Public health experts are pushing back against suggestions the Trump administration could relax social distancing measures and open much of the country by May 1, warning that acting too soon will risk a resurgence of the virus.
The number of cases of COVID-19 nationally is starting to show signs of slowing, due in large part to the closure of thousands of business as people stay in their homes.
Yet this has also led to an economic catastrophe, with 16 million people filing unemployment claims over the past three weeks. And that has increased the pressure from some quarters to open the economy.
Public health officials warn that opening too quickly risks a new surge of cases and deaths, which could be even worse for the nation’s economic health.
Officials with the administration have also noted that the nation hasn’t even hit the pandemic’s peak, and that for some states, the worst is yet to come.
“As encouraging as [the data] are, we have not reached the peak,” Deborah Birx, coordinator of the White House’s coronavirus response, said Friday.
Both Birx and National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases Director Anthony FauciAnthony FauciState AGs highlight racial disparities in early coronavirus data Overnight Health Care: Trump officials lay groundwork for May reopening | Democrats ramp up talks with Mnuchin on next relief deal | Fauci says death toll could be around 60,000 Trump downplays need for widespread testing before reopening economy MORE, the top two health officials on the White House coronavirus task force, said on Thursday that it’s unlikely the country will be able to reopen all at once given disparities in the number of cases across state lines.
That stance was echoed on Friday by Surgeon General Jerome Adams, who said during a Fox News interview that most places in the country would not be able to open up by May 1.
Adams said “some places,” where there is strong surveillance in place, would be able to consider reopening at the beginning of May, but acknowledged that most of the country would not be in such a position.
“Most of the country will not, to be honest with you, but some will. That’s how we’ll reopen the country: place by place, bit by bit, based on the data,” Adams said.
There are about 487,000 cases of COVID-19 in the U.S., and more than 18,000 people have died. The country’s death toll has more than doubled over the past week, and is increasing by almost 2,000 people a day.
A majority of the deaths have been concentrated in New York and the surrounding states.
But a number of other states across the country saw the number of cases within their borders rise to new daily highs at the end of the week.
The regional nature of the outbreak means that there won’t be a set point in time when the country can open up all at once. Schools and businesses in some states might not be able open for weeks or months compared to other states.
Even when a state may be able to open businesses, the process will be slow and halting.
According to a recent paper by former Food and Drug Administration commissioners Scott Gottlieb, Mark McClellan and others, states won’t even be able to start opening up until the spread of the coronavirus has been slowed, and states have widespread systems in place that can diagnose, treat and isolate COVID-19 patients and all their contacts.
While some progress has been made on testing, experts say the U.S. is not close to the level it needs to be reach on testing to really open the economy.
The country needs to drastically ramp up diagnostic testing to find out who is sick, but also serology tests, which identify people who have already had the virus and might be immune to it.
Identifying immunities will be key in determining who can go back to work, especially among health providers.
The president has floated reopening businesses in parts of the country that do not have outbreaks.
But experts say the country still doesn’t have the testing capacity to identify where the outbreaks are. And just because there hasn’t been an outbreak yet in a specific state or community does not mean one isn’t coming.
The decision to reopen the economy may largely be out of the federal government’s hands.
Many governors have imposed strict measures to try to stamp out the virus, with some stay-at-home orders in place through the end of May or later.
Claire Standley, an infectious disease expert at Georgetown University, said a May 1 deadline would be “quite aggressive,” but it will ultimately be up to governors.
“If there are local areas that feel like they have a situation very well and controlled, then I can see them pushing to open up at some point in May,” she said, but it “just has to be done very deliberately, very carefully.”
Some businesses may be able to open before others, and then there may still be restrictions. For example, restaurants may open but with much lower capacity. Airlines may be able to ramp back up their operations, but with fewer people on board at a time.
The biggest fear in lifting any stay-at-home orders too soon is that there could be another wave of infections that would overwhelm hospitals.
According to documents obtained by The New York Times, if the administration lifts the current 30-day stay-at-home orders, the death total is estimated to reach 200,000, even if schools remain closed until summer, 25 percent of the country continues to work from home and some social distancing continues.
But in the White House, officials are optimistic that the worst period of the virus will soon pass.
Trump is facing enormous pressure from economic officials, who argue that the strength of the country’s economy will be a key to his reelection.
Treasury Secretary Steven MnuchinSteven Terner MnuchinOvernight Health Care: Trump officials lay groundwork for May reopening | Democrats ramp up talks with Mnuchin on next relief deal | Fauci says death toll could be around 60,000 Trump downplays need for widespread testing before reopening economy On The Money: Trump officials lay groundwork for May reopening | More than 6M file for jobless benefits | Fed launches T in economic relief | Dems, Mnuchin in talks over next aid deal MORE told CNBC on Thursday that he believes companies could reopen in May so long as Trump “feels comfortable with the medical issues.”
But White House health advisers have been hammering a message: Stay the course on social distancing.
“It’s important to remember that this is not the time to feel that since we have made such an important advance … that we need to be pulling back at all,” Fauci said Friday.
During the White House briefing, Trump indicated he may at least be considering the views of his health experts.
“I listen to them about everything,” Trump said when asked if he would listen if his medical experts told him not to try to reopen the economy by May 1. “I understand the other side of this argument very well.”