Before Friday, the last time the White House Coronavirus Task Force had addressed the country was April 27. The U.S. had recorded 978,680 coronavirus cases and 55,266 deaths, and states were getting ready to re-open as the percentage of people testing positive for COVID-19 began declining. “We continue to see evidence that our aggressive strategy is working and working at a very high level,” Trump said during the briefing.
This time, as the task force held its first televised press conference in two months, Trump was notably absent. The briefing, previously held at the White House, was delivered instead at the headquarters for Health and Human Services, during the worst week on record for COVID-19 cases in the country, with daily cases well surpassing the previous peak in April and erasing all intermittent progress in flattening the curve. America now has at least 2,446,706 cases on record, and at least 124,891 people have died.
As the country’s top health officials got before the cameras to deliver an urgent message for young Americans to practice social distancing and wear masks to help stop the spike in COVID-19 cases in 16 U.S. states, Trump was in the White House preparing to speak at an event about the American workforce. He was also on Twitter, sending out an FBI notice looking for 15 people allegedly involved in trying to take down the statue of President Andrew Jackson in Lafayette Square Park.
The night before, he sat with Fox News host Sean Hannity and repeated the false claim that the rise in new cases was a result of more testing. “You’re going to have a kid with the sniffles, and they’ll say it’s coronavirus,” Trump said. Two days earlier Trump spoke to a packed 3,000 seat church in Phoenix, Ariz. filled with student supporters, seated closely together and most of them not covering their noses and mouths.
Trump’s unwillingness to use his bully pulpit to convince more Americans to help slow the spread of the virus comes at a precarious time for the country. Now it is up to public health officials like Dr. Deborah Birx, the White House coronavirus response coordinator, and Dr. Anthony Fauci, the nation’s top infectious disease expert, who recently said he had not spoken to Trump in weeks, to convince Americans to practice social distancing and wear masks as the economy opens up and cases continue to rise.
“The White House did briefings in April when it was convenient for them to have some good press but then just stopped when they got bored of it,” says Maciej Boni, an epidemiologist at Penn State’s Center for Infectious Disease Dynamics. “I think they’ve missed the boat in trying to be helpful.”
Trump has rarely been in sync with his health officials on delivering important messages to the public about COVID-19. The pained expressions of Dr. Birx and Dr. Fauci, as they listened to Trump’s medical recommendations to Americans were a regular feature of the task force’s daily televised briefings back in March and April. When the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) asked Americans to wear masks in April, Trump said he wouldn’t do it, and has never been seen wearing one. The same month, he toured a mask factory without wearing a mask. He held a campaign rally with more than 6,000 supporters in Tulsa on June 20, an event that fit the CDC’s definition of “highest risk.”
This is a moment when Trump’s power to reach the country could be helpful in reversing the virus’ dangerous new trend. Florida is seeing a rise in the percentage of people testing positive for COVID-19. Hospital beds in Arizona are reaching capacity. In Texas, Gov. Greg Abbott ordered a halt to elective surgeries in the hardest-hit counties over concern for hospital bed space and asked all Texans to wear a mask, wash their hands regularly and stay apart from others. “The last thing we want to do as a state is go backwards and close down businesses,” Abbott said. Authorities in Connecticut, New Jersey and New York are demanding travelers from states where cases are spiking to self quarantine for two weeks. Even states where the infections remain low have difficult work ahead of them, says Boni, hiring thousands of people to contact those infected and track who they have been in contact with to contain new outbreaks.
Vice President Mike Pence, who leads the task force, started off the press conference on Friday by listing efforts the Trump Administration has made since March to increase the availability of medical supplies and testing in the U.S. The task force has met 17 times since the country began to reopen, he said, and meets with state governors every Monday to share statistics and learn what resources are needed. Dr. Birx will be traveling to Texas, New Mexico and Arizona to meet with local health officials and community groups and emphasize the need to practice social distancing and be tested.
But when Pence got to the point of why the task force was suddenly reappearing before America after two full months, it wasn’t with good news. Health officials are now seeing cases “rise precipitously across the South,” highlighting outbreaks in Texas, Florida, Arizona, California and 12 other states.
Asked why the Trump campaign was continuing to hold large events with people not wearing masks, Pence said that “freedom of speech, right to peaceably assemble is enshrined in the Constitution of the United States. We have an election going on this fall,” Pence said, adding that he and Trump “want to give people the freedom to participate in the political process.”
Pence emphasized that even as the number of cases begins to increase again, the number of people who are dying each day from the virus has declined because people are diagnosed earlier, hospitals are sharing information on treatment and some drugs are proving to help patients recover. “We can still take some comfort in the fact that fatalities are declining,” Pence said, pointing out that this week there were two days when fewer than 300 Americans died, down from a peak of more than 2,500. “All 50 states are opening up safely and responsibly,” Pence said.
His colleagues painted a starker picture. “We have some very concerning hotspots,” Health and Human Services Secretary Alex Azar said. “We are facing a serious problem in certain areas,” said Dr. Fauci. “We are not defenseless” against the spread of the virus, said Robert Redfield, director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, but warned Americans must “embrace the importance of social distancing recommendations.”
Epidemiologists caution that as the number of cases goes up, the number of people hospitalized and dying from the disease may also increase two or three weeks later. Asked if he was concerned the death rate may begin to climb, Pence said, “Our hope and our prayers is that is not the case.” In addition to prayer, according to health officials, Americans can prevent a spike in deaths by staying away from each other and covering their mouths when in public.