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'It wasn’t new to us' | Task force leader says warning from Dr. Birx was not a surprise

“When the article talked about ‘you need to take action now,’ it was like, well, we’ve been taking action for three weeks," Dr. Garza said

ST. LOUIS — Most St. Louis leaders were unaware of a Wednesday phone call in which a top White House Coronavirus Task Force doctor warned 11 cities, including St. Louis, aggressive action is needed to fight the spread of the virus.

According to a report from the Center for Public Integrity, Dr. Deborah Birx identified St. Louis and 10 other cities as areas that need to get the outbreak under control.

But representatives from the St. Louis mayor’s office, the St. Louis County executive’s office and the Missouri governor’s office said they were unaware of the phone call.

RELATED: Report: Dr. Birx warns that St. Louis, 10 other cities need to take 'aggressive' action in COVID-19 fight

“I found out about it through the media, actually,” said Dr. Alexander Garza, head of the St. Louis Metropolitan Pandemic Task Force. “Nobody that I know spoke with the White House.”

A spokeswoman for St. Louis County Emergency Management said her agency was invited to participate in the call but couldn’t.

“During the time of the briefing, there was a state planning meeting for all St. Louis regional emergency preparedness staff including hospitals, emergency management officials, and local public health leaders in anticipation of students returning to school. Therefore, we were unable to attend,” Ann Vastman said in an email.

During the phone call, attended by hundreds of state and local leaders and emergency managers, according to the report, Dr. Birx said local health departments should be watching positivity rates closely.

“When you first see that increase in test positivity, that is when to start the mitigation efforts,” she said in a recording obtained by Public Integrity. “I know it may look small and you may say, ‘That only went from 5 to 5-and-a-half [percent], and we’re gonna wait and see what happens.’ If you wait another three or four or even five days, you’ll start to see a dramatic increase in cases.”

Dr. Garza said the St. Louis task force has been monitoring the positivity rate, which started ticking up in June. That’s why the city and county issued mask mandates July 3.

RELATED: Missouri sets record for new COVID-19 cases for third day in a row with 1,637

“When the article talked about ‘you need to take action now,’ it was like, well, we’ve been taking action for three weeks. So this is — it wasn’t new to us” Garza said.

Dr. Garza served as Chief Medical Officer to the U.S. Department of Homeland Security in the Obama administration.

He said government communication generally runs from the federal level to the state level and then from the state level to the local level. And usually, the CDC coordinates that messaging, he said.

“So for it to go directly from the White House down to the local level, it’s a little bit odd,” he said.

But he said it’s “comforting” that the advice lined up with measures already in place in St. Louis.