AP fact check: Administration misleads on COVID-19 stats

VP Pence, other Republicans break from Trump, encourage masks
Pence Mask
Vice President Mike Pence, who had resisted wearing a mask to help curb COVID-19, now urges the practice and dons a mask. (AP photo)

WASHINGTON (WKBT) — The Trump Administration’s common response to the recent spike in COVID-19 infections has been, “Don’t worry — only a small sliver of U.S. counties is at greater risk.”
In offering this reassurance, Vice President Mike Pence and Health and Human Services Secretary Alex Azar have said repeatedly that only 3% or 4% of counties in the country are experiencing a surge in cases.
Focus on the “encouraging signs,” Pence told senators last week.
But Pence, Azar and other administration officials have been skirting a key fact: More than 20% of Americans live in those relatively few counties.
The White House has cited the low county tally repeatedly, and Pence reaffirmed the point in a televised interview Sunday. He argued that states — not the federal government — should take the lead with reopening guidelines because virus outbreaks are happening in about “4% of all the counties in this country.”
Azar asserted Friday that only 3% of counties represent “hot spots” that are “very concerning.”
The emphasis on a percentage of counties makes for a misleading portrayal of the virus threat.
The White House provided The Associated Press with the full list of U.S. counties that reported increases in COVID-19 cases as of Friday. It showed that 137 of the 3,142 counties in the country were under a higher alert — indeed, about 4% at the time.
However, measured by population, those counties represent a vastly higher share — more than 1 in 5 people in the country.
Altogether, 68.3 million people out of the total U.S. population of 322.9 million live in those 137 counties. That means 21.1% of U.S. residents actually live in a virus “hot spot.”
The population figures come from the Census Bureau’s American Community Survey five-year estimates for 2018, the latest available.
The U.S. has entered a dangerous new phase of the coronavirus with big Sun Belt states showing thousands of new cases a day. Texas and Florida reversed course on parts of their reopening and clamped down on bars last week as the daily number of confirmed infections in the U.S. surged to all-time highs.
Speaking about the coronavirus threat Friday, Dr. Deborah Birx said the White House is tracking counties large and small.
Anyone living in a virus hot spot should take the necessary precautions, including social distancing and wearing masks, said Birx, White House Coronavirus Task Force Committee coordinator, who routinely wears a mask.
Citing increases particularly in the under-40 age group, Birx stressed that much more testing is needed because that’s the age group most likely to be infected without showing symptoms and to be “spreading the virus unbeknownst to them.”
Meanwhile, Pence, who had been following the example of his boss in spurning wearing a mask, did an about-face Sunday.
Pence, head of the task force, which has recommended masks almost from the start, not only encouraged people to wear masks but also donned one himself.
During a news conference alongside Texas and Trump administration officials at the University of Texas Southwestern Medical Center in Dallas Sunday, Pence urged Americans to “wear a mask, wherever it’s indicated.”
“We encourage everyone to wear a mask in the affected areas,” Pence said. “Where you can’t maintain social distancing, wearing a mask is just a good idea, especially young people.”
Pence is not the only Republican who has split from the president on the mask issue.
U.S. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell said on the Senate floor, “Wearing simple face coverings is not about protecting ourselves, it is about protecting everyone we encounter.”
Rep. Kevin McCarthy, the top Republican in the House, said Americans should follow the recommendations of health officials to wear masks and physically distance themselves to help slow the spread of infection.
“They should wear a mask,” McCarthy told CNBC on Monday after his home state of California rolled back efforts to reopen the economy.
Republican Sen. Tim Scott of South Carolina, where cases are spiking, posted a similar message on Twitter, writing: “I am encouraging everyone to WEAR YOUR MASKS!”

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