As Coronavirus Infections Climb, Washington Moves On to Other Business

WASHINGTON — Coronavirus infections were spiking in 21 states on Wednesday, and cases in the United States topped two million — but Washington had other business.

On Capitol Hill, lawmakers in both parties were examining police brutality. The Senate health committee was grappling with getting children back to school. President Trump, who halted daily virus briefings more than a month ago, was speaking up for the names of Confederate generals adorning military bases and announcing a resumption of campaign rallies, some in virus hot spots. And Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin was spotted at a popular Georgetown cafe Tuesday night.

The coronavirus may not be done with the nation, but the nation’s capital appears to be done with the coronavirus.

As the pandemic’s grim numbers continue to climb — more than 112,000 dead as of Wednesday and warnings from Arizona that its hospitals could be full by next month — Mr. Trump and lawmakers in both parties are exhibiting a short attention span.

“They have made a conscious decision that we are moving on,” said Dr. Howard Markel, a professor of the history of medicine at the University of Michigan who helped shape federal social distancing policy during the George W. Bush administration. He mourned the shrinking public profile of Dr. Anthony S. Fauci, the nation’s top infectious disease expert.

“The government is blessed with one of the best experts in the world and neither side is listening,” he said. “What’s wrong with that picture?”

Dr. Fauci, who had been a steady presence (and occasional thorn in Mr. Trump’s side) on television during the president’s daily briefings, made a brief reappearance on Wednesday. He warned on the ABC program “Good Morning America” that protests over the killing of George Floyd in police custody could exacerbate the pandemic — even though many demonstrators were wearing masks.

“Masks can help, but it’s masks plus physical separation and when you get congregations like we saw with the demonstrations, like we have said — myself and other health officials — that’s taking a risk,” Dr. Fauci said. “Unfortunately,” he added, “what we’re seeing now is just an example of the kinds of things we were concerned about.”

But there seems to be a tacit agreement between the parties: Democrats have largely stopped harping on social distancing, while Mr. Trump plans to resume his political rallies — first in Oklahoma, Florida, Arizona and North Carolina — and Republicans refrain from shaming protesters over shedding pandemic precautions.

The bully pulpit has gone silent.

“There isn’t a daily information flow around Covid-19, and so in the absence of that, everybody’s theories about what to do next are competing with one another,” said Rory Cooper, a Republican strategist. “There’s no voice of authority that’s saying: ‘This is OK. This is not OK.’”

Inside the White House, Mr. Trump has attended significantly fewer meetings and briefings with the coronavirus task force, according to senior administration officials, and has begun plotting his return to the campaign trail, even as cases are spiking in key swing states. Of the four states where the president announced rallies, three — Florida, Arizona and North Carolina — are seeing rising caseloads, while Oklahoma’s infection numbers are steady but not falling.

For a third consecutive day this week, Texas set a record for hospitalizations, which have increased 42 percent in the state since Memorial Day.

Dr. Scott Gottlieb, an outside adviser to the White House who served as the commissioner of food and drugs under Mr. Trump, cited modeling from the investment house Morgan Stanley that forecast a doubling in the number of infections over the next 60 days. In an interview, he predicted a “slow burn through the summer, where maybe 20,000 cases a day diagnoses is the new normal.”

Despite that, the coronavirus task force has met less frequently and in less focused ways in recent weeks, senior administration officials said. On Tuesday, the 90-minute meeting ranged from new cases in North Carolina to an update on vaccines from Alex M. Azar II, the health and human services secretary, to the possible public health consequences of the protests over Mr. Floyd’s death, one official said.

ImageThe public profiles of Dr. Fauci and Dr. Deborah L. Birx have been reduced.

Credit…Doug Mills/The New York Times

Around the same time, Mark Meadows, the Republican former congressman from North Carolina who is now Mr. Trump’s chief of staff, visited Capitol Hill with Jared Kushner, the president’s senior adviser and son-in-law, and he joked with reporters about their facial coverings as they walked through a Senate office building with him.

“You guys with all your masks, you look very different than you used to,” he said, not wearing one himself.

“We’re just trying not to die,” replied Jake Sherman, a reporter for Politico.

Dr. Deborah L. Birx still coordinates the task force from her office in the West Wing, regularly updates senior staff members and still meets often with Vice President Mike Pence, according to one official, but appears only occasionally to present and discuss new virus data with reporters. Mr. Pence met Wednesday with Trump campaign workers, who posed for a photo, huddling together, thumbs up, their faces bare.

