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Birx says U.S. has entered a 'new phase' of pandemic as cases, deaths rise

Deborah Birx, the physician overseeing the White House coronavirus response, warned Sunday that the United States had entered a "new phase" of the pandemic and urged people to take extreme health precautions as infections and deaths rise sharply throughout the county. 

"I want to be very clear what we're seeing today is different from March and April," Birx told CNN's "State of the Union" on Sunday, noting that cases were increasing in rural and urban areas. "It is extraordinarily widespread."

Asked about an estimate from former Food and Drug Administration Commissioner Scott Gottlieb that virus deaths could top 300,000 by the end of the year, Birx said "anything is possible." She said such an outcome would be far less likely if people practiced social distancing and avoided large gatherings.

The Republican National Committee said no final decision has been made about whether President Donald Trump's renomination will be held in private at the GOP convention, contradicting previous reports that restrictions on crowd size during the coronavirus pandemic would prevent members of the press from attending. Two RNC officials insisted Sunday that they are still working through the logistics and press coverage options, a break with a statement reportedly made by a GOP convention spokesperson the previous day.

House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., and Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin made clear in separate interviews Sunday that they remain far apart on a coronavirus relief deal that would restore expired unemployment benefits for millions of Americans. Pelosi said the administration continued to resist a public health strategy to attack the virus. Mnuchin defended the administration's response and said Democrats' demand for $1 trillion in new state and local aid was a non-starter.

Tropical Storm Isaias is closing in on Florida as the state grapples with soaring coronavirus infections, hospitalizations and deaths. The storm will unleash strong wind gusts, heavy rain and possibly storm surge flooding along its eastern shores from south to north through Sunday night.

At least four schools - Corinth High School in Mississippi, Greenfield Central Junior High School in Indiana and two schools in Indiana's Greater Clark County Schools district - reported that a student had tested positive for the coronavirus during the first week back in session, forcing people who had been in contact with them to self-quarantine.

Birx has faced mounting criticism over her handling of the coronavirus response following a New York Times report last month stating that her optimistic outlook on the pandemic's trajectory helped justify reopening decisions that preceded new outbreaks.

In a Sunday morning interview, ABC News's Martha Raddatz asked Pelosi, D-Calif., whether she had confidence in Birx.

"I think the president is spreading disinformation about the virus, and she is his appointee," Pelosi said. "So I don't have confidence there, no."

Birx defended her decisions.

"I have tremendous respect for the speaker. I have tremendous respect for her long dedication to the American people," she told CNN. "It was unfortunate the New York Times wrote this article without speaking to me. ... I have never been Pollyannaish or nonscientific or non-data driven."

Birx's remarks came after another week of grim signs that the country's pandemic response was failing. The seven-day average for new coronavirus-related deaths rose in nearly half of U.S. states over the past week, pushing the national death toll past 150,000 and prompting health experts to warn that the trend was unlikely to reverse anytime soon.

Numerous states have reported record daily fatalities in recent days, including California, which reported 219 on Saturday, according to tracking by The Washington Post. Florida reported a record 257 deaths on Friday, and seven-day averages for new deaths reached new highs in states across the South, West and Midwest.

Nationwide, the daily coronavirus death toll exceeded 1,000 for the sixth day in a row on Saturday, according to The Post's data. The 1,198 new fatalities marked the most that officials have counted on a Saturday, when death reports tend to be lower than those tallied midweek, since May 9.

Birx and Anthony Fauci, the nation's top infectious-disease expert, have warned 20 states in the Sun Belt, the Midwest and the Pacific Northwest that the virus spread is accelerating within their borders. Mitigation efforts have helped in some places, Birx said, but people need to practice strict social distancing and wear masks. She also raised concerns about the virus spreading within multigenerational households, urging people in those settings to "really consider" wearing masks inside their homes.

With the new academic year starting soon in many communities, Birx also suggested that schools avoid in-person instruction in places where infections are rising - a departure from recent demands by Trump and Education Secretary Betsy DeVos that schools fully reopen in the fall.

"We need to stop the cases," Birx said. "If you have high caseload and active community spread - just like we're asking people not to go to bars, not to have household parties, not to create large spreading events, we're asking people to distance-learn at this moment so we can get this epidemic under control."

The increase in deaths has trailed a massive surge in coronavirus cases by several weeks, as health experts predicted when infections started trending upward in June.

The time lag was greater than in the pandemic's early months, when deaths followed infections more closely. Experts say the change may be because many of the new outbreaks have started among young, healthy adults who passed the virus to older, more vulnerable people and because expanded testing has allowed health workers to identify cases closer to the time of infection.

"Overall, what this tells us is that now that deaths have started to increase, we can expect them to increase for several more weeks," Ellie Murray, an epidemiologist at Boston University, told The Post. "We cannot afford to pretend everything is fine and heading back to normal."

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention's most recent analysis of pandemic fatalities shows weekly reports of new deaths increasing over the next month, with 5,000 to 11,000 new deaths projected in the third week of August. The national death toll could climb to more than 168,000 by that time, with a high estimate of 182,000, according to the CDC's review.

Amid the rising deaths, Trump on Sunday struck an optimistic note, tweeting, "USA will be stronger than ever before, and soon!"

Trump and other prominent Republicans have continued to promote the drug hydroxychloroquine as a silver-bullet solution to COVID-19, the disease caused by the novel coronavirus, despite evidence that it does not help patients recover. Last week, he tweeted then deleted a viral video of a doctor falsely claiming that the drug was a "cure for covid." Twitter removed various versions of the video, saying they violated its COVID-19 misinformation policy.

Asked about hydroxychloroquine on NBC's "Meet the Press" Sunday, Adm. Brett Giroir, the official in charge of the administration's testing efforts, stressed that the drug was not an effective treatment.

"At this point in time, there has been five randomized controlled, placebo controlled trials that do not show any benefit to hydroxychloroquine," Giroir said. "So, at this point in time, we don't recommend that as a treatment. There's no evidence to show that it is."

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The Washington Post's Eli Rosenberg, Felicia Sonmez, Joseph Marks and Jacqueline Dupree contributed to this report.

 

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