Top U.S. health officials voiced cautious optimism Sunday that the worst of COVID-19 may soon be over, providing a fresh dose of hope as President Trump prepares to launch a task force this week on restarting the country’s economy.
Mr. Trump said part of the final decision to reopen the economy will be based on his “instinct.”
“There are a lot of things that go into a decision like that,” Mr. Trump told Fox News Channel host Jeanine Pirro. “It’s going to be based on a lot of facts and a lot of instinct. Whether we like it or not, there is a certain instinct to it.”
Dr. Anthony Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases and a key member of the president’s COVID-19 task force, said the country could start a “rolling reentry” process as early as next month.
He said states or regions would lift stay-at-home orders at different times.
“You’re trying to balance two things: You want to make sure you don’t do something prematurely and precipitously. At the same time, you pay attention to the need to try and get back to normal,” Dr. Fauci said on CNN’s “State of the Union.”
The president initially hoped to reopen much of the country by Easter Sunday. The target then receded to May 1, though Mr. Trump did not publicly set a date.
“We’re looking at a date. We hope we’ll be able to fulfill a certain date, but we’re not doing anything until we know this country is going to be healthy,” he said. “We don’t want to go back and start doing [quarantining] over again, even though it would be on a smaller scale.”
Leaders around the globe are wrestling with the same questions about when to lift stay-at-home orders.
Dr. David Nabarro, the World Health Organization’s special envoy, said countries need to be prepared for the long-term threat of the novel coronavirus.
“We think it’s going to be a virus that stalks the human race for quite a long time to come until we can all have a vaccine that will protect us, and that there will be small outbreaks that will emerge sporadically,” Dr. Nabarro said on NBC’s “Meet the Press.”
“The key for this particular virus is that every community, as a kind of defensive shield, can pick up cases as soon as they appear, isolate them and stop outbreaks from developing,” he said.
A vaccine for COVID-19 is not expected to be ready for at least a year.
The Trump administration extended social distancing guidelines until the end of the month as the virus spread, and 42 governors issued stay-at-home orders.
In the past three weeks, nearly 17 million Americans have applied for unemployment benefits as the government closed restaurants, factories and retail shops to blunt the spread of the virus.
Hundreds of thousands of small businesses have applied for emergency grants and loans to help them stay afloat and keep paying their workers. The grants and loans are part of a $2.2 trillion economic rescue package that Mr. Trump signed on March 27.
“We’re going to rebuild it again, in honor of all those who perished,” the president said on Ms. Pirro’s show. “The people of our country have gone through a lot. But we’ll be back bigger and better and stronger than ever before. They want to get back to work. We have to bring our country back.”
He plans to unveil on Tuesday a blue-ribbon, bipartisan team of doctors, governors, business leaders and administration officials to determine how and when to reopen the country’s economy after the crisis has subsided.
The president didn’t say who will serve on the task force, but he mentioned several governors with whom he has worked well during the crisis: Govs. Gavin Newsom of California, Phil Murphy of New Jersey, Andrew Cuomo of New York, John Bel Edwards of Louisiana and Mike DeWine of Ohio. All but Mr. DeWine are Democrats.
Among the administration officials expected to serve on the council are Treasury Secretary Steven T. Mnuchin and White House economic adviser Larry Kudlow.
New White House Chief of Staff Mark Meadows, the former House lawmaker from North Carolina, is expected to lead the panel.
Mr. Trump is watching for signs of hope on the medical front.
“A very good sign is that empty hospital beds are becoming more and more prevalent,” Mr. Trump tweeted Sunday. “We deployed 418 Doctors, Nurses and Respiratory Therapists from the hospital ship Comfort and the Javits Convention Center to hospitals in NYC & State. Have more bed capacity than was needed. Good!”
Dr. Fauci said a decrease in hospital admissions in New York was a good sign, though he acknowledged last week was a “horrible, horrible” week in New York City with the death toll topping 6,000.
He said the models from other countries showed a sharp decline in cases once hospital admissions began to decrease.
As of Sunday, more than 546,000 COVID-19 cases have been confirmed in the U.S. with more than 21,600 deaths, according to data from John Hopkins University.
Food and Drug Administration Commissioner Stephen Hahn confirmed on ABC’s “This Week” that models show the number of U.S. cases is close to its peak.
Dr. Fauci cautioned that the U.S. will be ready to reopen only when states can respond to the inevitable uptick of cases that comes with returning to business as usual. Health officials are also bracing for a potential resurgence in the fall or early winter.
“The critical issue is being able to, in real time, isolate and contact-trace. That’s called containment,” he said.
The May Day target has plenty of skeptics.
Maryland Gov. Larry Hogan, a Republican and head of the National Governors Association, said on ABC’s “This Week” that he views May 1 as an “artificial” deadline.
“Look, everybody wants to get the country back on track as quickly as we can, as long as we do it in a safe manner,” Mr. Hogan said. “We’ve got this twin problem of this terrible health crisis where we’ve got tens of thousands of people dying, and yet we also have this incredible economic balance where we got … millions of people that are unemployed and small businesses being hurt everywhere.”
An adviser to Mr. Hogan’s state task force, former FDA Commissioner Scott Gottlieb, has recommended that the country be able to process 750,000 coronavirus tests per week before people go back to work in large numbers. The president disagrees, but Mr. Hogan said he probably won’t lift his stay-at-home guidance without widespread testing in place.
“I think widespread testing and contact-tracing is going to be absolutely essential to finding out exactly where we are in this fight against this deadly virus,” Mr. Hogan said. “Dr. Scott Gottlieb is one of the smartest guys in America. He’s on our task force. I agree with him. I think most governors agree with that as well.”
The president has called it the biggest decision of his life.
“I only hope to God it’s the right decision,” he said. “I want to get it open as soon as we can. I’m going to make a decision based on a lot of different opinions.”
Health specialists say the U.S. needs to ramp up its capacity for coronavirus testing and be able to roll out antibody tests — which determine if an individual has been exposed to the virus and is potentially immune — before it can take the next step toward normalcy.
Mr. Hahn said the FDA has already approved one kind of antibody test and is working to process more.
“We need to do more, no question about that,” he said about expanding the availability of testing across the U.S.