Baltimore was once again singled out by a White House official as one of the nation’s areas of concern for coronavirus outbreaks, this time on a private phone call Wednesday with state and local officials and emergency managers.
Dr. Deborah Birx, head of President Donald Trump’s Coronavirus Task Force, said Maryland’s largest city is among the areas seeing troubling COVID-19 case numbers, even as “encouraging signs” have begun emerging in the South, according to a recording of the call obtained by the Center for Public Integrity.
“We are concerned that both Baltimore and Atlanta remain at a very high level — [also] Kansas City, Portland, Omaha [and] of course what we talked about in the Central Valley [of California],” Birx said.
Baltimore City remains among Maryland’s areas most affected by the coronavirus. The city has added more than 1,000 new cases in the past week and more than 4,500 since the start of July, bringing its case count to 12,075 as of Thursday. That’s roughly two in every 100 city residents.
More than 400 Baltimore residents have died from the virus and the city’s testing positivity rate remains higher than the statewide average.
Still Baltimore Mayor Bernard C. “Jack” Young said Thursday that he would allow city restaurants to resume indoor dining at 25% capacity beginning at 5 p.m. Friday. But the mayor, a Democrat, simultaneously announced a number of new restrictions on crowd sizes to provide space for social distancing.
Outdoor gatherings must be capped at 25 people and indoor gatherings, including those in churches, retail shops, bingo halls, bowling alleys, pool halls, and roller and ice skating rinks, must be limited to 25% of the buildings’ normal occupancy or 25 people, whichever is lower.
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Baltimore Health Commissioner Dr. Letitia Dzirasa said she was not on the most recent conference call with Birx, but she didn’t dispute that Baltimore’s numbers are cause for worry.
“I have concerns as well,” said Dzirasa, a Johns Hopkins-trained pediatrician. “We see where the numbers are increasing, and we’re implementing the additional restrictions around large gatherings as a result.”
On Wednesday’s call, Birx also called the coronavirus positivity rates in Indiana, Illinois, Kentucky, Ohio, Tennessee and Virginia “concerning.”
Boston, Chicago, Detroit and Washington, D.C., are doing relatively well, but they need to “get on top of” the small increases they’ve seen in positivity rates, she said.
Recent outbreaks have differed from those in the spring in that they have penetrated more rural areas, said Birx, echoing comments she’d made publicly.
Birx encouraged people in areas with high positivity rates to refrain from hosting or attending family gatherings, which could cause superspreader events, she said, “particularly if indoors.”
Birx did not discuss the hotly debated topic of whether or how schools should reopen in the fall, as Trump has urged, according to the Center for Public Integrity.
Nor did she mention on the call what resources the White House is providing to assist health departments to curb the spread of the disease in the most affected areas.
The White House Task Force is giving weekly recommendations to governors and state health commissioners, White House spokesman Judd Deere said.
“From the beginning, this has been a locally executed, state managed, federally supported response as local leaders are best positioned to make on-the-ground decisions for their communities armed with CDC guidelines and best practices to limit the spread of COVID-19,” Deere said in a statement.
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In response to questions about what the Trump administration is doing to help address the high numbers of cases in Baltimore and other areas, the White House sent a list of federal resources Maryland had received, as of July 20.
The list included President Trump’s approval of Maryland’s major disaster and National Guard funding requests, millions of N95 respirator masks and other protective equipment, and billions of dollars in federal relief aid.
The Maryland Department of Health did not respond to requests for comment.
Gov. Larry Hogan, a Republican, has capped indoor dining at 50% of capacity across the state but has allowed harder-hit jurisdictions to enact further restrictions. Worship services, malls and casinos also are limited to half-capacity statewide.
Maryland health officials added 579 cases of the coronavirus and 13 deaths to the state’s tally Thursday, slightly higher than the day before. The state has recorded over 93,000 confirmed cases resulting in 3,415 deaths since health officials began tracking the virus in March.
Wednesday’s call wasn’t the first time Birx has called out Baltimore in what has been a series of White House Task Force calls with state and local health officials around the country. She said on a call on July 22 the city was among 10 areas requiring “aggressive action” to combat rising cases.
Baltimore Sun reporters Talia Richman and Hallie Miller contributed to this article.