WASHINGTON — Acting Homeland Security Secretary Chad Wolf said Sunday that the U.S. is doing a "great job" at reopening during the coronavirus pandemic, even as rising caseloads across the country have prompted concern from public health officials.
In an interview on NBC News' "Meet the Press," Wolf praised the "dramatic steps" he said President Donald Trump took to slow the spread of the virus. And he said guidance from the White House coronavirus task force is helping put states in positions to open "in a safe and reasonable way."
"We're seeing a number of states throughout the country in different phases, from phase one to phase three, trying to get this economy, trying to get the country back up and running," Wolf said.
"We're doing a great job at that," he said.
More than 2.2 million coronavirus cases in the U.S. and over 120,000 deaths have been attributed to the virus, according to data from NBC News and Johns Hopkins University. Overall, there have been about 8.8 million cases and 465,000 deaths worldwide.
While the rate of daily new cases has dropped significantly in New York and other Northeastern states hit hard in the virus' early months, caseloads are spiking across the country.
Michael Osterholm, director of the Center for Infectious Disease Research and Policy at the University of Minnesota, criticized America's lack of a "national plan" Sunday.
He said cases are going up partly because many places are "back to a pre-pandemic mindset," noting that America has about 70 percent of the cases it had at the height of the pandemic earlier this year.
"While other areas have done much better around the world in stopping it after a very difficult period of time with it, we haven't done that. Part of that is the fact that we just have not really gotten the message across to the public yet that this is a very serious issue, that we can't shut down our economy, but we can't just suddenly say we are done with it," he said.
"This virus is operating on its own time under its own rules, not anything we impose on it," he said.
Osterholm added that he doesn't see the virus "slowing down" this summer or fall, comparing its spread to that of a forest fire. "Wherever there is wood to burn, this fire is going to burn," he said.
Twenty-six states have recorded spikes in cases of at least 20 percent over the past two weeks, according to NBC News data. One of them is Oklahoma, where Trump held an indoor campaign rally Saturday night in Tulsa that key members of his coronavirus task force had warned against holding, NBC News reported.
During the rally, Trump called testing a "double-edged sword" because more testing increases caseloads, and he said he had told his administration to "slow the testing down."
The White House said later in a statement that the president was joking about slowing down testing.
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Asked about the safety procedures at the rally, Wolf said indoor rallies were allowed under Tulsa's reopening plan, noting that the campaign handed out masks and hand sanitizer to attendees and that it also checked their temperatures.
And he said the decision about whether rallygoers should wear face coverings — which is promoted by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, as well as public health officials across the country, as a key way to slow the spread of the virus — is a "personal choice."
"We'll continue to provide that resource and guidance, making sure that governors have all the information that they need to make those decisions locally," Wolf said.