COVID-19 cases rise as Trump brushes off concerns

President TrumpDonald John TrumpNew Bob Woodward book will include details of 25 personal letters between Trump and Kim Jong Un On The Money: Pelosi, Mnuchin talk but make no progress on ending stalemate | Trump grabs 'third rail' of politics with payroll tax pause | Trump uses racist tropes to pitch fair housing repeal to 'suburban housewife' Biden commemorates anniversary of Charlottesville 'Unite the Right' rally: 'We are in a battle for the soul of our nation' MORE is brushing off a new spike in coronavirus cases engulfing states across the South and Southwest, presenting a sunnier outlook even as Republican governors and public health officials increasingly express concern. 

Trump in recent days has described the virus as “fading away” and “going away,” even as the country set a new record on Friday for new cases with more than 40,000 across the country.

The president tweeted that cases are going up because of “GREAT TESTING,” though experts widely say that an increase in testing is far from the only explanation for the rise in cases. 

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Trump also does not wear a mask in public, unlike many governors in both parties and his top health officials, bypassing an opportunity to set an example and encourage Americans to follow his lead. 

Trump and his coronavirus task force had not held a press briefing on the virus for weeks until Friday, when the task force scheduled one amid the new spike in cases. But Trump was not there. The briefing was instead led by Vice President Pence, and it was held at the Department of Health and Human Services headquarters, not at the White House. 

While the briefing took place, Trump tweeted about the vandalization of a statue in Lafayette Square, saying “MANY” people are in custody and others are being sought for “10 year prison sentences!”

Trump’s actions, which come as polls find him falling further behind presumptive Democratic presidential nominee Joe BidenJoe BidenRon Johnson signals some GOP senators concerned about his Obama-era probes On The Money: Pelosi, Mnuchin talk but make no progress on ending stalemate | Trump grabs 'third rail' of politics with payroll tax pause | Trump uses racist tropes to pitch fair housing repeal to 'suburban housewife' Biden commemorates anniversary of Charlottesville 'Unite the Right' rally: 'We are in a battle for the soul of our nation' MORE nationally and in swing states, have been a source of frustration to Republicans.

Sen. Chuck GrassleyCharles (Chuck) Ernest GrassleyThe Hill's Morning Report - Presented by Facebook - The choice: Biden-Harris vs. Trump-Pence Trump grabs 'third rail' of politics with payroll tax pause On The Money: McConnell says it's time to restart coronavirus talks | New report finds majority of Americans support merger moratorium | Corporate bankruptcies on pace for 10-year high MORE (Iowa), the longest-serving GOP senator, tweeted Friday that he wished someone would read Trump a Wall Street Journal editorial that stated in part: “Lately he has all but given up even talking about the pandemic when he might offer realism and hope about the road ahead even as the country reopens. His default now is defensive self-congratulation.”

Doug Heye, a GOP strategist, said successful handling of the virus would have been a political boon to Trump. 

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“If the government response to this was right, he would be able to take credit, but that ship has already sailed,” Heye said. “The question is how far it’s going to sink.”

After weeks of plateauing at around 20,000 per day, new cases of the virus are now spiking again in the United States, passing 40,000 on Friday. More than 126,000 people have died. The situation is a stark contrast to European countries, where an initial spike has now largely been flattened.  

Pence did cite some signs of progress in his briefing Friday. He said there are no outstanding requests for protective equipment for health workers from any governor in an affected state. And he noted that testing has substantially increased from the early months of the pandemic, with more than 500,000 tests per day now being performed. 

“We have made truly remarkable progress in moving our nation forward,” Pence said, after offering condolences to the families of the more than 126,000 people in the United States who have died from the virus. 

But the test numbers are still well short of the 900,000 per day that Harvard experts estimated are needed, and states and localities, who are taking the lead ramping up the tracing of infected people’s contacts, are also struggling. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention Director Robert Redfield told Congress on Tuesday the country has only about 28,000 of the 100,000 contact tracers it needs. 

Pence on Friday acknowledged that there are 16 states with rising cases and rising percentages of total tests that are positive. He also pointed out that daily deaths from the virus are still falling, though experts warn that deaths are a lagging indicator and could still rise. “We still have work to do,” Pence said. 

Some observers warn the White House is in danger of seeming as if it is looking beyond the continued problem of the coronavirus at a time when public opinion already shows dissatisfaction with Trump.

“There's examples you can give where presidents overstate the end of a problem, most famously George W. Bush with ‘Mission Accomplished,’” said Julian Zelizer, a historian at Princeton University. 

“This is a little different,” he added. “He’s actually going against what public health experts say is necessary ... he’s contradicting the effort.”

The White House said that any suggestion that Trump has not “prioritized the health and safety of the American people since this pandemic began is wrong.”

“Millions of lives have been saved because of the bold leadership of President Trump, including the early travel restrictions when we had no idea the true level of asymptotic spread, the greatest mobilization of the private sector since World War II to deliver critical supplies to states in need and ramp up testing across the country, as well as an incredible public-private partnership to expedite vaccine development,” said White House spokesman Judd Deere. 

Barry Bloom, a professor at the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health, said the administration again appears to be handing questions over how to deal with the pandemic to local governments.

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“The government has basically, with rare exceptions, absented themselves from taking control of what should be done and [is] turfing it back to states,” he said.

Bloom also criticized Trump for not wearing a mask, which public health experts say has been shown to limit the spread of the COVID-19 disease.

“As the leader and the symbol of governance in this country, if he doesn't need to wear a mask why should I wear a mask and be inconvenienced?” Bloom said. “That’s a very clear signal that I think is very difficult for people down in the public health system to persuade people: ‘Ignore your president and do what I tell you.’”

Pence, asked Friday about the politicization of mask-wearing, said that the administration thinks people should follow the advice of their local health officials, but did not explicitly tell people to “wear a mask.”

Trump’s downplaying of the new spike in the virus is increasingly in contrast to the actions of Republican governors in hard-hit states. Texas and Florida on Friday both closed bars amid their spikes, after weeks of the governors declining to take such drastic steps. 

“There is a massive outbreak of COVID-19 across the state of Texas,” Gov. Greg Abbott (R) told KFDA-TV this past week.

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In hard-hit states like Texas and Arizona, hospitalizations are also spiking, and the percentage of total tests that come back positive is rising, both indicators that the increase in cases is not just because of more testing.  

Scrutiny is now growing on the decisions of these states to reopen as early as they did. While the reopening decisions were up to governors, Trump often urged states to get their economies going. In mid-April he tweeted a call to “LIBERATE” states facing coronavirus lockdowns. 

Trump also held a rally that brought thousands of people together indoors last weekend in Oklahoma. At that rally, he quipped that more testing makes the country look bad by identifying more cases, adding: “So I said to my people, 'Slow the testing down, please!'”

The remark set off days of conflicting explanations, with the White House saying he was joking, followed by Trump himself saying “I don’t kid,” followed by administration health officials telling Congress they had never actually been told to slow down testing, followed by Trump finally saying Thursday night that he really was joking.  

The testimony of the top administration health officials to Congress, on Tuesday, illustrated that to some extent the broader administration keeps working on the issue despite sometimes divergent comments from Trump himself. 

“It’s the opposite,” Anthony FauciAnthony FauciTo preserve our democratic freedoms, let's cultivate service-minded, thoughtful citizens Russia says coronavirus vaccine will be ready for doctors in two weeks Fauci: 'I seriously doubt' Russia's coronavirus vaccine is safe and effective MORE, the government’s top infectious disease expert, told the House Energy and Commerce Committee hearing on Tuesday. “We're going to be doing more testing, not less.”