WASHINGTON - With the coronavirus surging in the United States again, White House chief of staff Mark Meadows declared Sunday that the country is "not going to control the pandemic."
But Meadows told CNN, "We are going to control the fact that we get vaccines, therapeutics and other mitigation areas."
In a contentious interview with television anchor Jake Tapper, Meadows defended President Donald Trump's handling of the pandemic in the U.S. nine days ahead of Trump's re-election bid on Nov. 3 against Democratic challenger Joe Biden.
"Where we're at today, we're much better off. The president has done it all," Meadows claimed, while contending that Biden "would lock everyone down."
Biden, leading Trump in national and state-by-state polling in key battleground states, has assailed Trump's handling of the coronavirus, saying that he has proven himself incapable of controlling the outbreak.
Biden's running mate, California Senator Kamala Harris, told reporters at a campaign stop in Michigan that Meadows's comments showed the Trump administration is "admitting defeat."
"We are breaking records of the number of people that are contracting a deadly virus, and this administration fails to take personal responsibility or responsibility in terms of leading the nation through this dangerous, dangerous and deadly mass casualty event," she said. "And that's why they have forfeited their right to a second term in office."
The U.S. has now recorded a world-leading total of nearly 225,000 deaths and almost 8.6 million infections, according to Johns Hopkins University. Most worrisome is the sharp increase in the number of new cases, up by 32% to more than 68,000 a day in the last week and to nearly 84,000 on Saturday.
Numerous Trump administration officials have been inconsistent regarding advice from government health experts to wear masks and socially distance themselves from other people. Late Saturday, officials announced that Marc Short, the chief of staff for Vice President Mike Pence, and a handful of other Pence aides have contracted the virus.
Trump is in the midst of daily campaign political rallies where few of his supporters wear masks, often only those seated in several rows of raised seats behind Trump within sight of television cameras but not those crowded in front of the president.
Meadows said the Trump campaign passes out face masks at rallies but does not mandate wearing them.
"It's a free society," Meadows said, leaving mask-wearing up to individuals. Trump rarely is seen in public wearing a mask, although Biden frequently does and often campaigns in front of small groups of supporters or virtually.
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Meadows said the U.S. isn't going to get the pandemic under control "because it is a contagious virus just like the flu." But he said the Trump administration is "making efforts to contain it."
"What we need to do is make sure that we have the proper mitigation factors, whether it's therapies or vaccines or treatments to make sure that people don't die from this," Meadows said.
Pence continues to campaign and both he and second lady Karen Pence tested negative for coronavirus on Sunday, the White House said, despite his frequent close proximity to Short.
"I spoke to the vice president last night at midnight and I can tell you that what he is doing is wearing a mask, socially distancing and when he goes up to speak he will take the mask off and (later) put it back on," Meadows said.
He said that Pence would continue with travel plans because he is "essential personnel."
"I'm not saying he is not campaigning," Meadows said. "I'm saying that is only part of what he is doing and as we look at that, 'essential personnel,' whether it's the vice president of the United States or anyone else, has to continue on."
Pence is traveling Sunday to the battleground state of North Carolina for a rally and plans to campaign in other states this week.