White House Singles Out Los Angeles as Covid Hot Spot

White House coronavirus response coordinator Dr. Deborah Birx. (AP Photo/Evan Vucci)

(CN) — The White House cited Los Angeles as one of the three major hot spots for Covid-19 outbreaks in America, prompting LA County officials to tout the improvement of certain metrics in recent days. 

“Even though Washington has remained closed, LA has remained closed, Chicago has remained closed, we still see these ongoing cases,” said Dr. Deborah Birx, the coronavirus task force coordinator for the White House. 

Birx called on the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention to investigate why Los Angeles, along with Chicago and Washington continued to see a sharp escalation in cases despite strict lockdown policies. 

Dr. Barbara Ferrer, Los Angeles County Public Health Officer, said the county has been working closely with the CDC, particularly on infection control protocol in nursing homes and would continue to do so. 

But Ferrer also defended Los Angeles, saying infection rates and hospitalization rates continue to fall as the county — the epicenter of California’s Covid-19 outbreak — continues to grapple with controlling the disease. 

“Overall the data points are looking pretty good on our journey to recovery,” Ferrer said, noting hospitalization rates have fallen 12% in the last seven days and death rates have declined by 10%. “We are moving in the right direction.”

A Justice Department official wrote a letter to city leaders Friday, warning them that continued restrictions may be “arbitrary and unlawful.”

“Reports of your recent public statements indicate that you suggested the possibility of long-term lockdown of the residents in the City and County of Los Angeles, regardless of the legal justification for such restrictions. Any such approach may be both arbitrary and unlawful,” he wrote.

LA Mayor Eric Garcetti responded to the letter in a press conference Friday evening.

“Look, we are not guided by politics in this, we are guided by science. We are guided by collaboration,” Garcetti said. “So talking to industry and talking to business owners and talking to employees and labor groups together with science, the numbers will always guide us forward; there is nothing else. There’s no games, there’s nothing else going on.”

Overall, Los Angeles County saw 1,072 new cases reported on Friday, with 35 additional deaths. To date, Los Angeles has accounted for 56% of the deaths in the state, and nearly half of all confirmed cases are in the state’s most populous county. 

Many of the deaths have come in the county’s nursing homes and other institutionalized settings such as prisons. Both Ferrer and Brix noted the trajectory of the disease is on the decline, fueling optimism that perhaps the worst is in the rearview. Yet both women cautioned that letting the collective guard down at this point in the pandemic would only abet a resurgence of cases and extend lockdown policies. 

California Governor Gavin Newsom also expressed optimism as he held a press briefing at a Veterans Affairs hospital in Yountville. 

“There is a sense of optimism that there is light at the end of this proverbial tunnel,” Newsom said during his address. 

Newsom also used his platform at the VA hospital to commend the state’s ability to keep the coronavirus out of military hospitals and nursing homes to this point and asked Californians to remember the sacrifices of American soldiers past and present. 

“This is an important and solemn weekend for families,” he said. The United States celebrates Memorial Day on Monday. 

Newsom also responded to comments from President Donald Trump Friday morning, indicating he would pursue governors who continued to keep churches and other houses of worship closed. 

“Today I’m identifying houses of worship — churches, synagogues and mosques — as essential places that provide essential services,” Trump said from the White House on Friday. He also threatened to override governors who refused although it is unclear what he specifically meant by override and whether the president has the authority to do so. 

Newsom, who has made no bones about confronting Trump in the past, struck a more conciliatory note on Friday when asked about Trump’s call to reopen churches. The governor said he and his team are working hard to develop guidelines for houses of worship so they can begin holding services again. 

“We deeply respect and admire the faith and devotion that unites millions and millions of Californians,” Newsom said Friday. 

He hearkened back to his own religious upbringing with the Jesuits and his time at Santa Clara University and said he understood the needs of people of faith to get back their sense of fellowship that comes from worshipping together. 

On Thursday, an attorney representing more than 1,200 churches throughout California said pastors will open their church house doors on May 31 regardless of the state government’s posture on their ability to do so. 

But Newsom may beat them to the punch. 

He promised to release guidelines for opening houses of worship on Monday. 

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