November 3, 2020

America's heading into the 'most deadly phase' of the coronavirus epidemic, Birx warns

Daily Briefing

    Deborah Birx, who is coordinating the White House's coronavirus task force, in an internal report on Monday warned Trump administration officials that the United States is entering the "most concerning and most deadly phase" of the coronavirus epidemic. Meanwhile, governors in some states with the highest coronavirus infection rates have indicated they won't implement new measures aimed at curbing the virus's spread.

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    US new coronavirus cases surpass 9.3M, deaths top 231K

    U.S. officials on Monday reported about 93,581 new cases of the novel coronavirus, bringing the country's total number of reported coronavirus cases since the epidemic began to about 9,376,000 as of Tuesday morning—up from about 9,282,400 cases reported as of Monday morning.

    According to the New York Times, the United States' average daily number of newly reported coronavirus cases over the past week was 85,563—which is up by 44% when compared with the average from two weeks ago.

    As of Tuesday morning, data from the Times showed that the rates of newly reported coronavirus cases were "staying high" in Puerto Rico and 40 states that have had a daily average of at least 15 newly reported cases per 100,000 people over the past week. Those states are Alabama, Alaska, Arizona, Arkansas, Colorado, Connecticut, Delaware, Florida, Georgia, Idaho, Illinois, Indiana, Iowa, Kansas, Kentucky, Massachusetts, Michigan, Minnesota, Mississippi, Missouri, Montana, Nebraska, Nevada, New Jersey, New Mexico, North Carolina, North Dakota, Ohio, Oklahoma, Pennsylvania, Rhode Island, South Carolina, South Dakota, Tennessee, Texas, Utah, Virginia, West Virginia, Wisconsin, and Wyoming.

    Meanwhile, the Times' data shows that, as of Tuesday morning, the daily average of newly reported cases over the past seven days was "going down" in Guam, which had been seeing comparatively higher rates of coronavirus transmission.

    The U.S. Virgin Islands; Washington, D.C.; and eight states that have had comparatively low case rates were seeing those rates "going up" as of Tuesday morning, according to the Times. Those states are California, Maine, Maryland, New Hampshire, New York, Oregon, Vermont, and Washington.

    In Hawaii and Louisiana, rates of newly reported coronavirus cases were "staying low" as of Tuesday morning, according to the Times' analysis.

    The United States on Monday also reported about 540 new deaths tied to the coronavirus. As of Tuesday morning, U.S. officials reported a total of about 231,477 U.S. deaths linked to the virus since the country's epidemic began, up from about 230,937 deaths reported as of Monday morning.

    Birx: US is 'entering the most concerning and most deadly phase of' epidemic

    According to the Washington Post, Birx on Monday shared an internal report with top White House and Trump administration officials in which she warned that America's coronavirus epidemic is heading into a new phase that will require the administration to take more "aggressive" steps to contain the virus's spread.

    "We are entering the most concerning and most deadly phase of this [epidemic]," Birx wrote in the report. "This is not about lockdowns. It hasn't been about lockdowns since March or April. It's about an aggressive balanced approach that is not being implemented."

    Birx's report noted that new coronavirus "[c]ases are rapidly rising in nearly 30% of all U.S. counties, the highest number of county hotspots we have seen with this [epidemic]." In addition, the report noted, "[h]alf of the United States is in the red or orange zone for cases despite flat or declining testing." Birx explained in the report that the increasing number of positive coronavirus tests despite flat or declining testing rates suggests "community spread is much worse than is evident by current (measurements)."

    Birx in the report predicted that the United States will soon see days when officials report more than 100,000 new cases of the virus daily, and she recommended that the Trump administration take "much more aggressive action" to curb the coronavirus's spread. She wrote that it is "essential at this time point" to have "consistent messaging about uniform use of masks, physical distancing, and hand washing with profound limitation on indoor gatherings especially with family and friends."

