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White House Coronavirus Task Force Meets Again Amid Dramatic Coronavirus Case Surge

SCOTT SIMON, HOST:

The White House Coronavirus Task Force gave a public briefing Friday, first in about two months. President Trump, who turned previous briefings into long and sometimes meandering sessions, stayed at the White House. Vice President Pence led the briefing in a nearby federal office building. The subject was the dramatic resurgence of coronavirus cases, especially in Southern states. NPR science correspondent Richard Harris joins us. Richard, thanks for being with us.

RICHARD HARRIS, BYLINE: Good morning, Scott. Pleased to be with you.

SIMON: What was the central message that Vice President Pence tried to get across in this media briefing?

HARRIS: Well, it was a mixed message, actually. He asked people to slow the spread of coronavirus by following the old White House Coronavirus Guidelines that were drafted way back in March. Those included avoiding large groups, hand-washing, staying home if you're not feeling well. But notably, they did not include wearing masks. Pence was also trying to make the case that the scary numbers aren't as bad as they look. Here's a clip from his comments.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

MIKE PENCE: There may be a tendency among the American people to think that we are back to that place that we were two months ago, that we're in a time of great losses and great hardship on the American people. The reality is we're in a much better place.

HARRIS: He said a lot of the surge is among people who are under 35. They're going out, especially in Southern states, after months of being cooped up. Young people, at least those in good health, are unlikely to get severe disease, so they are less likely to crowd hospitals and add to the death statistics, and those are not growing as rapidly as the case numbers are - at least not right now.

SIMON: So what are local officials supposed to do in response to these mixed messages?

HARRIS: Well, if they are supposed to be reassured that everything is under control, that is not what they're seeing, particularly in some hard-hit places. For example, yesterday, the top official in Harris County, Texas, which includes Houston, warned that, quote, "we find ourselves careening toward a catastrophic and unsustainable situation." She went on to say that the hospitals are currently full, and though they are making adjustments to accept more patients, that space could run out in a matter of weeks.

Likewise, officials in Florida announced Friday that bars must stop serving drinks on the premises, and Miami beaches will actually be closed for the Fourth of July weekend.

SIMON: What's the Coronavirus Task Force doing about this huge resurgence of cases?

HARRIS: Well, public health officials are trying to figure out how to get people in their 20s, 30s and 40s in particular to take this seriously, even though it's true that their health isn't at high risk. The problem is many young people get mild symptoms or no symptoms at all, so they don't even know that they're spreading the disease. And that makes it really hard for health officials to slow the epidemic. At the briefing, the nation's top infectious disease doctor, Anthony Fauci, made a plea to a group that was, frankly, probably not even tuned in to the briefing.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

ANTHONY FAUCI: You have an individual responsibility to yourself, but you have a societal responsibility. Because if we want to end this outbreak, we've got to realize that we are part of the process.

HARRIS: And if this keeps going, it's quite possible that COVID-19 will spread into states like New York that have worked so hard to control the disease, and it would be terrible to have it reappear there in big numbers. It's still there, of course, a little bit. Task Force officials pleaded for vulnerable people with underlying health conditions, especially those older than 80 who live in hot spots, to keep sheltering as much as possible.

And, you know, Scott, what I keep coming back to is all the people in the hospitals who are risking their lives to care for coronavirus patients - you know, doctors and nurses and so on. There's a feeling out there that wearing a mask is simply a personal choice. But as Fauci points out, it affects the whole society. Americans, you know, with their sense of freedom and independence, aren't really necessarily tuned in to that message.

SIMON: NPR science correspondent Richard Harris, thanks so much.

HARRIS: Happy to be with you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.