- The Washington Times - Monday, June 22, 2020

The White House said Monday that an alarming spike in COVID-19 cases across the South and West does not amount to a second wave in the pandemic, and it pointed to a declining death rate and nationwide trend that is heading in “the right direction.”

Even as cases surged in Arizona, Florida and Texas, where the governor said the virus is spreading at an “unacceptable rate,” administration officials said flare-ups will be managed as the country reopens.

“There are some hot spots. We’re on it. We know how to deal with this stuff now. It’s come a long way since last winter, and there is no second wave coming,” White House economic adviser Larry Kudlow said on CNBC.

White House press secretary Kayleigh McEnany said Monday that it’s “a tragedy anytime a life is lost to coronavirus,” but the administration was pleased to see fewer than 300 deaths reported the previous day.

“We are trending in the right direction,” she said. “We are aware when there are rises here and there. And those embers, we are equipped to go in and handle and put [them] out and to save as many lives as possible.”

Mr. Trump, meanwhile, reiterated his belief that expanded testing is making the U.S. look bad.

“We’ve done too good a job because every time we go up with 25 million tests, you’re going to find more people, so then they say, ‘Oh, we have more cases in the United States,’ ” he told Scripps Networks Interactive at the White House.

Public health experts said they are worried that the spike in the number of cases in the Sun Belt goes far beyond testing capacity. They cited an increase in hospitalizations and rate of positive test results.

Arizona’s positivity rate hit 20%, and Florida’s topped 10%. Public health experts say the rate should be less than 10% to be confident that officials are detecting an adequate number of cases and isolating the infected.

In Texas, the positivity rate has gone from 4.5% in late May to almost 9%. Hospitalizations have surged from a seven-day average of 1,600 per day in late May to 3,200 per day.

“To state the obvious, COVID-19 is now spreading at an unacceptable rate in Texas and it must be corralled,” said Gov. Greg Abbott, a Republican.

He said Texas can reel in the coronavirus without shutting down again. The state is increasing testing capacity in potential hot spots, he said, and regulators are shutting down bars that aren’t in compliance with social distancing rules.

Mr. Abbott has not issued a statewide mandate but is pleading with people to wear masks. He said masks are effective tools in defeating COVID-19 and keeping businesses open.

“This is not going to be a permanent assignment,” Mr. Abbott said.

In California, meanwhile, Gov. Gavin Newsom and former governors in both parties emphasized the importance of wearing masks to block potentially infectious droplets that are emitted by talking, sneezing or coughing.

Mr. Newsom last week ordered Californians to wear masks in public because of single-day highs in cases in Los Angeles County and elsewhere, indicating that the coronavirus is still circulating.

“It didn’t go away just because your mall is open at 50% capacity,” former Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger said in the video clip.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention says people should wear face masks in areas where it is difficult to remain physically distant from others, such as grocery stores. Still, there is plenty of evidence that people aren’t using face coverings in many public areas, including at Mr. Trump’s campaign rally Saturday.

“It’s disheartening to see the number of individuals not wearing masks at some events or some parties or things like that,” said Michael Mina, an assistant professor of epidemiology at the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health. “I worry that the populace might not take to wearing masks diligently.”

Increased transmission appears to be among younger populations. Florida said many of those testing positive in the state are in their 30s.

Mr. Kudlow said he wouldn’t necessarily be in favor of closing bars, for example, to try to stem the trend.

“I’m not going to advocate shutting down any place — just if that’s what the locals think is necessary,” he said.

“But again, the costs of shutdown in economic terms, in psychological terms, in addiction terms — we’ve learned a lot since last February, so I’ll leave that to the locals, but I sure hope not.”

White House officials say concerns about some states shouldn’t crowd out good news about the nationwide picture. The death rate has declined steadily, with 283 fatalities reported Sunday compared with over 1,200 on May 21 and over 2,600 on April 21.

New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo said the outbreak in his state, by far the worst in the nation, continued its downward trajectory. Out of 56,780 tests performed Sunday, only 552 came back positive, at a rate of 0.97%.

Mr. Cuomo said 10 people died from COVID-19.

Still, Mr. Trump raised questions about his commitment to the fight by telling a Tulsa rally crowd on Saturday that “testing is a double-edged sword” because it uncovers more infections.

“So I said to my people, ‘Slow the testing down, please,’ ” he said.

Aides to Mr. Trump said he was clearly joking in Oklahoma. Yet the president declined to answer, at least not directly, when the Scripps reporter asked him whether he slowed down testing efforts.

“If it did slow down, frankly, I think we’re way ahead of ourselves, if you want to know the truth,” Mr. Trump said Monday in a video clip that spread on social media.

Testing is considered a key tool in slowing transmission of any communicable disease because infected people are detected and isolated to keep them from spreading the disease to others.

Ms. McEnany said the president never slowed down diagnostics.

“No, he has not directed that,” she said. “Any suggestion that testing has been curtailed is not rooted in fact.”

But former Vice President Joseph R. Biden, who is poised to face Mr. Trump in the November election, seized on the Scripps interview. He said Mr. Trump “made it clear again today that he views COVID-19 testing as a political inconvenience — not the single most important tool we have to stop the spread of this virus, save lives and get Americans back to work.”

• Tom Howell Jr. can be reached at thowell@washingtontimes.com.

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