The Issue Is: US continues to reopen as coronavirus cases surge, Dr. Deborah Birx weighs in

“Just when I thought I was out, they pull me back in.”

Those words, forever immortalized by Al Pacino’s Michael Corleone in The Godfather: Part III, were spoken some 30 years ago, but may just as well serve to articulate the national anxiety of the current moment.

More than three months after the start of the COVID-19 pandemic, as states and localities take steps to reopen, cases are instead on the rise, jumping this week in 33 states.

Elex Michaelson breaks down the spike in cases, what it means for our reopening efforts, our schools, our politics, and more, as he’s joined on The Issue Is by Dr. Deborah Birx, coordinator of the White House Coronavirus Task Force, California’s Superintendent of Public Instruction Tony Thurmond, Carla Marinucci of Politico, and Democratic strategist Brian Goldsmith.


The conversation begins with Dr. Deborah Birx, the coordinator of the White House Coronavirus Task Force.

This, as coronavirus continues to see a resurgence in the US, the number of confirmed cases nearing 2.5 million, and the number of deaths exceeding 120,000.

In California specifically, the number of cases now exceeds 200,000. Los Angeles county, with a test-positive rate of 9% is now the nation’s most infected county, and on Friday, Governor Gavin Newsom ordered Imperial Valley, with a 23% test-positive rate, to return to its stay-at-home order.

So what does Dr. Birx make of the Golden State’s response?

“I really appreciate what the Governor and local mayors have been doing of expanding testing,” she said. “I think, the most recent expansion of really bringing testing to the communities that are most at risk and having the highest rate of new infections, is absolutely key”

Given the calls for increased testing, especially considering the fact that Birx said as many as 60% of infected young people are asymptomatic, Michaelson pressed the White House Task Force coordinator on comments President Trump made at his June 20 rally in Tulsa, where he appeared to indicate he had asked for officials to slow down testing.

“No, he did not tell me that, and he’s never told us that. I think [the President’s] very proud of what he’s been able to bring to bear for testing,” Birx said, touting the work the White House has done regarding testing. “It’s the federal government who worked with the private sector to expand these platforms, makes them available, and everyday we’re sending out swabs, and transport media, and extraction media to states so they can expand testing.”

To date, the United States has conducted more than 31 million tests.

From testing, the conversation shifted to the use of face masks, and the conflicting messages that have emerged about their efficacy since the start of the pandemic.

Dr. Birx responded to that confusion, saying that recommendations and messaging evolved as the science progressed and data became more readily available.

RELATED: Dr. Deborah Birx says President Trump never requested slow-down in coronavirus testing

“I don’t think any of us knew how many viral particles could potentially be produced and spread by speaking alone,” she said. “We knew shouting, we knew coughing, we knew sneezing, but this was new research, and I think since that moment that research came out, is the moment we immediately changed.” 

What has also evolved during that period is the task force itself, which on Friday, held its first press briefing in some two months, most of the work in the interim going on behind the scenes.

“From the moment I arrived in the White House, everyone has been extraordinarily nice and kind,”  said the physician, diplomat, and Army colonel. “That’s amazing when you’re under the amount of pressure that this pandemic has brought to everybody in the White House, because they’re deeply concerned for the American people.”

On the task force front, Birx said that while they have not been front-and-center lately, they have continued to speak and produce data daily, as they develop therapeutics and vaccines, and work through these great scientific discussions to figure out how to best move forward.


As cases of coronavirus continue to spike, leading some to reevaluate reopening efforts, there is one institution that parents, and their students, have many questions about: education.

To discuss that, Elex is next joined by Tony Thurmond, California’s Superintendent of Public Instruction.

“We’ve released guidance for our 10,000 schools on how to prepare for opening,” Thurmond said, referencing Stronger Together: A Guidebook for the Safe Reopening of California's Public Schools, which his department released earlier this month. “It has many of the same precautions in it that we talk about when we’re in the community, that staff and students should be wearing a face covering, and that we’re going to have to maintain physical distance of six-feet in our schools, and, of course, lots of hand washing.”

In order to keep students appropriately distanced, the guidebook also provides school districts four scheduling options that integrate in-person and distance learning.

With distance learning very much a part of the reopening plan, Michaelson ask Superintendent Thurmond what his department has learned from the last three months of remote education.

Thurmond praised the resilience of educators, students and parents in adapting to the new system, but said “It exposed a major digital divide with a million students in California who don’t have access to high-speed Internet, in some cases, no Internet at all, so naturally there have been some bumps in distance learning, and some learning gaps that have been exacerbated, but we’re working with our school districts to be prepared to do this in a better way… we want to make sure there’s quality.”

