SAN JOSE — San Jose is among 12 cities the White House is closely tracking after worrisome COVID-19 outbreaks, a top federal health official said in a call Wednesday — although city officials here said they were not among those invited to participate, and were not aware of the Trump administration’s concerns about the rise in cases locally.
In an audio clip obtained by the Center for Public Integrity, White House Coronavirus Task Force leader Dr. Deborah Birx said that the South Bay city was among those that have seen a recent surge in cases, even as rates have stabilized in other recent hotspots like San Antonio and Phoenix.
“There are other cities that are lagging behind that, and we have seen new increases in Miami, New Orleans, Las Vegas, San Jose, St. Louis, Indianapolis, Minneapolis, Cleveland, Nashville, Pittsburgh, Columbus and Baltimore, so we’re tracking this very closely,” Birx said. Local officials, she added, should be prepared to react with “aggressive” efforts to stop the spread.
The warning came as a surprise to San Jose leaders, however. In an interview, Mayor Sam Liccardo confirmed that neither he nor any other city officials were on the call, and said he learned about the issue when CNN asked to interview him on an upcoming TV segment about the topic.
And as of Thursday afternoon, he and other local officials were still not clear what data Birx was relying on.
“I literally texted every city and county official I know who had been deeply engaged in this. Everyone collectively responded with ‘huh?’” Liccardo said. “So we’re catching up to the White House’s announcement right now.”
While the mayor said he was open to learning about any additional data that the White House used to make its analysis, he added that it was unclear why San Jose was singled out among California cities, including Los Angeles, which has been much harder hit by the virus. Santa Clara County as a whole has seen case increases comparable to the rest of the Bay Area.
According to county health department data, there were more than 2,500 new coronavirus cases reported in the 14 days leading up to July 22, a 63% increase in new cases from two weeks before. San Jose comprises 5,523 of the total 8,533 cases in Santa Clara County, or about 64%, and makes up about half the county’s population. It’s rate of infection — 538 cases per 100,000 residents — is the second-highest rate in the county behind Gilroy, which has a rate of 816 per 100,000 residents.
In San Jose, than a third of the county’s first 100 deaths occurred in just four ZIP codes on the city’s East Side, disproportionately impacting low-income neighborhoods where many of the residents are Latinx, according to an analysis by this news organization.
Santa Clara County CEO Jeff Smith said Thursday that the county’s testing task force leader Dr. Marty Fenstersheib participated in the call, but that county leadership likewise wasn’t sure what to make of it.
“You know, it’s been intriguing for a long time that the federal government has pretty much abdicated responsibility to organize any response to the pandemic,” Smith said. “Maybe this is the start of trying to do that, I don’t know … It’s hard to guess right now what it means.”
Ideally, he said, Birx and other federal officials would institute a nationwide shelter-in-place for four to six weeks this summer in anticipation of another wave of infections this fall. But without aggressive, nationwide social distancing protocols, it’s likely that the Bay Area will be dealing with the virus — and its economic fallout — “for about 10 years.”
“The real solution is a very significant, severe, acute shelter in place for six weeks, and then we focus on risk reduction,” Smith said.
Staff writer Harriet Rowan contributed to this report.
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Author: Fiona Kelliher, Maggie Angst