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Trump says he told officials to slow coronavirus testing to keep case numbers low

  • Author: Derek Hawkins, Adam Taylor, Meryl Kornfield, The Washington Post
  • Updated: June 21
  • Published June 21

Amid surging coronavirus infections nationwide, President Donald Trump said at his campaign rally in Tulsa Saturday night that he told officials to administer fewer coronavirus tests to keep case numbers down.

The comments drew a chorus of criticism from congressional Democrats, who said it validated fears that the president was more focused on saving face amid the pandemic than on protecting public health. A White House official told The Washington Post that Trump was joking, a common defense from Trump's aides when he says something controversial.

Eight states on Saturday reported their highest single-day case counts since the pandemic began, and daily new infections nationwide exceeded 30,000 on both Friday and Saturday. The country has not seen daily totals that high in more than seven weeks.

One of the country’s leading public health experts said Sunday that he was worried that Trump’s rally in Tulsa could become a “super-spreader” event resulting in many people being infected with the coronavirus.

"We have seen in the past few months around the world that indoor gatherings have been the source of most super-spreading events," Tom Inglesby, director of the Center for Health Security at Johns Hopkins University, told Fox News, responding to a question about possible contagion at the rally. "There's an opportunity for much more spread in a short period of time, so I am worried about that."

Attendance was reported to be significantly lower than expected, but Inglesby said the rally was still "concerning in terms of public health risks."

He noted that attendees were packed close together, shouting and shaking hands, and that many were not wearing masks. "All of those things will increase the risk of spread," he said.

Host Chris Wallace asked whether there was "some hypocrisy" among health officials who did not express the same level of concern about mass protests this month over racism and police brutality.

Inglesby responded that there was a danger of increased spread at large-scale demonstrations, as well, but that the risks were lower outdoors than indoors.

"It's quite different in an indoor setting," he said, "where people are sitting shoulder to shoulder for a long period of time and really in close quarters like that."

Inglesby also cautioned that spikes in infections across the country were not just the result of increased diagnostic testing, saying rising hospitalizations and positivity rates indicated that the virus was accelerating in some places.

So far, the situation was not so bad that states needed to reinstitute lockdowns, Inglesby said. Instead, he said, officials should encourage people to do the things that have already proved effective in containing the virus, including wearing masks and avoiding large gatherings.

A Trump administration official on Sunday blamed the "press and others" for the president's comments about slowing down coronavirus testing to keep case numbers down.

"Instead of focusing on the actual progress that this administration has made in revamping and an antiquated testing system and testing record millions of Americans, they're focused just on the rising case numbers," acting secretary of homeland security Chad Wolf said during an appearance on CBS News's "Face the Nation."

"So I think what you heard there from the president was frustration," Wolf added.

At a Saturday night rally in Tulsa, Trump had downplayed the seriousness of the virus, recalling that "I said to my people, 'Slow the testing down,' " because more testing would mean more cases were discovered.

Other Trump officials have said the president's remarks, which have drawn criticism from congressional Democrats, were in jest.

These remarks were a "light moment" and the president was joking, White House trade adviser Peter Navarro told CNN's Jake Tapper on "State of the Union."

"Come on now, Jake, you know it was tongue in cheek. That was tongue in cheek, please," Navarro said.

Wolf also defended the Trump campaign's decision to hold a political rally during the pandemic, pushing back against criticism of the safety of the event.

"I think what we saw, particularly in Tulsa, when you talk about the president's rally, is a state in a Phase 3 reopening. And so activities like this are allowed." Wolf said during an interview on NBC News's "Meet the Press."

Oklahoma has recorded an increasing number of cases over recent weeks, with a spike in cases in Tulsa, which led the local health department director to initially ask that the rally be postponed. The Trump campaign announced Saturday morning that six staffers working to stage the event that evening had tested positive.

White House trade adviser Peter Navarro said Sunday it was an "open question" whether China had deliberately created the novel coronavirus, despite no public evidence to suggest that is true.

Navarro, known in the administration for his hawkish views on China, made the remarks during an interview with Tapper on "State of the Union," in which he said in passing that China had "created" the virus.

"You did not hear me wrong," he responded when asked about it. "That virus was a product of the Chinese Communist Party, and until we get some information about what happened in those labs, what happened in that wet market, we know that that virus was spawned in China."

The comments come after months of speculation about the virus's early spread in the Chinese city of Wuhan. Experts say any link to a deliberate biological weapons program is extremely unlikely, but some U.S. officials have suggested the virus may have leaked inadvertently during scientific research at a facility in the city.

However, virologists have downplayed this scenario, too, suggesting spread through nature remained by far the most likely cause of human infection. After U.S. allies did not publicly back the lab-leak scenario, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and other U.S. officials backed away from the language.

In his interview with Tapper, Navarro repeatedly emphasized he said "spawned" and said CNN should be asking China for evidence, rather than the White House.

