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Coronavirus: Trump Under Political Spotlight, Calif. Case Sparks Interest


President Trump, at a press conference last night, chose the person who will lead the government's response to the coronavirus.


PRESIDENT DONALD TRUMP: I'm going to be announcing exactly right now that I'm going to be putting our vice president, Mike Pence, in charge.

GREENE: The president also struck a reassuring tone, saying it is not inevitable that this virus is going to spread in the United States. Now, that is despite warnings to the contrary from public health officials. And actually, last night, officials confirmed what appears to be the first time the virus spread to someone in the U.S. who did not have a connection to someone overseas.

We have two colleagues to help us work through this news this morning, NPR health correspondent Rob Stein and NPR senior political editor and correspondent Domenico Montanaro. Good morning to you both.


ROB STEIN, BYLINE: Good morning.

GREENE: Rob, I want to start with you and this disturbing new case in California. What exactly do we know about it, and why is it significant here?

STEIN: Yeah. So right after the president ended his news conference last night, the CDC reported that someone in Northern California who had not traveled to any country where the virus is spreading or is known to have had any contact with anyone who caught it overseas had tested positive for the virus. This means this could be the first instance in the United States of what officials call community spread. In other words, they caught the coronavirus in this country with no connection to another country - that it could have spread here. And this is exactly what health officials have been worried might start happening.

Now, this is only one case, and the CDC says it can't completely rule out that this person might have had contact with a traveler that they don't know about. But so far, that doesn't seem to be the case. Now, California health officials say the person lives in Northern California, north of San Francisco, and is being cared for right now at the UC Davis Medical Center.

GREENE: OK. So this obviously raises the question of how well prepared the United States is to deal with this if it spreads. How does putting Vice President Pence in charge change the Trump administration's approach, if it does in some way?

STEIN: So until now, the U.S. response has been led by Health and Human Services Secretary Alex Azar. Secretary Azar will continue to chair the coronavirus task force that had been coordinating the federal government's efforts, but Trump says the vice president will oversee that and make sure all parts of the federal government are, you know, working together on this.

GREENE: Domenico, the president cited Vice President Pence's experience with health care from when he was governor of Indiana. What do you know about his record there and how it could apply here?

MONTANARO: Well, the president was heaping praise on him, but Pence is a pretty controversial pick to lead an infectious disease team. That's because when he was governor in 2015, Indiana saw an outbreak of HIV, and the CDC and other health officials had been recommending, at the time, making clean needles available. But Pence, you know, has strong moral opposition to that. There was state law that barred that from happening. And that really delayed getting clean needles out to stop the spread. And it took Pence two months to come around to that view.

So for now, Pence as a political pick, I mean, makes some sense. I mean, he's a more careful messenger than President Trump. And Trump's deferring to his career health officials at the CDC, as you saw yesterday. But you know, if coronavirus gets far worse in the U.S. and Pence is at the point of this, he's not a scientist, and his record certainly opens up the president to criticism if it gets worse.

GREENE: When you have Democrats already criticizing his response as it's been beginning here, I mean, could this be a pivotal moment for this president and this presidency?

MONTANARO: Certainly. I mean, you know, you always judge whether or not someone's going to get reelected based on what the backdrop of the country is at the time - the economy, foreign policy crises or any of these sort of wild-card events. And this certainly could be one of those. You know, the criticism had been that the president was - had this sort of confused messaging. The CDC was saying the spread was inevitable. The president was downplaying it. Plus, there was this precipitous drop in the stock market. The president decided yesterday he did not want to take all the blame for that or let coronavirus be the all the blame for that. He decided to put some of the blame on Democratic presidential candidates from their debate. And here's what he said.


TRUMP: I think the financial markets are very upset when they look at the Democrat candidates standing on that stage making fools out of themselves. And they say if we have to have a president like this - and there's always a possibility; it's an election - you know, who knows what happens? Right? I think we're going to win. I think we're going to win by a lot. But when they look at the statements made by the people stand behind - standing behind those podiums, I think that has a huge effect, yeah.

MONTANARO: I mean, nonpartisan financial watchers would tell you that it was pretty much all coronavirus fears that were to blame for the drop.

GREENE: Does the president's administration have the trust of the American people right now, going into a crisis like this?

MONTANARO: There's, of course, a strong segment of the population who's always going to be skeptical of the information coming from this president. But CDC and the National Institutes of Health are certainly far different. He deferred to professionals there, for the most part, and shot down even a conspiracy theory that is being pushed by some supporters that the CDC was overhyping coronavirus to hurt his reelection chances. So it's an important example of why consistency and professionalism is so important at key agencies.

GREENE: And Rob, I just want to come back to you for a second because there's some news this morning about some testing that is happening for the new coronavirus. Can you update us?

STEIN: Yeah, that's right. The government has apparently resovled a big problem that's been hindering efforts to control the virus in the United States. There's been a bottleneck in testing for the virus because of one ingredient in the test kit that the CDC has been hoping state labs could start using. You need to test suspected cases quickly to prevent the virus from spreading, but the CDC and FDA say they've now solved that problem. So dozens of labs around the country will now be able to start doing their own testing instead of having to send everything to Atlanta and wait for the CDC's results.

GREENE: All right. That is NPR health correspondent Rob Stein and NPR senior political editor and correspondent Domenico Montanaro. Thank you both.

MONTANARO: You're welcome.

STEIN: You bet. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Rob Stein is a correspondent and senior editor on NPR's science desk.
Domenico Montanaro is NPR's senior political editor/correspondent. Based in Washington, D.C., his work appears on air and online delivering analysis of the political climate in Washington and campaigns. He also helps edit political coverage.