Virus spread akin to ‘for­est fire’

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

Los Angeles Times - - FRONT PAGE - 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.”

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.

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