Los Angeles Times

Virus spread akin to ‘forest fire’

Increased testing isn’t only reason for uptick in U.S., and patients are sicker, experts say.

- By Laura King

WASHINGTON — Infectious disease experts expressed alarm Sunday over the pace of new coronaviru­s infections in several states in the South and Southwest, with one likening the spread in parts of the country to a “forest fire.”

At the same time, President Trump’s surrogates insisted he was joking Saturday when he told rallygoers he had ordered a testing slowdown because the results painted an overly dire picture of the pandemic.

With the United States now reporting a quarter of the world’s coronaviru­s cases, and daily new-infection counts exceeding 30,000

nationwide on at least two recent days, eight states — California among them — last week hit single-day newcase highs, according to figures compiled by Johns Hopkins University.

In California, much of the increase in the total number of cases does appear to be a result of more testing, health officials say. That does not fully explain the overall caseload increase in several other states, however, public health experts said, directly contradict­ing a major talking point by the president and some of his aides.

In some of the most affected states, such as Florida and Arizona, not only are larger proportion­s of tests coming back positive, but more of the afflicted are also becoming sicker, Thomas Inglesby of Johns Hopkins’ School of Public Health said in an interview on “Fox News Sunday.”

“What we are seeing is increased positivity in testing, and in many cases increased hospitaliz­ation,” Inglesby said. “That’s not just because we’re doing more testing in a state; that’s because there is more serious disease in a state.”

Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis, a Republican, conceded that point at a news conference on Saturday in Tallahasse­e, the state capital, saying that even with test rates flat or increasing, “the number of people testing positive is accelerati­ng faster than that.”

Although death rates in the U.S. from COVID-19 have declined after the peak hit in New York in April, the number of people hospitaliz­ed has climbed sharply in several states, and health officials fear that deaths could start rising again soon.

“This is going to be hard to get under control,” said Scott Gottlieb, commission­er of the Food and Drug Administra­tion earlier in Trump’s tenure. “These are big states that have a lot of cases; they’ve been building.”

In addition to California, other states that recently have reported highs in single-day new infections include Florida, Arizona, Nevada, Oklahoma, South Carolina, Texas and Utah, according to Johns Hopkins’ coronaviru­s tracker. Several of those states were among the earliest to allow businesses to fully reopen.

Interviewe­d on CBS’ “Face the Nation,” Gottlieb said that while “we’re not going to want to shut down business again,” there were “not a lot of tools we can reach for” as the spread of the virus continues.

Trump has largely ignored the growing signs of an increase, focusing almost exclusivel­y on pushing states to reopen. At his rally Saturday in Tulsa, Okla., held amid a surge of coronaviru­s cases in that state, he called testing for the virus “a double-edged sword,” adding: “When you do testing to that extent, you’re gonna find more people; you’re gonna find more cases.”

Trump has often suggested that more testing fuels an inflated sense of the seriousnes­s of the crisis. But addressing the relatively thin rally crowd — the Tulsa Fire Department on Sunday put attendance at 6,200 in a 19,200-capacity stadium — he went further, saying: “So I said to my people, ‘Slow down the testing, please.’ ”

The president’s aides quickly declared he was making a humorous aside, a line they stuck with in television interviews Sunday.

Trade advisor Peter Navarro, appearing on CNN’s “State of the Union,” called Trump’s testing remark “tongue-in-cheek” and “a light moment.”

Pressed as to why Trump would make a jocular reference to a pandemic that has cost nearly 120,000 American lives, he responded testily: “Asked and answered.”

Acting Homeland Security Secretary Chad Wolf said on ABC’s “This Week” that while many of Trump’s remarks on a variety of subjects stem from “a humor standpoint,” the rally comment also reflected “frustratio­n” over media coverage of the coronaviru­s outbreak.

“All they want to focus on is an increasing test count — we know that’s going to occur when you’re testing more,” he said.

