“We’re not going to control the pandemic,” White House Chief of Staff Mark Meadows told CNN’s “State of the Union” on Sunday. “We are going to control the fact that we get vaccines, therapeutics and other mitigation areas.”
"It is a contagious virus, just like the flu,” Meadows added.
Later in the interview, Meadows said: “When we look at the number of cases increasing, what we have to do is make sure that we fight it with therapeutics and vaccines, take proper mitigation factors, in terms of social distancing and masks when we can.”
Critics pounced, saying that Meadows’ comments were an admission that the White House had capitulated in the fight to stop the spread of the coronavirus, or a further acknowledgment that the Trump administration has embraced a controversial strategy of trying to reach “herd immunity,” an approach that experts have warned could cost millions more lives and overwhelm the health-care system.
The comments also came after The New York Times reported this weekend that at least four members of Vice President Mike Pence’s staff had tested positive for the virus in recent days and that Meadows “had sought to keep news of the outbreak from becoming public.” Pence is continuing to campaign rather than self-quarantine in the final days of the race, with the White House maintaining the he is an essential worker (and thus is not flouting Centers for Disease Control and Prevention guidance).
White flag? “This wasn't a slip by Meadows, it was a candid acknowledgement of what President Trump's strategy has clearly been from the beginning of this crisis: to wave the white flag of defeat and hope that by ignoring it, the virus would simply go away,” former vice president Joe Biden said in a statement Sunday afternoon. “It hasn't, and it won't.”
Senate Majority Whip John Thune (R-SD) said, per Politico: “We all have a responsibility as leaders to set an example that consists of doing the right things to stop the spread, and I think that’s encouraging the wearing of masks and encouraging social distancing. We all know that stops the spread. Science proves that.”
Trump insisted Monday that his administration was still looking to curb the spread of the virus and that it was Biden who was waving the white flag. “No, no, he has,” Trump said in Allentown, Pennsylvania, after being asked about Biden’s charge. “He’s waved a white flag on life. He doesn’t leave his basement. This guy doesn’t leave his basement. He is a pathetic candidate, I will tell you that.”
The president again claimed his administration has done an “incredible job” in combating the virus. “We are absolutely rounding the corner, other than the fake news wants to scare everybody,” Trump said.
The chief of staff took a similar line of attack on Monday morning. “The only person waving a white flag, along with his white mask, is Joe Biden,” Meadows told reporters, per Politico. “We’re going to defeat the virus. We’re not going to control it. We will try to contain it as best we can, and if you look at the full context of what I was talking about, we need to make sure that we have therapeutics and vaccines."
He added: “A national lockdown strategy or a national quarantine strategy that is proposed by the left is not effective [and] is not what ultimately [will] contain or control this virus. So any suggestion that we’re waving … the white flag is certainly not in keeping with this president.”
Trump has said that a vaccine is just weeks away, but experts note that a vaccine likely won’t be ready for mass distribution until the middle of next year.
Why it matters, part 1: Meadows’ comments explain so much of the Trump administration’s mystifying pandemic response, from its lack of a testing and tracing strategy to its push to reopen schools without investing in needed resources, writes Leana S. Wen, a visiting professor at George Washington University Milken Institute School of Public Health, at The Washington Post.
But the administration plan, counting on vaccines and therapeutics, “is riddled with problems,” Wen says. “To begin with, a vaccine will be far from a silver bullet. Even if it offers, say, 75 percent protection, we will need other public health measures to reduce virus spread. Therapeutics, too, will have substantial limitations. A medication that reduces mortality by 50 percent means that many still will die, and those who survive may still live with long-term effects. Contrary to Trump’s claims, there is no cure on the horizon. Prevention will still be the best medicine.”
Why it matters, part 2: The comments keep the presidential race focused on the pandemic and the administration’s response, to the apparent displeasure of the Trump campaign. “Meadows sh*t the bed again,” one anonymous campaign adviser said, per CNN.