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The White House Coronavirus Task Force Gives Its 1st Public Briefing In Months


COVID-19 has now killed more than 124,000 people in the United States, according to Johns Hopkins University, and new cases are surging. Yesterday, nearly 40,000 more people in this country tested positive for the virus. That eclipses the previous daily record set in late April. After that last spike in case numbers two months ago, the White House Coronavirus Task Force concluded its regular briefings on the virus.


Today with infections growing once again around the nation, particularly in southern states, the nation's leading health experts met to update the American people. Dr. Anthony Fauci said that the most trusted tools of public health were not working well with so many people infected not showing symptoms.


ANTHONY FAUCI: The classic paradigm of identification, isolation and contact tracing to actually contain that is very difficult to make that work under those circumstances.

MCCAMMON: Toward the end of the briefing, Vice President Pence was asked if today's growing case numbers will translate to a rising number of deaths in a few weeks.


VICE PRESIDENT MIKE PENCE: Well, our hope and our prayer is it is not the case.

SHAPIRO: Well, joining us now with more news from the briefing are NPR science correspondent Richard Harris and White House correspondent Franco Ordoñez. Good to have you both here.



SHAPIRO: Franco, you were in the briefing today, and it's been a long time since we've had one. Why did they decide to do one now?

ORDOÑEZ: Yeah. It's interesting. These kind of briefings used to be a daily feature during the early weeks of the pandemic. But this is the first one since late April. The White House has worked to kind of shift its message to focus less on the virus and more on reopening the economy. That's largely because of the election. President Trump really wants to put all this kind of stuff behind him and show that he's getting things back to normal, the way things were before millions of people got the virus, before millions of people lost their jobs and more than 126,000 people died because of it. But recently, as we're reporting, we've seen this surge in cases in the South, and so Vice President Mike Pence said it was time to talk about that. One more thing I just want to note is that this briefing was not at the White House. Instead, it was at the Department of Health and Human Services, and President Trump was not there. He was actually at a meeting about recovering jobs this afternoon.

SHAPIRO: Richard, at the briefing, the vice president kept trying to draw a distinction saying the surge in cases we're seeing now is not like what we saw in March. Here's part of what he said.


PENCE: This is different than two months ago, both in our ability to respond and in the nature of those that are being infected.

SHAPIRO: How different is it, Richard?

HARRIS: Well, it's different in both hopeful ways, which the president - vice president emphasized and also in more worrying ways. You know, many of these new cases are in people under the age of 35, and this age group is much less likely to get seriously ill. In fact, a fair portion of them don't get any symptoms at all. And that means fewer are crowding into hospitals. So clearly, you know, we are hearing about some hospitals, especially in Texas, that are struggling to keep up with the onslaught. But the medical system is now better prepared and overall feeling less strain. Pence also talked about how much lower the death rate is right now compared to April. We will see how that holds because we don't really know what's going to happen to the people who are now hospitalized. Generally, deaths lag by two or three weeks over cases. So, you know, it wouldn't be surprising to see the death count go up again starting in mid-July.

SHAPIRO: So the younger age of patients is the hopeful way that this is different. What's the more worrisome way that you mentioned?

HARRIS: Well, some of the same thing as well because many of these new cases because they are young and they have no symptoms, it means it is much easier for them to spread the virus. They're spreading it a lot, and they just don't know it. And, unfortunately, that spread won't just be limited to the counties or the states even where health officials are now focusing their attention. So this new phase is going to be really, really hard to control. And we heard about that a little bit in the introduction, the words of Dr. Anthony Fauci, who's the nation's top infectious diseases doctor. He did say that, you know, the usual approaches just are not working now, and most of the disease is spreading throughout the community, not just in clusters where health officials can more readily identify and track cases. But, you know, even when cases are identified, people are reluctant to talk to the health care workers who are calling them up to find out who their close contacts have been. Here's a little bit more from Dr. Fauci.


FAUCI: You can identify a contact, but you don't isolate them because you don't have the facility to isolate them. That is what's not working.

HARRIS: So public health officials are trying to figure out how to retool their response. That will involve, among other things, getting communities more involved in the process of contact tracing. You know, they hope that if someone from your neighborhood is calling you and trying to find out who you've been in close contact with, you're more likely to respond than if you perceive that it's the government that's tracking you.

SHAPIRO: Franco, did the task force say who's responsible for this spike in cases? Did they lay the blame anywhere?

ORDOÑEZ: Well, Dr. Fauci actually said he did not want to assign blame. He said some states may have reopened too quickly and taken some shortcuts. But he made a very passionate and a very direct plea to young people that they need to take responsibility for spreading the virus even if they don't get sick from it themselves.


FAUCI: You have an individual responsibility to yourself, but you have a societal responsibility because if we want to end this outbreak, we've got to realize that we are part of the process.

ORDOÑEZ: And he also made the point that states doing well now today may face outbreaks later on because we're all interconnected. So in terms of kind of the government doing something differently, they're trying to get a message out to people under 40 to do their part.

SHAPIRO: So on that point, we've seen the Trump campaign hold two events recently where thousands of people gathered indoors, mostly without masks. There was the rally in Tulsa and a speech this week in Phoenix. Is the campaign going to cut back on those kinds of events?

ORDOÑEZ: Well, that seems unlikely. Pence was pressed about this. And he had an answer ready to go.


PENCE: I want to remind you again that the freedom of speech and the right to peaceably assemble is enshrined in the Constitution the United States. And even in a health crisis, the American people don't forfeit our constitutional rights.

ORDOÑEZ: You know, he said the campaign has screened participants ahead of the rally and had taken what he said were, quote, "proper steps" to keep people safe. On the other hand, Pence said that he thinks people should listen to advice from state and local authorities. But that's not really what happened in Phoenix this week. The president spoke to about 3,000 young people at a big church. There was a local ordinance at the time from the mayor to wear masks, but almost none of the people packed in that church were wearing them.

SHAPIRO: That's NPR White House correspondent Franco Ordoñez and science correspondent Richard Harris. Thank you both.

ORDOÑEZ: Thank you.

HARRIS: Good to be here. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Award-winning journalist Richard Harris has reported on a wide range of topics in science, medicine and the environment since he joined NPR in 1986. In early 2014, his focus shifted from an emphasis on climate change and the environment to biomedical research.
Franco Ordoñez is a White House Correspondent for NPR's Washington Desk. Before he came to NPR in 2019, Ordoñez covered the White House for McClatchy. He has also written about diplomatic affairs, foreign policy and immigration, and has been a correspondent in Cuba, Colombia, Mexico and Haiti.