Death of Loeffler staffer darkens the day

Vice President Mike Pence headed to Georgia on Friday in a race to complete the two biggest items of unfinished business left for the outgoing Trump administration — deploying a vaccine for the deadly coronavirus and keeping control of the U.S. Senate in Republican hands.

Pence stopped first in Atlanta for a briefing on the COVID-19 vaccine effort with leaders at the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, where the vice president estimated that federal approval for a vaccine could be “a week and a half away.”

Pence heard from CDC Director Robert Redfield and several of the agency’s top infectious disease experts about the timing, production and distribution plans for several coronavirus vaccines now under development.

“I’m optimistic that the (Food and Drug Administration) will get authorized vaccines within the next several weeks and distribution work can begin,” Redfield told Pence.

Pence said it should give the American people hope to know “we are ... maybe just a week and a half away from what will be the likely approval of the first coronavirus vaccine.”

The vice president chairs the White House’s Coronavirus Task Force, as well as Operation Warp Speed, the White House effort focused on the rapid development and distribution of a vaccine for the deadly coronavirus.

Pence’s visit came as the country continues to struggle with rising cases and deaths from COVID-19. Georgia remains in the “red zone,” according to the White House task force. As of Wednesday, Georgia had reported 428,980 confirmed cases and 53,159 antigen-positive cases. Georgia also has reported 8,830 confirmed deaths attributed to the virus.

Specifically, Pence said he expects FDA approval of a vaccine the week of Dec. 14, and he noted that systems are ready to move the vaccines when they’re approved.

“Within 48 hours from the FDA approval, we could be vaccinating people literally in all 50 states and territories all across the country,” the vice president said.

In addition to the timing of when vaccines could be approved, Pence discussed prioritizing who would get the vaccines first, including “the vulnerable, people in long-term care facilities and the people that work there.”

Since the vaccines will only be as effective as the number of people who take them, he and Redfield discussed the crucial task of giving the American people confidence in the vaccines.

His message to the American people, Pence said: “Help is on the way.”

Joining Pence at the CDC were Georgia’s two U.S. senators, Kelly Loeffler and David Perdue, as well as U.S. Rep. Doug Collins.

Collins’ congressional district does not include the CDC, but his presence was crucial at Pence’s next stop in Savannah, a rally for GOP faithful designed to project a united front to Republicans still angry over President Donald Trump’s defeat and insistent that the election was “stolen” from him.

The vice president had a pointed message to Trump loyalists who are considering skipping the vote because they’ve lost faith in the electoral system.

“I actually hear some people saying, ‘Just don’t vote.’ My fellow Americans,” he said, “if you don’t vote, they win.”

U.S. Rep. Buddy Carter, a Republican who represents the Savannah area, had much the same message. He pleaded with Republicans to disregard talk about “rigged” votes and turn out in the Jan. 5 runoffs.

“We have to get out,” Carter said. “Yes, I’m concerned about what happened on Nov. 3, just like you are. The president is showing the responsibility he should ... but we cannot just sit back and not vote.”

But the event was tinged by a tragedy. Collins revealed upon landing in Savannah that Loeffler was headed back to Atlanta after learning about the death of one of her staffers in a multivehicle crash in South Georgia. Harrison Deal, 20, was a campaign aide to Loeffler and an unofficial member of Gov. Brian Kemp’s family.

Loeffler described Deal in a statement as “a smart, bright, loving, loyal and outstanding young man.”

He was also very close to the Kemp family. In a statement, the governor described Deal as “the Kemp son and brother we never had.” Kemp had been scheduled to greet Pence in Savannah but changed his schedule because of what aides called “a family emergency.”

Pence called Deal a “truly wonderful young man.”

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