- The Washington Times - Monday, August 3, 2020

The Sun Belt is getting its surge in COVID-19 cases under control but those gains are being offset by worrying trends in the Midwest and places that seemed to have the virus under control earlier this year.

Shares of tests returning positive in Arizona, California, Florida and Texas are on the decline — along with their seven-day averages of daily cases — while transmission is ticking up states like Ohio, Kentucky, Indiana and Tennessee.

Mississippi’s daily caseload is up 30% in the past two weeks and its positivity rate has soared to over 20%, suggesting that the state isn’t detecting enough cases.

The D.C. region recently saw its biggest one-week increase since May, and Massachusetts averaged about 400 cases per day over the past week, compared to daily seven-day averages that were consistently below 300 in mid-July.

“They are heading in the wrong direction and I worry a lot of people living in the Northeast think that we’re done with the pandemic,” said Ashish Jha, a professor of global health at the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health. “It is entirely possible we can find ourselves back in deep trouble if we don’t act aggressively.”

The U.S. coronavirus response coordinator, Deborah Birx, alluded to a “new phase” in weekend interviews, saying the virus is widespread and affecting rural and urban areas alike. She said people who live in multigenerational households in cities or rural areas with extensive outbreaks should consider wearing masks inside the home to protect vulnerable family members.

The comments drew a rebuke from President Trump, who says the U.S. is doing a good job fighting the virus and that case counts only seem high because this country tests more than others.

More than 155,000 people have died from the coronavirus in the U.S. although the national seven-day average is roughly 62,000 cases per day, down from 68,000 two weeks ago.

“We’re beginning to see evidence of significant progress,” Mr. Trump said, noting the national positivity rate is down to 8%. Experts say officials should maintain a rate of under 10% to ensure they’re catching enough cases in the community.

Mr. Trump said his team is keeping an eye on new flare-ups in Georgia, Mississippi, Tennessee, Oklahoma and Missouri.

“I think you’ll find that they’re soon going to be very much under control,” he said.

Earlier Monday, the president scolded Dr. Birx over her comments on the extent of the pandemic and her handling of pointed criticism from House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, who told cable news that she didn’t trust the doctor.

“In order to counter Nancy, Deborah took the bait & hit us. Pathetic!” Mr. Trump tweeted.

Mr. Trump later said he has a lot of respect for Dr. Birx. He said he was frustrated that the news is full of doleful news and the U.S. hasn’t gotten enough credit for its response.

Governors have largely blamed their summer spikes on young people who began socializing again as economies reopened from springtime lockdowns.

They singled out bars as culprits in the spread, since they tend to involve crowds indoors, and implicated graduation parties and other household gatherings.

Governors adjusted their policies accordingly, shuttering taverns and taking a harder line on mask-wearing.

Dr. Scott Gottlieb, a former head of the Food and Drug Administration, said those measures appear to be paying off in the Sun Belt and seemed to work for Northeast locales, which took a slow-and-steady approach to reopening after facing the worst of the U.S. outbreak early on.

“The question is: Can they hold onto those gains? Or are they being heavily seeded [with the virus] right now, we just don’t know it, and you’re going to see the consequence of that sometime in September?” Dr. Gottlieb told CNBC on Monday.

He said it is important to figure out whether a “happy medium” between lockdowns and unfettered spread exists by deploying “targeted mitigation,” such as closing bars, moving activities outdoors and better use of masks.

Massachusetts Gov. Charlie Baker, a Republican, and Illinois Gov. J.B. Pritzker, a Democrat, launched mask-wearing campaigns in recent days, reflecting concerns about a resurgence in the virus.

Illinois reported 1,467 cases Sunday, part of a broader trend of daily case counts averaging over 1,000 compared to about 800 a month ago.

The White House said Monday it is tightening up its own COVID-19 testing protocols.

“As part of our ongoing efforts to protect the health and safety of the entire White House complex, randomized testing of executive office of the president staff, which has been ongoing for several months, will become mandatory rather than voluntary,” an administration official said.

The change affects the broader complex, not the president’s inner circle. People who are in contact with Mr. Trump or Vice President Mike Pence get a mandatory test each day.

It was unclear what prompted the change, though it comes one week after officials said the president’s national security adviser, Robert C. O’Brien, tested positive after seeing family.

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