During a meeting with governors on Monday, the White House Coronavirus Task Force trotted out decreased COVID-19 case counts in Arizona as proof that masks and social distancing work, encouraging other states to impose similar measures as a way to contain and prevent surges.
“Masks, closing indoor bars, decreasing indoor dining capacity to 25 percent, continued social distancing and personal hygiene messaging, according to the model, dramatically decrease the rate of community spread,” Vice President Mike Pence, chair of the White House Coronavirus Task Force, said in the meeting, according to a recording obtained by The Daily Beast.
Pence said that evidence of the effectiveness of widespread mask use in particular was visible “today” in Arizona. The Johns Hopkins University Coronavirus Resource Center on Monday put the state—which recently had one of the worst case trends on the planet and saw a testing “shitshow”—with the steepest current decline in the nation.
“The modeling suggested to us that Phoenix was supposed to be at more than 5,000 cases daily and rising, and instead I was informed by our health experts this morning that they are [at] less than 2,300 cases,” Pence said on Monday. “Again, we believe that the three actions I just described that are being implemented by Gov. [Doug] Ducey are having a dramatic impact on community spread, and it’s a clear example of transmitting science into action and proving this works.”
The call put a stark positive spin on a situation that was, as recently as a few days ago, being panned by local doctors on the front lines who told The Daily Beast they felt abandoned by state leaders. Ducey was one of the first governors to lift lockdown restrictions after a nationwide response to the pandemic caused unprecedented closures and shelter-in-place orders.
And though Pence and Dr. Deborah Birx, the task force’s response coordinator, thanked Ducey and others for their “leadership,” the governor has come under harsh criticism for refusing to issue a mask mandate or reinstitute a lockdown order. Ducey did eventually allow cities to pass their own mask ordinances, and as The Daily Beast reported last week, nearly 90 percent of the state is under some kind of local mask mandate.
Birx emphasized that models showed those measures, including 100 percent mask use, “came very close to the impact of sheltering-in-place, and it was theoretic, but it was implemented in Phoenix and in the Tucson area, and we can see now the impact.”
As of Monday, Arizona had hit 143,624 cumulative coronavirus cases, and 2,761 had died, according to Johns Hopkins data.
“I think this is a very exciting moment for all of us to really see that translation of a model into recommendations that were then executed on the ground and are now having a positive impact,” said Birx. “Hospitalizations and mortality are lagging indicators, but we are seeing a decline in test positivity and new cases.”
Meanwhile, despite his opposition to a national mask mandate, President Donald Trump on Monday tweeted a photo of himself with a face mask, calling it “patriotic” to wear one. Despite widespread science on the effectiveness of masks, Trump had refused to publicly wear one for the first nearly six months of the pandemic’s presence in the U.S.
On the call, when he reported from the ground, Ducey profusely thanked Pence and Birx for visiting his state, reinforcing that state leaders “continue to encourage and support and advocate and resource for masks,” as well as closures and capacity reductions at establishments.
“We’re instructing people they’re safer at home,” said Ducey, adding, “There’s really no victory lap at all. We’re going to stay the course.”
Dr. Anthony Fauci, the director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, emphasized that these “fundamentals” have the power to turn around surges, as Arizona’s turnaround has proved.
“This is something everyone should be seriously considering,” said Fauci. “If we all do that, not only will we contain the surges, but we will prevent surges.”