As the U.S. shattered records on Thursday with over 77,000 newly confirmed cases and the nation’s death toll has exploded to nearly 139,000, an unpublished White House coronavirus task force report obtained by the Centre for Public Integrity warned that 18 states are now in the “red zone” and should roll back their mangled reopenings.
The 359-page report, which appears to have been circulated by the federal government but not released to the public, defines the red zone as “those core-based statistical areas (CBSAs) and counties that during the last week reported both new cases above 100 per 100,000 population, and a diagnostic test positivity result above 10%.” Those regions are experiencing major community spread of the novel coronavirus. The 18 states that landed in the red zone for cases per 100,000 are as follows:
Alabama, Arkansas, Arizona, California, Florida, Georgia, Iowa, Idaho, Kansas, Louisiana, Mississippi, North Carolina, Nevada, Oklahoma, South Carolina, Tennessee, Texas, Utah
All but three of the remaining states (Maine, New Hampshire, and Vermont) fall in the “yellow zone” for case numbers, meaning they have between 10 and 100 new cases per 100,000 people in the last week.
11 states fell in the red zone for diagnostic test positivity rates over 10 per cent:
Alabama, Florida, Georgia, Idaho, Louisiana, Mississippi, Nevada, South Carolina, Texas, Washington
Another 19 states fall in the yellow zone for test positivity rates.
The report states that localities in the red zone should tell residents to “wear a mask at all times outside the home and maintain physical distance,” close all gyms and bars, and ban gatherings involving ten or more individuals. Many of those states have done the exact opposite, rushing to reopen shuttered businesses, institutions, and public spaces. Some of those states, such as California, are now backpedaling; others are doubling down, like Georgia, where Governor Brian Kemp issued an executive order banning local mask-wearing mandates and exempting schools from bans on gatherings. Kemp’s administration is also suing Atlanta Mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms over the city’s mask mandate.
The report’s assessment of Georgia is blunt: “Disease trends are moving in the wrong direction in Georgia with record numbers of new cases occurring in urban, suburban and rural areas. Test positivity continues to increase. The number of tests has increased, but more tests are needed.”
Recommendations for regions in Georgia with high positivity rates include closing bars and gyms, enforcing strict distancing within restaurants, and limiting gatherings to fewer than 10 people. The report also states Georgia should “mandate statewide wearing of cloth face coverings outside of the home.”
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According to the Centre for Public Integrity, coronavirus task force coordinator Dr. Deborah Birx appears to have cited an earlier version of the report on July 8 at a press conference about reopening the nation’s schools.
Confusion has reigned as the federal government continues to punt responsibility for dealing with the brunt of the outbreak to states and send wildly mixed and self-contradictory guidance.
Dr. Anthony Fauci, the director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, has urged states to hit the pause button on reopening plans until a clear plan for reestablishing control of the situation emerges, and on Friday urged states and localities to be “as forceful as possible” on enforcing mandatory mask regulations. Meanwhile, Donald Trump has proclaimed that the U.S. will never shut down again, sidelined the Centres for Disease Control and Prevention and politicized its research, promoted conspiracy theories that doctors and the CDC are lying about the outbreak to hurt him politically, and is still moving forward with a reckless plan demanding schools fully reopen with or without fully implementing CDC guidance on how to do so safely.
This week, the White House took control of coronavirus statistics reporting from the CDC and transferred it to Health and Human Services, spurring concern that it could be trying to limit access to the data. Widespread testing delays, with results taking five to seven days or longer to roll in, have meant that the current numbers reflect cases that were tested for a while ago.
“If the test positivity rate is above 10 per cent, that means we’re not doing a good job mitigating the outbreak,” Jessica Malaty Rivera, science communication lead of the Atlantic’s Covid Tracking Project, told the Centre for Public Integrity. “Ideally we want the test positivity rate to be below 3 per cent because that shows that we’re suppressing COVID-19.”
A spokesperson for Vice President Mike Pence and the task force told CNN that the report is actually great news.
“When the vice president held a White House Coronavirus Task Force press briefing at HHS a few weeks ago, he reported that 16 states met the criteria for rising cases and rising positivity rate,” Devin O’Malley told the network. “As it stands in that report, there are only 10 states that fit that criteria. This is just one data point of many encouraging signs that we are seeing across the country as we continue to respond to the coronavirus pandemic.”