And Adm. Brett P. Giroir, who has been the administration’s point person overseeing coronavirus testing, told colleagues in an email that he was resuming his regular duties as the assistant secretary for health.

“While I remain committed to the fight against Covid-19, and will spend a portion of my time in direct support of the pandemic response,” he wrote, “I feel personally compelled to continue our office’s leadership in childhood vaccination, combating substance misuse, ending the H.I.V. epidemic in America, and improving the lives of all living with sickle cell disease.”

For nearly two weeks now, the nation has been convulsed by the twin crises of the coronavirus and the civil unrest that followed the death of Mr. Floyd, a black man who gasped for air with his neck under the knee of a police officer. Congress continues to address the coronavirus crisis — in addition to Wednesday’s health committee hearing, Mr. Mnuchin appeared before the Senate Small Business Committee, where he defended the administration’s decision to reopen the economy.

But the big news on Capitol Hill on Wednesday was the testimony of Mr. Floyd’s brother, Philonise Floyd, before the House Judiciary Committee. “I’m here to ask you to make it stop,” he said, asking lawmakers to make sure that his brother “is more than another face on a T-shirt.”

  • Frequently Asked Questions and Advice

    Updated June 5, 2020

    • Does asymptomatic transmission of Covid-19 happen?

      So far, the evidence seems to show it does. A widely cited paper published in April suggests that people are most infectious about two days before the onset of coronavirus symptoms and estimated that 44 percent of new infections were a result of transmission from people who were not yet showing symptoms. Recently, a top expert at the World Health Organization stated that transmission of the coronavirus by people who did not have symptoms was “very rare,” but she later walked back that statement.

    • How does blood type influence coronavirus?

      A study by European scientists is the first to document a strong statistical link between genetic variations and Covid-19, the illness caused by the coronavirus. Having Type A blood was linked to a 50 percent increase in the likelihood that a patient would need to get oxygen or to go on a ventilator, according to the new study.

    • How many people have lost their jobs due to coronavirus in the U.S.?

      The unemployment rate fell to 13.3 percent in May, the Labor Department said on June 5, an unexpected improvement in the nation’s job market as hiring rebounded faster than economists expected. Economists had forecast the unemployment rate to increase to as much as 20 percent, after it hit 14.7 percent in April, which was the highest since the government began keeping official statistics after World War II. But the unemployment rate dipped instead, with employers adding 2.5 million jobs, after more than 20 million jobs were lost in April.

    • Will protests set off a second viral wave of coronavirus?

      Mass protests against police brutality that have brought thousands of people onto the streets in cities across America are raising the specter of new coronavirus outbreaks, prompting political leaders, physicians and public health experts to warn that the crowds could cause a surge in cases. While many political leaders affirmed the right of protesters to express themselves, they urged the demonstrators to wear face masks and maintain social distancing, both to protect themselves and to prevent further community spread of the virus. Some infectious disease experts were reassured by the fact that the protests were held outdoors, saying the open air settings could mitigate the risk of transmission.

    • How do we start exercising again without hurting ourselves after months of lockdown?

      Exercise researchers and physicians have some blunt advice for those of us aiming to return to regular exercise now: Start slowly and then rev up your workouts, also slowly. American adults tended to be about 12 percent less active after the stay-at-home mandates began in March than they were in January. But there are steps you can take to ease your way back into regular exercise safely. First, “start at no more than 50 percent of the exercise you were doing before Covid,” says Dr. Monica Rho, the chief of musculoskeletal medicine at the Shirley Ryan AbilityLab in Chicago. Thread in some preparatory squats, too, she advises. “When you haven’t been exercising, you lose muscle mass.” Expect some muscle twinges after these preliminary, post-lockdown sessions, especially a day or two later. But sudden or increasing pain during exercise is a clarion call to stop and return home.

    • My state is reopening. Is it safe to go out?

      States are reopening bit by bit. This means that more public spaces are available for use and more and more businesses are being allowed to open again. The federal government is largely leaving the decision up to states, and some state leaders are leaving the decision up to local authorities. Even if you aren’t being told to stay at home, it’s still a good idea to limit trips outside and your interaction with other people.

    • What’s the risk of catching coronavirus from a surface?

