Coronavirus task force briefs — but not at White House

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Vice President Mike Pence, second from left, walks off of the stage following the conclusion of a briefing with the Coronavirus Task Force at the Department of Health and Human Services in Washington, Friday, June 26, 2020. Dr. Deborah Birx, left, Dr. Anthony Fauci, second from right, and Health and Human Services Secretary Alex Azar, right, follow Pence. (AP Photo/Susan Walsh)

WASHINGTON – There was no presidential appearance and no White House backdrop when the government's coronavirus task force briefed the public for the first time since April — in keeping with an administration effort to show it is paying attention to the latest spike in cases but is not on a wartime footing that should keep the country from reopening the economy.

The Friday briefing at the Department of Health and Human Services was held as the number of confirmed new coronavirus infections per day in the U.S. soared to an all-time high of 40,000 — higher even than during the deadliest stretch in April and May. In light of the new surge, task force briefers chose their words carefully to update the public about COVID-19, which has become both a public health and political issue.

Vice President Mike Pence had the most delicate line to walk. He acknowledged a surge in new cases across the South and West, while backing the president’s desire to get the economy up and running without mentioning that it will also help the prospects for reelection.

“As we see new cases rising, and we’re tracking them very carefully, there may be a tendency among the American people to think that we are back to the place that we were two months ago — in a time of great losses and a great hardship on the American people," Pence said.

But the vice president also took note of positive job numbers and added: “The reality is we’re in a much better place.”

Unbound by politics, Dr. Anthony Fauci, the nation’s top infectious disease expert, sounded a more cautionary tone.

“As you can see, we are facing a serious problem in certain areas,” Fauci said. But he also was careful not to blame the recent spike on gatherings where people haven't worn face masks or adhered to social distancing guidelines.

Pence deftly sidestepped pointed questions about the apparent dissonance between the administration’s admonitions that Americans heed the guidance of local officials and President Donald Trump's decision to hold a political rally last week in Tulsa, Oklahoma, over the objection of health officials. And during a Trump event in Arizona on Tuesday, thousands of young attendees violated Phoenix’s mandate to wear face masks.