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Democrats, Trump allies clash over coronavirus response

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By Allan Smith  with NBC News Politics
Image: Mike Pence
Vice President Mike Pence speaks next to Health and Human Services Secretary Alex Azar following a coronavirus task force meeting at the Department of Health and Human Services in Washington, on Feb. 27, 2020.   -   Copyright  Carlos Barria Reuters

Top White House officials and Democrats offered conflicting comments on Sunday over the administration's response to coronavirus.

Vice President Mike Pence on Sunday defended the administration's handling of the outbreak and accused Democrats of politicizing the outbreak. He in particular defended the president's eldest son Donald Trump Jr., who said Democrats were hoping for "millions" of Americans to be killed by coronavirus.

Pence, tasked with leading the administration's response, told CNN's "State of the Union" that Trump Jr. was "responding to a kind of things that have been hurled is understandable." He also said it was important that both parties "set politics aside on this."

On NBC's "Meet the Press," Pence said the administration was taking "decisive action to protect the American people."

"And when you see voices on our side pushing back on outrageous and irresponsible rhetoric on the other side, I think that's important, and I think it's justified," he said.

Trump on Friday called criticism of his administration's response Democrats' "new hoax" during a Friday rally in South Carolina, drawing fierce pushback from Democrats.

Speaking with ABC's "This Week" on Sunday, Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., blasted Trump for rallying supporters in South Carolina as his administration is faced with the coronavirus crisis.

"In the midst of this coronavirus, a real threat to our country and the world, all over the world, governments are trying to figure out how they can deal with this crisis, you know where Donald Trump was the other day? He was in South Carolina trying to undermine the Democratic primary," Sanders, a leading Democratic presidential candidate, said.

"How pathetic it is that in the midst of an international healthcare crisis, you got a president running into South Carolina trying to steal some media attention away from Democrats," he added.

Fears over coronavirus' spread in the U.S. escalated this weekend after health officials in Washington state on Saturday confirmedthe first death in the U.S. from the virus, formally known as COVID-19. U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention also said it's responding to "the first possible outbreak" of the illness at a long-term care center in the state, a potential outbreak that was not tied to the death.

By Saturday, an NBC News tally showed that 69 Americans had contracted the virus. Shortly after officials announced the death, Trump held a White House news conference to announce that the United States is issuing travel restrictions to Iran and warnings about travel to Italy and South Korea to help prevent the spread of the virus. On Monday, Trump will meet with pharmaceutical executives to discuss a potential vaccine, he said. Experts have said such a vaccine is far off from being broadly provided to the public.

Critics have hit Trump for painting an overly rosy picture of the outbreak, at times contradicting his own health officials. They've pointed to his initial funding request of $2.5 billion, the CDC's struggles to make available reliable testing kits and a whistleblower report that Health and Human Services workers were sent without proper protective gear to interact with Americans possibly infected with the coronavirus.

Former Vice President Joe Biden also blasted Trump's handling of the outbreak.

"This is not a Democratic hoax," Biden told "This Week." "This is incompetence on the part of the president of the United States at the expense of the country and the world."

Secretary of Health and Human Services Alex Azar, speaking on multiple Sunday programs, defended the president's remarks and the administration's response.

Trump's "talking about the partisan sniping that we're seeing," Azar told "This Week." 'And that's just — it's unnecessary. We don't need to have this made a political issue. We're in a public health crisis here. We need to all be banding together."

He said the CDC has developed a lab test for the virus "with historic speed," adding that the administration "granted emergency use authorization to it at FDA."

"We promulgated it out in the country," he said.

On CBS's "Face the Nation," Azar said he was "personally" looking into the whistleblower allegations

"We are aggressively, looking into — to see if there is validity to the concerns," he said, adding, "Even if these allegations prove to be true, there was no spreading the disease from this. And we have offered, even though it is not medically indicated, we have offered to test any H.H.S. Employees involved if they would like that extra peace of mind, we want to do that for employees."