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Birx rejects Whitmer's national mask mandate request, notes COVID-19 case decline

Karen Bouffard
The Detroit News

Livonia — White House Coronavirus Task Force Coordinator Dr. Deborah Birx said Wednesday that decisions on mask-wearing mandates should be left to the states as Gov. Gretchen Whitmer pushed for a national directive.

Birx said at a news conference that she wanted to thank Michiganians for minding Centers for Disease Control and Prevention guidelines on mask wearing and social distancingWhen asked if there should be a national mask mandate, she said those decisions are being made at the state level. 

"The federal government has, in each of its reports to every governor, recommended a mask mandate at the state level where we believe it can be enforced," Birx said. "I have traveled now, this is my 26th state, and I have to say the best enforcement for masks is retail — because I will see people get out of their car and run up to the gas station and then they see the sign, ‘No mask no entry.’

"That kind of constant behavioral reinforcement that we need to have a mask on when we’re in public and anywhere, that’s why I think particularly the state mandates are very helpful, because I think our retailers and our private sector is really helping us get that message out." 

The country has seen progress in fighting the pandemic, she said.  

"We have made advances in health care delivery for COVID patients and are starting to see a decline in cases," Birx said after holding a round table discussion about COVID-19 with health and community officials in Livonia. 

Dr. Deborah Birx addressed the media Wednesday, September 2, 2020, outside a Livonia hospital after conducting a round table discussion with health and community leaders about the coronavirus.

Michigan's cases have hit a plateau in recent weeks.

At a meeting in Lansing with Whitmer earlier Wednesday, the governor urged Birx to pursue a national response to the pandemic that includes a national mask mandate and expanded testing aid.

"What’s needed is more support at the federal level to help us expand testing, ensure everyone wears a mask while in public, support our front-line workers and small businesses and save lives,” the Democratic governor said in a statement.

"I reiterated the need for enhanced federal leadership and clear, consistent communication across the administration during my meeting with Dr. Birx, and I am hopeful that she will take this message back to the president in order to help us protect our families.” 

President Donald Trump has allowed the states to develop their own responses to the COVID-19 outbreak with CDC guidance. He has avoided national mandates by citing the U.S. Constitution's recognition of federalism — allowing states to have separate police and health powers during the pandemic.

Trump also has chafed at wearing a mask himself while occasionally urging Americans to wear one in accordance with CDC guidelines to avoid the spread of the virus. 

At the news conference, Birx said she would be meeting with Detroit Mayor Mike Duggan and other local officials later Wednesday to thank the community for its response to the surge of cases in March and April.

"We wanted to particularly come to Detroit because during that March-April time frame Detroit’s health care system and the people of Detroit really rallied and joined a partnership to really save many people’s lives in the Detroit metro area," she said. 

Birxsaid knowledge of the virus and how to treat it has advanced since then. 

Detroit was considered a national hot spot for cases and deaths, which have decreased during the past three months.

Birx urged people to continue following safety measures over the Labor Day weekend. 

"We're seeing that crowded events, including barbecues, are currently one of the primary spreaders," she said. "So protect yourself over the Labor Day weekend, and if you've been out and about, you've got to assume you have COVID. And if you go visit grandma, keep your mask on."

At the earlier Lansing meeting, Whitmer said she told Birx she is concerned about the CDC's change in policy last week to discourage testing for individuals who show no symptoms of the virus but may have been exposed.

"This updated guidance, while voluntary, runs counter to what we are learning about this disease and jeopardizes our ability to return to school and work safely,” said the governor, who is also a national co-chair of Democratic presidential candidate Joe Biden's campaign.  

The Whitmer administration also has been pushing for a congressional relief package that would include aid to state and local governments to fill revenue shortfalls caused by the pandemic. Michigan's shortfall for the fiscal year that begins Oct. 1 is an estimated $3 billion.

In Livonia, Birx was asked about allowing the United States to achieve "herd immunity," which some suggest could occur when a large percentage of the population becomes immune through prior infection or vaccination. Birx said she’s been asked that question in every state she has visited.

“Obviously I would not be here if the White House believed that herd immunity was an option for America,” Birx said. “We wouldn’t have shut down for 45 days just to protect the hospital systems — we understood that we had to protect individuals because you can’t predict who's vulnerable.

“Right now in America we have between 80 (million) and 100 million people with co-morbiditities. We have a significant amount of our population over 70. Together we can protect them, but the only way to protect them is to reduce community spread,” she added.

“It is our behavior that starts cases and can stop cases, and so neither I nor anybody in the Administration is willing to sacrifice American lives for herd immunity.”

Asked about a post retweeted by Trump on Sunday that suggested only 6% of coronavirus-related deaths as of Aug. 15 were caused by COVID-19 — with the rest due to other health conditions — Birx attempted to clarify data from the CDC on how many of the people who have died with COVID suffered from additional health conditions. 

"100% of those individuals had COVID, but we also know that the individuals that are most susceptible to dying from the COVID infections are those with pre-existing conditions," Birx said. "A lot of Americans have co-morbidities. 

“We can work on that, which we should once we get through this COVID epidemic — we have to address both health disparities and these co-morbidities that put people at greater risk from any disease,” she said. “But let’s not underestimate the impact that COVID had on those individuals.

“I think the point they were trying to make was that 6% had nothing and still succumbed to COVID, and I think that's also a very important point," she added. "That means that you could be a healthy person … and still have a rocky course and die.”

kbouffard@detroitnews.com