On Tuesday morning I asked National Institutes of Health Director Dr. Francis Collins for his opinion on big indoor events, like President Donald Trump's rallies. He said they were "risky."
On Tuesday afternoon, I went to Trump's Phoenix rally.
I wasn't looking to take a risk. I was looking to understand the political, cultural and even age divisions that have emerged in our public health crisis.
Collins met with the USA TODAY editorial board on a video call Tuesday to discuss COVID-19.
When I asked about the Students for Trump rally that afternoon, he replied: "We know this virus spreads by person-to-person contact, and we know that close contact is particularly likely to be risky, especially if people are not wearing masks as source control."
So what advice would he give people going? "I would certainly advise people who are at risk, because of age or chronic illness, to avoid those kinds of risky situations or potentially face a really serious consequence."
Collins is a member of the White House Coronavirus Task Force. I asked him if he had given the president advice about these rallies. He said in the three weeks he's been on the team, he has been meeting with the vice president, who leads the group.
"We have not had a meeting directly with the president."
At Dream City Church in north Phoenix, I walked into a packed house. About 3,000 people were there to see the president. They were mostly students, with older attendees mixed in. Very few wore masks.
I was wearing two. Reporters sat spaced out in mostly empty press seats behind the camera riser.
Outside the rally, Tony Smith handed out flyers for an upcoming protest against masks. "She called the COVID-19 pandemic a 'scamdemic' and said people who are worried about it can stay home," reported the Arizona Republic's Emily Wilder. Smith told her: "I will not wear a mask and that will be for health reasons, religious reasons, ethical reasons."
Others had more uneasy feelings.
Inside, Santiago Stewart, 19, said he was there to support the president who "is trying his best, to do the best for the country."
I asked him if he was worried about getting sick.
"A little," he said.
He said he brought a mask into the event, but when he got there, no one else was wearing one. so he left it off.
"So was it peer pressure?" I asked.
"Yeah, kind of," he answered.
President Donald Trump points to the crowd while concluding his remarks at the "Students for Trump" rally at Dream City Church in Phoenix on June 23, 2020.
We had asked Dr. Collins about masks that morning. What did he think about the divide? He was clear: Masks "have undoubtedly protected people from infection and saved lives."
The University of Washington’s Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation released a model Wednesday that predicted we could hit 179,106 COVID-19 deaths in the United States by Oct. 1. The researchers said a universal mask-wearing order could save as many as 33,000 lives.
"It is heartbreaking to see that this has become somehow a political statement, because that never should have happened," Collins said. "This is really about public health, and it shouldn't matter exactly what your politics are."
But here we are.
The church sanctuary was filled with people sitting shoulder to shoulder. Temperatures were not taken on the way in. Organizers said some masks were available and students were encouraged to bring their own.
The president spent fewer than 10 minutes of his 1½ hour speech discussing the pandemic. He said America had done the right things and now we must reopen. The impression was that we had seen the worst of it.
However, coronavirus cases continue to rise in more than half of U.S. states. California, Texas and Florida reported record highs in daily new cases.
By Wednesday, Arizona had a record 2,453 patients hospitalized, according to the Arizona Department of Health Services, with 85% of current inpatient beds and 88% of ICU beds being used for COVID-19 and other patients.
That same day as students cheered and chanted inches from each other, top infectious disease expert Dr. Anthony Fauci told a House committee he was concerned about the surges. "The next couple of weeks are going to be critical," he warned.
He spoke to lawmakers about the troubling attitudes of many young people in particular. "You have a situation that is very confusing to people because some people think it is trivial. "It doesn’t bother me. Who cares?"
But he said young people have a "dual responsibility."
To themselves: "Because I think thinking that young people have no deleterious consequences is not true. We’re seeing more and more complications in young people."
And to others: "Even though you do not get sick, you are part of the process of the dynamics of an outbreak. And what you might be propagating inadvertently, perhaps innocently, is infecting someone who then infects someone who then is someone who’s vulnerable. That could be your grandmother, your grandfather, your sick uncle, who winds up dying."
Kaylee Spielman, 20, a journalism major at Arizona State University, attended the rally to "keep my state red." She said she was "a little bit" worried about the large indoor crowd – her grandparents are vulnerable – but was trying to keep her mind off of it.
Sitting in the packed first floor, she wasn't wearing a mask, but said she was taking other precautions.
What other precautions are you taking? I asked.
She looked around, "Obviously not too many."
Nicole Carroll is the editor-in-chief of USA TODAY. Reach her at EIC@usatoday.com. Writers’ opinions are their own.