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Fauci pleads with American public to take virus more seriously

Michelle Fay Cortez, Angelica LaVito and Mario Parker
Bloomberg

U.S. Vice President Mike Pence tried to paint a reassuring picture of the battle against COVID-19 on Friday citing “truly remarkable progress,” even as the country’s leading infectious disease doctor pleaded for Americans to take the outbreak more seriously.

The Trump administration’s Coronavirus Task Force’s first briefing in two months displayed competing visions of the nation’s progress. While Pence largely offered a positive twist, Dr. Anthony Fauci and Deborah Birx, the White House coronavirus response coordinator, outlined troublesome signs for the future.

Fauci said health officials on the federal and state level have offered specific guidance to follow. But the director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases said in many instances, “the citizenry did not feel” they wanted to do that.

“You have an individual responsibility to yourself but you have a societal responsibility, because if we want to end this outbreak, we’ve got to realize that we are part of the process,” Fauci said.

Pence, meanwhile, said the country has “made truly remarkable progress in moving our nation forward,” citing the 3 million jobs created in the last jobs report and surging retail sales.

“All 50 states and territories across this country are opening up, safely and responsibly,” the vice president added. However, data from public health departments across the country and the reopening rollbacks in states in the South and West, including Texas, Arizona and Florida, belie his statement.

The nation set a single day record on Friday, with more than 40,000 new cases diagnosed. The new infections, showing no signs of slowing, have topped the previous mid-April peak, when the Northeast was mired in the emerging pandemic.

Pence also pointed to rising cases among younger Americans, who are more likely to recover from the virus, and declining death rates as evidence of the country’s progress.

“As we see new cases rising, and we are tracking them very carefully, there may be a tendency among the American people to think that we are back to that place that we were two months ago,” Pence said. “That we are in a time of great losses and great hardship for the American people. The reality is that we are in a much better place.”

No states, including those in the South that are getting hit the hardest, have requested federal support with medical equipment, Pence said, saying the outbreak is different than it was in April.

Stopping the Surge

The task force’s medical experts focused on steps that states with rising case counts need to take to get the outbreak under control, saying there isn’t enough time now to figure out what caused the surge.

Some may have opened too early or not followed the recommended process, while others that went about it in the right manner may have seen their citizens ignore the advice for a number of reasons, including fatigue at being pent up for so long, Fauci said. That has to change, he added

“What we are missing in this is something we have never faced before,” Fauci said. “A risk for you is not just isolated to you because if you get infected, you are part – innocently or inadvertently - of propagating the dynamic process of a pandemic.”

Texas Tests

Pence repeated President Donald Trump’s assertion that cases are rising only because more testing is being done. But Birx said that in Texas the number of positive tests declined throughout May as testing rates increased, even after the state started reopening its economy, she said.

Just recently, she said, things changed.

“It was in the last two-and-a-half weeks that we saw this inflection of rising test positivity along with rising testing, but it was the increase in test positivity that alerted us, along with the increase in cases,” she said

The task force didn’t announce any new initiatives, and officials asked millennials and other members of the younger generations to help protect the elderly and those with other health conditions, some of which aren’t visible.

“Whereas before we told them to stay home, now we are telling them to be tested,” Birx said. “This is a great change for us, because it allows us now to find the asymptomatic and mild diseases that we couldn’t find before.”

Election Upcoming

Answering a question from a news reporter at the end of a briefing, Pence defended the administration’s decision to hold political rallies in two coronavirus hotspots in the past week, including an indoor event with thousands of spectators in Tulsa, Oklahoma, and a gathering of young church members in Arizona. Masks were optional, and sparsely seen, at both events.

“Freedom of speech, the right to peacefully assemble, is enshrined in the Constitution of the United States,” he said. “And we have an election coming up this fall.”

The political rights of Americans aren’t superseded by the potential health threat of the gathering, according to Pence. “We still want to give people the freedom to participate in the political process,” he said. “Even in a health crisis, the American people don’t forfeit our constitutional rights.”

Pence also noted that he and federal health officials will be visiting states where increases in case have been seen to get an “on the ground” look at the reasons behind the rise.

Also on Friday, the Health and Human Services Department in a separate statement said it would grant a 14-day extension of federal support for five coronavirus testing sites in Texas. Federal backing for the facilities had been set to expire at the end of this month, but the state and lawmakers including Texas Senators John Cornyn and Ted Cruz, both Republicans, had criticized the move as ill-timed.