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Senior U.S. health officials and some governors on Sunday warned against a too-rapid easing of restrictions put in place to combat the coronavirus, while President Trump’s wished-for Easter date for reopening the economy passed with most Americans remaining at home.
Following a week in which the U.S. death toll from COVID-19 soared above 20,000 — a doubling of the fatality total a week earlier — there were growing signs that the numbers of new hospitalizations and patients needing critical care were easing, even in New York, which accounts for about half of the country’s diagnosed cases.
In an Easter message, Trump telegraphed his continued hopes for a quick end to stay-at-home restrictions that have largely shuttered the U.S. economy. That has propelled joblessness to levels not seen since the Great Depression, with more than 16 million people seeking unemployment benefits.
“Right now, we’re keeping separation; we’re getting rid of the plague,” the president said in a video posted on Twitter. “But we’re winning the battle, we’re winning the war — we’ll be back together in churches, right next to each other.”
Since dropping his Easter goal, which Trump now says was "aspirational," the president has repeatedly mentioned May 1, less than three weeks away, as a new target for starting to ease restrictions.
But public health experts inside and outside government sought to dampen expectations for any dramatic “light switch” moment, as Dr. Anthony Fauci, the government's top infectious-diseases specialist, put it.
At best, Fauci said, April 30 — when the guidelines Trump put in place expire — will be a time to reassess whether any slow easing could begin.
“We are hoping by the end of the month we can look around and say, ‘OK, is there any element here that we can safely and cautiously start pulling back on?’” Fauci, the best-known public health expert on the White House coronavirus task force, said on CNN’s “State of the Union.”
“If so, do it,” he said. “If not, then just continue to hunker down.”
Fauci and other health experts worry that if the country ends social-distancing policies too early, the virus could once again start rapidly spreading, causing a renewed increase in illness and death.
Despite his frequent talk about the topic, Trump doesn't have the authority to order businesses, schools and other institutions reopened. Most of that power lies in the hands of governors and mayors, who by and large have been much more reluctant to set any early deadlines.
Sunday, several stressed the need to wait and see.
“Any sort of an economic reopening or recovery depends first and foremost on a complete healthcare recovery,” New Jersey Gov. Phil Murphy said on CBS’ “Face the Nation.”
“If we either transpose those steps or we start to get back on our feet too soon, I fear based on the data we’re looking at [that] we could be throwing gasoline on a fire,” Murphy said.
Chicago Mayor Lori Lightfoot, appearing on the same show, said authorities “cannot open up the economy until we make sure that we've got all the healthcare controls in place.
“That means widespread testing, contact tracing, and we've got to see not just a flattening of the curve, but a bending down,” she said, adding that “we’re trending in the right direction here in Chicago.”
Government and academic health experts backed up that point. The commissioner of the Food and Drug Administration, Stephen Hahn, said any decision about reopening must be “data-driven.”
Appearing on ABC’s “This Week,” Hahn declined to say whether a May 1 date for rethinking closures was at all realistic.
“It is a target, and obviously we’re hopeful about that target, but I think it’s just too early to be able to tell that,” he said.
Hahn said he believes the United States was “very close to the peak” of the current outbreak, although Fauci and other experts have warned of a resurgence if controls are lifted too soon.
Current testing protocols are not strong enough to quickly quell any resurgence, said Tom Inglesby, director of the Johns Hopkins Center for Health Security,
“I think it’ll be too soon to open the country on May 1,” Inglesby said on “Fox News Sunday,” although he said there may be parts of the U.S. that are “ready for some limited reopenings” at that point.
“If we’re not careful when we ease social distancing, we’ll re-create the conditions that existed back in early March,” Inglesby said.
"We need to be able to have the capacity so if someone says, ‘I feel like I’m getting a flu or pneumonia,’ they can walk into a clinic or a hospital or a testing center and get that test that day and get the results hopefully that day so they can be in isolation, so that we can identify their contacts.”
After what Fauci called a “terrible week of suffering and deaths” in the hardest hit state, New York, Gov. Andrew Cuomo pointed to a leveling off in cases, based on the number of new hospitalizations.
“You’re not seeing a great decline in the numbers, but you’re seeing a flattening," Cuomo said at a daily briefing on Sunday. Even so, the toll has been staggering: Saturday marked the sixth straight day in which more than 700 people in the state died of the virus, he said.
While Trump has emphasized working toward a reopening, Cuomo remained focused on preventing the spread of infection, signing an executive order that employers in essential businesses such as grocery stores must provide masks to workers who are in contact with the public.
The archbishop of New York, Timothy Dolan, said the closing of churches on Easter, one of the most important Christian holy days, was a reminder of the moral and spiritual values that lay behind isolation measures meant to stem the outbreak.
"God told us we have to pay attention to the common good,” he said on “Face the Nation.”
“We have to listen to the experts. We have to listen to the physicians, the scientists. We have to listen to our civic officials,” the cardinal said. “God is telling us, ‘Use your brain. Use your prudence. Use your common sense. Don’t tempt the Lord.’”