President Donald Trump announced Sunday evening that he was extending social distancing guidelines through the end of April rather than easing them as early as this week, and took credit for avoiding a worst-case scenario death toll that could have exceeded 2 million.
The president, who had considered getting the economy restarted by Easter, now said that timeline had been “aspirational.” He said he expected the country to be on its way to recovery by June 1.
“Nothing would be worse than declaring victory before the victory is won,” he said at the daily White House task force briefing, in which he again overstated the U.S. record in fighting the pandemic, questioned whether hospitals really needed all the protective gear and ventilators they were begging for, and sparred with a reporter who asked him how life-saving equipment was being apportioned among the states.
Trump in a Rose Garden appearance referred several times to earlier projections showing as many as 2.2 million deaths in the U.S. — a worst case scenario if the country did not take any steps to fight the coronavirus. The current forecasts, cited by leading members of the White House task force, still go as high as 200,000 deaths — though continued efforts to keep people at home and limit social interaction could bring that number down.
“Now we’re looking at numbers that are going to be much much much lower than that, and it makes everything we’re doing feel much better to me,” Trump said of the 2.2 million scenario.
Numerous governors had already declared they would keep enforcing social distancing policies, even if Trump had lifted them. As of Sunday evening, the U.S. has more than 142,000 confirmed cases and 2,479 deaths, according to the Johns Hopkins University tracker. Despite improvements in testing, some people with symptoms are still reporting being unable to get the diagnosis confirmed.
Trump also said he wanted to restore tax breaks so that businesses could write off more of the cost of meals, which he said would help restaurants recover. Congress would have to enact that, reversing a provision in the 2017 overhaul that Trump signed. It’s unclear how many restaurants, particularly smaller ones, would benefit from such a change in the code.
The president acknowledged that he considered letting the virus take its course to avoid further damaging an already hobbled economy but changed his mind when his health advisers confronted him with the possibility of massive casualties if he pressed ahead.
“If we can hold that down, as we’re saying to 100,000 [deaths], it’s a horrible number, maybe even less, but to 100,000, so we have between 100,000 and 200,000, we all together have done a very good job,” said Trump, who predicted that the peak number of deaths will occur in two weeks.
The extension of the guidelines came a few hours after Anthony Fauci, the government’s top infectious disease expert, suggested that it would likely be "a matter of weeks" before the U.S. begins easing restrictions.
So far, Fauci said, the mitigation efforts are working but it is far too soon to stop at a time given the rapidly rising case count.
“The idea that we may have these many cases played a role in our decision in trying to make sure that we don’t do something prematurely and pull back when we should be pushing,” Fauci said.
The president again sought to deflect criticism, praising the U.S testing as the best in the world and even suggesting that hospitals were exaggerating their need for personal protective equipment possibly because they were hoarding “or worse.”
Trump said hospitals in New York City that typically use 10,000 to 20,000 masks now say they need 200,000 to 300,000.
“Something is going on,“ Trump said. “And you ought to look into it as reporters. Where are the masks going? Are they going out the back door? How do you go from 10,000 to 300,000 and we have that in a lot of different places?”
Trump’s remarks come as doctors and nurses in overflowing hospitals in New York City and elsewhere say they are being forced to reuse masks and other gear, putting themselves in mortal danger as they care for throngs of highly infectious patients. Several health care workers have already died, among them a 48-year-old nurse manager at Mount Sinai Hospital in New York.
Ken Raske, president of the Greater New York Hospital Association, whose daughter is an ICU nurse, said health care workers in the nation’s largest city are seeing cases explode.
“The only thing they ask for in return is adequate amounts of personal protective equipment,” Raske said in a statement. “PPE is the single thing that separates them from being COVID-19 patients themselves. They deserve better than their president suggesting that PPE is ‘going out the back door’ of New York hospitals.”
New York, by far the hardest hit state, has reported nearly 60,000 cases and 965 deaths. On Sunday, Gov. Andrew Cuomo said it was a near certainty that thousands more would die from the virus and New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio warned the city would run out of supplies in a week.
Trump told PBS NewsHour’s Yamiche Alcindor — with whom he has tangled with in the past — that thousands of ventilators were already sent to New York and chastised her for not being “positive.”
“Don’t be threatening, be nice” Trump said, before cutting off her second question. Trump, during his 90-minute press conference also berated CNN and the Washington Post.
The president also said that the nation’s failure to ramp up testing was the fault of previous administrations, which left government health agencies unprepared for a pandemic on this scale.
“We had a testing situation that just wasn’t right,” he said. “It was okay for a very small cases, but it was obsolete and it was broken, and it was only good for a very small situation.”
And even as governors plead for more equipment, the president made clear he would continue to delegate return phone calls if he felt that his administration wasn’t being recognized for all the hard work it was doing. Trump again singled out Washington Gov. Jay Inslee, whom he has previously called “snake.”
“He’s a nasty person,” Trump said. “I don’t like the governor of Washington. You know who calls? I get Mike Pence to call.”
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