Pedestrians with and without face masks.

Coronavirus and Inequality

Published — August 5, 2020 Updated — August 6, 2020 at 2:00 pm ET

White House warns 10 local areas about coronavirus numbers in private call

Pedestrians with and without face masks walk in downtown Omaha, Neb., July 31, 2020. (AP Photo/Nati Harnik)

Family gatherings could cause “superspreader events,” Dr. Deborah Birx tells officials.


The White House Coronavirus Task Force sees troubling coronavirus numbers in 10 local areas across the country, even as its data shows improvement in Sunbelt states, according to a private call between task force leader Dr. Deborah Birx and state and local officials Wednesday

“We are seeing encouraging signs across the South,” Birx said on a recording of the call obtained by the Center for Public Integrity. “We are concerned that both Baltimore and Atlanta remain at a very high level — [also] Kansas City, Portland, Omaha [and] of course what we talked about in the Central Valley [of California].”

Birx then pointed to four additional cities that are doing relatively well — Boston, Chicago, Detroit and Washington, D.C.  — and yet are seeing small increases in the percentage of positive COVID-19 tests, according to White House data. Those areas need to “get on top of it,” she said.

Indiana, Illinois, Kentucky, Ohio, Tennessee and Virginia are also “concerning,” Birx said. She continued to emphasize that the current outbreaks differed from those in the spring because they’ve penetrated more rural areas. She said similar things over the weekend, telling CNN that the pandemic had entered a “new phase.” President Donald Trump later criticized her on Twitter, calling her “pathetic.”

On Wednesday’s call, Birx also said residents in “red” or “yellow” counties — places with a high percentage of coronavirus cases or positive tests — should stop family gatherings.

“If you’re in a red or yellow county, bringing together family members will create, potentially, particularly if indoors, superspreader events,” she said. “We’re finding that across the South and moving up into the Midwest.”

The White House report detailing which counties are “red” or “yellow” has not been made public, though it is distributed to governors. Public Integrity first revealed the report dated July 14, and the New York Times obtained the July 23 report.

A Public Integrity analysis of publicly available data shows that 23 states would now be in the red zone for cases per population, based on the White House Coronavirus Task Force criteria.

Birx said on the private call that California and Nebraska had recently joined the red zone, and Kentucky, Tennessee and Virginia had fallen out of it based on the percentage of positive tests in the last week. Experts have said test positivity rates can indicate whether an outbreak is under control.

Birx did not comment on schools, which the president has insisted must reopen.

In a similar briefing two weeks ago, Birx warned 11 cities that they should take “aggressive” action to combat rising coronavirus cases.

Thousands of state and local officials are invited to attend the calls, which are hosted by the White House Office of Intergovernmental Affairs, according to White House official William Crozer, who introduced Birx on the call Wednesday. But it’s not clear which local leaders are hearing Birx’s warnings.

Leaders in several cities were not on the call two weeks ago when Birx pinpointed them, or did not know about it.

The White House did not respond to a request for comment.

Chris Zubak-Skees contributed to this report.

Updated on August 6, 2: p.m.: White House spokesman Judd Deere provided this comment on Birx’s private call and the unpublished data she was discussing: “The White House Coronavirus Task Force is providing tailored recommendations weekly to every governor and health commissioner for their states and counties. From the beginning, this has been a locally executed, state managed, federally supported response as local leaders are best positioned to make on-the-ground decision for their communities armed with CDC guidelines and best practices to limit the spread of COVID-19. As the President has said, the cure cannot be worse than the disease and the United States will not be shut down again.”

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