Donald Trump’s White House chief of staff made an unusually candid admission on Sunday – that the administration does not intend to contain the coronavirus crisis.
Related: Biden gains as suburban women and elderly voters turn backs on Trump
“We’re not going to control the pandemic,” Mark Meadows said, bluntly.
The former hard-right congressman from North Carolina made the revealing remark as confirmed cases of Covid-19 reached new peaks and hospitalisations rose rapidly in 38 states. The contagion also continues to ravage the White House itself, with the chief of staff to Mike Pence and four others in the vice-president’s inner circle having tested positive.
Meadows repeatedly sidestepped questions about the administration’s responsibility for combatting spread of the virus. Instead, in a contentious interview with CNN’s State of the Union, he highlighted what he called “mitigating” factors, including the search for a vaccine and new therapeutics that could bring down the death rate.
Even so, the number of deaths in the US is back up at about 1,000 a day.
Asked why the administration was not going to control the pandemic, Meadows replied: “Because it is a contagious virus.”
Turn on the television, Covid, Covid, Covid, Covid, Covid, Covid. On 4 November you won’t hear about it anymore
Despite Pence being exposed to the disease, he planned to continue an aggressive campaign schedule in the final nine days of the race. Pence spoke at a rally in Kinston, North Carolina, on Sunday, where he did not address the positive cases in his entourage. He will be in Hibbing, Minnesota, on Monday before returning to events in North Carolina on Tuesday.
Such unbroken travel plans amounted to a breach of the recommendations of the Trump administration’s own public health agency, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). They would require the vice-president to be in quarantine for 14 days and always to wear a mask around other people. Pence has frequently been seen maskless in public.
Such blatant disregard for the administration’s own health standards is doubly awkward given that Pence has led the White House coronavirus taskforce since late February. Dr Anthony Fauci, the most senior public health expert on the taskforce, said on Friday meetings had dwindled and Trump had not attended one in months.
Video: Trump claims coronavirus vaccine will be ready in ‘weeks’ (FOX News)
The White House said Pence was not required to follow the quarantine rule because he is deemed “essential personnel”. Asked why electioneering was classed “essential”, Meadows said the vice president continued to do his official work in between campaign stops.
Saskia Popescu, an infectious disease expert at George Mason University in Virginia, called Pence’s decision to travel “grossly negligent”.
“It’s just an insult to everybody who has been working in public health and public health response,” she said.
Chris Christie, the former Republican governor of New Jersey who contracted the virus earlier this month after helping Trump with debate prep, was also critical. Speaking to ABC’s This Week, he said: “I think everybody has to put the health of the people they are going to be in touch with first. I’m a little bit surprised.”
Trump left the White House on Sunday for a rally in New Hampshire. He was photographed not wearing a mask.
The latest data from Johns Hopkins University in Maryland puts the total number of confirmed cases in the US at more than 8.5m, with almost 225,000 deaths. Hotspots have been identified in 36 states.
The count of new cases reached all-time highs on Friday and Saturday, with more than 83,000 recorded each day. Authoritative forecasters predict the US may see more than 300,000 deaths by the end of the year.
Yet Trump continues to insist falsely that the crisis is past its worst. At a rally in Florida on Friday, he said: “We are entering the final turn and approaching the light at the end of the tunnel.”
On Saturday in North Carolina, Trump mocked media coverage of the pandemic, telling supporters: “Turn on the television, Covid, Covid, Covid, Covid, Covid, Covid. By the way, on 4 November you won’t hear about it anymore.”
Despite Trump’s desire to wish the crisis away, the dramatic surge in infections across huge swaths of the country days before the election is causing the president inevitable political damage. On Sunday a new poll from CBS News put his Democratic challenger Joe Biden marginally ahead in Florida and neck-and-neck in North Carolina and Georgia.
Asked if Trump should be worried, Christie said: “Of course he should … Any president who is in the midst of a crisis like this that is not abating before an election but is increasing – that’s a problem. This has been the single toughest issue for Donald Trump in his four years and it may be determinant for the election.”
With his back against the wall, Trump has placing increasing hope in the rapid roll out of a coronavirus vaccine. But Fauci warned that any vaccine was unlikely to reach most of the American people until the spring at the earliest.
Related: ‘Sue if you must’: Lincoln Project rejects threat over Kushner and Ivanka billboards
Speaking to the BBC’s Andrew Marr on Sunday, Fauci said: “When you talk about vaccinating a substantial proportion of the population, so that you can have a significant impact on the dynamics of the outbreak, that very likely will not be until the second or third quarter of the year.”
Pence has repeatedly found himself in an uncomfortable position, balancing political concerns with the administration’s handling of the pandemic.
How he has responded to being exposed to a confirmed positive case stands in contrast to how the Democratic vice-presidential nominee, Kamala Harris, reacted when a close aide and a member of her campaign plane’s charter crew tested positive for the virus earlier this month. She took several days off the campaign trail citing her desire to act out of an abundance of caution.