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Trump downplays rising coronavirus cases as Fauci warns ‘we’re still in the first wave’

President Trump, shown last month with Dr. Anthony Fauci, has not been swayed by health experts’ concerns.
President Trump, shown last month with Dr. Anthony Fauci, has not been swayed by health experts’ concerns.Drew Angerer/Getty Images

WASHINGTON — The nation’s top infectious disease expert is warning that the first wave of the coronavirus pandemic is not over as new cases spike in parts of the country — a sobering message that comes despite President Trump’s efforts to downplay the ongoing threat.

The sunny predictions and, in some cases, misleading claims emanating from the White House attempt to paint a picture of a nation in recovery ahead of a Trump campaign rally planned for Tulsa, Okla., on Saturday, his first since early March as he seeks a symbolic return to normalcy and a reset for his presidential campaign as his poll numbers falter.

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“We’re going to talk about where we’re going, where we’ve come from,” Trump said Monday. “And I can tell you, on COVID or coronavirus or whatever you want to call it — plenty of names — tremendous progress is being made.”

But while new cases of the virus are relenting in Massachusetts and the rest of the hard-hit Northeast, the number of cases confirmed daily has been on an upward trajectory in more than 20 states as stay-at-home restrictions are lifted, according to data from Johns Hopkins University. Hospitalizations from the virus have hit new highs in states like North Carolina, Texas, and Arizona in recent days.

“As New York and other places are coming down, others are going up,” warned Dr. Anthony Fauci, the nation’s top infectious disease expert, in an interview with the Globe on Monday. “Obviously, we’re concerned about it.”

“In many respects,” he added, “we’re still in the first wave — take a look at the curve.”

The troubling data, and the warnings from Fauci and other public health experts about it, could be a harsh reality check as Trump tries to depict his administration’s response to the coronavirus as a success as he returns to the campaign trail. On Tuesday, Vice President Mike Pence wrote an op-ed in the Wall Street Journal claiming the United States has “slowed the spread,” and both he and Trump have repeatedly asserted that new increases in cases are due to increased testing.

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“If we stopped testing right now, we’d have very few cases, if any,” Trump said on Monday.

But Fauci, who serves on the White House Coronavirus Task Force, said that, while more testing does pick up more cases, rising rates of positive tests in some states — as well as spikes in hospitalizations — are signs that the increase in cases in some states is not just because of more testing.

“When you look at the number of hospitalizations, and you see some of the states say, ‘Oh my goodness, I’m having more hospitalizations than I had before,’ that cannot be due to increase in testing. That has to be due to increase in real cases,” said Fauci.

The virus has infected more than 2 million Americans, killing more than 116,000 people, and Trump’s handling of the crisis is likely to define his legacy and be a major factor in his bid for reelection. But Trump, who described himself as a “wartime president” as the ravages of the pandemic were becoming clear in mid-March, has spoken much less about it in recent weeks — seeking to paint a positive picture if he speaks of it at all.

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“The rally on Saturday is Trump wanting to rally his base around the idea that the virus is largely defeated,” said Alex Conant, a Republican strategist. “He is less than six months from an election and wants to convince Americans that the country is headed in the right direction.”

On Monday, Trump and Pence overstated Oklahoma’s success in fighting the virus, possibly seeking to justify their decision to hold an indoor rally there where masks will not be required.

“They’ve flattened the curve,” Pence said. “The number of cases in Oklahoma — it’s declined precipitously, and we feel very confident going forward with the rally this coming weekend.”

In reality, the rate of daily new cases has jumped in Oklahoma since the beginning of June, and more than 2,000 new cases overall have been reported since the beginning of the month. Local health officials there have said they prefer the rally be postponed, and the state department of health urged immunocompromised people and those older than 65 to stay home.

Experts like Fauci say large indoor events could spread the virus.

“When you have a congregation of a lot of people, particularly people who might be shouting and chanting or yelling or clapping and having fun, and they take their masks off, first of all, it is risky,” Fauci said, although he was careful to speak generally and not specifically about the rally.

If Trump is ignoring experts’ advice about the rally, he also appears to have sidelined it in his overall handling of the virus in recent weeks. Gone are the virus briefings, a daily ritual that put the spotlight on his own fights with the press or dubious claims about cures — but also gave experts like Fauci and Dr. Deborah Birx, the virus response coordinator, the chance to offer frequent updates.

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“People are very confused about the status of the crisis nationwide,” said Howard Koh, a former assistant secretary of the department of Health and Human Services under President Barack Obama. “Until this national emergency is over and until this crisis is declared over, we need, in my view, a daily national briefing led by health experts.”

“While there has been progress in some parts of the country, the fact that the trends are going the wrong way in other parts of the country is very disconcerting,” he said.

Trump and his allies are urging states and individual citizens to manage the ongoing threat, and they are loath to call for new public safety measures that could further damage the economy less than six months before the election.

“Let’s give the people the information about what’s going on and everybody should be able to make their own decision,” said Stephen Moore, a conservative economist advising Trump on reopening the economy who seemed to echo the president as he downplayed the new cases. “There are a few cities like Houston, some of the cities on the border that are facing some problems, but otherwise I’m not too concerned about it.”

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While the rate of deaths has fallen, there are still about 20,000 new cases reported every day. “This isn’t something that we’re going to be able to will away,” said Tom Inglesby, the director of the Center for Health Security at Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health. “To not have this higher-level message — it creates this kind of vacuum, this impression that things have moved on.”

On Tuesday, Texas, Florida, and Arizona all set new records for increases in daily coronavirus cases. In Arizona, which reported a jump of 2,392 cases on Monday, the state’s Republican governor, Doug Ducey, has refused to require people to wear masks and says the state’s residents need to learn to live with the virus.

But the mayor of Phoenix, Kate Gallego, said all elected leaders need to treat the situation like an ongoing emergency.

“If we do not change behavior by the end of this month, we will be in a serious situation with the capacity of the health care system,” she said. “It’s too early to declare victory.”

Fauci said as localities open up they should use public health measures — including wearing masks, testing and contact tracing — to try to slow new cases.

“You don’t have to go into lockdown. You could just pause and say, wait a minute. What am I doing wrong here?” Fauci said. “You want to make public health measures be part of the solution, not part of the debate.”


Jess Bidgood can be reached at Jess.Bidgood@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @jessbidgood.