- The Washington Times - Tuesday, July 21, 2020

President Trump tried to seize control of the coronavirus narrative Tuesday by returning to the White House podium to acknowledge surging cases of COVID-19 while trumpeting progress on treatments and a vaccine that would alleviate his election-year nightmare.

Mr. Trump said Americans are far less likely to die from COVID-19 than they were in March and April because the coronavirus is infecting younger people and because of pioneering drugs to treat the disease, but he appeared sobered by the worsening picture in states across the South and West. He said there is work to do to corral widespread transmission and resulting hospitalizations.

“Some areas of our country are doing very well. Some areas are doing less well. It will probably, unfortunately, get worse before it gets better,” Mr. Trump, reading from notes, said in the White House briefing room.

In a pivot, he encouraged Americans to use masks instead of saying it is optional.

“Whether you like the mask or not, they have an impact,” Mr. Trump said.

He specifically warned people to beware of bars and gatherings in tight spaces. The goal now, he said, is not to just manage transmission but to end it.

“We want to get rid of it as soon as we can,” he said. He said a vaccine will be the ultimate solution and he remains optimistic as numerous companies report positive results from early trials.

It was Mr. Trump’s first briefing in months, after an uproar over the president’s grasp of the science caused him to stop the briefings and pivot to other topics.

Notably, the president spoke alone Tuesday instead of including members of his coronavirus task force, such as White House response coordinator Deborah Birx or Anthony Fauci, a top National Institutes of Health scientist who has been publicly undermined by some White House aides.

Yet the briefing, which lasted less than a half hour, marked an attempt at message discipline. Earlier briefings ran for up to two hours and featured spats with reporters.

Mr. Trump spoke amid growing fervor in Sun Belt states. Georgia’s governor is wrangling with mayors, and Florida teachers have threatened to not show up if schools don’t appear safe.

Florida reported 134 deaths Tuesday, giving it a seven-day average of 115. The state was averaging just over 30 deaths a day a month ago, according to data compiled by the Associated Press. Texas is averaging 112 deaths a day and surpassed 4,000 overall this week.

“Unfortunately now, Florida is in a little tough, or a big tough, position,” Mr. Trump said. He also said Texas is well run and will handle the crisis.

California, meanwhile, is on pace to soon pass New York in reported cases. The crisis is forcing Gov. Gavin Newsom, a Democrat, to roll back his attempts to restart the state’s economy.

Others in the administration echoed the president’s renewed emphasis on the health crisis.

“Make no mistake about it: The spread of the coronavirus virus across the Sun Belt has been serious. We’re going to continue to focus great energy and attention on it,” Vice President Mike Pence said during a stop in South Carolina.

South Carolina is among the Southern states with positive test rates in the mid- to upper teens. Experts say less than 10% of tests should return positive to ensure officials are catching enough cases in the community.

“It’s not just about flattening the curve. And it’s not just about putting us in a situation where our health care delivery system is not being overwhelmed,” Houston Mayor Sylvester Turner, a Democrat, told a Washington Post Live event. “It’s bringing the numbers down, the positivity rate down, such that we can effectively manage the virus until such time as there is a vaccine in place.”

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention said many regions might have 10 times more cases than have been reported. The CDC cited antibody testing that offers a sense of how many people have been infected. People who had mild or no symptoms of COVID-19 might not have realized they were infected and fueled transmission.

The coronavirus that causes COVID-19 was discovered in Wuhan, China, in December. It swiftly blanketed the globe and has killed over 611,000 people, including more than 141,000 in the U.S.

Mr. Trump complained about the glaring focus on coronavirus problems in the U.S. He said other countries have worse fatality rates and that the pandemic is a global problem. COVID-19 cases are surging across the Western Hemisphere, in particular.

“Mexico’s been hit very, very hard,” Mr. Trump said.

Yet public health experts and Democrats say many developed countries in Europe and Asia had better strategies for controlling the spread of the virus.

“The No. 1 reason we’re in such trouble is because we don’t have adequate testing and adequate tracing,” Senate Minority Leader Charles E. Schumer, New York Democrat, told CNN. “If you compare America to the other countries, of the developed countries of the world, whether in Europe or East Asia, many of them had coronavirus as fierce as we had. Italy, Spain, South Korea. But they’re now getting back a little bit to normal because they had a strong testing regime.”

The White House said it supports increased funding to fight the coronavirus as Congress debates the next economic relief package. It wants the money to be used strategically, however.

“We want more money. We want it to be targeted,” said White House press secretary Kayleigh McEnany.

Officials highlighted efforts to expand the pooling of tests, in which multiple samples are run together and each person is tested only if the virus is detected in their pooled sample.

Mr. Trump also said his administration is working on expanding the use of point-of-care tests that spit out results within minutes. It’s the type of test used on the president, vice president and people around them.

As Congress debates another relief package to deal with the economic fallout from the pandemic, roughly a quarter of Americans report they have lost savings and about an equal share say they have lost income, according to a COVID-19 tracking survey conducted by NORC at the University of Chicago. A quarter of people surveyed reported changing their work routines. Two in 10 reported losing a job, and 2 in 10 said they put themselves at risk to keep working.

Former Vice President Joseph R. Biden said Americans cannot rely on Mr. Trump to solve the problems.

“He’s quit on you, and he’s quit on this country,” the presumptive Democratic nominee for president said in a Delaware speech.

Mr. Trump defended his efforts broadly. He said one death is too many, but he moved early to restrict travel from China — the source of the virus — and produced ventilators to assist severely ill patients. He is predicting a swift economic recovery, a critical point for the president as he tries to stay afloat before the November election. Polls show him trailing Mr. Biden in key states.

“I think the American people will judge us on this,” Mr. Trump said, but he added that they will also remember good economic numbers before the pandemic and how he has handled the military, taxes and regulations.

Mr. Pence, in South Carolina, made a specific appeal to people younger than 30. He said none of them would want to inadvertently infect a more vulnerable person. He told them to wear masks, wash their hands and adhere to social distancing.

“We have every confidence that they will do just that,” he said.

Yet strict mandates are roiling Georgia, where Gov. Brian Kemp, a Republican, is suing Atlanta Mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms, a Democrat, over a city mask mandate. He is trying to block Mrs. Bottoms and other local leaders from instituting rules that conflict with his executive orders on the coronavirus.

Mr. Kemp also said his state’s hospitals would be forced to shut down if he lets local leaders set their own restrictions.

“When you have local officials that [are] going beyond the executive orders during this public state of emergency trying to pull our economy back, what that will do [is] it will shut our hospitals down,” Mr. Kemp said Tuesday on “Fox and Friends.” “They cannot afford that financially.”

Mr. Pence said the administration will continue to defer to governors when it comes to social distancing rules and mask mandates. He said the refusal to adopt a “one size fits all” approach helped slow transmission in the spring.

New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo, a Democrat, said a more sweeping plan is needed.

“The virus can and will cross state lines,” Mr. Cuomo tweeted. “There must be a national plan to get this virus under control.”

He continued to expand the list of states from which visitors must quarantine for 14 days. The number is now up to 31. State officials don’t want to squander the strides they made after getting slammed by COVID-19 early on, resulting in more than 30,000 deaths.

• David Sherfinski contributed to this report.

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