US Sunbelt mayors push back against Trump's virus optimism


Washington (AFP)

US Sunbelt mayors warned Sunday that their cities are at risk of being overwhelmed by a surge of coronavirus cases as they pushed back against US President Donald Trump's attempt to minimize the gravity of the spreading virus.

COVID-19 has been raging for weeks across southern and western states. Florida has registered 10,000 new cases on some days. Arizona has seen record hospitalizations. And intensive care units in Houston, Texas are operating near maximum capacity.

With President Trump continuing to play down the disease -- eschewing a mask, continuing to address large gatherings, saying a vaccine is only months away and asserting that "99 percent" of cases are not serious -- the exasperation of local officials has begun to boil over, with some floating the idea of new stay-at-home orders.

"Mixed messages" from the president on down have been a problem, Mayor Kate Gallego of Phoenix, Arizona told ABC's "This Week."

- Crowds and free Champagne -

"President Trump was in my community, chose not to wear a mask, and he's having large events while I'm trying to push people" to stay home and avoid crowds, said Gallego, who is a Democrat.

She said Arizona had begun reopening its economy "way too early," adding, "We had crowded nightclubs handing out free Champagne, no masks."

An insufficient testing capacity has resulted in some people -- including some feeling symptoms -- waiting up to eight hours in their cars to be tested, Gallego said.

Yet when she asked the Federal Emergency Management Agency for help with testing, "We were told they're moving away from that -- which feels like they're declaring victory while we're in crisis mode."

Intensive-care units in Arizona hospitals are at record levels, according to the Arizona Republic newspaper. The state has passed the 1,800-death mark -- more than six times the death toll in all of South Korea.

- Caution on vaccine -

An administration official, Dr. Stephen Hahn, who heads the Food and Drug Administration, was more cautious than Trump when asked about the president's recent optimistic assertions.

Regarding Trump's prediction that a vaccine would be available "long before the end of the year," Hahn said that despite the "unprecedented speed" of research efforts, "I can't predict when a vaccine will be available."

Few experts expect a vaccine to be widely available before year's end, at the earliest.

As to Trump's assertion that 99 percent of COVID-19 cases are "totally harmless," Hahn told ABC that "any case, any death is tragic."

Judge Lina Hidalgo, a Democrat who is county executive for the area including Houston, had issued a stay-home order early in the pandemic, but Governor Greg Abbott prohibited such restrictions by local governments.

But in a remarkable reversal Thursday, with the virus flaring up, the Republican governor ordered mask-wearing in most Texas counties.

"What we're seeing," Hidalgo told ABC, "is that wishful thinking is neither good economic policy nor good public health policy.

"Hoping for the best, we're always going to be chasing this thing. We're always going to be behind and the virus will always outrun us. What we need right now is to what works, a stay-at-home order."

- Exceeding surge capacities -

She said hospitals in Houston -- which has the world's largest medical complex -- and dozens of other Texas cities are "crossing their surge capacities."

The hardest-hit Sunbelt states were among the first to reopen their economies -- strongly encouraged to do so by Trump -- after months of lockdown.

Some mayors resisted the reopening.

"The city of Miami was the last city in the entire state of Florida to open," Mayor Francis Suarez, a Republican, told ABC.

"I was criticized for waiting so long. When we reopened, people started socializing like the virus didn't exist."

Tom Bossert, former homeland security advisor to Trump, warned that matters could get worse still.

Just since June 19, he said, Florida has had 100,000 new cases.

"Those people are still infectious.... There's a solid reason to believe there are 500,000 people in Florida right now, today, infectious.

"Masks alone won't cut it."