Governors dealing with protests ask Pence for help keeping people home, access to testing gear

The administration told governors they are not fully utilizing labs for testing.

Two governors facing protests against their stay-at-home orders amid the coronavirus pandemic on Monday asked the White House for help keeping people home, after President Donald Trump had voiced support for the demonstrators.

After Trump both said it was up to governors how and when to implement or lift the orders -- but then criticized governors he said had gone too far -- the governors of Michigan and North Carolina asked Vice President Mike Pence to reiterate the need for social distancing, and Pence agreed to "make a point" to do so.

They made the comments on a videoconference call with Pence focused on testing, according to an audio recording obtained by ABC News.

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Several scattered protests around the country have called for governors to pull back stay-at-home orders, as demonstrators say the economic toll of a largely shutdown economy is not worth the public health benefits of slowing the spread of the coronavirus.

Michigan Gov. Gretchen Whitmer, a Democrat, said she understood people in her state were getting frustrated and wanted to "do the wonderful American tradition of dissent and demonstration, but it's just so dangerous to do that." She said she was worried about "spikes" in cases spurned from protesters traveling from demonstrations to other parts of the state with lower infection rates.

Trump first endorsed protests in Michigan, Minnesota and Virginia on Friday, and said Sunday said the protesters "love our country" and "want to get back to work." A day before, Trump told reporters some governors "are being unreasonable" and that Michigan's governor had put some "crazy" restrictions in place.

"To the extent that there might be some help on the national level to reiterate the importance of staying home until we get these numbers down and we can start to reopen would be incredibly appreciated," Whitmer said.

Pence said that the administration would "make a point today and going forward to continue to reiterate that." He told the governors that they were the ones to decide "when and how" they could start to loosen social distancing guidelines.

"We want to do this in a safe and responsible way," Pence said. "We want people to adhere to state and local leadership and federal guidelines on social distancing until we've reached that criteria."

North Carolina Gov. Roy Cooper, also a Democrat, asked if the administration could let the public know the importance of meeting the minimum criteria set forth in federal recommendations for "reopening" state economies, released by the White House last week.

Suggested guidelines for state and local officials who have largely called the shots, they call for at least two weeks of downward trends in COVID-19 cases, the ability to carry out testing and contact tracing, and providing enough resources for a state's healthcare system to not become overwhelmed.

"One thing that that I would ask, is that the administration do everything that it can to let the public know that it is important for us to reach these minimum thresholds, before we began easing restrictions," Cooper said.

Protesters planned a Tuesday demonstration in North Carolina's capital.

"The administration's encouragement of, say, hey guys, particularly you have a lot of groups who are trying to get us to open up right now -- not encouraging those groups, but to follow the federal guidelines that you have given," Cooper told Pence. "And to do that responsibly."

In response, the vice president reiterated that reopening rested in the governors' hands.

The bulk of the phone call focused on the Trump administration's argument that states are not fully taking advantage of laboratories across the country for COVID-19 testing.

But governors from Texas and North Carolina told the vice president that their states are still having trouble getting access to the medical gear needed to collect samples for the tests.

Pence said fully using those labs would potentially double or triple the number of tests states could process. He said the task force provided the states with a list of labs they encouraged state governments to contact.

The White House’s coronavirus response coordinator, Dr. Deborah Birx, said on ABC's “This Week” on Sunday that the task force had “a team calling every single laboratory” that have various testing platforms throughout the country. “They're calling everyone to work with each state and local authority to ensure that they have everything that they need to turn on full capacity, which will, we believe, double the number of tests that are available for Americans,” she said.

Texas Gov. Greg Abbott, a Republican, said on Monday’s call that while there are a large number of facilities in Texas able to process coronavirus tests, “our problem is getting the collection equipment needed to get to those labs.”

Likewise, North Carolina's Cooper said his state had “significant concerns” with the personal protective equipment, or PPE, needed to collect specimens for tests and that “we're having to make tough choices.”

“When you have law enforcement and first responders that you're having to ration PPE, plus needing PPE for testing, that is a significant concern for us,” Cooper said.

Admiral Brett Giroir, a U.S. Department of Health and Human Services official who has taken a lead on testing, noted that the federal government was not seeing any sort of issues with the gear needed – but rather, with labs understanding what supplies are available to them.

"We want to make sure that the labs are -- have all the information to know what the range of supplies are that they could use and get to the commercial market,” he said, “and often we've not seen that happen."

Pence and Giroir explained to Cooper that the PPE needed to collect specimens has shifted as the type of tests have evolved, such as shifting to wider use of a nasal self-swab rather than a more invasive swab by a healthcare worker.

As the federal government made a push for more labs to be used, Maryland Gov. Larry Hogan said he was already “in contact with every one” listed for his state – and that he wasn’t actually even able to use some of them.

Hogan, a Republican, said certain labs were federally run or controlled by the Department of Defense and had been off limits to the state.

Birx told him the task force had spoken with the defense department and said “there’s a willingness” on its part to open those labs for the states to use.

This report was featured in the Tuesday, April 21, 2020, episode of “Start Here,” ABC News’ daily news podcast.

"Start Here" offers a straightforward look at the day's top stories in 20 minutes. Listen for free every weekday on Apple Podcasts, Google Podcasts, Spotify, the ABC News app or wherever you get your podcasts.

What to know about coronavirus:

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