Deborah Birx says Boston is among cities that need to ‘get on top’ of COVID-19 uptick

City officials confirmed Thursday that they're seeing a slight increase.

Response coordinator for White House Coronavirus Task Force Deborah Birx speaks during a meeting between US President Donald Trump and Arizona Governor Doug Ducey in the Oval Office of the White House in Washington, DC, on August 5, 2020. (Photo by Andrew Harnik / POOL / AFP) (Photo by ANDREW HARNIK/POOL/AFP via Getty Images)
Dr. Deborah Birx speaks during a meeting Wednesday with President Donald Trump at the White House. –Andrew Harnik / Getty Images

Dr. Deborah Birx, the White House’s coronavirus response coordinator, says Boston is among the cities that need to “get on top of” small but concerning increases in local COVID-19 cases.

In a private call Wednesday with local officials across the country, Birx said that the federal government is seeing “encouraging signs across the South,” where many states have been dealing with dramatic spikes this summer in coronavirus infections and deaths, according to a recording obtained by the Center for Public Integrity.

However, she also singled out several metro areas, which had been hotspots early on during the pandemic, where numbers were trending back up, including Boston.

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“We are seeing a slow uptick in test positivity and cases in places like Chicago, Boston, and Detroit, and D.C.,” Birx during the call.

Public Integrity · Birx – Call August – 5-2020

While those four metro areas are reporting fewer new cases than hard-hit cities like Atlanta and Baltimore, Birx added that officials in those places should look at the trend “very carefully and get on top of it.”

The comments by Birx — who was criticized earlier this week by President Donald Trump after she characterized the coronavirus outbreak as widespread across both rural and urban parts of the United States — comes amid similar observations by top health experts and officials in Massachusetts about a statewide uptick.

Some experts have pointed to the modest uptick as an early sign that the state should roll back its reopening plan, which is currently in Phase 3. However, Gov. Charlie Baker has suggested the increase is due to house parties and other individual “lapses in judgment,” as well as a state initiative to expand testing in communities where there already were higher COVID-19 levels.

A spokesperson for the Boston Public Health Commission confirmed Thursday to Boston.com that the city has started to see a small uptick in the number of positive COVID-19 cases and is — as Birx suggested — watching the trend closely.

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In particular, Boston officials are monitoring daily changes in the number of new cases, the percent positive test rate, and emergency room visits at hospitals related to COVID-19-like illnesses.

Birx said Wednesday that the Boston area is still included in the administration’s “green” zone, which means it has an average positive test rate below 5 percent. And the city’s most recent data suggests that the positivity rate remains low; for the week of July 21 to July 27, the city reported a positive test rate of 1.7 percent, which was a decrease from the 2.4 percent rate the prior week.

However, the BPHC spokesperson noted that data may be somewhat outdated and that the commission’s forthcoming weekly COVID-19 report and testing data — which are published on Fridays and Mondays, respectively — may better reflect the current situation.

As of Thursday afternoon, Massachusetts had a statewide seven-day positive test rate of 2.1 percent, a slight increase compared to its low of 1.7 percent in mid-July — and a more than 90 percent decrease from peak levels in April.

Boston has reported a total 14,405 confirmed cases, 10,412 of which have recovered, and 736 deaths due to COVID-19. Overall, the city has had a 12.5 percent positive test rate, with the number of new cases relatively leveling off since May.

According to BPHC, the city has seen an increase in people leaving their homes in the summer months as the state’s reopening plan has progressed. Officials are continuing to urge everyone in Boston to wear a face covering when in public — especially when they can’t maintain six feet of distance from other people — and to avoid large gatherings, given the fact that many people who are contagious with COVID-19 do not have symptoms.

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City officials are preparing to respond as needed, the BPHC spokesperson noted.

For some officials on the other side of the Charles River, the comments by Birx this week were evidence that the time for action was past due.

State Rep. Mike Connolly, a Cambridge Democrat who has called for more aggressive shutdown orders, suggested Massachusetts should revert to Phase 2 of its reopening plan, while Somerville Mayor Joe Curtatone — who has indefinitely delayed Phase 3 in his city due to rising statewide case counts — urged residents to take the uptick seriously.

“This is not a drill,” Curtatone tweeted. “Our area is seeing an uptick in COVID cases. Be diligent about face coverings, distancing & hand washing.”


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