VP Debate: Pence, Harris Make Misleading Claims on COVID & More

While both the candidates spoke about the current situation, they overlooked facts at certain places.

5 min read

In the first and only US vice-presidential debate between Mike Pence and Senator Kamala Harris held in Utah on Wednesday, 7 October (ET), the coronavirus pandemic and US President Donald Trump’s handling of the situation took centre stage. But while both the candidates spoke about the current situation, they overlooked facts at certain places.

To begin with, Vice President Mike Pence hit out at the Biden-Obama administration for their handling of the outbreak of H1N1 flu and said that they left the strategic national stockpile empty.

“If the swine flu had been as lethal as the coronavirus, in 2009 when Joe Biden was the vice president, we would have lost two million American lives. His own Chief of Staff Ron Klain, would say last year that it was pure luck that they did quote everything possible wrong. And we learnt from that. They left the Strategic National Stockpile empty, they left an empty and hollow plan,” Pence said.


Strategic National Stockpile, founded in 1999, is a repository of life-saving pharmaceuticals which was prepared to tackle chemical, nuclear, biological attacks and was later expanded to respond to hurricanes, ebola and H1N1.

Here’s why the comment is off the mark.

  1. An NPR correspondent Nell Greenfieldboyce had visited one of the warehouses in 2016, the location of which is a secret, and had described how she saw a giant freezer with several products and ventilators stocked up in different rows.
  2. The same year, a VICE News correspondent visited one of the facilities and mentioned that it was filled with medications and equipments including ventilators.

While these two ground reports provide a picture of where the stockpile was indeed left empty or not, it must be noted that according to a Politifact report, director of government relations for the non-profit Trust for America’s Health, said that no matter how large is the stockpile, the number of resources it contains has never been sufficient.


In an article written in November 2019, the now retired director of the National Stockpile, Greg Burel wrote, “the stockpile has grown and evolved to a greater than $8 billion enterprise that contains more than just medical countermeasures (MCMs) for biological and chemical threats.”

However, the stockpile comes with its share of problems.

While both the candidates spoke about the current situation, they overlooked facts at certain places.
Image used for representation.
(Photo: iStock)

According to various news reports, the masks haven’t been replenished since the 2009 H1N1 influenza outbreak.

A Washington Post report published in March 2020 mentions that “stockpile distributed 85 million N95 respirators – fitted face masks that block most airborne particles – along with millions of other masks, gowns and gloves” but despite recommendations, the stockpile wasn’t replenished after the 2009 pandemic.

“With a limited budget of about $600 million annually, officials in charge of the stockpile focused on what they say was a more pressing priority: lifesaving drugs and equipment for diseases and disasters that emerged before the new coronavirus, which has no vaccine or specific anti-viral treatment,” the report mentioned.

The report further quotes Charles Johnson, president of the ISEA trade group, as saying that the organisation “is unaware of a significant restocking” of personal protective equipment after the 2009 flu pandemic.



As per a budget document reviewed by ProPublica, which is a non-profit organisation based in New York, efforts to bulk up the stockpile “fell apart in tense standoffs between the Obama White House and congressional Republicans” in 2010.

The report mentions that in 2011, the Obama administration asked Congress to provide $655 million, an increase of $59 million. But in the final bill, the Congress allocated $534 million, a 10 percent cut from the prior year.

Further, a Politifact report mentions that stockpile budget fell to its lowest in 2013 to about $477 million and has been growing steadily since then.

While there has been back and forth on shifting the blame between the Trump administration and Democrats, is there anything that Trump could have done?

According to a federal purchasing contract reviewed by the Associated Press, federal agencies waited until mid-March to begin placing bulk orders for N95 respirator masks, mechanical ventilators and other equipment which was needed.

The same article quotes a HHS spokesperson as saying that the stockpile had about ‘13 million N95 respirator masks’ at the beginning of the pandemic, which reportedly was only a small fraction of what was needed.

While it is true that the stockpile had a depleting reserves of N95 masks after 2009, to claim that the Obama-Biden administration left the stockpile empty is misleading and an exaggeration.



In the nearly 90-minute debate, Pence also claimed that the Trump administration "suspended all travel from China." However, the restrictions that were imposed on 31 January did not apply to all the citizens.

The order did not apply to any lawful permanent resident of the United States, any alien who is the spouse of a US citizen or lawful permanent resident, any alien traveling at the invitation of the United States Government for a purpose related to containment or mitigation of the virus, among others.

A detailed list of exemptions can be read here.

According to a New York Times article, as many as 40,000 people travelled from China to US in the two months after Trump levied the restrictions.


Senator Kamala Harris while criticising the administration for the way it handled the pandemic, said, “The President said it was a hoax.” However, this statement needs a bit more context.

While both the candidates spoke about the current situation, they overlooked facts at certain places.
File image of US President Donald Trump.
(Photo: PTI)

At a rally in February in North Charleston in South Carolina, Trump said that the Democrats were politicising the coronavirus and that it was “their new hoax.”

“Now the Democrats are politicising the coronavirus. You know that, right? Coronavirus. They’re politicising it. We did one of the great jobs. You say, ‘How’s President Trump doing?’ They go, ‘Oh, not good, not good.’ They have no clue. They don’t have any clue,” he said.


He further added,“They tried the impeachment hoax...They tried anything, they tried it over and over, they’ve been doing it since you got in. It’s all turning, they lost, it’s all turning. Think of it. Think of it. And this is their new hoax.”

While Kamala Harris said that Trump mentioned that coronavirus was a hoax, but in reality, he was accusing the Democrats of politicising the novel virus and had stated that it was “their new hoax.”

Evidently, both the leaders while hitting out at each other and their respective parties made statements that either lacked context or were exaggerated.

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