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Trump, health experts diverge on response to virus outbreaks

President Donald Trump claps while supporters cheer during

President Donald Trump claps while supporters cheer during his campaign rally at BOK Center in Tulsa, Okla., Saturday, June 20. Credit: AP/Ian Maule

WASHINGTON — President Donald Trump and top White House officials have been publicly retreating from the administration’s own social-distancing guidelines and warnings about the coronavirus despite the nation’s top public health officials continuing to raise concerns about the growing number of cases nationwide.

In the past week Trump has held campaign rallies in Tulsa and Phoenix that ignored the White House Coronavirus Task Force’s recommendation to avoid large gatherings, and its guidelines calling for people to remain six feet apart and wear masks. The president moved forward with his social-distancing free events as both cities reported an uptick in COVID-19 cases.

Vice President Mike Pence and White House Economic Adviser Larry Kudlow have both publicly dismissed warnings by top epidemiologists of a potential second wave of coronavirus cases in the fall, and the White House had abandoned its daily Coronavirus Task Force briefings for nearly two months until one was held on Friday amid a surge in cases.

At the briefing, after the administration's top health officials urged Americans to continue heeding the guidelines placed by local health departments, Pence defended Trump holding campaign events in defiance of social-distancing restrictions.

"Freedom of speech and the right to peaceably assemble is enshrined in the Constiutition of the United States," Pence told reporters. "Even in a health crisis the American people don't forfeit our constitutional rights."

Trump, in a speech before an estimated 3,000 young adult supporters who packed into a Phoenix megachurch on Tuesday, said of COVID-19: “It’s going away." 

The president’s assertion came in a week that the United States continued to report a record number of new cases for five consecutive days — the peak increased from 38,115 new cases reported by state health departments on Tuesday to 44,792 reported on Sunday — raising alarm among infectious disease experts about the growing number of states that continue to see an increase in cases as states opened their economies and eased up on social distancing requirements.

Dr. Anthony Fauci, the nation’s leading infectious disease expert, testifying before a congressional panel on Tuesday, called the current infection data “troublesome,” noting that the number of daily new infections nationwide had dropped below 25,000 over the past two months, before steadily climbing up in June.

“We are now seeing a disturbing surge of infections,” said Fauci, the director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases. “We sort of stayed about flat and now we’re going up … That’s very troublesome to me.”

Fauci praised New York’s effort in reducing its overall cases and infection rate as a majority of states continue to see an increase in their seven-day average of new cases. Over the past month, 27 states have experienced an increase in cases, according to an analysis by the Washington Post.

Trump and top White House officials, including Pence, maintain that the increase in confirmed new cases is tied to an increase in diagnostic testing. But health officials have said while increased testing helps identify cases that previously would have gone undetected, it does not necessarily lead to a higher case count, noting that New York ramped up testing, but the state’s total number of new cases has steadily gone down because of its social-distancing efforts.

CDC director Robert Redfield, speaking to reporters on Thursday in a conference call, pegged the increase in cases to “young people,” who have been “newly mobile after months of lockdowns,” and “have been getting tested more often in recent weeks and driving the surge in cases in the South and West.”

As public health officials across the country work to contain the spread of the virus, Pence in a recent Wall Street Journal opinion piece dismissed warnings by Fauci and other epidemiologists of a possible “second wave” of COVID-19 cases in the fall, asserting that such projections were “overblown” by the media. Kudlow, speaking to reporters at the White House on Thursday, also reasserted there would be no second wave in the fall, saying the current spike in cases is something the American people will have to “live with.”

“We're going to have hot spots. No question,” Kudlow said. “We just have to live with that. That's I think part of the story of the declining impact of the virus … it does linger, and it does pop up … we're going to see these things, but the economy is not going to be closed down again.”

Fauci has said while a vaccine to combat COVID-19 might be available by the end of the year, it’s “inevitable” that a second wave of the disease will hit in the fall, as flu season ramps up.

"I'm almost certain it will come back, because the virus is so transmissible and it's globally spread," Fauci said during a virtual forum with the Economic Club of Washington on April 28th.

At Friday's coronavirus briefing, Fauci said: "If we want to end this outbreak … we have got to realize we are part of the process … We are either part of the solution or part of the problem."

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