Pandemic in the Spotlight at Disorderly VP Debate

The coronavirus pandemic was front and center Wednesday night as Vice President Mike Pence and Democratic vice presidential nominee Sen. Kamala Harris (D-Calif.) engaged in their sole debate of the presidential campaign. The event was less fractious than last week’s presidential debate, but still marked by interruptions and candidates speaking beyond their allotted time.

Differing Views on the Pandemic

“The American people have witnessed what is the greatest failure of any presidential administration in the history of our country,” Harris said. “Here are the facts: 210,000 dead people in our country in just the last several months, over 7 million people who have contracted this disease, one in five businesses closed. We’re looking at front-line workers who have been treated like sacrificial workers, and over 30 million people who in the last several months have had to file for unemployment.”

And yet, she continued, “on Jan. 28th, the vice president and the president were informed about the nature of this pandemic — they were informed that it’s lethal in consequence, that it’s airborne, that it will infect young people, and that it will be contracted because it’s airborne. And they knew what was happening and they didn’t tell you. … They knew and they covered it up. The president said it was a hoax; they minimized the seriousness of it … and in spite of all that today, they still don’t have a plan.”


Vice presidential candidate Sen. Kamala Harris (D-Calif.) said the Trump administration had forfeited its right to reelection based on its handling of the coronavirus pandemic. (Photo courtesy C-SPAN livestream)

Harris added that the Biden-Harris plan involves a national strategy for contact tracing and testing, and for administration of a vaccine “and making sure it will be free and fair for all … We need to save our country, and Joe Biden is the best leader to do that, and frankly, this administration has forfeited their right to reelection based on this.”

“A Little Bit Like Plagiarism”

Pence admitted that “our nation has gone through a very challenging time this year,” but added, “I want the American people to know from the very first day, President Donald Trump put the health of America first. Before there were more than five cases in the U.S. — all people who had returned from China — President Donald Trump did what no other American president had done — he suspended all travel from China, the second largest economy in the world. Joe Biden opposed that decision; he said it was xenophobic and hysterical, but I can tell you from having led the coronavirus task force, that decision alone by President Trump bought us invaluable time to stand up the greatest national mobilization since World War II, and I believe it saved hundreds of thousands of American lives.”

With that additional time, “we were able to reinvent testing — more than 115 million tests have been done to date,” Pence continued. “We were able to seed the delivery of billions of supplies so our doctors and nurses had the resources and support they needed, and we began — really before the month of February. we started to develop a vaccine and develop medicines and therapeutics that have been saving lives all along the way. And under President Trump’s leadership, Operation Warp Speed, we believe, will have tens of millions of doses of vaccine before the end of this year.”


Vice President Pence said President Trump “put the health of America first” in his response to the pandemic. (Photo courtesy C-SPAN livestream)

He added that the Biden-Harris plan for addressing the pandemic “reads an awful lot like what President Trump and I and our task force have been doing every step of the way. When I look at their plan that talks about advancing testing, creating PPE [personal protective equipment], and developing the vaccine, it looks a little bit like plagiarism.”

Harris responded that “whatever the vice president is claiming the administration has done, clearly it hasn’t worked” because more than 210,000 Americans are dead. “The vice president was head of the task force and knew on January 28th how serious this was, and when that was exposed and the vice president was asked, ‘Why didn’t you all tell anybody?’, he said, ‘Because the president wanted people to remain calm.’ So I want to ask the American people, how calm were you … when your kids were sent home from school and you didn’t know know when they could go back; how calm were you when your children couldn’t see your parents because you were afraid they’d kill them?”

Pence replied that “when you say what the American people have done over these 8 months hasn’t worked, that’s a great disservice to the sacrifice the American people have made. The reality is Dr. Fauci said, everything he told the president in the Oval Office, the president told the American people … When Dr. [Anthony] Fauci, Dr. [Deborah] Birx and our medical experts came to us in the second week of March, they said if the president didn’t take the unprecedented step of shutting down half of the American economy, that we could lose 2.2 million Americans. That’s the reality. They also said to us if we did everything right, we could still lose more than 200,000 Americans.”

Question on Rose Garden Event

Moderator Susan Page of USA Today also asked Pence about the Rose Garden event introducing Supreme Court nominee Judge Amy Coney Barrett; that event, which included no social distancing and few people wearing masks, appeared to become a “super-spreader” situation after which some two dozen administration officials tested positive for COVID-19. “How can you expect Americans to follow the administration’s safety guidelines to protect themselves from COVID when you at the White House have not been doing so?” Page said.

“The American people have demonstrated over the last 8 months that when given the facts, they’re willing to put the health of their families and neighbors and people they don’t even know first,” Pence said. “That Rose Garden event — there has been a great deal of speculation about it… Many of the people at that event were tested for coronavirus, and it was an outdoor event, which all of our scientists routinely advise.” He did not address the questions about the behavior of the White House staff or the event’s lack of social distancing and mask-wearing.

Pence also blamed China for the coronavirus, noting that “President Trump is not happy about it. He made that very clear. China and the World Health Organization have not been straight with the American people.They did not let our personnel into China to get information on the coronavirus until the middle of February.”

Harris responded that the Trump administration had gotten rid of the White House office for monitoring pandemics created by the Obama administration, and also pulled out a team of disease experts that the Obama administration had sent to China to monitor for diseases there. “They pulled them out. We now are looking at 210,000 Americans who have lost their lives.”

The Affordable Care Act (ACA) also came under discussion, with Harris noting that the Obama-Biden administration got the ACA passed, “which brought healthcare to over 20 million Americans and protected people with pre-existing conditions … on the other hand, Donald Trump is in court right now trying to get rid of the Affordable Care Act, which means you’ll lose protections if you have pre-existing conditions. If you have a pre-existing condition — heart disease, diabetes, breast cancer — they’re coming for you. If you love someone who has a pre-existing condition, they’re coming for you. If you’re under the age of 26 on your parents’ coverage, they’re coming for you.”

Pence responded that the ACA had been a “disaster,” adding that “President Trump and I have a plan to improve healthcare and protect pre-existing conditions for every American.”

Abortion also came up briefly, with Harris pledging she would “always fight for a woman’s right to make a decision about her own body. It should be her decision, not that of Donald Trump and the vice president.” Pence, in contrast, said he “couldn’t be more proud to serve with a president who stands for the sanctity of human life.”

Last Updated October 08, 2020

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    Joyce Frieden oversees MedPage Today’s Washington coverage, including stories about Congress, the White House, the Supreme Court, healthcare trade associations, and federal agencies. She has 35 years of experience covering health policy. Follow

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