More Than 20% of US Lives in a Virus Hot Spot

The Trump administration maintains that only 3% to 4% of U.S. counties are viral “hot spots,” but those counties contain 21.1% of the U.S. population.

The Santa Catalina Mountains burn outside of Tucson on June 12. Arizona has became the hottest of U.S. hot spots for Covid-19, with 41 cases per 100,000 tests on a rolling seven-day average, compared with 12 per 100,000 nationwide. (AP photo)

WASHINGTON (AP) — It’s been a frequent Trump administration talking point on the recent spike in Covid-19 infections: 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 that only 3% or 4% of counties in the country are seeing a surge in cases. Focus on the “encouraging signs,” Pence told senators last week.

But they and other administration officials are skating over a key fact: More than 20% of Americans live in those relatively few counties.

The White House has repeatedly cited the low county tally, and Pence reaffirmed the point in a televised interview Sunday. He said 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 said on Friday that only 3% of counties represent “hot spots” that are “very concerning.”

The emphasis on a percentage of counties presents 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 137 of the 3,142 counties in the United States that were under a higher alert — about 4% at the time.

But measured by population, those counties represent a vastly higher share — more than 1 in 5 people in the United States.

There are 68.3 million people living in those 137 counties, in a total U.S. population of 322.9 million. That means 21.1% of U.S. residents live in a virus “hot spot.”

In recent weeks, the United States has entered a dangerous new phase of the coronavirus pandemic, 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 nationwide surged to all-time highs.

Speaking about the coronavirus threat Friday, White House coordinator Dr. Deborah Birx said that counties large and small are being tracked by the White House task force, and that anyone living in a virus hot spot should take the necessary precautions, including social distancing and wearing 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.”

The population figures, both county level and national, come from the Census Bureau’s American Community Survey five-year estimates for 2018, the latest available.


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