White House determines 18 states are in coronavirus ‘red zone,’ but doesn’t publicize findings

Louisiana, and almost all of the South, is on the list

Vice President Mike Pence
In this file photo from July, Vice President Mike Pence, head of the White House Coronavirus Task Force, speaks during a visit to Baton Rouge, Louisiana for a roundtable discussion with state leaders about the state's coronavirus response. The task force is reporting a a 175 percent increase in Louisiana's COVID-19 cases since last week. (Photo by Wes Muller/LAI).

This article about the coronavirus red zone was originally published by the Center for Public Integrity, a nonprofit newsroom based in Washington, D.C.

By Liz Essley Whyte

A document prepared for the White House Coronavirus Task Force but not publicized suggests more than a dozen states, including Louisiana, should revert to more stringent protective measures, limiting social gatherings to 10 people or fewer, closing bars and gyms and asking residents to wear masks at all times.

The document, dated July 14 and obtained by the Center for Public Integrity, says 18 states are in the “red zone” for COVID-19 cases, meaning they had more than 100 new cases per 100,000 population last week. Eleven states are in the “red zone” for test positivity, meaning more than 10 percent of diagnostic test results came back positive.

It includes county-level data and reflects the insistence of the Trump administration that states and counties should take the lead in responding to the coronavirus. The document has been shared within the federal government but does not appear to be posted publicly.

The July 14 Louisiana report says the state over that previous week had had 234 cases per 100,000 people, well over the national average of 119 cases per 100,000 people.  It lists East Baton Rouge Parish, Jefferson Parish and Lafayette Parish as the three jurisdictions with the highest number of new cases, but lists a total of 44 parishes in the red zone and 12 more in the yellow zone (between 10-100 cases per 100,000 people). The report recommends that the “public use of masks” be mandated “in all current and evolving hot spots.”

Specifically, the guidance recommends that public officials “ensure that all business retailers and personal services require masks and can safely social distance.” It also recommends that all bars and gyms “in hot spot parishes” be shut down.

Gov. John Bel Edwards announced an order July 11 that mandates that masks be worn publicly in 61 of the state’s 64 parishes. His order also shuts down bars across the state.  However, Louisiana Attorney General Jeff Landry has said in an attorney general opinion — which does not have the force of law — that Edwards’ order “does not pass the constitutional test.”

Though the governor’s order jibes almost exactly with what the White House task force recommends, his spokesperson Christina Stephens said, “We actually got the Louisiana-specific recommendations Tuesday morning.”  She said, “The advice of our own public health experts and general guidance from the CDC informed the Saturday order.”

Dr. Ashish Jha, director of the Harvard Global Health Institute, said he thought the information and recommendations from the task force were mostly good.

“The fact that it’s not public makes no sense to me,” Jha said Thursday. “Why are we hiding this information from the American people? This should be published and updated every day.”

Dr. Deborah Birx, a leader of the task force, referenced an earlier version of what appears to be the same report — which she said was updated weekly and sent to governors — in a press conference July 8 in which Vice President Mike Pence urged local leaders to open schools in the fall. She said Arizona, California, Florida and Texas were among the states the task force was monitoring carefully and that “a series of other states” were also in the red zone and should consider limiting gatherings.

Three days after Edwards announced his order, Pence, the head of the coronavirus task force, visited Louisiana to speak with Gov. John Bel Edwards and members of the state’s Congressional delegation in a closed-door meeting.

According to a transcript released by the Office of the Vice President, Pence told Edwards, “I want you to know you have our full support in the steps that you’re taking for Louisiana.  And you have our commitment to — whether it be testing, whether it be PPE, therapeutics or the like, to — we’re going to continue to move heaven and earth and to make sure you have what you need to implement your plan.”

It’s clear some states are not following the task force’s advice. For instance, the document recommends that Georgia, in the red zone for both cases and test positivity, “mandate statewide wearing of cloth face coverings outside the home.” But Gov. Brian Kemp signed an order Wednesday banning localities from requiring masks.

The 18 states that are included in the red zone for cases in the document are: Alabama, Arkansas, Arizona, California, Florida, Georgia, Idaho, Iowa, Kansas, Louisiana, Mississippi, North Carolina, Nevada, Oklahoma, South Carolina, Tennessee, Texas and Utah.

The 11 states that are in the red zone for test positivity are Alabama, Arizona, Florida, Georgia, Idaho, Louisiana, Mississippi, Nevada, South Carolina, Texas and Washington.

In May, the World Health Organization recommended that governments make sure test positivity rates were at 5 percent or lower for 14 days before reopening. A COVID-19 tracker from Johns Hopkins University shows that 33 states were above that recommended positivity as of July 16.

“If the test positivity rate is above 10 percent, that means we’re not doing a good job mitigating the outbreak,” said Jessica Malaty Rivera, science communication lead at the COVID Tracking Project, a volunteer organization launched by journalists from The Atlantic. “Ideally we want the test positivity rate to be below 3 percent, because that shows that we’re suppressing COVID-19.”

The White House and Kemp did not respond to requests for comment Thursday.

Correction: July 17, 2020, 11 a.m.:  A previous version of a map in this story incorrectly identified North Carolina’s status as a state in the “red zone” for test positivity. The map has been updated to reflect that North Carolina is in the “yellow zone” for test positivity.

Editor Jarvis DeBerry contributed to this report.