Dr. Deborah Birx, the White House coronavirus task force coordinator, expressed concern Sunday about the lack of social distancing at protests and rallies against stay-at-home orders.
"It's devastatingly worrisome to me, personally, because if they go home and infect their grandmother or their grandfather who has a comorbid condition, and they have a serious or a very unfortunate outcome, they will feel guilty for the rest of our lives. So, we need to protect each other at the same time we’re voicing our discontent," Birx said when asked on Fox News about demonstrators crowding into the state capitol in Michigan last week.
Similar protests have taken place across the country against restrictive measures aimed at containing the spread of the virus, and many states have begun to reopen amid political and economic pressure.
"Every single metro area and every single outbreak across the country is different," Birx said. But she stressed that "as states reopen, we really want them to follow the gating criteria" outlined last month by the administration. Under those guidelines, states should see two consecutive weeks of a decline in cases before beginning to reopen.
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"Fox News Sunday" host Chris Wallace said that while more than half the states have started to reopen "in some way, shape or form," none of them has met the administration's benchmark of two-week declines.
"Why not set a firm – if not binding – a firm national policy on when states can reopen?" Wallace asked.
"I think federal guidelines are a pretty firm policy of what we think is important from a public health standpoint," Birx replied.
"We made it very clear that the guidelines are based on very strong evidence and data. We've made it clear what the gating criteria is."
She added that the White House task force has asked every governor to post exactly where his or her state stood in terms of meeting of the criteria and where the virus was appearing, "because an educated community can really take action to understand how to protect themselves."
Mississippi is one state that has started to reopen, even though it hit a record number of new cases two days ago with 397. Republican Gov. Tate Reeves delayed a further easing of the restrictions because of that spike in cases. But, on Sunday, Reeves said that it was a "one-day blip" due to a large number of test results coming in a batch from private labs.
"I spoke personally with Dr. Birx, and we agree that sometimes the models are just different for different states, just like they're different for various counties. And we believe that that particular gating criteria just doesn't work in states like ours, who have never had more than 300 cases in any one day with the exception of Friday and that data dump," Reeves told Wallace.
New Jersey Gov. Phil Murphy, a Democrat, declined to comment on governors such as Reeves who were opening up ahead of the timeline recommended by the White House. He explained his "nose was pressed up against the New Jersey glass" and he was not familiar with the data from other states.
"I do know, in our state, and as we coordinate with our regional partners, most notably our neighbors, New York, Pennsylvania, Delaware, we have to make the call based on data and science," said Murphy, whose state has suffered the second-highest number of deaths from the coronavirus. New York has seen the most deaths.
Murphy did begrudge the right of people opposing his stay-at-home order to protest but, echoing Birx, said he wished they would do it safely.
"My biggest issue is they were congregating without face masks," Murphy said.
Michigan Gov. Gretchen Whitmer said the protests last week in Lansing, which included demonstrators armed with semi-automatic rifles and body armor, reflected "some of the worst racism and awful parts of our history in this country."
"The Confederate flags, and nooses, the swastikas, the behavior that you have seen in all of the clips is not representative of who we are in Michigan," she told CNN.
"We have to keep listening to the epidemiologists and experts, and not listen to the partisan rhetoric or these political rallies, or tweets, for that matter."
Republican Maryland Gov. Larry Hogan told CNN on Sunday: "We had far more people die yesterday in Maryland than we had protesters."
Hogan said he was concerned by the images of protesters gathering without social distancing, as well as the large gathering on the National Mall in Washington on Saturday to see a flyover by the Navy's Blue Angels and the Air Force's Thunderbirds.
"You see this happening around the country, as states try to open in a safe way. Unfortunately, the pressure is to do it in a not safe way," Hogan said. "And that's something we're very concerned about, and one of the reasons why we're being cautious and trying to do things in a slow, safe and effective manner."
Regardless of their state's policy, Birx said it was critical that people do what they can to protect themselves from infection.
"You need to continue to social distance. You need to continue to practice scrupulous hand-washing," she said. "And I think most importantly, if you have any preexisting conditions, through phase one and phase two of any reopening, we have asked you to continue to shelter in place."
Birx's concern about the protests contrasts statements from President Donald Trump, who has expressed support for them and tweeted to "liberate" states following his own administration's guidelines.
"People want to get back to work," Trump told reporters when asked about the protests at an April 21 briefing. He maintained that demonstrators were keeping they're "a lot of space in between" and "doing social distancing," though images from many of the protests showed that participants were not adhering to the government's recommendations.
Birx also diverged from Trump, who previously pointed to revised models projecting 50,000-60,000 deaths from COVID-19 through August. But the country has already seen more than 67,000 deaths.
"Our projections have always been between 100,000 and 240,000 American lives lost," Birx said. "And that's with full mitigation and us learning from each other of how to social distance."
This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Coronavirus: Deborah Birx says protests are 'devastatingly worrisome'