Trump extends social distancing guidelines through end of April

  • >> Michael D Shear, The New York Times
    Published: 2020-03-30 09:55:57 BdST

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President Donald Trump speaks with reporters as he departs the White House in Washington, Saturday, March 28, 2020. The New York Times

President Donald Trump retreated Sunday from his desire to relax coronavirus guidelines by Easter, announcing instead that all Americans must continue to avoid nonessential travel, going to work, eating at bars and restaurants, or gathering in groups of more than 10 for at least another month and perhaps until June.

The grim announcement, which the president made in the White House Rose Garden, came just a day before the end of a two-week period in which the world’s largest economy has largely shut down with staggering consequences: Businesses shuttered, schools and colleges emptied, and social life all but suspended.

Trump said repeatedly last week that he hoped to end the need for such drastic actions soon, perhaps by Easter, on April 12, in the hopes of restarting the economy. But public health experts — including the president’s own advisers — had warned that trying to return to normal life too soon risked allowing the virus to rage, increasing the likelihood of more infections and raising the number of deaths.

The president finally appeared Sunday to get the message. Citing figures from his advisers that showed that as many as 200,000 people could die from the virus even if the country took aggressive action to slow its spread, Trump said the restrictions must continue, even if it meant more sacrifice in the days ahead.

“During this period, it’s very important that everyone strongly follow the guidelines. Have to follow the guidelines,” Trump told reporters, with members of the government’s coronavirus task force nearby. “Therefore, we will be extending our guidelines to April 30 to slow the spread.”

“We can expect that by June 1, we will be well on our way to recovery,” Trump said. “We think by June 1. A lot of great things will be happening.”

Dr Anthony S Fauci, the nation’s leading infectious disease expert, said he and other public health officials had urged Trump not to relax the guidelines too soon. Fauci — who in television appearances earlier in the day had offered the estimate of 200,000 dead — said Trump was affected by those predictions.

“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. He said extending the guidelines until April 30 was a “wise and prudent decision” that Trump reached after discussions over several days with Dr Deborah L Birx, the coordinator of the effort to fight the virus, and other health officials.

“Dr Birx and I spent a considerable amount of time going over all the data, why we felt this was a best choice for us, and the president accepted it,” Fauci said.

For weeks, Trump had compared the coronavirus to the flu, repeatedly suggesting that many more people die of the flu each year than would succumb to the virus. But Sunday, the president’s tone was different, more sombre. He talked about “the viciousness” of the virus and said it had sent a friend to the hospital.

“He’s a little older and he’s heavy. But he’s a tough person, and we went to the hospital and a day later he’s in a coma,” Trump said. “How is he doing? ‘Sir, he’s in a coma, unconscious. He’s not doing well.’ The speed and the viciousness, especially if it gets the right person, it is horrible.”

The president also expressed horror at the grim scenes playing out at hospitals in New York City, where he spent much of his adult life. He cited the situation at Elmhurst Hospital Centre — “I know it very well,” he said — which has been inundated in recent days with people ill from the virus.

“I’ve been watching that for the last week on television, body bags all over in hallways,” Trump said. “I have been watching them bringing in trailer trucks, freezer trucks because they can’t handle the bodies. There are so many of them. This is in essentially my community in Queens, New York. I have seen things that I have never seen before.”

The president’s turnabout came as state and local officials across the country confronted rapidly rising numbers of infections that threatened to overwhelm their hospitals amid shortages of protective equipment and fears that there would not be enough doctors and nurses to tend to those who get sick.

Several of the nation’s governors said Sunday that they anticipated surges of cases during the next several weeks, and they urged their residents to continue to follow social distancing guidelines that would slow the spread of the pandemic.

“If we don’t flatten the curve, we’re on a trajectory currently to exceed our capacity in the New Orleans area for ventilators by about April the 4th, and all beds available in hospitals by about April the 10th,” Gov John Bel Edwards, D-La, said on NBC’s “Meet the Press” programme Sunday morning. “So we’re doing everything we can to surge capacity. It’s very difficult.”

Gov Jay Inslee, D-Wash, who has frequently clashed with the president, said before the president’s announcement that his state would not be ready to lift social distancing guidelines any time soon.

“Boy, I would not want to be responsible for opening the door to this virus to ravage our places that seem OK today, but, within 10 weeks, within 10 days, can be at full-scale burning through our hospital system,” Inslee said on CNN’s “State of the Union” programme. “And we have seen this happen. We have got to be ahead of this curve.”

Over the past several days, Trump has lashed out at the governors, suggesting that some of them do not appreciate the help that they are getting from him and from others in the federal government.

Edwards and several other governors largely steered clear of responding to those criticisms by Trump. Instead, several of them stressed that they are working with the Federal Emergency Management Agency and other federal agencies even as they pleaded for more help getting ventilators, surgical masks and other medical equipment they need.

“You know, I don’t have energy to respond to every slight,” Gov Gretchen Whitmer, D-Mich, said on “State of the Union.” “What I’m trying to do is work well with the federal government. And I will tell you this. There are people from the White House on down who are working 24/7, just like we are at the states. We’re all stressed, because we have people that are dying right now.”

Still, on Sunday, Trump once again targeted officials in New York for scorn, appearing to suggest that New York hospitals are hoarding — or doing something else improper — with protective gear like their surgical masks. He said that he did not believe they really need the increases in protective equipment they claim are necessary to protect doctors and nurses treating coronavirus patients.

Trump said he was told that demand for masks at a New York hospital jumped from 10,000 to 20,000 per week before the virus arrived to nearly 300,000 a week now.

“Something’s going on. And you ought to look into it as reporters. Where are the masks going — are they going out the back door?” Trump said. “Somebody should probably look into that because I just don’t see from a practical standpoint how that’s possible to go from that to that, and we have that happening in numerous places.”

Trump seemed to be suggesting that New York hospitals were lying about how many masks they needed. Trump said he was given the information about the increased demand for masks at the hospital from an executive of a company that makes masks who was sitting in the audience.

Speaking to him, Trump said: “I hope I didn’t get any of your clients in trouble. But it could be that they are in trouble. So they have to look at that in New York.”

Asked to elaborate on his allegation against the New York hospitals, he said, “I think people should check that because there’s something going on.” He added: “I don’t think it’s hoarding. I think it’s maybe worse than hoarding. But check it out. Check it out. I don’t know, I don’t know, I think that’s for other people to figure out, but you don’t go from numbers like that.”

In fact, hospitals throughout the country have said the surge in coronavirus patients requires that doctors and nurses change masks repeatedly throughout the day to protect themselves from getting infected. That has created a huge shortage of masks.

Trump also denied Sunday that he had threatened to quarantine New York, New Jersey and Connecticut on Saturday, despite suggesting 24 hours earlier that he was seriously considering doing just that.

“I didn’t do that at all. Read the statement. Read the statement. Read what I said,” Trump told a reporter. “I said we’re going to look into possibly quarantine. I didn’t say we’re going to quarantine. I looked at it as a possibility, because a lot of our professionals suggested quarantine. I said we’re going to look at it.”

The president’s musings about a ban on travel in and out of New York and the other states prompted hours of confusion and some fear as residents of the three states considered rushing to leave before the quarantine was put in place. On Saturday evening, Trump announced a travel advisory urging people against nonessential travel but stopping short of a quarantine.

c.2020 The New York Times Company