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‘You cannot hide it’: Experts denounce White House secrecy in private warning to cities to take ‘aggressive’ COVID-19 action

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White House Coronavirus Task Force Response Coordinator Deborah Birx answers a reporter’s question during the coronavirus update briefing Saturday, April 4, 2020, in the James S. Brady Press Briefing Room of the White House. (Official White House Photo by Andrea Hanks)

A private warning about rising coronavirus cases made to leaders in 11 cities by White House official Dr. Deborah Birx on Wednesday is the latest sign that the Trump administration must end the secrecy surrounding its response to the pandemic, an investigative journalism group said Wednesday.

In an exclusive report about Birx’s Wednesday phone call to city officials, the Center for Public Integrity (CPI) revealed that Baltimore, Cleveland, Columbus, Indianapolis, Las Vegas, Miami, Minneapolis, Nashville, New Orleans, Pittsburgh, and St. Louis have all been identified this week as cities where immediate, “aggressive” action is needed to mitigate their coronavirus outbreaks.

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All the cities are seeing increases in coronavirus test positivity rates. Birx told officials that as soon as even a slight climb in positivity rates is detected, city leaders must begin mitigation efforts such as contact tracing, closing restaurants, and urging residents to wear masks.

“If you wait another three or four or even five days, you’ll start to see a dramatic increase in cases,” Birx, the White House’s coronavirus response coordinator, said on the call.

According to Vanderbilt University researchers, Nashville’s positivity rate has already been going up for several weeks.

Public health experts identified Birx’s private call, which was closed to the press, as the latest evidence that the White House is keeping key information about the pandemic from the public—a trend that could continue to weaken the nation’s ability to mitigate the spread of Covid-19.

“This is a pandemic. You cannot hide it under the carpet,” Bill Hanage, a Harvard epidemiologist, told CPI. “The best way to deal with a crisis or a natural disaster is to be straight with people, to earn their trust, and to give the information they need to make decisions for themselves and their communities.”

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The call came less than a week after CPI reported on a list of 18 states which the White House had privately identified as being in the pandemic “red zone,” meaning they each had more than 100 new coronavirus cases per 100,000 people in the last week.

Dr. Ashish Jha, director of the Harvard Global Health Institute, wondered why information about “red zone” states is not being disseminated to the public on a regular basis, allowing people to make choices about the amount of contact they have with others while cases are going up.

“The fact that it’s not public makes no sense to me,” Jha told CPI. “Why are we hiding this information from the American people?”

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Neil Ralston, a journalism professor in St. Louis, also asked on Twitter why the White House would want to keep secret the need for aggressive action in his city.

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CPI reported that while hundreds of emergency managers and political leaders from the states and cities in question were on the call, Baltimore’s health department was not informed of the call. In order to get vital public health information promptly to the public, one epidemiologist told CPI, the White House must look beyond communicating with elected officials.

“It’s not just people who are holding office who need to make decisions,” Caitlin Rivers of Johns Hopkins University said. “The more that we can provide information to people to keep themselves and their families safe, the better off we’ll be.”

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