By Liz Essley Whyte, Center for Public Integrity, a nonprofit newsroom based in Washington, D.C.
A document prepared for the White House Coronavirus Task Force but not publicized suggests more than a dozen states including Texas should revert to more stringent protective measures, limiting social gatherings to 10 people or fewer, closing bars and gyms and asking residents to wear masks at all times.
The document, dated July 14 and obtained by the Center for Public Integrity, says Texas and 17 other states are in the “red zone” for COVID-19 cases, meaning they had more than 100 new cases per 100,000 population last week. Eleven states including Texas are in the “red zone” for test positivity, meaning more than 10 percent of diagnostic test results came back positive.
Dr. Ashish Jha, director of the Harvard Global Health Institute, said he thought the information and recommendations were mostly good.
“The fact that it’s not public makes no sense to me,” Jha said Thursday. “Why are we hiding this information from the American people? This should be published and updated every day.”
Dr. Deborah Birx, a leader of the task force, referenced an earlier version of what appears to be the same report — which she said was updated weekly and sent to governors — in a press conference July 8 in which Vice President Mike Pence urged local leaders to open schools in the fall. She said Arizona, California, Florida and Texas were among the states the task force was monitoring carefully and that “a series of other states” were also in the red zone and should consider limiting gatherings.
It’s clear some states are not following the task force’s advice. For instance, the document recommends that Georgia, in the red zone for both cases and test positivity, “mandate statewide wearing of cloth face coverings outside the home.” But Gov. Brian Kemp signed an order Wednesday banning localities from requiring masks.
In May, the World Health Organization recommended that governments make sure test positivity rates were at 5 percent or lower for 14 days before reopening. A COVID-19 tracker from Johns Hopkins University shows that 33 states were above that recommended positivity as of July 16.
“If the test positivity rate is above 10 percent, that means we’re not doing a good job mitigating the outbreak,” said Jessica Malaty Rivera, science communication lead at the COVID Tracking Project, a volunteer organization launched by journalists from The Atlantic. “Ideally we want the test positivity rate to be below 3 percent, because that shows that we’re suppressing COVID-19.”
The White House and Kemp did not respond to requests for comment Thursday.
Recommendations for Texas
The report laid out specific recommendations for Texas, including:
- Mandate masks in all counties with rising test percent positivity
- Close all bars in all counties with rising test percent positivity, increase outdoor dining opportunities, decrease indoor dining to 25%
- Scale-up testing, moving to community-led neighborhood testing
- Increase messaging of the risk of serious disease in all age groups with preexisting medical conditions, including obesity, hypertension and diabetes.
- Expand testing capacity in Public Health labs, adding shifts and weekend shifts to decrease turnaround times.
- Continue routine weekly testing of all workers in assisted living and long-term care facilities
Read the full report