White House blames rise in US coronavirus cases on more testing, experts dispute this

A healthcare worker administers a coronavirus test to a patient in Tampa, Florida, on June 25, 2020. PHOTO: AFP

WASHINGTON (NYTIMES) - Vice-President Mike Pence and the nation's top health official, Mr Alex M. Azar II, said on Sunday (June 28) that reopenings in many states were not causing the sharp rises in coronavirus cases, but rather that increased testing was uncovering more and more infections.

But their position was disputed by other public health experts, who said that broadened testing is revealing not only more total cases, but also a higher rate of positive cases. And Governor Andrew Cuomo of New York said of the Trump administration: "They're basically in denial about the problem. They don't want to tell the American people the truth."

Mr Cuomo said on NBC's Meet The Press programe that New York, once a global epicentre, reported five deaths on Sunday, the lowest number since the start of the pandemic. But he said that he was afraid travellers from states with higher infection rates could reverse his state's hard-won gains.

On Fox News Sunday, Dr Thomas Frieden, the former head of the Centres for Disease Control and Prevention, said that both the total number and the percentage of positive tests for the coronavirus had increased in several states, saying: "There's also no doubt that the virus has the upper hand."

He predicted that the explosive spread in some states would continue to worsen over the coming weeks.

While much of the Sunday talk shows were more focused on exploring reports that Russia had offered, and paid, bounties to Taleban fighters for killing US soldiers, the country's surging pandemic remained a major topic. The comments by Mr Pence, Mr Azar and Dr Frieden exemplified the contradictory positions taken by the White House, which is pressing full speed to reopen the economy and for President Donald Trump to resume in-person campaigning for the November election, and health experts, who are alarmed by the surges around the country.

Mr Pence, on the CBS programme Face The Nation, said "I know there's a temptation to associate the new cases in the Sun Belt with reopening", but denied that to be true, adding that many states with increased cases had already reopened weeks ago.

When the show's host, Mr John Dickerson, cited the concerns of health experts that states had opened too early, Mr Pence replied, "I beg to differ."

The vice-president also downplayed the seriousness of the increase in new cases by saying that the virus had predominantly infected younger people, who are less likely to be hospitalised.

But Dr Frieden noted that it took time for patients who felt sick to be hospitalised and potentially die, and said that infections in younger people were still a significant threat.

"What starts in the young doesn't stay in the young," he said. "Younger people have parents, uncles, nephews. We're going to see increasing spread."

Even as residents in some states have been turned away from testing sites that have reached capacity, Mr Pence falsely said that anyone who wanted to be tested for the coronavirus could be tested.

"Because of the public-private partnership that President Trump initiated, we are literally able to test anyone in the country that would want a test who comes forward," he said.

Mr Trump first made this claim in March, and top health experts have repeatedly contradicted it. Testing sites in several states, including Texas, Florida and Arizona, have been overrun.

Mr Azar, the secretary of health and human services, also sought to reassure the public that there would be enough protective gear and hospital capacity for patients, including ventilators. However, accounts to the contrary are emerging in new hot spots like Houston.

He also disputed reports last week by members of the American Medical Association that physicians and hospitals, particularly those in Latino communities, still did not have sufficient personal protective equipment.

"With all respect to the AMA, they don't have the information we have," Mr Azar said. "We are literally on the phone with hospitals every day."

Reopening in various cities and states will work, he said, if people use face coverings in settings where they cannot practice social distancing. He blamed "inappropriate individual behaviour" for spreading the virus, while defending Mr Trump and Mr Pence for not wearing masks in public, noting that they are tested every day.

House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, in an appearance on the ABC programme This Week, said that she supported a federal mandate that all Americans must wear masks.

"Definitely long overdue for that," said Ms Pelosi.

She urged Mr Trump to start wearing one in public, saying: "Real men wear masks. Be an example to the country."

Governor Jay Inslee of Washington expressed frustration at the president's unwillingness to wear masks or to do more to encourage his supporters to wear them. "Instead of tweeting the other day about the importance of masks, he tweeted about monuments," he said on Face The Nation. "We need a president who will care more about living Americans and less about dead Confederates."

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