Recent spikes in coronavirus cases in the nation’s heartland are just the latest sign that President Donald Trump’s push to reopen American society is coming at a human cost, even as he publicly downplays the risk.
On Monday, NBC News reported exclusively that unreleased White House coronavirus task force tables show that communities from Charlotte, North Carolina, and Phoenix to Minneapolis and the Houston suburbs experienced major surges in week-over-week positive tests for COVID-19. The data include significant increases in some rural counties, including those where outbreaks in prisons are now being reported for the first time.
Dr. Anthony Fauci, the director of the National Institute for Allergy and Infectious Diseases, told a Senate Committee on Tuesday that “little spikes” could lead to a major resurgence of the disease if states and localities ease restrictions too soon.
At the same time, in documents obtained by NBC News and reported here first, the task force is reporting internally that it has not yet achieved its own goals for reopening. In those documents, prepared late last week and marked “privileged and confidential,” federal officials wrote that while they have “completed” guidelines for states to reopen, they still haven’t developed a vaccine or treatments, ensured “adequate access to laboratory diagnostics,” or fully enabled front-line workers to “obtain and preserve critical medical supplies.”
The president continues to tell the public a much different story about the state of the coronavirus fight than the one told by data and public health experts inside his administration. He has declared victory time and again since he first marked Easter weekend in mid-April as his target for easing restrictions, and he has repeatedly had to back off of statements made in his self-described role as "cheerleader" for the nation.
But now, as Election Day draws nearer and the ranks of the unemployed grow by several million each week, he appears to be committed to ignoring the risks. Trump is betting most Americans will accept more deaths from the coronavirus in the interest of restarting commercial and social activity — or, at least, that they won't blame him for trying.
Just a few weeks ago, he confidently predicted that the death toll from COVID-19 might not surpass 50,000 people in the United States. It currently stands at more than 82,000. And this week, he sounded the notes of a conqueror despite the continued spread of the disease and more fatalities.
“We have met the moment, and we have prevailed,” the president said at a Rose Garden news conference Monday.
He later said, in response to a question from NBC’s Geoff Bennett, that he was talking only about the testing that his own task force has concluded remains a work in progress. He also said that the threat of the disease is receding all over the country, despite the worrisome spikes in new hot spots and the hard fact that the number of cases is guaranteed to continue rising as more Americans get tested.
White House press secretary Kayleigh McEnany said Tuesday that she had spoken to Dr. Deborah Birx, the White House's coronavirus response coordinator, and was told that "these are isolated outbreaks ... where there are specific instances in, let's say, a meat-processing facility or a prison," which can be isolated.
"So I would just say that — and this was a quote — this [is] 'proof that the system is working,' that we're able to identify what the president said are embers and put them out," McEnany said of Birx's message.
Aside from the fact that outbreaks at prisons and factories mean that people are contracting the virus, many of the surges are not attributable to a cluster in a single building or complex. The same type of spikes that Trump describes as embers are the ones Fauci warned could set off a resurgence.
Moreover, even in some places where growth in the number of cases is at least partially a function of expanded testing, local officials aren't certain that they've hit a peak or that they won't cause more harm by loosening restrictions now.
Fort Bend County, Texas, a suburban enclave southwest of Houston, was placed on a watchlist by the task force because it recorded a 64 percent week-over-week increase in coronavirus cases in the days leading up to May 7.
County Judge KP George, Fort Bend’s top executive, told NBC News that he expected to see a bump after investing heavily in providing free testing for residents.
“I want to test more people,” he said. “I believe soon we might be able to find the peak.”
But he said that Texas Gov. Greg Abbott’s decision to force a phased-in reopening of the state on May 1, a move applauded by Trump, came two weeks too early and left too little flexibility for local officials to keep stay-at-home rules in place.
“I want the county to open because businesses are hurting,” he said, but “science, data and experts — these are the three things that we will rely on.”
Trump’s administration is teeming with health experts and stocked with data showing where the virus is spreading. Alarm bells are being rung. But the president has chosen to drown them out with the sound of his own proclamations.
He has said economic hardship is its own public health risk. Whether that's his sincere belief or the justification he seeks for pursuing an economic recovery vital to his re-election or both, his office requires him to make tough judgments about the best interests of the American public.
In this case, he's going against the evidence and the advice of experts within his own administration.