WASHINGTON — Nearly a quarter million people in the United States could die as a result of the coronavirus outbreak, Trump administration officials said Tuesday.
That grim forecast is based on statistical models that have guided the administration’s response, and which were displayed at Tuesday’s White House press briefing of the coronavirus task force. In what was presented as a best case scenario in which millions of citizens across the country adhered to intensive social distancing guidelines promoted by the Trump administration, between 100,000 and 240,000 Americans are still expected to be killed by COVID-19.
But if the strict public health measures are ignored, the toll could be much higher, the officials said.
“We’re going to do everything we can to get [the U.S. death toll] significantly below that,” said Dr. Anthony Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, whose forthright manner has made him a star of the coronavirus briefings.
Tuesday’s briefing was the second in a row in which officials openly discussed the possibility that more than 100,000 U.S. residents could lose their life thanks to COVID-19. The somber tone from those who spoke from the briefing room podium was a bracing departure from the days when President Trump was describing the disease as a “very little problem” that would go away on its own. It is also, however, much lower than the 2.2 million Americans that a study by the Imperial College London projected would be killed as the coronavirus spread.
Trump took credit Tuesday for taking measures that he said had prevented the deaths of millions, noting that some confidants had told him to not to “do anything, just ride it out and think of it as the flu.” This was a seeming reference to conservative media personalities including Sean Hannity and Rush Limbaugh, who devoted airtime during a critical period in February and early March — when the nation could have been preparing for the epidemic — to convincing their audiences and Trump that the coronavirus was no more harmful than the common flu.
Many, though not all, of Trump’s outside advisers have since taken the coronavirus more seriously — as has he.
“I want every American to be prepared for the hard days that lie ahead. We’re gonna go through a very tough two weeks,” the president said during Tuesday’s briefing, which lasted over two hours. The number of infections and deaths from COVID-19, the lower respiratory disease caused by the coronavirus, is expected to continue to rise toward an apex, even as social distancing measures are widened and extended and hospitals already near capacity struggle to treat patients.
The benefits of that countervailing effort may not be evident for some time, though Fauci said Tuesday that he was seeing the first signs that social distancing efforts were beginning to work.
Still, it will not be until May, at the very earliest, that Americans will begin to return to work. Accordingly, the president repeatedly emphasized that it would be “a very, very painful two weeks,” and seemed to dispense with any last pretenses that the battle against the coronavirus would be won with ease. Gone too was his assertion that the battle would be won by Easter.
For the past two weeks, the epicenter of the coronavirus outbreak in the United States has been New York City, where it has already killed 1,096 people. And although there are encouraging signs that the city’s efforts are proving effective, there is also — frustratingly — evidence that the coronavirus is poised to devastate other parts of the country.
During Tuesday’s briefing, Dr. Deborah Birx, a prominent member of the coronavirus task force, singled out Chicago, Detroit and New Orleans as potential outbreak locations in the coming days and weeks. The goal, she said, was to “try to make sure each of those cities act more like California than the New York metro area.”
While the mayor of New York, Bill de Blasio, initially hesitated in taking aggressive action to halt the spread of the virus in the nation’s most populous city, California Gov. Gavin Newsom has been widely praised for recognizing the threat early and acting quickly to slow the rate of infection.
Birx also reiterated that because vaccines and treatments are still many months away, it is up to individual Americans to make decisions that quell the pandemic. “There’s no magic bullet. There’s no magic vaccine or therapy,” said Birx, who gained renown for her efforts against HIV/AIDS. “It’s just behaviors.” Those behaviors include practicing social distancing, avoiding travel and washing hands.
For portions of the briefing, Trump did offer some moments of optimism, promising that the collective coronavirus fever would break soon enough. “As a nation, we face a difficult few weeks as we approach that, that really important day when we’re gonna see things get better all of a sudden.”
Trump compared that day — whenever it finally arrives — to “a burst of light.”
Click here for the latest coronavirus news and updates. According to experts, people over 60 and those who are immunocompromised continue to be the most at risk. If you have questions, please reference the CDC and WHO’s resource guides.