WASHINGTON - Local officials across the southern tier of U.S. states voiced new concerns Sunday about the sharp increase in the spread of the coronavirus pandemic in recent days even as President Donald Trump has dismissed it “totally harmless.”
Mayor Kate Gallego in the western city of Phoenix, Arizona, told ABC News’ “This Week” show, “We opened [local businesses] way too early” after they were initially closed in March and April.
“We are in a crisis,” she said, with a total of 59,000 people infected in the city of 1.7 million people. Gallego said coronavirus testing sites “are overwhelmed.”
The U.S. has recorded more than 50,000 new coronavirus cases on several recent days, largely across a row of southern states that avoided a big outbreak of cases in March and April when cities in the northeastern part of the country, especially New York City, were especially hard hit and now have way fewer cases.
Officials in some of the new hard-hit areas have reimposed lockdown restrictions to try to stop the spread of the virus. However, New York City moved into its latest stage of reopening Monday with personal care businesses such as nail salons again allowed to welcome customers.
Florida alone recorded more than 11,400 new cases on Saturday, a new single-day high, as some big cities in the U.S. held annual Independence Day celebrations even as dozens of smaller communities canceled theirs for fear of people spreading the virus.
“There’s no doubt when we opened, people started socializing” again in public places, leading to the new surge in infections, Miami, Florida, Mayor Francis Suarez told ABC. He called the big increase in infections “extremely worse,” but said that “if people wear a mask, there’s a good chance we’ll cut the spread.”
Harris County, Texas, in the greater Houston area, recorded almost a quarter of its total of 35,000 coronavirus cases on Saturday.
Harris County Judge Lina Hidalgo told ABC, “Wishful thinking is neither good public policy or health policy. What we need to do is what works: stay at home. We need to be proactive.”
But Trump, in a speech at a White House party he hosted Saturday night, said “99%” of the new cases are “totally harmless,” a dubious claim as hospitalizations of sick patients increase sharply, even though younger people being infected now are generally recovering in time. In all, nearly 130,000 Americans have been killed by the virus and more than 2.8 million infected, with both figures far and away the biggest across the globe.
Trump, facing a difficult re-election contest in November against former Vice President Joe Biden, continued to predict a vaccine against the coronavirus will soon be created.
"I want to send our thanks to the scientists and researchers around the country and even around the world who are at the forefront of our historic effort to rapidly develop and deliver life-saving treatments and ultimately a vaccine.," Trump said. "We are unleashing our nation's scientific brilliance and we'll likely have a therapeutic and/or vaccine solution long before the end of the year."
But Food and Drug Administration commissioner Stephen Hahn told ABC, “I can’t predict when a vaccine will be available.” He said FDA is currently monitoring 141 clinical trials of potential COVID-19 therapeutic treatments.
"Our solemn promise to the American people is that we will make a decision based upon the data and science on a vaccine with respect to the safety and effectiveness of that vaccine," Hahn said. "When those data become available, and I hope those data are available sooner rather than later, we will make that judgment based upon those data and that science."
But he said it was “concerning” that a recent Washington Post-ABC poll showed that 27% of Americans would refuse or ignore public health pleas to get themselves inoculated.
Ashish Jha, director of the Harvard Global Health Institute, told the “Fox News Sunday” show, “I’m very optimistic we’re going to have [a vaccine] in early 2021.”
But Jha said it could be a year before enough doses of a vaccine are produced to inoculate billions of people around the world.