President Donald Trump's top health advisers say that the coronavirus pandemic has driven America to its knees amid a disturbing surge in cases. But Trump is ignoring the new danger, instead using the worst domestic crisis in decades as a racist punchline.
Political mismanagement of the situation, the glaring lack of a national strategy and the nation's exhausting, inconclusive struggle with the coronavirus was reflected Tuesday in three key developments. Fully half of US states are now seeing rising cases of the disease with the situation especially acute in Texas, Florida and Arizona, which embraced aggressive reopening programs. The European Union, which has been more successful than the US in suppressing Covid-19, warned it might bar visitors from America in what would be a major embarrassment for Trump. And the President persisted with his counter-logical argument that the US is only seeing more cases of the virus because it is doing more testing, leaving the implication that it would be better if rising cases, infections and ultimately deaths were simply ignored.
Trump spent the day in Arizona and held a rally in Phoenix, a city where mask wearing is mandatory in public. But he refused to don a face covering, along with many supporters who attended his indoor event. And he delighted his fans by reciting a racist name for the virus referencing its origin in China.
"Kung flu?" Trump said, prompting roars from his crowd.
It was a different story in Washington as the government's top infectious diseases specialist, Dr. Anthony Fauci, made what is becoming an increasingly rare public appearance in an official capacity in a hearing on Capitol Hill and warned -- contrary to Trump's assurances that the disease is "fading" and "dying out" -- that "we're now seeing a disturbing surge of infections."
Fauci, who has consistently expressed concern at the wave of aggressive economic openings championed by the President, warned that the next couple of weeks "are going to be critical in our ability to address those surges that we're seeing in Florida, in Texas, in Arizona, and in other states. They're not the only ones that are having a difficulty."
Increasing cases of the virus, which do not represent the "second wave" medical experts have long feared but more a broadening of the first wave that crashed onto coastal cities and urban areas, are beginning to frame up a daunting question for state and national political leaders: will the situation get so bad that a return to more restrictive and even stay at home measures will need to be considered?
Such a step -- by mostly Republican state governors, some of whom have pledged there will be no return to lockdowns -- would cause a huge confrontation with the President, who sees a rapid economic resurgence as vital to his hopes of winning a second term.
States like Arizona, Texas and Florida are moving in the wrong direction, and there are increasing warnings that if they remain on their current course that hospitals could be overwhelmed in weeks and months to come, leaving leaders with agonizing choices of whether to reverse openings or to somehow surge medical capacity to deal with an increasing death toll.
Texas recorded a new single day record of 5,489 new infections. Republican Gov. Greg Abbott, a key Trump ally, warned Monday that daily positive cases, hospitalizations, and the positivity rate were all spiking in the Lone Star State and could require serious action.
"If we were to experience another doubling of those numbers over the next month, that would mean that we are in an urgent situation where tougher actions will be required to make sure that we do contain the spread of Covid-19," he said.
But Lina Hidalgo, a judge in Harris County that includes the city of Houston, warned that authorities didn't have a month to wait.
"We are in the second highest level of threat, of concern," Hidalgo told CNN's John King on Tuesday.
"And if these things continue, and I am looking at it on a day-to-day basis, we would have to go to red at which point my recommendation would be for everybody to stay home again."
Nation on 'its knees'
The hope of everyone was the states that reopened first would find a way to do so without triggering a surge in new cases and therefore begin to mitigate the terrible economic cost and knock-on psychological effects of lockdowns. But some 25 states are now seeing new infections rising, while the situation is steady in 12 and down in 13. It is dispiriting that the picture seems to get a little worse by the day. States like Michigan and California, which has already experienced painful months, have seen their curves begin to rise again. And while states like New York and the Washington metropolitan areas begin to emerge from lockdowns, the worsening data elsewhere offers daunting omens.
Centers for Disease Control and Prevention Director Dr. Robert Redfield told the same hearing that Fauci addressed on Tuesday, in a comment unlikely to please Trump, that the virus had "brought this nation to its knees."
"We've all done the best that we can do to tackle this virus," Redfield said, pleading for more investment in the country's health infrastructure.
Trump has responded to the latest flashing warnings signs with denial, anger, concern for his own political prospects and by continuing to hold the kind of events -- an indoor, rally style appearance in hard-hit Arizona on Tuesday -- that flout basic advice from his own government's top experts and could expose attendees to infections, serious illness or death and help further transmit infections.
Trump took a jab at Fauci's approval ratings in a tweet on Tuesday, then insisted that he was not kidding over the weekend when he told supporters he had told staff to slow down coronavirus testing -- after senior aides had tried to explain away the comment as in jest.
"I don't kid, let me just tell you, let me make it clear," Trump said before leaving for Arizona. "By having more tests, we have more cases," he added. Experts say testing is the key to tracking true incidence of the disease and breaking chains of infections. Fauci said that the US planned to test more people not fewer. And while Trump's claims that the US leads the world in gross numbers of tests produced, the total conducted over five months -- 22 million, according to Redfield -- is far short of what health experts say is necessary in per capita terms to defeat the virus.
According to a Harvard University report, the US needs 5 million tests per day and 20 million would be required to fully mobilize the economy. By way of comparison with US capacity, the city of Beijing alone says it can now test 1 million people per day.
Trump cofounds logic, own officials on testing
The President also barely mentioned the coronavirus during his visit to Arizona on Tuesday, preferring to tout his border wall and set off a new culture war spat over the pulling down of statues of historic Americans tainted by racism. This despite the fact that the Grand Canyon state is recording daily record highs in terms of new coronavirus infections.
While officials like Fauci are denied a White House platform and face criticism from Trump, officials with no medical expertise, like Larry Kudlow, director of the United States Economic Council, are free to go on television and make inaccurate assessments of the situation.
"There are some hotspots. We're on it. We know how to deal with this stuff now," Kudlow told CNBC on Monday.
The President's events meanwhile send exactly the wrong message on precautions like social distancing and the wearing of masks -- which are the only current tools to fight a virus for which there are few treatments, no current cure and no vaccine.
"Here in the United States, as we're opening up we're seeing increases in cases, we're seeing once again hospitals getting overwhelmed," Dr. Richard Besser, former acting director of the CDC, told CNN's "New Day."
"Hopefully we're improving in terms of our knowledge of how to treat people, and so that may lead to some better outcomes for some. And that's encouraging. But we have a long way to go, and we can't count on the virus toning down in terms of how it attacks."