As President Donald Trump’s coronavirus response team gathered at the White House Sunday to discuss re-opening the U.S. for business by Easter, his top health experts painted a troubling picture of what lay ahead.
Deborah Birx, an immunologist picked by Vice President Mike Pence to weigh the ailment’s impact, cautioned that the U.S. outbreak was still two weeks away from its peak. Her reading of the data also led her to an even more worrisome conclusion: that the nation was likely tens of thousands of hospital beds short of the anticipated need.
The conversation moved into the Oval Office, where aides presented Trump with their harrowing findings, according to two people familiar with the matter. Birx and her longtime mentor, Anthony Fauci, told the president that the virus could kill 100,000 to 200,000 Americans and infect millions.
The fresh information — and unanimity among Trump’s top public-health advisers — set the stage for a remarkable reversal on Sunday by the president, who had said a week earlier that he wanted to relax by Easter, April 12, the strictest social-distancing rules that were smothering the U.S. economy.
Spike in Hospitalizations
Birx’s data, which had converged by the weekend with projections by the University of Washington’s Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation, showed Trump’s approach could be disastrous. Cities such as Detroit, New Orleans, Los Angeles, and Miami could soon see a spike in hospitalizations mirroring the situation in New York. Surgeon General Jerome Adams told the president that the country needed more time to mitigate the spread and test the ill.
By Monday morning, Trump and Birx were pointing to the IHME data in a call with most of the nation’s governors, the people said. They asked not to be identified discussing internal White House deliberations.
Trump weighed messages from top Senate Republicans, who spent days privately warning the president and other White House officials that re-opening the country could cause more deaths and trigger a political backlash, according to a person familiar with the discussions.
Even aides who were most vocal about the economic impact of a prolonged shutdown, including Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin, agreed that the country was not yet ready to reopen.
A consensus emerged. There was no way the country could reopen by the president’s Easter target without massive casualties.
‘Showed Him the Data’
“We showed him the data. He looked at the data. He got it right away,” Fauci said during an interview with CNN on Monday. “It was a pretty clear picture. Dr. Debbie Birx and I went into the Oval Office and leaned over the desk and said, ‘Here are the data. Take a look.’ He just shook his head and said, ‘I guess we got to do it.’”
A few hours later, Trump addressed reporters in the Rose Garden and conceded that his idea of an Easter resurrection wouldn’t come to fruition. His proposal, he said, had been “aspirational,” and he would now extend social distancing measures until at least April 30. The nation, he said, likely wouldn’t fully return to normal until the beginning June.
“When you hear these kind of numbers and you hear the potential travesty, we don’t want to do anything where — you know, we don’t want to have a spike up,” Trump said Sunday, adding that “we know much more now that we knew two, three weeks ago.”
Reversal Highlights Danger
Trump’s reversal from just days earlier — when the president openly fretted that the cure proposed by his health officials might be worse than the disease — amplified the serious danger coronavirus continues to pose to Americans, a risk that became glaringly obvious even to a president determined to get the economy on its feet before he faces re-election in November.
Trump’s approval ratings rose as he positioned himself as a war-time president fighting the virus, an advantage Capitol Hill Republicans privately warned he could lose if he were to relax the restrictions too soon.
“I think everyone understands now that you can go from five to 50 to 500 to 5000 cases very quickly,” Birx told NBC News in an interview Monday.
Trump’s advisers had discussed extending Centers for Disease Control and Prevention guidance on social distancing at least three times since late last week, including twice on Sunday.
While the president’s team said that data warning of a catastrophic loss of life was the central motivator behind the president’s decision, the impact of the virus on some of the places and people closest to the president also seemed to sway his decision.
Senator Lindsey Graham, one of Trump’s staunchest allies on Capitol Hill, said last week that the president should only go ahead with the Easter target date if it was “blessed” by medical professionals like Fauci and Birx.
Trump said Sunday that he had been shaken by images from Elmhurst Hospital in Queens. A 20-minute drive from Trump’s childhood home, Elmhurst has become the embodiment of a health system struggling under a surge of coronavirus patients. The signs of crisis are evident outside the hospital, where there are triage tents and a refrigerated truck storing bodies.
“This is in my community in Queens, New York. I have seen things that I’ve never seen before,” Trump said Sunday. “I mean I’ve seen them, but I’ve seen them on television and faraway lands, never in my country.”
The president has also been struck by the use of the Javits Center — a building central to his legacy as a New York real estate developer — as a makeshift hospital. Trump earned a hefty commission when the former railroad yard was picked as the site for the convention center, but has long complained that officials spurned his offer to build the facility at a guaranteed price if it were to be named after his family.
Now the White House is studying death rates in New York closely to determine whether the outbreak has peaked in the state.
The president says his friends have been impacted by the virus ravaging his home town.
“I have friends in the hospital,” Trump told Fox News on Monday. “I have one of them who’s — he’s got two problems. He’s heavy and he’s not so young. OK, he’s not exactly a youngster, and he’s in a coma. He’s in a coma. And so, you know, this is tough stuff.”
And after an initial flood of calls from investors concerned about the impact of the virus on Wall Street and allies who warned him that his restrictions were too draconian, Trump has begun hearing from others who say Americans are adjusting to life in quarantine.
Trump has seen his teenage son, Barron, taking online courses as an alternative to going school. And White House officials have provided the president with letters from Americans who say they’re appreciative of a shutdown that has forced them to spend time with loved ones.
“We’re actually getting a lot of letters: ‘We found our family again, we found what life should be,’” Trump said.
— With assistance by Josh Wingrove
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