      Touching contaminated objects and then infecting ourselves with the germs is not typically how the virus spreads. But it can happen. A number of studies of flu, rhinovirus, coronavirus and other microbes have shown that respiratory illnesses, including the new coronavirus, can spread by touching contaminated surfaces, particularly in places like day care centers, offices and hospitals. But a long chain of events has to happen for the disease to spread that way. The best way to protect yourself from coronavirus — whether it’s surface transmission or close human contact — is still social distancing, washing your hands, not touching your face and wearing masks.

    • What are the symptoms of coronavirus?

      Common symptoms include fever, a dry cough, fatigue and difficulty breathing or shortness of breath. Some of these symptoms overlap with those of the flu, making detection difficult, but runny noses and stuffy sinuses are less common. The C.D.C. has also added chills, muscle pain, sore throat, headache and a new loss of the sense of taste or smell as symptoms to look out for. Most people fall ill five to seven days after exposure, but symptoms may appear in as few as two days or as many as 14 days.

    • How can I protect myself while flying?

      If air travel is unavoidable, there are some steps you can take to protect yourself. Most important: Wash your hands often, and stop touching your face. If possible, choose a window seat. A study from Emory University found that during flu season, the safest place to sit on a plane is by a window, as people sitting in window seats had less contact with potentially sick people. Disinfect hard surfaces. When you get to your seat and your hands are clean, use disinfecting wipes to clean the hard surfaces at your seat like the head and arm rest, the seatbelt buckle, the remote, screen, seat back pocket and the tray table. If the seat is hard and nonporous or leather or pleather, you can wipe that down, too. (Using wipes on upholstered seats could lead to a wet seat and spreading of germs rather than killing them.)

    • Should I wear a mask?

      The C.D.C. has recommended that all Americans wear cloth masks if they go out in public. This is a shift in federal guidance reflecting new concerns that the coronavirus is being spread by infected people who have no symptoms. Until now, the C.D.C., like the W.H.O., has advised that ordinary people don’t need to wear masks unless they are sick and coughing. Part of the reason was to preserve medical-grade masks for health care workers who desperately need them at a time when they are in continuously short supply. Masks don’t replace hand washing and social distancing.

    • What should I do if I feel sick?

      If you’ve been exposed to the coronavirus or think you have, and have a fever or symptoms like a cough or difficulty breathing, call a doctor. They should give you advice on whether you should be tested, how to get tested, and how to seek medical treatment without potentially infecting or exposing others.

Senator Lamar Alexander of Tennessee, the chairman of the Committee on Health, Education, Labor and Pensions, convened a virtual hearing Wednesday on how to overcome obstacles — like creating social distance and a “mask-wearing culture” — to getting children back to school.

The headline on the news release announcing the session summed up his sentiment. “Alexander: 56 Million Students Going Back to School This Fall Will Be Surest Step Toward Normalcy.”

In one sense, the shifting emphasis is a sign that the nation is no longer on a war footing but has come to accept that the coronavirus pandemic is not going away anytime soon and must be incorporated into Americans’ daily lives. Politicians and health officials are now simply trying to minimize its impact, knowing that Americans are going to continue to get sick and die.

“We are in a phase where it’s about risk mitigation, rather than risk prevention,” said Jennifer Nuzzo, a senior scholar at the Johns Hopkins University Center for Health Security.

Credit…Gabriella Demczuk for The New York Times

With the November election looming, politicians including Mr. Trump will have little appetite for reviving shutdown orders or another mass quarantine. “It’s going to be very hard for these governors and these mayors to go backward,” Dr. Gottlieb said Wednesday on CNBC, while Dr. Fauci warned that even as states reopen, Americans must still “practice a degree of caution.”

That warning, though, did not seem to transmit to Mr. Mnuchin, who was spotted drinking wine with Senator Michael D. Crapo, Republican of Idaho, at one of the Treasury secretary’s favorite haunts, Cafe Milano in Georgetown, a hot spot for Trump administration officials before the pandemic.

A spokeswoman for the restaurant insisted that Mr. Mnuchin was seated on an outdoor patio and not, as a photograph suggested, in the restaurant’s indoor seating area, which would have been in violation of restrictions imposed by Mayor Muriel E. Bowser of Washington. Mr. Mnuchin, for his part, said during the Senate hearing that he was happy to be dining out again, and seemed to acknowledge that he was inside.

“Let me just give a pitch on indoor seating, OK? I’m happy that in D.C., they’ve now allowed restaurants open. I tried to support restaurants,” he told lawmakers, adding, “This distinction between indoor and outdoor seems a bit random, and I don’t know what people would do when it rains.”

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