Also being considered now is the role that high school athletics will play once in-person schooling resumes in the fall, especially as professional leagues like the NBA and MLB finalize plans to resume their seasons.

RELATED: CA superintendent of public instruction says future of high school sports is unclear

“Whether or not we have high school sports remains to be seen,” Thurmond admitted, “I always say, our top pillars have to be focused on safety first.”

From schooling in the age of COVID-19, the conversation then pivoted to how California’s schools are responding to the calls for racial equality and justice reform following a month of protests over the death killing of George Floyd.

First, on the topic of policing, as many school boards across the state consider removing officers from campuses.

“I think people would agree, that police should not be responding to situations where someone is having mental health distress or someone is homeless,” Thurmond said, emphasizing that there is a need for officers to address serious threats like gun violence or bomb scares. “A police office should never, ever again be used as the dean of students or the disciplinarian to students who are doing things that students do - students should not be criminalized or arrested for engaging in student behavior.”

But it’s not just police reform that protestors and activists have been calling for, it’s also equality and representation in systems that have too often left minorities out. In the world of education, especially just a week after many expressed a lack of knowledge surrounding the Juneteenth holiday, that representation takes the shape of new curriculums.

“The students have asked for more ethnic studies, so the California Department of Education is developing an ethnic studies curriculum, but it won’t be ready to be voted on until next year ” Thurmond said. “So in the meantime,we are rolling out a mini-series on ethnic studies, so that students can see positive representations of themselves.”

This new curriculum coincides with a new implicit bias training that the department has rolled out to all educators across the state’s 10,000 public schools.

The conversation with the state’s superintendent wrapped up on a personal note, exploring Thurmond’s upbringing, and the personal journey that led him to believe that education is the “great equalizer.”

“My teachers always told me that my life would be better than it started if I just believe in education, and they were right, and education has opened the door for me to become a social worker, work with young people, work with seniors, and to become a public servant to make my community better.”


The episode wraps up with Carla Marinucci, Senior Writer of the California Politico Playbook, and Brian Goldsmith, Democratic consultant, breaking down the biggest news in the world of politics.

First, the Veepstakes, and news that originated two weeks ago on The Issue Is when Elex Michaelson asked Congresswoman Karen Bass (D-CA) if she would ever consider accepting the position as Joe Biden’s running mate.

At the time, Bass said she was not being vetted, but would definitely accept the offer if it were made. Two weeks later, Bass is now being vetted for the number two spot on the Democratic ticket.

“I think it’s serious,” Goldsmith said. “I think she’s terrific, I think there are a number of people on the list who are terrific. The two criteria that really matter, same as in medicine, do no harm. Number two, Joe Biden’s got to pick somebody that he’s comfortable with as a partner in the White House and, potentially, his successor.”

Goldsmith was also complimentary to California Senator Kamala Harris.

“Kamala is quite formidable, and if you are looking for somebody who is a Black woman and ready to be President on day one, it’s a pretty short list, and Kamala’s got to be on top of it,” he said.

“Look, Kamala is considered number one on most of the lists at this point,” Marinucci responded. “She’s getting some scrutiny for her role as District Attorney in San Francisco, as Attorney General, particularly as she talked about police reform during the Black Lives Matter protests, but the fact is, as a communicator, especially in the past couple of weeks, she has hit it out of the park a number of times on the Senate floor.”

Whether it ends up being Bass, Harris, or someone else, Biden’s running mate will join a ticket that currently leads President Trump and Vice President Pence in all six major swing states.

“If Donald Trump loses, we’re going to look back and say ‘he was in trouble before, but June was month he definitively lost the race,”” Goldsmith said, pointing to the President’s response to the nation’s ongoing racial strife and his rally in Tulsa on June 20. “It doesn’t mean that it’s over, it doesn’t mean that Trump couldn’t come back, he’s just at a severe disadvantage.”

The conversation ended with a discussion of California’s Governor Gavin Newsom, and an examination of his leadership during the COVID-19 pandemic.

“Right now, the cases are on the rise in California,” Marinucci said. “He has become the implorer-in-chief, all but getting down on his knees and begging people to wear those masks and social distance. They do not want to start closing down things again, but we’re now seeing the signs of that happening.”


The Issue Is: with Elex Michaelson is California's only statewide political show. For showtimes and more information, go to