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In abrupt U-turn, Trump warns US Covid-19 death toll could surpass 100,000

Bloomberg3/30/2020 11:17 AM GMT+08  • 6 min read
In abrupt U-turn, Trump warns US Covid-19 death toll could surpass 100,000
The stark shift comes after Trump's top medical advisers presented alarming new projections that millions of Americans may wind up infected.
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(Mar 30): President Donald Trump abruptly abandoned his ambition to return American life to normal by Easter, heeding advice from the government’s top doctors that re-opening the US economy in two weeks risks greater death as the coronavirus outbreak accelerates.

In a stark shift from two weeks of measured optimism, the president said his guidelines for Americans to practice “social distancing” would remain in place until at least April 30, and he warned that 100,000 or more people may die.

He said in a Rose Garden news conference that he hoped the country would reach “the bottom of the hill” by June 1 – “could even be sooner, could be a little bit later.”

Trump’s about-face came after his top medical advisers – Anthony Fauci, the director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, and Deborah Birx, the State Department immunologist advising Vice President Mike Pence – presented alarming new projections that millions of Americans may wind up infected. Fauci said earlier on CNN that as many as 200,000 Americans might die if efforts to mitigate the spread of the virus aren’t successful.

“The number I gave out is, you know, based on modelling,” Fauci said at Sunday’s news conference. “And I think it’s entirely conceivable that if we do not mitigate to the extent that we’re trying to do – that you could reach that number. What we’re trying to do is not let that happen.”

Before Sunday, Trump had publicly envisioned “packed churches” on Easter Sunday, April 12, and both he and Fauci had suggested parts of the country might return to business even as New York, Louisiana, Florida, Michigan and other states battle outbreaks. Those aspirations appear to have evaporated.

“Nothing would be worse than declaring victory before the victory is won,” Trump said Sunday. He said that instead of Americans returning to work, the administration now expects US deaths from coronavirus to peak at about Easter. “It should start coming down and hopefully very substantially from that point,” he said.

There have been more than 142,000 cases of the disease in the US by Sunday and more than 2,400 Americans have died, according to data compiled by Johns Hopkins University.

100,000 Deaths

Trump indicated that he now hopes to keep US deaths below 100,000 from a disease that only weeks ago he had minimized as “very much under control.” His change in tone Sunday echoed a similar pivot on March 16, when he publicly endorsed the social distancing practices many US governors and municipal leaders had already ordered to combat the spread of the virus.

Neither Trump or Pence assured Americans on Sunday that their personal risk from the virus “remains low,” a phrase the vice president in particular had used frequently until March 26.

“There may be a modest sense of frustration and disappointment” that the government will no longer lift its social distancing guidance by Easter, Pence said Sunday. “What I hear, speaking to these health care experts, is that there’s light at the end of the tunnel.”

But Trump’s new, April 30 deadline to reassess his administration’s guidance that Americans isolate themselves from one another is already in question. Several states have closed schools for the rest of the academic year, and while New York officials have expressed optimism they are at or near the peak of the outbreak in their state, new hotspots are emerging in New Orleans, Detroit, Miami, Los Angeles and elsewhere.

Trump had been peppered with questions over the past two weeks about whether he’d listen to Fauci and Birx’s advice about whether the Easter deadline was reasonable. In Sunday’s news conference, the two doctors made plain they had recommended against it, and Trump said he agreed. Fauci called Trump’s decision to extend social distancing until the end of April “wise and prudent.”

Trump said Sunday that his Easter goal “was just an aspiration” and that one outcome could have been the coronavirus case and death counts going down before a “spike up” if social distancing was relaxed. “We don’t want that to happen,” Trump said.

“They’re the best in their profession, and they didn’t like the idea,” Trump said of Fauci and Birx. “We could do it -- I don’t think it would be good.”

‘Foot on the Gas’

Rather than relenting on distancing as Trump once hoped, Birx urged cities and towns to do even more to restrict their citizens’ movements and slow the virus’s spread.

“We’re hoping that the models are not completely right, that we can do better than what the predictions are,” Birx said.

Fauci echoed her: “We need to put our foot on the gas, as opposed to on the brake.”

Trump announced that two commercial insurers would waive out-of-pocket costs for their customers for treatment related to the virus, applauding them for it, and held out hope for breakthroughs in therapies that could blunt the disease’s impact before a vaccine is ready next year.

The US president is nonetheless plainly grappling with the economic toll of the national shutdown. He said his administration would move to allow businesses to again write-off hospitality expenses as a way to support restaurants – a change in law that came with his 2017 tax cuts – and said General Motors Co. is now doing a “fantastic job” at moving to build hospital ventilators.

He had issued a memo Friday threatening to force the company to build the devices, after a series of tweets that morning lacing into the automaker and its chief executive officer, Mary Barra. GM had already entered into a partnership with medical device maker Ventech Medical Inc. to build ventilators, but Trump and his aides complained the company was moving too slow and asking too high a price for the life-saving machines.

‘Like a Cowboy’

Trump said some of his advisers that he didn’t name had mused about letting the virus run its course without the economically damaging social distancing behaviours the nation adopted well before the president ever recommended them.

“We had a lot of people who were saying, ‘maybe we shouldn’t do anything, just ride it.’ They say, ‘ride it like a cowboy, just ride it, ride that sucker right through,’” he said. “I thought about it; I said, ‘maybe we should ride it through.’

But doctors told him that doing nothing to curb the spread of the disease would have cost 2.2 million lives. “And that’s not acceptable,” Trump said.

A historic US$2 trillion stimulus he signed Friday, Trump said, looks more affordable when held up against the prospect of more than 2 million American deaths.

The federal government’s social distancing guidelines call for Americans to work and educate their children from home when possible, avoid gatherings of more than 10 people, restaurants, bars, and discretionary travel, and to stay away from nursing homes. Initially titled “15 Days to Slow the Spread,” they were to expire this week.

Even before Trump’s extension on Sunday, a divide had emerged between the White House and governors of both parties, many of whom have issued “stay at home orders” and closed businesses in their states to try to stop the virus.

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