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Pittsburgh Region Warned on COVID-19 Spread

• Birx calls for ‘aggressive’ steps to mitigate increase in cases
• Allegheny County, Pittsburgh officials were not invited on call

By Staff Reports
The Tube City Almanac
July 22, 2020
Posted in: McKeesport and Region News

Updated: Tube City Almanac added comments from Amie Downs, Allegheny County spokeswoman, and Timothy McNulty, spokesman for Pittsburgh Mayor Bill Peduto.

By Liz Essley Whyte and Alex Ellerbeck
The Center for Public Integrity

Dr. Deborah Birx, shown in a 2018 file photo, warned Pittsburgh and 10 other cities on Wednesday that they must be more aggressive in stopping the spread of COVID-19. But Pittsburgh and Allegheny County officials said they were not invited to participate in the nationwide phone call. (U.S. Department of Health & Human Services photo)

Pittsburgh is one of 11 cities being told by federal authorities to take more “aggressive” steps to slow the spread of COVID-19.

In a private phone call Wednesday to state and local leaders, Dr. Deborah Birx, a leader of the White House Coronavirus Task Force, warned that 11 major cities are seeing increases in the percentage of tests coming back positive.

Birx told hundreds of emergency managers and other state and local leaders that they should act quickly to stem the outbreaks.

Pittsburgh does not have its own health department. But Amie M. Downs, Allegheny County spokeswoman, told Tube City Almanac on Wednesday night that neither Dr. Debra Bogen, director of the Allegheny County Health Department, nor anyone else from the county administration “was on any such call or has received any such communication.”

Timothy McNulty, spokesman for Pittsburgh Mayor Bill Peduto, told the Almanac via email, “no one from (Pittsburgh) was on this call.”

Birx’s call was not made public, but a recording was obtained by the Center for Public Integrity, which reported details in an exclusive story on Wednesday.

Birx’s call was yet another private warning about the seriousness of the coronavirus outbreaks given to local officials but not the public at large.

It came less than a week after the Center for Public Integrity revealed that the White House compiled a detailed report showing 18 states were in the “red zone” for coronavirus cases but did not release it publicly.

Increasing test positivity — an indicator that a community does not have an outbreak under control — should be expected in areas that reopened and grew more relaxed about social distancing measures, said Harvard epidemiologist Bill Hanage. He said the warnings and data from the White House should be made public.

“This is a pandemic,” he said. “You cannot hide it under the carpet. 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.”

In addition to Pittsburgh, other regions identified by Birx as areas of concern included Baltimore, Cleveland, Columbus, Indianapolis, Las Vegas, Miami, Minneapolis, Nashville, New Orleans and St. Louis.

Among Birx’s recommendations were to trace the contacts of patients testing positive for COVID-19 in areas where test positivity is going up.

“When you first see that increase in test positivity, that is when to start the mitigation efforts,” she said in a recording obtained by Public Integrity. “I know it may look small and you may say, ‘That only went from 5 to 5-and-a-half [percent], and we’re gonna wait and see what happens.’ If you wait another three or four or even five days, you’ll start to see a dramatic increase in cases.”

But Downs told Tube City Almanac that Allegheny County, which includes Pittsburgh, is not seeing an increase in the rate of positive COVID-19 tests.

“Obviously our numbers as compared to other areas indicate that’s not the case,” Downs told the Almanac.

Allegheny County reported 96 new cases of COVID-19 on Wednesday. The county hit a high of 275 new cases on July 12.

On July 11, the county reported that 13 percent of COVID-19 tests were coming back positive.

Between July 15 and July 21, the percentage of positive tests ranged between 8 and 12 percent. The rate was 9 percent on July 16, 17, 18 and 19, according to Allegheny County data.

Birx said the federal government was seeing encouraging declines in test positivity in places like Phoenix and San Antonio, but warned that the outbreak in the Sunbelt was moving north.

“What started out very much as a southern and western epidemic is starting to move up the East Coast into Tennessee, Arkansas, up into Missouri, up across Colorado, and obviously we’re talking about increases now in Baltimore,” she said. “So this is really critical that everybody is following this and making sure they’re being aggressive about mitigation efforts.”

It’s unclear who heard the warnings and was invited to the call, which was hosted by the White House Office of Intergovernmental Affairs and closed to the press.

Baltimore and Cleveland were two of the cities Birx warned were facing rising test positivity, but a spokeswoman for the Cleveland mayor’s office, Nancy Kelsey-Carroll, said they did not participate in the call.

And Baltimore health department leaders didn’t know about it, agency spokesman Adam Abadir said in an email. That city today announced a mask mandate and new restrictions on indoor dining.

The test positivity rates may not have been news to some elected officials. For example, Pennsylvania already publicly reports that data by county.

Birx’s warning came a day after President Donald Trump resumed his televised coronavirus briefings. The president offered a rosier picture of the pandemic than Birx, focusing on examples of improvements in the fight against the virus, such as better treatment with the drug remdesivir.

Her call also came the same day that Democratic Senate Minority Leader Sen. Chuck Schumer said on the Senate floor that he and House Majority Leader Nancy Pelosi had insisted on greater data transparency in a meeting with White House Chief of Staff Mark Meadows. Schumer said they would push for legislation to “ensure that COVID-19 data is fully transparent and accessible without any interference from the administration.”   

And on Tuesday, former CDC Director Tom Frieden and colleagues released a list of data points they would like states to publish in real-time, standardized, to give officials and residents better information.

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

The White House did not immediately respond to a request for comment on Birx’s warnings, nor did it answer repeated questions over several days from Public Integrity on why it had not made the “red zone” report public.

Birx said on the call that the weekly report had been sent to governors for four weeks. One staffer for a governor said his boss received only the section of the report related to his state, not the entire report.

This article was originally published by the Center for Public Integrity, a nonprofit newsroom based in Washington, D.C. Tube City Almanac editor Jason Togyer contributed to this story.

The Center for Public Integrity is a nonprofit, nonpartisan newsroom investigating democracy, power and privilege. Our reporting focuses on the influence of money and the impact of inequality on our society.

Originally published July 22, 2020.

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