Despite Trump opposition, it's 'difficult to tell' if country may need to close again: Birx

"This only works if we all follow the guidelines and protect one another": Birx

May 24, 2020, 2:21 PM

As Americans continue to emerge from quarantines and stay-at-home orders amid the coronavirus pandemic, President Donald Trump declared this week that "we are not closing our country” if the United States is hit by a second wave of infections.

But in an interview on ABC's "This Week" Sunday, one of the leaders of the government's response to the virus, said it is "difficult to tell" whether such a step may be necessary.

"We're trying to understand during this period of coming out of the closure: How do we maintain openness and safety? And I think that's what we're going to be learning through May, June and July," said Dr. Deborah Birx, the White House coronavirus response coordinator.

"And also, I want to be very clear to the American people, we are preparing for that potential fall issue, both in PPE, which is protective devices, both in ventilator stockpiles, and ensuring that we're really pushing on therapeutics and vaccine development so we can be ready if the virus does come back in a significant way," she continued.

The comments come as the United States approaches a grim milestone: 100,000 COVID-19 deaths. The figure is one that early models cited by government officials in the initial weeks of the outbreak indicated might not arrive until late summer or fall. Birx wouldn't say Sunday whether she agreed with some experts that the death toll is actually higher, but said "it's difficult to count at the early part of the epidemic."

Despite the ominous total, Birx struck a cautiously optimistic tone Friday during a White House press conference -- her first in several weeks -- sharing approval of increased public activity over Memorial Day weekend, provided people continue to adhere to precautionary measures, like social distancing.

"You can go to the beaches if you stay 6 feet apart," she said. "But remember that is your space, and that is the space you need to protect to ensure you are socially distancing for others."

But with images emerging Saturday of large crowds at beaches and in public spaces, Birx was questioned by "This Week" co-anchor Martha Raddatz about whether that permission was premature.

"I think we have to communicate through different venues, making sure that our generation sees and our millennials can help us get that message out there -- of how to be together socially, yet distant," Birx said. "I think we really just need to have better continuous communication on how important that is."

The doctor noted, however, that the success of reopening efforts would come down to the public's ability to heed those directions from public health experts.

"I think it's our job as public health officials, every day to be informing the public (about) what puts them at risk," Birx said. "We've learned a lot about this virus, but we now need to translate that learning into real changed behavior that stays with us so we can continue to drive down the number of cases."

"This only works if we all follow the guidelines and protect one another," Birx continued.

PHOTO: Response coordinator for White House Coronavirus Task Force Deborah Birx  speaks to the press on May 22, 2020, in the Brady Briefing Room of the White House in Washington.
Response coordinator for White House Coronavirus Task Force Deborah Birx speaks to the press on May 22, 2020, in the Brady Briefing Room of the White House in Washington.
Mandel Ngan/AFP via Getty Images

While there has been a "dramatic decline" in the percentage of positive test results across the country in the past month, there continue to be spikes in several cities, such as Los Angeles and Washington, D.C.

Asked by Raddatz about additional recent upticks in states like Arkansas, Minnesota and North Carolina, Birx said that some of the increases were due to "proactive testing" in "areas where we know are the highest risks, whether it's nursing homes, whether it's areas where people work and sleep and stay together or transport together." She also noted that one Arkansas outbreak was instigated by a "social gathering."

Looking ahead, Birx said such testing efforts need to be applied "much better," in order to identify those who are asymptomatic.

"It is much easier to find symptomatic cases, because people are sick, and when people are sick they're often not out and about, particularly if they have a severe case of COVID with high fever," Birx said. "What I'm worried about is, what are we putting in place to find asymptomatic cases?"

As for preventative measures, in recent weeks, Trump has faced questions about his reluctance to wear a face mask, despite the government recommending the public do so when in close proximity to other persons. Raddatz asked Birx Sunday if the president should follow the advice.

"I always wear a mask. I wear a mask coming into the White House I wear a mask the entire time that I'm in the White House, except when I'm in my little, tiny space by myself," she said. "I think I wear a mask to really ensure that that public health message is going out there to communities that this is the way we protect one another."

"So is that a 'yes,' you wish President Trump would wear as mask?" Raddatz followed.

"I don't know President Trump's schedule so I don't know who he's with and whether he's social distanced or not," Birx said. "We have said, if you can't maintain 6 feet, wear a mask. I am not with the president on a daily basis, so I can't really speak to that. His personal physician and the individuals who interact with him can speak to that better than I can."

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