The White House’s daily coronavirus briefing started with the grim reality: Even with strict social distancing guidelines followed throughout the country, a projected 100,000 to 240,000 Americans will die of the disease.
As the early evening event moved inside, President Donald Trump started the briefing in a much more somber tone than he did 24 hours earlier, when he presented a parade of CEOs to talk about what they are contributing to the response to the pandemic.
“We are going to go through a very tough two weeks,” Trump said. “This is going to be a painful, very, very painful two weeks.”
Dr. Deborah Birx, the coordinator for the White House task force, displayed a chart that showed the mortality projections, and reporters at the briefing immediately picked up on the grim figures.
Another line on the chart showed what would happen if no social distancing measures were taken — up to 2.2 million deaths.
Dr. Anthony Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, said that the figure was “a number that we need to anticipate, but we don’t have to accept it as being inevitable.”
Pressed by Fox News’ John Roberts on whether the mortality projections would change if the figures already take into account strict mitigation measures, Fauci said, “As we get more data, then you put it in and that might change.”
The White House has not declared a nationwide stay-at-home order, but many states have, including New York, California, Illinois and, on Monday, Virginia and Maryland along with Washington, D.C. The Trump administration extended a set of social distancing guidelines for another 30 days, until April 30.
Trump said that “There was a group that said, ‘Let’s just ride it out. What would have happened? And that number comes in at 1.5 to 1.6 million people, up to 2.2 million and even beyond. So that is 2.2 million people who would have died if we’d done nothing. We just carried on with our life. Now I don’t think that would have been possible because you would have had people dying all over the place. … You would have seen people dying on airplane, dying in hotel lobbies, you would have seen death all over.”
Some commentators mocked Trump’s attempts to revise expectations — deaths in the hundreds of thousands versus the millions. MSNBC’s Chris Hayes wrote on Twitter, “We have it pretty much contained, and by contained I mean death on a scale that surpasses your worst nightmares.”
The briefing was carried across cable news networks, but CNN began its coverage after it had started, Trump made his opening remarks and called Fauci to the lectern. CNN and MSNBC cut away after the briefing extended to two hours, while Fox News stayed with it.
As it went on, Trump returned to some of his common rants and riffs — including when the question of impeachment was raised — but acknowledged that the 100,000 death figure, the most optimistic projection, was “shocking.”
He also revised previous comparison of the coronavirus to the flu. On March 9, he tweeted that “so last year 37,000 Americans died from the common flu. It averages between 27,000 and 70,000 per year. Nothing is shut down, life & the economy go on.” On Tuesday, he said, “It’s not the flu. It’s vicious…This is not the flu.”
CNN’s Jim Acosta asked Trump whether the projections would be any different had the White House taken greater action earlier, like when the outbreak appeared in China and Italy. Trump insisted that he did act early, but Birx and Fauci said that it was a difficult thing to determine.
As he did on Monday, Acosta pressed Trump on whether he took the virus seriously enough in January and February, having downplayed the severity then and said that “we have it totally under control.” Trump seemed to suggest that he wanted to be positive — “I knew everything. I knew it could be horrible. I knew it could be maybe good.”
“There’s nothing positive. There’s nothing great about it, but I want to give people in this country hope,” he said.
Through the 2 hour, 11 minute hearing, Trump didn’t spar with reporters as he has on so many other occasions, but he did refer to how people are perceiving the briefings.
“It’s an incredibly dark, an incredibly horrible topic and it’s incredibly interesting, that’s everybody is, they are going crazy and they can’t get enough of it. And they want to be careful and I guess they are studying it for themselves. They are studying of they get it.”
“A lot of people are positive and they hope for the best, because when this gets the wrong person …it is ravaging. It is horrible.”
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