Top Trump health official warns of 'draconian measures' if America doesn't mask up

Corky Siemaszko

The Trump administration’s Covid-19 testing czar warned Wednesday that local governments may be forced to impose “draconian measures” if Americans don’t start taking safety precautions seriously and the coronavirus crisis worsens.

“We still can control this” by wearing masks, social distancing and being careful around the holidays, Brett Giroir, the assistant secretary of health, said on NBC’s “Today” show.

“But if we don’t do those things, it may force local officials or government officials in the states to have more draconian measures because cases will go up if we don’t make a change.”

President Trump Speaks On Coronavirus Testing Strategy (Ken Cedeno / Pool via Getty Images)
President Trump Speaks On Coronavirus Testing Strategy (Ken Cedeno / Pool via Getty Images)

Giroir, who spoke out as Covid-19 was spreading across the United States at the fastest rate since the start of the pandemic, also contradicted President Donald Trump’s repeatedly false claims that increased testing is the reason for the uptick in reported coronavirus cases.

“Yes, we’re getting more cases identified, but the cases are actually going up, and we know that too because hospitalizations are going up,” Giroir said. “Now, the (daily) peak was in the 70,000s, in July, we’re at about 42, 43,000 now, so we’re much less in July. But those are going up, those are real. And we do know that deaths are increasing, unfortunately.”

Actually, the current level of new cases is eclipsing the July levels, according to the latest NBC News analysis.

Nearly 74,000 cases were reported on Tuesday. And the U.S. has been averaging 71,000 new cases per day over the past week, which is the most in any seven-day stretch since the crisis started.

In other coronavirus news:

  • Jared Kushner, Trump's son-in-law and senior adviser, boasted in April that the president was "getting the country back from the doctors" who were trying to give him pandemic advice, reporter Bob Woodward recounted in his book "Rage." "Trump's now back in charge," Kushner said on audio recordings obtained by CNN.

  • Los Angeles Dodgers third baseman Justin Turner, who was yanked from Tuesday's game after testing positive for Covid-19, bounded back onto the field for the celebration after his team won the World Series. Dodgers President of Baseball Operations Andrew Friedman acknowledged that pictures of Turner partying instead of isolating might be "not good optics."

  • Stocks on Wall Street nose-dived amid soaring coronavirus infection rates in the U.S. and reports that France and Germany reintroduced month-long lockdowns as a second wave batters Europe.

  • Trump will likely tout the expected big GDP (gross domestic product) number Thursday as evidence of "the great American comeback" from the pandemic. But the new GDP number, which economists figure to be in the 25 to 30 percent range, comes after a 31.4 percent drop in the previous quarter. That is the worst economic decline ever recorded. "While the third-quarter bounce in GDP will be a record quarterly gain, it isn't all that impressive, as it follows the collapse in economic activity in the second quarter," said economist Mark Zandi.

  • Covid-19 cases are spreading so fast in Philadelphia that the city’s contact tracing program has been unable to track them all, The Philadelphia Inquirer reported. “Recently, we have not been able to reach all cases that test positive because we’ve seen a surge in cases,” Hannah Lawman, the chief of operations for the city’s Division of Covid Containment, told the newspaper.

  • Increasingly teens and tweens are volunteering for Covid-19 vaccine test trials, NBC News reported. Critics say the drug companies are using children as “guinea pigs.”

  • Two sisters in Chicago have been accused of stabbing a store security guard 27 times after he insisted they put on a mask.

  • The University of Wisconsin's football team, the Badgers, canceled its game Saturday in Nebraska because a dozen members of the team, including six players, have tested positive for Covid-19.

Giroir’s dire words came with Election Day less than a week away and as Trump, whose re-election chances have been imperiled by his administration’s much-criticized response to the pandemic, has been campaigning hard in states like Wisconsin and Nebraska that are currently coronavirus hot spots.

Trump, who contracted Covid-19 along with first lady Melania Trump and their son Barron, has continued to downplay the dangers of a virus that has infected 8.9 million in the U.S. and killed nearly 228,000, according to the latest NBC News statistics.

“Covid, covid, covid, covid, covid, covid cases,” Trump fumed Tuesday before a tightly packed, mostly mask-less crowd Tuesday in Michigan. “Do you ever notice they use the word ‘cases?’ Like Barron Trump has a case, sniffles, one Kleenex and he was better.”

Trump has also been insisting without evidence that “we are rounding the turn” on the pandemic.

Meanwhile, the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy listed the battle to “defeat” Covid-19 as one of the Trump administration’s “accomplishments from first term.”

“From the outset of the COVID-19 pandemic, the Administration has taken decisive actions to engage scientists and health professionals in academia, industry and government to understand, treat and defeat the disease,” it said.

AFL-CIO President Richard Trumka called Trump's handling of the pandemic "backward" and said that pushing for the economy to reopen before the crisis was contained has made a bad situation worse.

“He doesn't understand that in order to fix the economy, first you have to control the virus," Trumka said on MSBNC. "And to control the virus, you have to protect workers so that you don't continue to spread the virus and continue to have hot spots. He thinks, if you open the economy, everything will go away and be great for everyone.”

Trump has been accused of dragging his feet on dealing with the virus, dismissing the advice of experts, promoting unproven cures and politicizing the use of masks by refusing until just recently to wear them in public.

Asked by NBC’s Savanah Guthrie if he was frustrated by Trump’s mixed messaging on masks, Giroir answered, “Look, I have a job to do, like the other docs.”

“We’re going to try to give the American people the best evidence possible,” he said.

“And what I want to emphasize is that we will have a vaccine,” Giroir added. “We will have a safe and effective vaccine. It may be this month, it may be next month, it may be in December, this will not go on forever.”

Dr. Anthony Fauci, the nation’s top infectious disease expert and a frequent Trump target, made some of the same points Giroir did in a Tuesday interview on Diane Rehm’s “On My Mind” podcast.

“We’ve had 80-plus thousand infections the other day, and we’re averaging between, on a seven-day basis, over 60,000 infections,” Fauci said. “And if you look at the map of the country, of the counties, states and cities in which you have an increase in test positivity, that more than 30 of those states are going in the wrong direction.”

The White House itself has not been immune. Besides the first family, more than a dozen Trump aides, allies and others came down with infections after Trump hosted a Sept. 26 gathering in the Rose Garden to introduce Amy Coney Barrett as his nominee for Supreme Court justice.

Fauci said that when it comes to masks, the White House doesn’t practice what it preaches.

"I believe what we’re seeing is that the White House is saying to wear masks,” Fauci said. "The only trouble is, when you look at what actually happens at these congregate settings, not a lot of people are wearing the masks.”