"In terms of the code of justice, I'm a Napoleonic code of justice for the Chinese Communist Party," Navarro said. "They are guilty until proven innocent."

Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis acknowledged Saturday that surging coronavirus cases in his state were not solely the result of expanded testing, shifting from his previous explanations about the trend.

"Even with the testing increasing or being flat, the number of people testing positive is accelerating faster than that," DeSantis, a Republican, said at a news conference. "You know that's evidence that there's transmission within those communities."

Last week, he linked the spike to outbreaks among migrant farmworkers - a connection widely disputed by public health experts and agriculture officials.

Daily new case totals have reached record highs in Florida over the past week, with new infections on Saturday exceeding 4,000 for the first time since the pandemic reached the state. It is one of eight states that have tallied record numbers in recent days.

Florida's total caseload stands at roughly 94,000. The state's seven-day case average of 2,892 is also a record, up 88 percent from the past week's average of 1,542. Saturday was the 13th straight day that the state hit a new average high.

DeSantis said there was a potential bright spot amid the alarming numbers: The median age of people contracting the virus was trending downward, he said. Still, he added, the virus was spreading among 20- and 30-somethings "faster than we would like to see."

The spike has not caused DeSantis to publicly reconsider his phased reopening of the state, which began in early May.

Sen. Tammy Duckworth, D-Ill., condemned Trump for referring to covid-19 as "kung flu" during his Saturday night rally in Tulsa, writing on Twitter that the president made a "racist joke" in response to a pandemic that has killed more than 121,000 people in the United States.

At his rally, Trump used the term "kung flu" to refer to covid-19, the disease caused by the coronavirus. After Trump made the remark, Duckworth retweeted "Captain America" actor Chris Evans, who said he was "speechless" after seeing a racist joke get applauded by rallygoers.

Noting the pandemic's devastating toll, Duckworth wrote, "Donald Trump's response is to make racist jokes."

White House officials have previously distanced themselves from the term "kung flu," which combines a word for Chinese martial arts and a shortened term for influenza, with counselor Kellyanne Conway called"highly offensive" in March.

Duckworth's mother is Thai; she is the first Asian American lawmaker to represent Illinois in Washington.

Stand-up comedian D.L. Hughley has announced that he tested positive for the coronavirus after he was hospitalized for collapsing onstage during a performance in Nashville.

Hughley, 57, lost consciousness while performing at the Zanies comedy nightclub on Friday night. In a video Saturday, he told fans that he was treated for exhaustion and dehydration at Nashville's Saint Thomas hospital. While there, doctors ran a "battery of tests" on him and made his coronavirus diagnosis.

"I also tested positive for covid-19, which blew me away," he said in the video. "I was what they call asymptomatic. I didn't have any symptoms that are the classic symptoms."

In the video, he says he would quarantine in his hotel room.

"Hopefully, I won't get symptoms," he said after encouraging others to get tested if they have a similar experience. "Maybe this is as bad as it gets."

Among Hughley's television and film credits, he wrote, produced and starred in "The Hughleys," a show that aired from 1998 to 2002. He previously hosted a CNN program and now has a radio show "The D.L. Hughley Show."

He has also written at least three books, including his latest, "How Not to Get Shot: And Other Advice From White People."

Hughley's publicist didn't immediately respond to a request for comment about his upcoming shows.

An Arizona sheriff who tested positive for the coronavirus right before he was scheduled to meet Trump last week said he still has no plans to wear a mask in public or enforce any mask mandate.

Pinal County Sheriff Mark Lamb told the Arizona Republic that he would continue to maintain social distancing once his isolation period is over, but he opposes any government requirement for people to wear masks to reduce the spread of the virus. Arizona Gov. Doug Ducey, a Republican, said it's up to local officials whether they would want to create and enforce a face-covering rule.

"When I come back out, I don't like to wear masks," Lamb told the Republic. "And I respect people's personal choices to not wear a mask."

In early May, Lamb told Fox News that he wouldn't cite or arrest those in violation of Ducey's stay-at-home order when it was in effect.

Lamb visited the White House on Tuesday and tested positive for the coronavirus during screening before he was to attend a meeting with Trump and other law enforcement, as well as the signing of an executive order on policing. He didn't attend the events and returned home in a rental car, Lamb told the Republic.

Lamb said he believed he was infected at a campaign event the weekend before his Washington trip. A video of a campaign event in San Tan Valley, Ariz., over that weekend showed him hugging, shaking hands with and taking pictures with supporters. Lamb is running unopposed.

Pinal County has recorded 2,171 cases of covid-19, and at least 671 of those were reported since last week. About 517 per 100,000 county residents have become infected, according to Washington Post data.

County officials say 47 people have died of covid-19, three since last week.

Arizona, which began reopening May 1, has experienced a recent spike in cases and hospitalizations. The state reported 2,592 new cases Sunday, bringing its total to 52,390. The death toll stands at 1,339.

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