Mar 29, 2020 - Health

Trump says peak coronavirus deaths in 2 weeks, extends shutdown


Photo: Tasos Katopodis/Getty Images

President Trump is extending his administration's "15 days to slow the spread" shutdown guidelines for an additional month in the face of mounting coronavirus infections and deaths and pressure from public health officials and governors.

Driving the news: With the original 15-day period that was announced March 16 about to end, officials around the country had been bracing for a premature call to return to normalcy from a president who's been venting lately that the prescription for containing the virus could be worse than the impacts of the virus itself.

  • "We had an aspiration" of Easter, Trump said, but when he heard the numbers of potential deaths, he realized he couldn't push a reopening of the economy as soon as he previously had foreshadowed.
  • Trump explained his turnaround by saying his government's modeling shows the peak death rate will likely come in two weeks. He said that 2.2 million people could die if the government did nothing and the public didn't do the social distancing. "Nothing would be worse than declaring victory before the victory is won," he said.
  • The federal guidelines include directives for older people to stay home and for all Americans to avoid social gatherings of more than 10 people and to avoid bars, restaurants, shopping trips and nursing homes.

Behind the scenes: Trump has been under mounting pressure to extend the guidelines after numerous public officials pushed back against his statement last week that the economy could be back and running by Easter.

Maryland's Republican Gov. Larry Hogan told me in a blunt interview on Thursday that he was prepared to ignore President Trump if he reverted back to his "very harmful" message of reopening large sections of the economy by Easter.

  • "It would be very harmful, because we would obviously not listen to that. We would listen to the scientists and the doctors and make the decision we thought was necessary to save the lives and protect the health of our citizens."
  • "But the messaging would hurt because lots of people would listen to that and say, 'But they said it was OK. Why is the governor telling us we have to continue social distancing, why can't we go back to work? Why can't we open our business? Why can't the kids go back to school now?'
  • "I just wish that we would have a consistent message from the federal government," Hogan said.

Why it matters: Hogan, whose second and final term ends in 2022, is a Republican governor of a blue state. He also chairs the National Governors Association, leading the bipartisan coordination of governors' responses.

  • "Many of the governors on both sides of the aisle have a lot of concerns about that messaging," Hogan told me.
  • "Each governor's different, and different states are in different places in this crisis. Some states have not yet been affected . . . and some are dealing with unbelievable crises . . . but there aren't very many people that believe everything's going to be back to normal in a couple of weeks."

Hogan said he understood where Trump was coming from even if he finds the messaging unhelpful.

  • "I think the president, to his credit, I think he's trying to be hopeful," he said. "He's concerned about the economy, and he wants to say we would like to get things back on track by Easter.
  • "He's been doing some good things and saying some good things and taking some good steps, but I think we have to try to stop the conflicting messages coming out of the administration."

The other side: "President Trump has no higher priority than the health and safety of the American people, which is why as the nation continues to follow our guidelines to slow the spread, we are evaluating critical data to determine next steps," said deputy press secretary Judd Deere, responding to Hogan's comments.

  • "This President has taken an unprecedented approach to communicating and working with our nation’s governors to guarantee they have the resources they need and the ability to make the best on-the-ground decisions."
  • A White House official added: "White House staff talked to Governor Hogan Saturday about how mitigation decisions will be driven by data and ultimately be state and local decisions and that same message was delivered to his staff earlier in the week."

Between the lines: On Sunday's "Meet the Press," White House coronavirus response coordinator Deborah Birx said, "No state, no metro area will be spared, and the sooner we react and the sooner the states and the metro areas react and ensure that they put in full mitigation . . . then we'll be able to move forward together and protect the most Americans.

  • "We are asking every single governor and every single mayor to prepare like New York is preparing now," Birx added.

The bottom line: Governors are in charge of their states, but Trump has immense sway over most Republicans, which leads some, like Hogan, to worry about the president undercutting their public health messages.

  • As we reported last week, believing the worst is yet to come, some top advisers to President Trump have been struggling to steer him away from Easter as an arbitrary deadline for much of the nation to reopen.

In recent days, Trump gave himself more flexibility. He previously said he'd consult with his public health experts on Monday and Tuesday and review the data before deciding how to update the federal guidelines for dealing with the coronavirus.

  • Trump has maintained that he wants parts of the country that are less affected by the virus to get back to business sooner. His aides call this a "tiered approach."
  • Some state governors, including in Alabama and Mississippi, are in back-to-business mode, while many others have issued stay-at-home orders. Trump has indicated that life in the worst affected areas — for example, the New York tri-state area, where Trump threatened and then rescinded a quarantine order on Saturday — will remain heavily restricted.
  • Even greater clashes between an impatient president and the stricter states appear to be inevitable.
  • Claire Standley, an infectious-disease expert at Georgetown, told Axios' health editor Sam Baker that Trump's "tiered approach" needs to be cautiously implemented. "In principle, it sounds very nice, and everyone wants to return to normalcy. I think in reality it has to be incredibly carefully managed."
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