AILSA CHANG, HOST:
Today from the White House, here was the message on the coronavirus crisis. Now is the time to, quote, "go big" on the economy. Stimulus ideas include checks for all Americans as businesses around the country close. But how long will social distancing last? How long will it take to contain the spread of the virus? Those are questions for Vice President Mike Pence, who's in charge of the White House's coronavirus response. And Morning Edition host Steve Inskeep sat down with him for an interview this afternoon. Steve joins me now.
STEVE INSKEEP, BYLINE: Hi, Ailsa.
CHANG: All right, so take us there. I want to picture this. You sat down inside the White House. What precautions did they make you take?
INSKEEP: Well, we didn't shake anybody's hands, which is surprisingly hard to do when you're meeting the vice president of the United States - not to shake his hand. But we didn't do that. And they are now checking the temperatures of journalists when they go in. We did this once at the gate, a second time going into the West Wing.
CHANG: Oh, wow.
INSKEEP: And, in fact, there was a kind of courtesy third check, which I think I could've gotten out of. People were very nice, but I did go ahead and have it checked the third time, and I seem to be fine.
CHANG: That's good to hear. All right, so there's clearly a lot to talk about. Where did you start?
INSKEEP: I wanted to know from the vice president - what are their assumptions about how bad this is going to get? How many people are going to get this disease? How many people are going to be affected across the country? Where are they? How big is the economic damage?
We're in a situation, Ailsa, where the administration has said, take these precautionary measures - these social distancing measures - for 15 days. But they're also asking for a trillion-dollar economic surplus, which implies way more than 15 days of severe economic disruption here. The administration, we know, has been modeling this to try to calculate what the problem is so they can adapt the solution to that. So that was a central question for Vice President Mike Pence, the head of this coronavirus task force - is, how bad is it? Here's some of what he said.
VICE PRESIDENT MIKE PENCE: It really is all about trying to focus on two things, Steve. No. 1 is we really believe if every American will take strong steps now over the next 15 days, that we can significantly impact the spread of the coronavirus in the United States. And also, as every American puts these commonsense personal habits and hygiene into practice, we're going to protect the most vulnerable among us.
INSKEEP: But this is my question. You have changed and, I think, accelerated your response to this over the last several days. I know you've also been modeling this. You have to make policy assumptions.
INSKEEP: How many people are on their way to being sick, for example? How serious the damage to the economy will be if nothing is done - what are your assumptions about how bad this is?
PENCE: Well, we got modeling in in the last several days, and that's what precipitated the president's decision. But let me say - and Dr. Tony Fauci and Dr. Deborah Birx, two of the leading experts in the world on infectious disease, tell us - is that we are still at that point in the spread of the coronavirus in the United States where strong action, common sense, personal hygiene and what they call social distancing for now among every American can significantly reduce the spread of the virus in our country.
INSKEEP: But is that taking it from catastrophe to still a disaster or - what is on the horizon here?
PENCE: Well, look. There will be many thousands of Americans that contract the coronavirus. We know that. And as we expand testing, those numbers are going to be more evident to the American public every day. But what your listeners should know is that most Americans who contract the coronavirus will either have mild to serious flu-like symptoms and completely recover. Many will have no symptoms at all.
INSKEEP: I respect that...
PENCE: But our objective here really, Steve, is to - is - and the president has done this all along the way. It was before the end of January when this coronavirus was just coming into the consciousness of the American people. President Trump took the unprecedented step of suspending all travel from China. We then designated areas of South Korea and Italy for travel advisories and began screening all passengers from all airports in those countries. The president, last week, took action to suspend travel from Europe, now the U.K. and Ireland.
And this has, we really believe - our experts tell me every day - this has bought us a significant amount of time for us to give the guidance the president published yesterday to the American people and reduce the risk of this epidemic in our country and particularly reduce the risk of serious consequences to the most vulnerable.
INSKEEP: Do these efforts, these measures, have to continue until there is a vaccine?
PENCE: The - there - we think, based upon other similar viruses and what we know of what's taken place in China and in other countries, that we will essentially see what people see on television on a regular basis and on the Internet. We will see a curve - something of a bell curve. And we believe that by this spring, because the president brought together pharmaceutical companies and asked for their collaboration, we're going to see therapeutics already being introduced into the market to give people relief that contracted coronavirus.
INSKEEP: Treatment as opposed to - OK.
PENCE: But as the president announced just a day ago, we are already in clinical trials in record time for the development of a vaccine. But given the processes for approving a vaccine, putting the safety and health of America first, a vaccine will likely not be available for more than a year, closer to a year and a half. But therapeutic medicines relief for Americans - because our pharmaceutical industry is responding to the president's call - we believe it will be available this summer.
INSKEEP: But do you have to continue the CDC guidelines and shelter in place - those things - until you have a vaccine? And can you drop them soon?
PENCE: I think what we're asking the American public to do right now, based on our best information, is in the next 15 days - is to avoid...
INSKEEP: But beyond that is what I'm saying.
PENCE: ...Social gatherings of more than 10 people. Avoid eating and drinking at bars and restaurants and food courts. Use the drive-through and pickup and delivery for restaurants. Avoid discretionary travel. Essentially, do all of those things that our task force unveiled with the president's endorsement yesterday. And we believe that those measures are appropriate right now. We think we are early enough in this epidemic that we can significantly reduce the infection rate. But all along the way - I just promise your listeners - we're going to continue to be driven by the science, by the experts, by the datas (ph). And we're going to give best practices to the American people.
INSKEEP: Isn't the science pointing to more than 15 days, though, Mr. Vice President? If we look at Italy, if we look at China, the science is pointing to a lot more than 15 days of this, is it not?
PENCE: Oh. Well, we understand, as the president said, that we will likely be dealing with the coronavirus until midsummer, just based upon what we know about its path. But that point and how many people contract the coronavirus, how severe it becomes, we really believe - and this is why we're asking everybody to go to coronavirus.gov...
INSKEEP: I understand.
PENCE: ...And put these guidelines into practice in your personal life, in your family, in your business. We think we can really impact the size and scope of this infection rate in the United States, spare tens of thousands of Americans from contracting the coronavirus and, ultimately, save lives.
CHANG: That's NPR's Steve Inskeep in conversation with Vice President Mike Pence. And we'll hear more from that conversation with the vice president tomorrow on Morning Edition.
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