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Mike Pence in Dallas as Gov. Abbott says COVID-19 has taken ‘very dangerous turn in Texas'This article has
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The vice president also headlined a patriotic service at First Baptist Church in downtown Dallas.

Updated at 2:45 p.m. with remarks from the press conference.

Vice President Mike Pence on Sunday pledged to commit the resources Texas needs to win the fight against COVID-19, and he urged Americans to be diligent about wearing masks and washing hands to mitigate the spread of the deadly virus.

“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 you, the people of Texas: We’re with you,” Pence said. “We’re going to stay with you. We’re going to make sure that our health care system in Texas has the resources, has the supplies, has the personnel to meet this moment.”

Emerging from a meeting with Texas Gov. Greg Abbott, Sen. John Cornyn and medical experts, Pence pleaded with Americans to help public health experts beat back the virus.

“The governor and I talked [last] week. We talked about importance of people — in this moment — of calling on people across Texas to wear a mask,” Pence said.

“It’s an important message,” he said. “We’re here to convey it.”

The vice president shrugged off a question about possible missteps by the administration in dealing with the pandemic.

“Well, to be honest, I serve alongside the president, he’s always eyes-forward,” Pence said.

Pence’s Dallas visit, which included a stop at First Baptist Church, was on a day when Dallas County recorded its highest number of coronavirus cases.

“The COVID-19 situation is out of control,” said Texas Democratic Party Chairman Gilberto Hinojosa. “Pence doesn’t get it. The best way to get out of a hole is not to keep digging deeper. We need drastic measures and for the administration to show some leadership.”

While they urged Texans to wear masks and practice social distancing, Pence and Abbott didn’t say what measures would be taken if the positive test rate continues to rise, but suggested that Americans would have to learn to deal with the virus as the economy continues to reopen.

After the meeting with Pence and 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 that he believed it was not the reopening, but the behavior of people not wearing masks or social distancing.

The vice president wore a mask as he disembarked 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 Trump should wear a mask. Abbott has not mandated masks statewide, although he has allowed local governments to require that businesses enforce face coverings.

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

On Friday, federal officials announced that funding for testing sites that was to be cut off Tuesday 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.”

Dallas County Judge Clay Jenkins, a Democrat, said the county has needs. “If they want to give us everything we need, they can start by giving us the reagents and kits we requested eight weeks ago,” he said, adding that would allow Parkland Memorial Hospital to conduct 1,500 tests a day and UT Southwestern Medical Center, 1,440.

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- to 40-year-olds ... We know that’s the primary asymptomatic group,” she said, adding that the patients with serious cases in that age group have underlying health conditions such as diabetes or obesity.

She said that Dallas County “is 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.

Cases rising

Texas has 148,728 reported COVID-19 cases as of Sunday, with at least 2,393 deaths because of the virus. Also Sunday, Texas broke its 16-day streak with record hospitalizations, which fell by 26 patients to 5,497. The 5,357 new confirmed cases was the lowest in six days.

The state’s positivity rate, 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 Sunday, the seven-day average positivity rate was 14.3%.

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 yet, and 570 new infections on Sunday.

As of Sunday, Dallas County has had 20,165 known coronavirus cases and 352 reported deaths.

Former Vice President Joe Biden’s campaign also 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 presumptive Democratic presidential nominee Biden.

Biden’s campaign criticized the Trump administration for initially proposing to end funding of federal testing sites just as new coronavirus cases began to spike. The federal government on Friday 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.

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.”

Protestors rally as Vice President Mike Pence makes his way to First Baptist Church on Sunday, June 28, 2020, in downtown Dallas. Pence is expected to speak at First Baptist Church's 'Celebrate Freedom Sunday Event' then speak with Gov. Greg Abbott at a press event. (Juan Figueroa/ The Dallas Morning News)
Protestors rally as Vice President Mike Pence makes his way to First Baptist Church on Sunday, June 28, 2020, in downtown Dallas. Pence is expected to speak at First Baptist Church's 'Celebrate Freedom Sunday Event' then speak with Gov. Greg Abbott at a press event. (Juan Figueroa/ The Dallas Morning News)(Juan Figueroa / Staff photographer)

Appearance at First Baptist

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

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 worshippers, many of whom were wearing face coverings. A large choir behind Pence wore face coverings but did not wear them while singing.

Pence 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 discussed the death of George Floyd, the unarmed Black man killed by a white police officer in Minneapolis. Floyd’s death ignited protests and rallies across the country against police brutality and in favor of social justice.

“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.”

Outside the church, protesters picketed Pence’s appearance and at one point were confronted by Trump supporters.

Pence was sometimes emotional as he talked about the challenges facing the country. He told the crowd to lean on their faith.

“In these challenging times, let’s hold fast to freedom,” he said. ”Let’s also hold fast to that faith.”

Carson also called on the faith community to lean on its beliefs.

“We must learn to dominate the virus and not let the virus dominate us,” he said.

Texas House Speaker Dennis Bonnen, AG Ken Paxton and Gov. Greg Abbott greet Vice President Mike Pence and Senator John Cornyn as they arrive at Dallas Love Field on Sunday, June 28, 2020, in Dallas. Pence is expected to speak at First Baptist Church's 'Celebrate Freedom Sunday Event' then speak with Gov. Greg Abbott at a press event. (Juan Figueroa/ The Dallas Morning News)
Texas House Speaker Dennis Bonnen, AG Ken Paxton and Gov. Greg Abbott greet Vice President Mike Pence and Senator John Cornyn as they arrive at Dallas Love Field on Sunday, June 28, 2020, in Dallas. Pence is expected to speak at First Baptist Church's 'Celebrate Freedom Sunday Event' then speak with Gov. Greg Abbott at a press event. (Juan Figueroa/ The Dallas Morning News)(Juan Figueroa / Staff photographer)

Gromer Jeffers Jr., political writer. The Howard University graduate and Chicago native has covered four presidential campaigns and written extensively about local, state and national politics. Before The News, he was a reporter at The Kansas City Star and The Chicago Defender. You can catch Gromer every Sunday at 8:30 a.m. on NBC 5's Lone Star Politics.

gjeffers@dallasnews.com @gromerjeffers

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