Critics of the president, who in recent weeks have primarily focused on his seeming indifferen­ce to the nationwide upheaval over racial injustice, found the remark unfunny. Black people and Latinos are disproport­ionately sickened and killed by the virus, and in his rally speech, Trump referred to COVID-19 using an antiAsian slur.

“This is no time to joke,” said Atlanta Mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms, when asked on CNN about the president’s slow-the-testing comment. “Even if it were a joke, which it was not, it was an inappropri­ate joke. Do you think the people, the 120,000 families out there who are missing their loved ones, thought it was funny?”

The campaign of former Vice President Joe Biden, Trump’s presumptiv­e Democratic opponent in November, seized on the president’s remark as more proof he does not take the virus threat seriously. Senior advisor Symone Sanders, interviewe­d on Fox, called the comment “an appalling attempt to lessen the numbers only to make him look good.”

Throughout the coronaviru­s crisis, Trump has largely focused on economic recovery, and public health experts stressed they were not urging a return to the lockdowns that began in mid-March and continued for weeks, sending unemployme­nt soaring.

But too many parts of the United States are acting as if the pandemic is over, said Michael Osterholm, the director of the Center for Infectious Disease Research and Policy at the University of Minnesota.

Speaking on NBC’s “Meet the Press,” Osterholm said he saw less likelihood now of a lull between the initial outbreak and a possible second wave this year.

“I’m actually of the mind right now — I think this is more like a forest fire,” he said. “I don’t think that this is going to slow down.”

Without referring specifical­ly to the Trump administra­tion, he said the lack of a coordinate­d overall policy was worsening the crisis.

“We’re at 70% of the number of cases today that we were at the very height of the pandemic cases in early April, and yet I don’t see any kind of a ‘This is where we need to go, this is what we need to do to get there’ kind of effort,” Osterholm said. “And that’s one of our challenges.”

Most experts are counseling greater adherence to health guidelines, including use of face coverings, physical distancing and caution when in public indoor spaces. At Trump’s rally, most participan­ts were without masks, and many clustered close together. Participan­ts had to sign a waiver saying they would not seek legal redress if they contracted the virus.

Wolf, asked on NBC whether the rally set a bad example and endangered attendees, said “activities like this are allowed” and pointed out that masks and hand sanitizer were available and temperatur­e checks conducted.

Some Trump critics suggested that the rally’s relatively low turnout might have reflected unease about the risk of catching the virus. On Fox News, senior campaign advisor Mercedes Schlapp told anchor Chris Wallace that worries about hostile protesters kept some people away, at the same time denying turnout had been disappoint­ing.

“The fact is, people didn’t show up,” Wallace said. “Oh, absolutely they did,” Schlapp retorted.

Gov. Gavin Newsom last week ordered California­ns to wear face coverings while in public or high-risk settings, including while shopping or taking public transit. Inglesby, in his Fox interview, said simple measures could still make a big difference.

“We should be encouragin­g people to wear face coverings, to stay at a distance, to avoid large gatherings, to use hand sanitizer or wash your hands,” he said. “Those are the things that we have seen work, and will work.”

‘I’m actually of the mind right now — I think this is more like a forest fire. I don’t think that this is going to slow down.’ — Michael Osterholm, infectious disease expert, on the pace of new COVID-19 cases

 ?? Evan Vucci Associated Press ?? AT HIS rally Saturday in Tulsa, Okla., held amid a surge of coronaviru­s cases in the state, President Trump called testing for the virus “a double-edged sword.”
Evan Vucci Associated Press AT HIS rally Saturday in Tulsa, Okla., held amid a surge of coronaviru­s cases in the state, President Trump called testing for the virus “a double-edged sword.”
 ?? Gina Ferazzi Los Angeles Times ?? A DRIVE-UP coronaviru­s test site in Indian Wells, Calif. Eight states, including California, last week hit one-day new-case highs, Johns Hopkins University said.
Gina Ferazzi Los Angeles Times A DRIVE-UP coronaviru­s test site in Indian Wells, Calif. Eight states, including California, last week hit one-day new-case highs, Johns Hopkins University said.

Newspapers in English

Newspapers from USA