Mike Pence and his wife tested negative for coronavirus on Saturday and Sunday, a spokesman said, as the vice-president stayed on the campaign trail despite positive tests among his most senior aides and a pandemic that is now surging across the US.
Cases of Covid-19 are rising rapidly in America, contributing to a national caseload of more than 8.5m and a death toll of 225,000. El Paso, a Texas border city which is the site of a particularly virulent outbreak, has gone back into lockdown.
Battleground states including Michigan and Wisconsin are seeing surging case numbers and health systems are creaking under the strain. National numbers of new cases hit a record high on Friday, at more than 83,000, just missed that mark on Saturday, then dropped to around 60,000 on Sunday.
Experts predict a consequent rise in deaths. One influential study predicted 500,000 by February.
At the White House, chief of staff Mark Meadows sought to clarify a remark he made to CNN on Sunday, in which he said: “We’re not going to control the pandemic.”
Asked if the Trump administration was “waving a white flag”, Meadows said: “The only person waving a white flag along with his white mask is Joe Biden. We’re going to defeat the virus. We’re not going to control it.”
Biden, the Democratic candidate for president, has repeatedly condemned Donald Trump’s handling of the pandemic.
Meadows said the administration would “try to contain it as best we can”, and claimed his remark on Sunday had been taken out of context.
“We need to make sure that we have therapeutics and vaccines, we may need to make sure that when people get sick, that, that they have the kind of therapies that the president of the United States had. Then we can provide those emergency using authorisations. Hopefully they’ll be coming in very short order,” he said.
Trump spent three days in hospital after he, his wife, their son, senior aides and Republican leaders contracted Covid-19, after a White House event held to celebrate the nomination of Amy Coney Barrett to the supreme court.
Barrett is due to be confirmed by the Senate on Monday evening. Meadows said the White House would host a celebration, adding: “Tonight we’ll be doing the best we can to encourage as much social distancing as possible.”
Asked if Pence would attend the Senate vote, in his ceremonial presiding role, Meadows said: “I think that is in flux.”
Democrats, who held the Senate floor overnight in protest of the nomination, said the vice-president should not attend the vote. Pence has said he wants to attend. After news broke that his chief of staff and a senior political adviser both tested positive for Covid-19, the White House designated the vice-president an essential worker, meaning he did not have to follow federal guidelines and quarantine for 14 days. Eight days out from election day, Pence continues to travel in support of Trump.
Dr Anthony Fauci, the most senior US public health adviser, has said meetings of the White House coronavirus taskforce which Pence leads have dwindled, with Trump absent for months.
Trump is also campaigning at events at which mitigation measures such as mask-wearing and social distancing are not strictly observed. The president trails Joe Biden in most national and swing-state polls.
In Texas, where the contest between Biden and Trump is close, coronavirus cases have overwhelmed hospitals, prompting the state to dedicate part of the city’s civic center as a makeshift care center.
On Sunday night, El Paso county judge Ricardo Samaniego issued a two-week stay home order with a daily curfew from 10pm to 5am. Violators could be fined $500.
“We are in a crisis stage,” said Samaniego, the county’s top elected official.
El Paso health officials reported 772 new cases on Sunday, a day after a record 1,216, more than 20% of 3,793 new cases in Texas as a whole. That brought total cases in the state to 862,375, with an estimated 91,885 active, the most since 30 August.
Despite such numbers being mirrored across the US, Trump has told campaign crowds the US is “rounding the turn”. He did so in New Hampshire on Sunday. The president has also downplayed the situation in Texas, saying in his debate against Biden last week: “There was a very big spike in Texas, it’s now gone.” The debate was held in Tennessee, another state which is struggling.
Trump has even claimed media reports on the pandemic are part of a plot to stop him winning re-election.
“Turn on the television,” he said in North Carolina on Saturday. “Covid, Covid, Covid, Covid, Covid, Covid. By the way, on 4 November you won’t hear about it any more.”