By Toluse Olorunnipa, Griff Witte and Lenny Bernstein
Special to the AFRO
States across the country are moving swiftly to reopen their economies despite failing to achieve benchmarks laid out by the White House for when social distancing restrictions could be eased to ensure the public’s safety during the coronavirus pandemic.
These governors’ biggest cheerleader is President Trump.
A slew of states, such as Texas, Indiana, Colorado and Florida, have pushed forward with relaxing social distancing guidelines even as the number of people testing positive in many states has increased in recent weeks and testing continues to lag behind. White House recommendations released last month encouraged states to wait to see a decline in cases over a two-week period, as well as having robust testing in place for front-line workers before entering “Phase One” of a gradual comeback.
But Trump and some of his aides have backed away from their own guidelines, opting instead to hail the broad economic reopening that health experts say has started too quickly. The dichotomy comes as the White House also tried to distance itself from a draft federal government report predicting an explosion of new coronavirus cases and 3,000 daily deaths by June 1.
It underscores how an eagerness by Trump and several state governors to begin restarting normal activities after a weeks-long economic slowdown has clashed with a stubbornly high national caseload that has defied the president’s predictions of a swift and safe reopening. It also marks another round of confusing guidance from Trump, who released the guidelines with fanfare during a briefing and now shows no problem with states that ignore them.
“There’s not too many states that I know of that are going up. Almost everybody is headed in the right direction,” Trump said during a Fox News town hall on May 3, in which he presented a misleading and rosy assessment of the crisis. “We’re on the right side of it, but we want to keep it that way, but we also want to get back to work.”
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In reality, new coronavirus cases are increasing in about a third of states, compared with just a few where there has been a sustained decline. A plurality of states are hovering around the same level, with neither a significant uptick nor decrease in daily cases. That mirrors the national trend, as the rate of new cases has leveled off in recent weeks but not declined.
Ashish Jha, director of the Harvard Global Health Institute, said most governors who have decided to open up are clearly not following the letter of the White House guidelines.
“The first part of the criteria is sustained decline. And we don’t see that,” Jha said.
To date, 1.2 million people have been infected by the coronavirus and more than 68,000 have died in the United States. Both figures are widely believed to undercount the actual totals.
The White House continues to support its guidelines but wants local officials to take the lead in deciding how quickly to ease restrictions, according to a senior administration official, who like others spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss internal deliberations. While individual states’ decisions to move more quickly than recommended under the White House guidelines are regularly discussed during coronavirus task force meetings, those decisions are not seen as defiant toward the Trump administration, the official said.
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One reason could be that Trump rarely discusses his own guidelines, instead encouraging states to move quickly to reverse the economic calamity that took hold as governors imposed stay-at-home orders to slow the spread of the virus. Trump has expressed support for protesters pushing their states to end the orders and tweeted about a need to “LIBERATE” several states — including places that White House guidelines indicate should remain in a state of lockdown.
Politically, governors have come to learn they are more likely to be criticized by Trump for maintaining stay-at-home orders that comply with White House guidelines than they are for opening up their economies before meeting the Trump administration’s own criteria for doing so.
Trump has singled out Virginia for its reluctance to quickly ease social distancing measures, telling Fox News that it was one of the states that “aren’t going fast enough.”
Even though the number of coronavirus cases in Virginia continues to rise, Virginia Gov. Ralph Northam (D) announced Monday that he would probably begin easing the state’s restrictions on May 15 — including by allowing some gatherings of more than 10 people if social distancing protocols are met.
“As you can see, our cases continue to rise,” he said, before adding that the state’s percentage of positive tests — another key measure in the White House guidelines — had begun to decline.
Trump’s light criticism of Georgia’s decision to begin opening up businesses including barbershops and bowling alleys before meeting White House benchmarks was short-lived.
While the president said on April 23, he was “not happy” with Georgia Gov. Brian Kemp (R) for the defying the guidelines, it took him only a week to deny his own remarks.
“I didn’t say that,” Trump said Friday when his quote about Kemp was read back to him. “I said I didn’t like the particular place — a spa, a tattoo parlor. No, no, I think it’s wonderful.”
As Trump leads the nation’s push for a quick economic reopening, some administration officials have continued to call on states to follow the White House’s detailed guidelines.
Anthony S. Fauci, the nation’s top infectious-disease expert, has repeatedly warned governors against moving too quickly to lift restrictions, saying he was concerned that states that flout the White House guidelines could spark a resurgence of the virus.
“The guidelines are very, very explicit, and very clear,” he said last week on NBC’s “Today” show. “There’s a lot of leeway because we give the governors the opportunity to be very flexible, but you have to have the core principles of the guidelines. You can’t just leap over things and get into a situation where you’re really tempting a rebound.”
