WASHINGTON — President Donald Trump keeps spinning a tale about COVID-19 that is at odds with his own administration's disease experts and data compiled by his own coronavirus task force, which was obtained exclusively by NBC News.
In Trump's telling, the deadly pandemic isn't really a serious threat to the public and rising infection rates are simply due to increased testing. "It's going away," he said Tuesday at an event in Phoenix.
But on the same day, the coronavirus task force produced an internal document showing that Phoenix had the highest number of new cases among the 10 metropolitan regions where the week-over-week change in infection rates spiked the most. Arizona's biggest city had recorded 13,169 new cases over the previous seven days, accounting for a jump of 149.2 percent over the previous week's infection rate.
The task force records also show that big surges have been recorded in Texas — around San Antonio, Houston, Corpus Christi, Lubbock and College Station — and in other population centers across the U.S., from counties in the Jacksonville, Orlando and Tampa regions of Florida to Atlanta's Fulton County, Joplin, Missouri's Newton County, and California's San Joaquin Valley.
Local officials have already made it clear that cases are spiking, and on Thursday, Gov. Greg Abbott of Texas paused the reopening plans around the state to deal with what he called an "explosion" of virus infections. But the nonpublic documents show that the White House task force has been tracking the same outbreaks on its own, and they comport with public warnings issued by administration pandemic experts like Dr. Anthony Fauci of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases who have been sidelined by the White House.
Together, the data obtained by NBC News provide numerical ballast that support the concerns of Fauci and outside experts who say failure to defend properly against the disease will lead to more infections and a higher death toll. In most cases, the new hot spots are in states and counties where officials, including Abbott, eased back on stay-at-home restrictions as the president pressed them to reopen commerce in recent weeks.
The reopening has coincided with an overall increase in infection rates in the U.S. and a measurable drop in Trump's political standing. Democratic challenger Joe Biden holds a 10-point lead over Trump in the Real Clear Politics average of national surveys following a spate of reports showing a gap of 8 to 14 percentage points in the last few days. Likewise, state by state polls show Trump trailing in key battlegrounds, including Michigan, Wisconsin, Pennsylvania, Florida, Arizona and North Carolina.
A Reuters-Ipsos poll released Wednesday found that only 37 percent of Americans approve of Trump's handling of the pandemic crisis.
The fear of a bigger surge in infections and deaths has left Trump more isolated as a cheerleader for reversing social distancing, mask ordinances and stay-at-home restrictions.
One chart prepared Wednesday for senior leadership of federal agencies working on the coronavirus response showed a weekly positive test rate of 7 percent for the seven days ending in June. That chart, marked "sensitive but unclassified" and "for official use only," demonstrates an uptick over the seven-day averages from late May and early June when the numbers were sliding.
Based on data collected from hospital, commercial and public health labs across the country, it also shows a rate even higher than the 5.9 percent recorded by Johns Hopkins University in the seven days ending on June 21. NBC News' count of daily deaths from coronavirus shows an increase in just the last few days, including 830 new deaths reported between Wednesday and Thursday mornings.
A separate chart shows both infection rates and deaths rising in recent days more dramatically.
The mixed signals — Trump playing down the pandemic while experts and data point to a resurgence — have left state and local officials in a quandary about how to protect their citizens.
"We want to make sure that everyone reinforces the best safe practices of wearing a mask, hand sanitization, maintaining safe distance, but importantly, because the spread is so rampant right now, there’s never a reason for you to have to leave your home," Abbott told KBTX-TV in Bryan this week.
And yet in Joplin, the biggest city near the convergence of the Missouri, Oklahoma and Kansas borders, the City Council voted "no" Wednesday night on a face-covering ordinance that would have required people over the age of 6 to wear masks outside their homes. Public health officials are still trying to figure out ways to reduce the spread of the virus without the proposed rule, according to KOAM-TV.
Trump has emphasized his efforts to acquire and distribute supplies to fight the pandemic over social distancing and other public behavior methods of controlling its spread. And in recent weeks he has talked less and less about the health risks, ending his daily public briefings and resuming campaign rallies and official events that are political in nature.