White House Watch: US President Donald Trump Tuesday night warned the nation that the virus has become a “dark, epic and incredibly horrible” challenge that threatens to kill Americans by the hundreds of thousands. Trump, saying he wants to be a “cheerleader for our country”, nevertheless drew on the most stark and galvanising language of his presidency to paint a grim picture of what’s coming. “This could be a hell of a bad two weeks,” he said. “This is going to be a very bad two and maybe even three weeks…like we haven’t seen before…Look, we had the Civil War, we were 600,000 people, right? Here’s the thing, had we not done anything we would have lost many times that.”
The charts displayed at the evening’s Corona Virus Task Force briefing projected more than 2 million Americans killed as the worst-case scenario were everyone to ignore the stay-at-home guidelines that most people are, in fact, observing. “But we did something and so it’s going to be hopefully way under that,” Trump said. “We lose more here potentially than you lose in world wars as a country, so there’s nothing positive, there’s nothing great about it. But I want to give people in this country hope.”
Someday the virus will disappear “like a burst of light, I really think and I hope,” he added. “Our strength will be tested, our endurance will be tried, but America will answer with love and courage and ironclad resolve.”
His top virus expert took the podium and added some context that was somewhat reassuring, but he did not contradict the grim range of possibilities. “As sobering a number as that is,” Dr Anthony Fauci said of the 100,000 to 250,000 death toll projection, “we should be prepared for it”. The models could be wrong, he said.
The State Department’s Deborah Birx, who unveiled the series of slides depicting a skyrocketing number of fatalities within two or three weeks, said the numbers may be “skewed” upward by the New York metropolitan area’s exceptionally severe virus onslaught. New York may have been too late with its mitigation efforts to avoid the kind of peak that seems to be approaching, she and Fauci said. It’s impossible to say at this point how early the virus was circulating there. Analysis of antibody prevalence will suggest an answer later.
“If there was no virus in the background, there was nothing to mitigate,” Fauci said. “If there was virus there that we didn’t know about then the answer to your question is probably yes,” he said, the authorities were too slow to sound the alarm.
Fauci emphasised that he doesn’t want the numbers and questions about being late in New York to be “taken out of context”. There are “inklings” that the death toll in New York is already growing more slowly, already showing the benefit of social distancing and staying inside the house.
Even Italy is showing some evidence similar precautions are paying off. Tens of thousands of lives may be in the process of being saved now. Yet it seems sure that tens of thousands more will be lost and whatever are the day’s totals of victims, the upward curve is just beginning.
New York Governor Andrew Cuomo earlier in the day revealed his brother the CNN anchor had tested positive for the virus. Chris Cuomo told his Tuesday night audience, “Don’t get caught up in the numbers. I feel fine,” and misses his family. “But this is so small” compared to the scope of the virus onslaught. “So many are so much more vulnerable,” he said. Overall, “It’s going to be worse,” but “let’s get past this feeling of fear.”
The president’s words seemed to have a bigger impact because they were more proof of his public turnaround so evident Sunday. Now he is no longer minimising the threat and, in fact, is emphasising how monstrous is has become.
There were other factoids that showered down in the nearly two-hour session before the cameras. Birx confirmed that there is a big gap between the millions of virus test kits shipped and the many times smaller total of tests administered. Instead of changing the destination of the completed tests to laboratories capable of turning them around quickly, doctors and hospitals and other testers have kept sending the materials to where only slow processing is possible.
The super-fast tests, like the five-minute ones announced Friday and showcased by Trump Sunday, are still just being produced and distributed and so the Task Force is still being deprived of all the data it needs about how the virus is advancing beyond the current epicentres.
Birx, Fauci and Trump confirmed that the Task Force is seriously considering issuing a nationwide recommendation for everyone to wear a mask when they leave the house. The experts say a mask cuts the chance of passing on an infection by 50%. With so many more masks being manufactured, massive new demand for them may not keep them away from front-line medical personnel.
It’s too soon to know whether the clinical trial of the anti-malarial hydroxychloroquine under way in New York adds any advantage to standard care. Fauci said only a scientific comparison based on many cases would satisfy him.
Said Trump, “It’s a little bit too soon to talk about,” but if it works, he repeated, “it would be a total game changer.”
The president said he is going to call Florida Governor Ron DeSantis about doing “what’s right” and allowing two cruise liners with virus patients and victims from many countries aboard to dock and disembark.
Trump also denied, despite reporting to the contrary, that he is deciding whether to lift some tariffs, at least during the virus crisis. He hasn’t seen such a proposal, he said, and China’s President Xi didn’t bring up any special requests during last week’s telephone conversation.
Trump also said that he, Saudi Arabia and Russia will be “getting together” to talk about how $20-a-barrel oil and 99-cent-a-gallon gasoline, while a boon to drivers, can destroy the oil industry. The Saudis and the Russians “are going at it”, he said, with their price war.
It all buried deep underneath virus news, the day’s roll-back of the EPA’s fuel economy standards proposed by the administration. For those watching the Tuesday night briefing – and that includes a lot of young people given more than 120,000 schools are closed – the new un-Trump-like presidential demeanour, the forecasts of up to a 30% unemployment rate, the prospect of at least another entire month at home, what may have been the worst first quarter ever for stocks and maybe 401Ks and finally the justifiable fear for the health of loved ones added up to a moment in history that will likely stay embedded in memory.
It may seem to a lot of home-bound Americans that those kinds of moments are arriving all too often.