Deborah Birx, the White House coronavirus task force coordinator, has also called on states and localities to follow the administration’s guidelines but has stopped short of contradicting Trump’s push for governors to move as quickly as possible to return to normal.
“We made it very clear that the guidelines are based on very strong evidence and data,” she said Sunday on Fox News. “We’ve made it clear what the gating criteria is.”
Several governors have ignored that criteria.
In Texas, for instance, new cases dipped in mid-April but have lately been on the rise, with a spike late last week to more than 1,000 daily that has brought the total to more than 32,000. Nonetheless, Gov. Greg Abbott (R) went ahead with a plan to reopen the state’s stores, restaurants, movie theaters and malls provided they operate at less than 25 percent capacity.
Lauren Ancel Meyers, a University of Texas at Austin biologist who has modeled possible trend lines in the state’s capital as social distancing requirements are eased, said much will depend on how vigilant people remain with social distancing.
Models of potential transmission in Austin that she has run range anywhere from “hardly any additional hospitalizations” to “a catastrophic second wave.”
Tennessee Gov. Bill Lee (R) let his stay-at-home order expire last week and replaced it with a far less restrictive set of rules that allow restaurants, shops and fitness centers to open in nearly all parts of the state. Hair and nail salons, which weren’t part of the original reopening, will be allowed to begin service again this week. That’s despite the fact that new cases have jumped in recent days and now total more than 13,000.
Some public officials have been unnerved at the speed with which the reopening has happened and the apparent disregard for guidelines set by medical experts.
“The state policymakers believe that the economic climate is more important than those guidelines,” said Chattanooga Mayor Andy Berke (D). “I don’t see any other explanation.”
But as states have defied that criteria to begin restarting business activity — from retail stores in Colorado to restaurants in Florida to elective surgeries in Ohio — they have been cheered on by Trump and his allies.
Vice President Pence has hailed the 41 states that have announced or began plans for reopening.
But some of those states have pushed ahead with reopening plans that skip ahead of the White House’s recommended phased approach. The recommendations call for certain testing and contact tracing capabilities to be in place before states push forward with returning to normalcy.
A lack of planning on those fronts could leave states vulnerable if there is another outbreak, said Jeffrey Shaman, one of the country’s leading epidemiologists at Columbia University.
“We don’t have the testing. We don’t have the contact tracing. We can’t detect a rebound,” he said. “It’s a really problematic place to be. This is not where we want to be.”
Ali Khan, dean of the College of Public Health at the University of Nebraska, said the governors are clearly reacting to “shelter-in-place fatigue” as they skirt the guidelines. But he said that’s a risky bet, given the danger that the virus comes roaring back.
There is widespread uncertainty about what will happen as states race to ease their restrictions on residents and businesses.
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A draft government report projects coronavirus cases will surge to about 200,000 per day by June 1, a staggering jump that would be accompanied by more than 3,000 deaths each day.
The document predicts a sharp increase in both cases and deaths beginning about May 14, according to a copy shared with The Washington Post. The forecast stops at June 1 but shows both daily cases and deaths on an upward trajectory at that point.
The White House and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention disavowed the report, although the slides carry the CDC’s logo. The creator of the model said the numbers are unfinished projections shown to the CDC as a work in progress.
The Bloomberg school in a statement called the report a “preliminary” analysis that should not be used as a forecast.
He said 100,000 cases per day by the end of the month is within the realm of possibility, an indication that coronavirus cases could spiral out of control at the same time the White House has shifted focus toward reopening the economy. Much depends on political decisions being made today.
“There are reopening scenarios where it could get out of control very quickly,” said Justin Lessler, an associate professor of epidemiology at the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health, who created the model.
The White House downplayed the figures on Monday, saying they had not yet been vetted.
“This data is not reflective of any of the modeling done by the task force, or data that the task force has analyzed,” White House spokesman Judd Deere said in a statement.
White House officials have been relying on other models to make decisions on reopening, including one from the University of Washington’s Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation and a “cubic model” prepared by Trump adviser and economist Kevin Hassett and the Council of Economic Advisers.
People with knowledge of the “cubic model” say it shows deaths dropping precipitously in May — and plummeting to zero by May 15, where they stay throughout the summer.
Two people with knowledge of the White House task force discussions said that they had not seen the draft government report but that they were both fearful cases could rise with many of the states reopening.
The IHME model is now estimating America will reach nearly 135,000 deaths by Aug. 1. That number is significantly higher than its estimate on April 17 of 60,308 deaths.
IHME’s new higher projections “reflect the effect of premature relaxation of restrictions,” said its creator, Christopher Murray. “In this era where those mandates are being relaxed, people should be aware the risk of infection is still there.”
William Wan, Laurie McGinley and Josh Dawsey contributed to this report.
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