WEST PALM BEACH, Fla. (AP/WFLA) — Vice President Mike Pence said Friday that the federal government is prepared to assist the states if the coronavirus spreads significantly across the country — an eventuality he called unlikely.
Pence told a brief press conference in Florida that as a former Indiana governor he understands the need for state and federal partnerships in dealing with a potential health crisis. President Donald Trump appointed Pence on Wednesday to oversee the administration’s response to the coronavirus.
Pence was in Florida to speak to a conservative political group and raise money for Republican congressional campaigns, but also met with GOP Gov. Ron DeSantis and his health staff at Palm Beach International Airport before speaking with reporters.
“We are going to make sure that states like Florida and your local governments have the resources to prepare for any eventuality and in the event that this virus spreads more broadly that the states will be compensated for their efforts,” said Pence, who promised to work across party lines. He did not take questions.
According to the World Health Organization, 83,000 confirmed coronavirus cases have been reported in nearly 60 countries, with more than 90% of them in China where the disease originated in December. There have been almost 3,000 deaths. Sixty cases but no deaths have been reported in the United States — all but one case was contracted by someone who visited a foreign hot zone or had known contact with such a person. Pence said one American remains hospitalized, but is expected to recover.
Still, federal health officials warn the disease is likely to spread.
No cases have been reported in Florida, but four people who may have been exposed in China and have exhibited possible symptoms are awaiting test results, officials said. Another 15 similar people tested negative. More than 150 Floridians who have returned from China but have not shown symptoms are being monitored until the disease’s two-week incubation period passes and have been asked not to have contact with others.
“I want to conclude by saying to the people of Florida that according to our health experts, the threat of the coronavirus spreading in the United States remains low, but the people of this country can be assured that we’re ready. We’re ready for any eventuality,” Pence said.
DeSantis said he told Pence that his health officials worry that there might not be enough masks, goggles and other medical supplies needed to stem the disease if the state were to get a large number of cases.
He also said hotels, restaurants and other employers that often don’t provide sick pay for their workers who deal with the public should reconsider their policies to make sure the disease isn’t inadvertently spread. The state’s economy is highly dependent on tourism.
“Employers should look at this and understand how erring on the side of caution could avoid greater costs down the road,” he said. He said the state might be able to assist a small number of workers who lose income, but would need federal help if the numbers surged.
Pence arrived in Florida on Friday to make a long-planned luncheon address behind closed doors to the annual economic conference of the Club for Growth, a national group that pushes for lower taxes and deregulation. The group is a major fundraiser for the Republican Party.
After the press conference, Pence headed to Florida’s Gulf Coast, where he was headlining a Friday night fundraiser for congressional Republicans at the 5,500 square-foot, $8 million waterfront home of GOP Rep. Vern Buchanan, a prominent car dealer before entering Congress. The minimum ticket cost $2,500, $5,000 to take a photo with Pence and $25,000 for dinner with him, according to an invitation obtained by the Tampa Bay Times.
Florida Democrats criticized Pence and the administration for not canceling Friday’s trip, saying the vice president should have stayed in Washington so he could focus on the nation’s coronavirus response.
“The Trump administration’s backwards priorities are on full display — Pence is coming to fundraise in Florida two days after being appointed to lead our national response on the coronavirus. Trump’s carelessness with our health and safety is deeply alarming,” state Democratic Party Chair Terrie Rizzo said in a statement.
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