Nov. 19 (UPI) -- The White House coronavirus task force praised the efficacy of COVID-19 vaccine candidates in its first public briefing in months Thursday.
Vice President Mike Pence, who heads the task force, acknowledged the increase in cases and hospitalizations -- including 170,200 new infections on Thursday -- saying that President Donald Trump, who was not present, directed the task force to brief reporters.
"Even as we see help on the way, the vaccines being developed at a historic pace, as I mentioned before, as we gather today, we are seeing cases and positivity rising across the country," Pence said.
Dr. Anthony Fauci, the director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, spoke at the briefing, weeks after he said that he and other members of the task force no longer had regular access to the president.
Fauci praised the efficacy of the vaccines being worked on by Pfizer and Moderna, seeking to allay concerns that the development of the vaccines had been rushed and encourage Americans to take the vaccine.
"The process of the speed did not compromise at all safety, nor did it compromise scientific integrity," Fauci said. "It was a reflection of the extraordinary scientific advances in these types of vaccines which allowed us to do things in months that actually took years before."
Fauci said the nation must also "double down" on public health measures to prevent the spread of the virus while waiting for the vaccine to be distributed, which he said could take place for people "at high priority" at the end of December.
"We're not talking about shutting down the country, we're not talking about locking down, we're talking about intensifying the simple public health measures that we all talk about: mask-wearing, safe distance, avoiding congregate settings, doing things to the extent we can outdoors versus indoors," he said. "If we do that, we'll be able to hold things off until the vaccine comes."
Gen. Gustave Perna, the chief operating officer of the White House's vaccine development program, Operation Warp Speed, said vaccines will be distributed to states and territories within 24 hours of the Food and Drug Administration issuing emergency use authorization for them.
Thursday's hearing came after the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention urged Americans to avoid traveling for the Thanksgiving holiday.
While the task force did not provide any specific guidance on holiday gatherings, Dr. Deborah Birx, the White House coronavirus response coordinator, encouraged Americans to "increase their vigilance," specifically regarding community spread through indoor gatherings.
"Behind this level of community spread is a lot of asymptomatic cases. People are spreading the virus because they don't know they are infected with the virus so people are coming together indoors and everyone looks healthy but among those individuals could be individuals that are already infected and have no symptoms and are unknowingly spreading the virus to others," Birx said.