MAPLEWOOD, Minn. – Vice President Mike Pence pledged the Trump administration's full support to Washington state officials Thursday as the coronavirus death toll there continued to mount.
The state has been the hardest hit by the coronavirus outbreak in the U.S., with at least 70 confirmed infections and 11 dead. Most of those who died were residents of Life Care Center, a nursing home in Kirkland, a suburb east of Seattle. Researchers say the virus may have been circulating undetected for weeks.
“As the state of Washington, and the Seattle area in particular, deals with the coronavirus, we're going to continue to make sure that you have the full support of every agency in the federal government," Pence said after touring the state's emergency response center. “We know you're the front line."
Pence attended a round-table meeting with Gov. Jay Inslee, members of Washington's congressional delegation and local officials to discuss coordinating response to the outbreak.
The Republican vice president and Democratic governor sought to smooth over their political differences.
Pence heaped praise on Inslee, who briefly sought the Democratic presidential nomination last year. “We have been working with your governor and with this team in a seamless way," the vice president said.
Inslee, in turn, sidestepped a reporter's question about a tweet late last month in which he said he told Pence during a telephone call that joint efforts to combat the coronavirus “would be more successful if the Trump administration stuck to the science and told the truth.”
President Donald Trump has sought to downplay the virus outbreak in the U.S.
Asked how he’d now assess Trump’s response one week after he put Pence in charge of the response, Inslee sidestepped the question with Pence standing nearby. "I think we have a very good partnership with thousands of people in the federal government,” Inslee said. “We’re not going to allow some disagreements with any one individual in that government to dissuade us.”
Earlier Thursday, Pence met with 3M CEO Mike Roman and Minnesota Gov. Tim Walz at the company's global headquarters just outside Minneapolis. The company is a major manufacturer of masks used by health professionals to help stem the spread of the virus.
At 3M, Pence called on the public to refrain from buying masks unless they're sick. “Unless you are ill, you have no need to buy a mask,” he said.
Surgeon General Jerome Adams echoed the same message from Washington as he spoke to Fox News before he rushed into a virus task force meeting at the White House, saying: “My advice to folks: Stop buying masks if you're part of the general public. Leave them for the health care providers so they can take care of people who are sick."
Asked whether there were enough coronavirus testing kits for people who want them, Pence responded, ”I think we are ready today but we want to be ready tomorrow.”
He acknowledged, “We don't have enough tests today to meet what we anticipate will be the demand going forward." However, he added, "we’ve made real progress on that in the last several days.”
The vice president has been tasked by Trump to coordinate the U.S. government's response to the outbreak, which has put many U.S. communities on edge and scrambled global financial markets. The disease has killed 12 in the U.S., the vast majority in Washington state, and infected dozens more.
Pence had been scheduled to hold campaign events in Minnesota and Wisconsin on Thursday but scrapped those plans to focus on the coronavirus response.
The vice president has scaled back, but not ended, his political travel since becoming the administration's virus point-person. In naming the VP to the post, some Trump aides believe it allowed the president to maintain his political travel during a crucial part of the election year, when he’s trying to take advantage of the Democratic field’s divisions to boost his campaign in November.
"Mike Pence is working 20 hours a day or more on this,” Trump said Thursday, as he participated in his first reelection town hall on Fox News.
Associated Press writer Zeke Miller in Washington contributed to this report.