    According to the Post, an administration official who spoke with the Post on the condition of anonymity said Birx's message to White House and administration officials regarding the coronavirus's spread "has been urgent for weeks, as has the plea for the administration to ask the American people to use masks, avoid gatherings, and socially distance, basically since it became apparent that we were heading into a third surge."

    For instance, the Post reports that Birx in an internal report sent to White House and administration officials on Oct. 17 wrote, "There is an absolute necessity of the administration … to ask the American people to wear masks, physical distance, and avoid gatherings in both public and private spaces."

    According to the Post, another administration official who spoke with the Post on the condition of anonymity said Birx "feels like she's being ignored."

    However, White House Communications Director Alyssa Farah pushed back against the report's claims that the Trump administration's response to the epidemic has been inadequate. Farah said the administration has "significantly increased" the U.S. national stockpile to ensure the country has enough personal protective equipment; purchased and distributed 150 million coronavirus tests; and sent special teams to states and nursing homes with the highest numbers of coronavirus cases.

    Farah added that the Trump administration also is continuing work to "safely rush therapeutics" to Covid-19 patients and develop vaccines against the novel coronavirus. "We are working around-the-clock to safely treat the virus and ultimately defeat it," she said.

    Governors in some hard-hit states resist new mandates to mitigate coronavirus's spread

    Meanwhile, although new coronavirus cases are surging throughout the United States, state and local officials in some areas seeing the highest coronavirus infection rates have indicated that they will not implement new measures to curb the virus's spread. Instead, those officials have said it's up to people, not the government, to decide which mitigation measures they use.

    For example, the local health board in northern Idaho—where officials are reporting record numbers of new coronavirus cases and hospitalizations for Covid-19—last month repealed a requirement that Kootenai County residents wear face masks when in public.

    "I personally do not care whether anybody wears a mask or not," Walt Kirby, a member of the board, said at a public hearing on the issue. "If they want to be dumb enough to walk around out there and expose themselves and others to this, that's fine with me," Kirby added.

    Some state officials who have resisted implementing new measures intended to curb the coronavirus's spread have expressed similar sentiments.

    For example, North Dakota Gov. Doug Burgum (R) during a press conference last month said that when it comes to saving lives, "it's not a job for government, this is a job for everybody," the Times reports.

    Similarly, Tennessee Gov. Bill Lee (R), who has resisted implementing a statewide mask mandate, last month said, "At the end of the day, personal responsibility is the only way. People will either choose or not choose to socially distance. Or choose to wear a mask or not, they will choose to make that personal decision. What we can do is to remind them is that personal responsibility can protect them."

    Alaska Gov. Mike Dunleavy (R) during an interview said that increasing coronavirus case numbers this fall should not drive people to go into hiding, the Times reports. According to the Times, Dunleavy said, "It's like being told you're going to get hit with a meteorite. … There comes a point where people just say, 'I still have to live. I still have to work. I still have to have contact with my family.'"

    And in South Dakota, which currently is seeing one of the highest rates of new coronavirus  infections in the country, Gov. Kristi Noem (R) in a recent opinion piece wrote, "While we have been working together to combat this virus, many other states have taken a very different approach. Some governors ordered their citizens to shelter in place. Others ordered businesses and churches to close. … Many said these steps had to be taken. They insisted that the approach we've taken–trusting the people to make the best decisions for themselves and their families–was wrong."

    Noem continued, "As we expected, cases have gone up in South Dakota. Science told us that was going to happen–there is no way to stop the virus." She added, "Though we all look forward to a time when Covid-19 is behind us, a one-size-fits-all approach remains elusive. This includes mandatory masking. … I'm going to continue to trust South Dakotans to make wise and well-informed decisions for themselves and their families"  (New York Times [1], 11/3; Sun/Dawsey, Washington Post, 11/2; Baker, New York Times, 11/3; Owens, "Vitals," Axios, 11/3; New York Times [2], 11/3; Mattise, Associated Press, 10/28; Noem, Rapid City Journal, 10/22).

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