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Pence says reopening economy safely critical to ensure 'cure isn't worse than the disease'

The vice president said on "Meet the Press" that the country has enough testing capacity, but governors in two hard-hit states ask for more.

WASHINGTON — Vice President Mike Pence said Sunday that the Trump administration wants to be sure that the coronavirus "cure isn't worse than the disease" as the White House takes steps to "put America back to work as soon as we responsibly can."

Pence pointed to the White House's recently announced "Opening Up America Again" plan, which lays out guidelines for states to follow as they move toward relaxing the social restrictions that have been aimed at slowing the spread of a virus that has already infected at least 728,000 people and is responsible for more than 38,000 deaths in the U.S., according to an NBC News analysis.

He said that America is seeing "encouraging signs" that the restrictions are "slowing the spread" of the virus in hot spots, along with a "full partnership with governors around the country" to eventually "put the coronavirus in the past."

"No one wants to reopen America more than President Donald Trump, and I think the American people have known that from weeks ago when the president declared that important balance: We have to make sure the cure isn't worse than the disease," he said.

"The reality is that for all the sacrifices the American people have made, sacrifices that have literally saved lives, the truth is: There are real costs, including the health and well-being of the American people, to continue to go through the shutdown that we are in today."

The White House's reopening pathway includes three phases of relaxing restrictions that states can move to once certain conditions are met for testing, hospital capacity and a decrease in COVID-19-related symptoms and cases.

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One day after the announcement, which noted that the guidelines are "implementable on [a] statewide or county-by-county basis at [the] governors' discretion," the president tweeted a series of messages calling to "liberate" three states where Democratic governors have faced some protests for implementing social distancing guidelines similar to those the administration suggested last month.

Pence's comments about the president's concern about the "cure" not being "worse than the disease" came in response to a question about the tweets from Trump.

A new NBC News/Wall Street Journal poll conducted just before the announcement of the guidelines shows that 58 percent of registered voters are more concerned that America will "move too quickly in loosening restrictions" and cost more lives than they are about the country's taking too long to loosen the restrictions and cost more American jobs.

A key part of the guidelines' "gating criteria," which tells states only to move forward to the first phase of reopening, is a strong testing system that can keep tabs on the virus' spread. Pence announced Sunday that the White House believes that there are enough tests available for any state to move into the first phase, although states would have to meet other parts of the gating criteria in tandem with testing capacity.

"Testing has been a focus of ours, as well, from the very beginning. It's the reason why the president, early on, brought in the vast array of commercial labs that took us from 80,000 tests one month ago to now 4 million tests as of yesterday," he said.

"There is a sufficient capacity of testing across the country today for any state in America to go to a Phase 1 level, which contemplates testing people that have symptoms of coronavirus and also doing the kind of monitoring of vulnerable populations in our cities, in our nursing homes, that we ought to be watching very carefully for outbreaks."

Pence added that while America can test about 150,000 people per day, daily testing capacity would double "overnight" if states would activate all of their labs that can handle tests.

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But governors from both parties have balked at the suggestion that the problems with testing capacity stop with them.

Asked whether their states have the testing capacity they need to move toward reopening, Ohio Gov. Mike DeWine, a Republican, and Michigan Gov. Gretchen Whitmer, a Democrat, both said shortages of vital supplies needed for test kits are frustrating their efforts to ramp up testing.

DeWine made a plea to the Food and Drug Administration to "prioritize" companies that use a different method to create the "reagent" solution needed in test kits, given shortages of certain vital materials. He argued that "I could probably double or triple Ohio virtually overnight" if the new method were approved.

And Whitmer called on the federal government to use its power to compel American businesses to ramp up production to address those shortages.

Asked about the protests against social distancing guidelines in Michigan, Whitmer said she doesn't regret enacting restrictions because Michigan is facing a "disproportionate problem" compared to other states.

"These stay-home orders weigh incredibly heavy, because I know there's an economic cost. I know there's a mental health cost. People are struggling with this isolation that we have, on top of all the other stressors," she said.

"But the fact of the matter is: We have to be really smart about how we proceed."