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White House says on phone call that Baltimore requires ‘aggressive’ coronavirus action; city wasn’t aware of call

The White House singled out Baltimore and 10 other cities during a private phone call with state and local officials and emergency managers Wednesday as requiring “aggressive” action to mitigate the coronavirus.

Dr. Deborah Birx, head of President Donald Trump’s Coronavirus Task Force, said Baltimore faces rising testing positivity rates and must take steps to curb a potential outbreak, according to a report published by the Center for Public Integrity. She also named Cleveland; Columbus, Ohio; Indianapolis; Las Vegas; Miami; Minneapolis; Nashville, Tennessee; New Orleans; Pittsburgh; and St. Louis.

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“We’re tracking this very closely, and we’re working with the state officials to make sure we’re responding together,” Birx said in an audio recording of the call made public by the Center for Public Integrity. “When you first see that increase in test positivity, that is when to start the mitigation efforts.”

Birx’s remarks took some city officials by surprise.

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“The Baltimore City Health Department did not participate in, nor for that matter, was aware of, the White House Taskforce call with Dr. Birx, or the characterizations of Baltimore City by the White House Taskforce,” wrote Adam Abadir, spokesman for the city’s health department.

Maryland Department of Health spokesman Charles Gischlar said state health officials were on the call, which usually includes about 300 people.

“The rise in Baltimore City’s positivity rate is something Maryland health officials have been closely monitoring,” he said in a statement.

Birx did not elaborate on how the federal government was working with state officials to lower the positivity rates. A representative for the White House did not respond to requests for comment.

Baltimore announced new rules Wednesday, prohibiting bars and restaurants from serving patrons indoors for at least two weeks and calling on residents to cover their faces in public. The mandates follow increases in the city’s average daily case count for the week of July 4 to July 12, after the city transitioned into a second phase of its reopening plan, Health Commissioner Letitia Dzirasa said Wednesday.

Abadir said Wednesday’s executive order stemmed from data-driven decisions “that place the highest priority on the safety and well-being of City residents.”

“The Baltimore City Health Department continues to monitor new case data, and will recommend further restrictions if we do not see our data indicators moving in the right directions,” he said. “Any future restrictions would be in line with the publicly accessible guidance issued by the Centers for Disease Control and the Maryland Department of Health.”

Statewide, Maryland reported 664 new coronavirus cases and five more deaths Thursday as hospitalizations due to the virus continued to tick up.

While the increase in hospitalizations was relatively small, Thursday marked the sixth straight day of more people hospitalized with the coronavirus in Maryland than the day before. Hospitalizations remain down more than two-thirds, though, from the state’s peak of 1,711 on April 30.

Seven Maryland jurisdictions have seven-day average testing positivity rates above the recommended 5% rate as of Thursday. They are Baltimore City (6.09%), Baltimore County (6.01%), Prince George’s County (5.97%), Charles County (5.89%), Talbot County (5.58%), Dorchester County (7.22%), and Worcester County (6.30%), according to state data.

The state measured its overall positivity rate at 4.56% Thursday, though Johns Hopkins data reflects it at 5.02%, slightly over its recommended positivity level of 5%. The two entities calculate positivity rates differently.

Testing positivity rates measure the percentage of positive COVID-19 cases out of all tests conducted. Baltimore, for example, has administered over 121,000 tests, with about 109,000 of them negative.

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Birx said cities that have faced rising positivity rates have had success combating them with measures including closing indoor bars and restaurants, increasing face mask use mandates and practicing social distancing. People should not be attending large social gatherings in private residences either, she added.

“This is really critical that everyone is following this,” she said.

Baltimore Sun reporters Colin Campbell, Christine Condon and Talia Richman contributed to this article.

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