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Mike Pence in Dallas as Gov. Abbott says COVID-19 has taken 'very dangerous turn in Texas'

Dallas Morning News logo Dallas Morning News 6/28/2020 By Gromer Jeffers Jr., The Dallas Morning News

DALLAS — Vice President Mike Pence met with Gov. Greg Abbott Sunday, pledging additional resources and testing in wake of what Abbott called “the very swift and very dangerous turn” of the coronavirus in Texas.

“President Trump wanted us to be here today with the developments over the last two weeks with the rising positivity and the rising number of cases with a very simple message and that is to use people of Texas: We’re with you,” Pence said.

Before Pence spoke after meeting with state officials, Abbott gave a somber assessment of the spread of COVID-19 in Texas.

“We need to understand that COVID-19 has taken a very swift and very dangerous turn in Texas over just the past few weeks,” he said.

Pence noted that about two weeks ago something changed, but said that he believed it was not the reopening, but the behavior of people not wearing masks or social distancing.

Pence urged everyone to wear a face covering. He wore a mask as he came off Air Force 2, as did Abbott and other state officials who met the plane.

“Our administration is promoting the practice” of mask wearing, Pence said. He sidestepped a question about whether President Donald Trump should wear a mask.

Pence also said he and Abbott discussed the importance of leaning on local health officials’ guidance in Texas during the closed-door meeting.

“For anyone, if you can’t maintain social distancing ( … ) it’s just a good idea to wear a mask,” he said.

On Friday, federal officials had announced federal funding for testing sites that was to be cut off June 30 would be extended for 14 days, but on Sunday, he said, “We’ll be extending that every bit as long as Texas wants us to.”

Dr. Deborah Birx, White House coronavirus response task force coordinator, said Texas had a good reopening plan, then had the spike.

“It was a very serious and safe opening plan and you can see the impact of the opening plan and how it worked out. All of May, for almost five weeks, and then there was an inflection point,” she said.

“What we are seeing here is a increased rate of hospitalization of 20-40 year olds … We know that’s the primary asymptomatic group,” she said, adding that those serious cases in that age group have underlying health conditions like diabetes or obesity.

She said that Dallas County “s more steady,” while cases are spiking in Bexar and Harris counties. As Birx was speaking, Dallas County reported another record in cases on Sunday — 570 — and one death.

Birx also thanked Abbott for closing bars in the state, which was part of his executive order Friday dialing back some openings.

“I’m really appealing for every Texan to wear a mask,” she said.

Cars weaved around Ellis Davis Field House at a COVID-19 testing site June 26 in Dallas. The same day, Texas Gov. Greg Abbott took more countermeasures to stem the tide of coronavirus infections, closing bars, ordering restaurants to return to 50% capacity, shutting river-rafting outfits and giving local officials more control over large gatherings ahead of the Fourth of July holiday.

Texas has 143,371 reported COVID-19 cases, with at least 2,366 deaths because of the virus.

The state’s positivity rate, which is the percentage of coronavirus tests administered that produce a positive result, dwindled to under 5% last month, after a high in mid-April of 13.86%. On Thursday, the seven-day average positivity rate was 11.73%.

On Friday Abbott took steps to stem a tide of coronavirus infections. He closed bars, ordered restaurants to return to 50% capacity, shut river-rafting outfits and gave local officials more control over large gatherings ahead of the Fourth of July holiday.

Last week Dallas County saw its largest single day increases of COVID-19 cases ever, including a staggering 561 new infections on Saturday and an additional 7 deaths. As of Saturday, Dallas County has had 19,595 COVID-19 cases, and at least 351 county residents have died from the virus.

Democrats criticized the response.

“The Trump-Pence administration’s failure to get Americans — including Texans — the testing they need or offer an effective reopening plan based in public health and science has now exacerbated the pandemic in communities across the country,” said Kate Bedingfield, deputy campaign manager for former Vice President and presumptive Democratic presidential nominee Joe Biden.

Biden’s campaign criticized the administration for initially proposing to end funding of federal testing sites just as new coronavirus cases began to spike. The federal government backed off the plan to stop funding its testing sites in Texas. Biden also charged that Pence’s trip was reflective of the administration’s “dismissive attitude” in addressing the pandemic.

“Our leaders should be tackling this pandemic head on and laying out concrete recovery plans for the American people — not jet setting across the country to hold events that go against basic public health guidance,” Bedingfield said. “Families in the Lone Star State and across the country deserve better.”

During a conference call staged by the Texas Democratic Party Friday, Rep. Eddie Bernice Johnson, D-Dallas, appealed to Pence to promote more testing, the wearing of masks to mitigate spread and attention to businesses that are suffering.

“We need your attention Mr. Vice President,” she said. “We are a hotspot.”

Dallas County Judge Clay Jenkins, who has sparred with Abbott over the speed of Texas’ reopening, blasted the governor for what he described as ignoring science. He said at the beginning of the crisis, local leaders were taking a scientific approach to the pandemic.

“At the beginning of May, our governor said hold my beer. And let me take this over,” Jenkins said. “No more requirements, everybody do what you want to do, everything that doctors and business are telling you, these are only recommendations.”

Pence also gave remarks at First Baptist Church in downtown Dallas as part of annual patriotic service to “celebrate freedom,” according to church officials. Housing Secretary Ben Carson who traveled aboard Air Force 2 to Dallas, also gave remarks.

“Vice President Pence’s speech to the First Baptist Church is another example of the Trump Administration’s ongoing commitment to protecting religious freedom for all Americans,” Trump campaign spokeswoman Samantha Cotten said. Trump had tweeted earlier: “Have a good time this morning at First Baptist Dallas Church.”

In Pence’s introduction, Pastor Robert Jeffress pitched a second term for Trump and for Pence to move into the White House in 2024.

“ … When you have finished your term as vice president in 2024, we don’t want you moving out of the West Wing. We just want to you to move down the hall a few doors and continue to build on the legacy of the most faith-friendly president ever,” Jeffress said. He noted before that remark that “Mr. Vice President, I know I probably shouldn’t say this, but my congregation knows that hasn’t stopped me before.”

“It’s good to be back in church,” Pence told the worshipers at First Baptist, many of whom were wearing face coverings.

He touched on several topics, praising Abbott for “his courageous and compassionate leadership for the people of Texas during this challenging time.” Abbott and Trump’s leadership will “bring Texas and America back bigger and better than ever before,” he said.

He also touched on the death of George Floyd.

“We all know the tragic events of recent days and let me say there’s no excuse for what happened to George Floyd,” he said. “There’s also no excuse for the rioting, violence, that ensued. Burning churches is not protest. Tearing down statues is not free speech. There will be no tolerance for vandalism or violence in the United States.”

A handful of protesters — and supporters — greeted Pence.

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©2020 The Dallas Morning News

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