Dr. Deborah Birx, the coordinator of the White House coronavirus task force, said on Friday that she expected to soon see an increase in deaths among Americans infected with the virus—a statement placing her at odds with President Donald Trump, who has touted a falling death rate as a sign of success in his approach to the virus.
“In the United States we have an increase in the number of cases over the last particularly three weeks,” Birx said during a virtual COVID-19 conference. “We have not seen this result in increased mortality but that is expected as the disease continues to spread in some of our large metro areas.”
Birx’s remarks come as multiple states across the South and Southwest scramble to contain new outbreaks where case numbers, positivity rates, hospitalizations, and deaths are steadily increasing. Three states—California, Texas, and Florida—this week recorded their highest daily death tolls since the pandemic began. According to Birx’s presentation on Friday, four states accounted for 50 percent of new cases “with unfortunately increases in deaths.” The daily case numbers, her slides read, have increased so rapidly in 154 communities that they triggered an “emergency country alert.”
Birx’s presentation—which was accompanied by a similar bleak set of remarks from Dr. Anthony Fauci, the nation’s top vaccine official—was markedly different in tone from top White House officials.
In his July 4 speech, President Trump said the U.S. had tested 40 million people and that 99 percent of cases were “totally harmless.” A few days later, on July 9 at a White House event, Trump said the country had “dramatically reduced mortality rates” with respect to COVID and one of the lowest mortality rates “anywhere in the world.”
Vice President Mike Pence, too, has pointed to a drop in COVID-related deaths as a sign that the administration’s approach is working. He told the nation’s governors on a phone call this week that the mortality rate “continues to be low and steady.” And White House Spokesperson Kayleigh MacEneny told reporters Thursday, “We’re seeing the fatality rate in this country come down.”
While the overall mortality rate in the country has held steady, there was already significant evidence that states experiencing a large uptick in positive coronavirus cases were currently seeing a corresponding rise in deaths, or would in the coming weeks. In Phoenix, hospital officials are running out of morgue beds, Mayor Kate Gallego told MSNBC Friday. Maricopa County, where Phoenix is located, is expected to soon receive refrigerated "morgue trucks" similar to those used in New York City during the peak of its COVID crisis, she said.
An increase in mortality rates across the country comes as President Trump is pushing states to reopen schools for the fall semester. This week the president and top administration officials, including Education Secretary Betsy DeVos, launched a campaign aimed at getting students back into the classroom despite the widespread fear among health experts that overcrowding could only exacerbate asymptomatic community transmission.
The administration has latched on to a statement issued in June by the American Academy of Pediatrics that focused on the benefits of sending children back to school, which includes mental health, social development, and access to nutrition.
On Friday, the academy, along with a number of other education groups, updated their guidance on the reopening of schools, saying, “schools in areas with high levels of COVID-19 community spread should not be compelled to reopen against the judgment of local experts.”
The statement also criticized President Trump for his threats this week that he would withhold funding from schools that did not comply with reopening. “A one-size-fits-all approach is not appropriate for return-to-school decisions,” it read. “Withholding funding from schools that do not open in-person full time would be a misguided approach, putting already financially strapped schools in an impossible position that would threaten the health of students.”