trust Dr. Fauci in this survey. They trust public health professionals. And yet a big majority didn't trust the president.

Well, the American people can trust that President Trump, his vice president, and this extraordinary White House coronavirus task force is going to continue to bring all the facts forward. We're going to listen to the counsel of actually the best medical experts in the world. And as we did with the 15 days to slow the spread yesterday, we're going to continue to give every American the tools they need to do their part.

And that's the thing, Steve. Every American has a role to play in preventing a widening spread of the coronavirus across this country. And we're really calling on everyone to go to coronavirus.gov, get all the information that you need. And you're going to see that there's some tough recommendations and guidelines there. I mean, avoiding groups of more than 10 people specifically over the next 15 days. But I promise you, listening to Dr. Fauci, listening to Dr. Deborah Birx, the top experts in the world are telling us because of the strong steps President Trump has taken from early on this year, we have an opportunity to significantly reduce the spread of the coronavirus in the United States. And that'll continue to be our focus. But it's going to take all of us to do it.

I have a personal question to conclude with Mr. Vice President. I speak sometimes to people who have worked with you, who respect you greatly, who know you well. And they say that before important meetings, you pray. Do you pray before meetings of the coronavirus task force? And if so, what have you been praying for?

We pray for the American people and for all the people that are serving them every day. The health care workers that are on the frontlines coming alongside people that are being impacted by this coronavirus. And as the president did when he called for a national day of prayer this last Sunday, we know that the prayer of faithful people across this country has always brought us through challenging times. And that along with the energetic efforts of government officials, the full participation of the American people, that we'll get through this and we'll come out stronger and better than ever before.

Does your faith in some way inform the way that you think about this particular crisis in which there is so much at risk, so much death, so much potential destruction?

We pray for wisdom. We pray to offer good counsel to the president of the United States. And as I said before, having spent the last several weeks since the president asked me to lead the White House coronavirus task force, I couldn't be more proud of the team that President Trump has assembled here. The selflessness and dedication and expertise of the men and women that are working on every aspect of our nation's response. And the people that are working at the state level, our governors, our public health officials, the response of businesses large and small across this country. It really is inspiring. And I just know that as Americans, we'll get through this.

Mr. Vice President, thank you very much.

Thank you, Steve.

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