President Trump on Sunday said he wants Americans to stay at home until April 30, abandoning his hope of opening up businesses by Easter as modeling suggested the U.S. coronavirus death toll could reach tens of thousands and peak two weeks from now.
He said the White House will release a new strategy for states by Tuesday and hopes to have the economy on its way to recovery by June 1.
It’s a sudden and somber shift for Mr. Trump, who on March 16 said he wanted Americans to work and learn at home, avoid nonessential travel and use takeout instead of entering restaurants through March 31.
Now, faced with the highest case count in the world with more than 137,000 infections and over 2,400 deaths, he said the peak death rate isn’t expected until mid-April, so he extended his mitigation strategy through the end of the coming month.
“You’re talking about a potential of up to 2.2 million [deaths], and some people said it could even be higher than that,” he said at a White House briefing. “And so if we can hold that down, as we’re saying, to 100,000 — it’s a horrible number, maybe even less, but to 100,000. … We all together have done a very good job.”
Members of his coronavirus task force said modeling is based on a variety of issues and “extremes,” so people shouldn’t panic.
The coronavirus that causes COVID-19 was discovered in Wuhan, China, in December. The disease killed thousands in China before the epicenter shifted to South Korea and then Europe and the Americas.
Italy has the worst death toll, with nearly 11,000, followed by Spain, with over 6,800.
New York City is the epicenter of the crisis in the U.S., which has reported over 33,000 cases of the coronavirus and nearly 680 deaths, according to the Johns Hopkins University tracker.
The president noted that he grew up in New York and had never seen anything like the devastation hitting the city, as refrigerated trucks take away bodies.
“You see the black body bags. It’s not supplies; it’s people. I’ve never seen anything like it. These people are doing a fantastic job,” Mr. Trump said.
Even as he described the horror, the president questioned the tremendous use of medical masks at an unnamed hospital in New York, noting that use surged from 10,000 to 20,000 to 300,000 in recent days.
“Where are the masks going? Are they going out the back door? How do you go from 10,000 to 300,000? And we have that in a lot of different places. Because I just don’t see a practical standpoint how that’s possible to go from that to that, and we have that happening in 10 places, not to that extent. That was the highest number I’ve heard,” Mr. Trump said.
Mr. Trump’s comments implied that masks were being siphoned off somehow instead of being used by health care professionals who are working around the clock, at great personal risk, to help people dying from COVID-19 in the hardest-hit part of the U.S.
“Something’s going on. And you ought to look into it as reporters,” he said.
Governors are pressuring Mr. Trump to use the full weight of his powers to expand the production of medical equipment and protective gear for health care workers on the front lines.
Mr. Trump’s response to the crisis has been dogged by questions about a lack of supplies in select states and the delayed start to robust testing.
Mr. Trump on Sunday was combative and hit back at those who said he still was not doing enough. He railed against media outlets that are leery of carrying his briefings live and Democratic governors who have criticized his administration’s efforts.
“When they’re disrespecting me, they’re disrespecting the government,” Mr. Trump said.
Officials said the U.S. had performed 894,000 tests for the coronavirus infection as of the close of business Saturday. The rate of testing is far better than it was in the early days of the pandemic, as commercial testing comes online, though the administration is still prioritizing those who are hospitalized.
Mr. Trump also said General Motors and other companies will be producing three times more ventilators over the next 100 days than they typically produce in a year.
At a meeting with supply chain executives, Mr. Trump said the pace of production will depend on companies that he is asking — or compelling through the Defense Production Act — to prioritize federal orders for the lifesaving machines.
Ventilators are machines that help people breathe. COVID-19 causes respiratory distress, so ventilators are considered the most vital piece of equipment for hospitals battling the pandemic.
Mr. Trump said two major insurers, Humana and Cigna, have waived costs for coronavirus treatments and he hopes other insurers do the same.
The pandemic has upended American life, with masses of adults balancing telework with home-schooling and church services on YouTube. Local watering holes have shuttered, while essentials such as grocers, gas stations and, in some places, liquor stores remain open.
Major cities including Detroit and New Orleans reported spikes in the number of cases over the weekend, through New York City remains the key worry spot.
Mr. Trump on Saturday said he was considering a quarantine of the tri-state area around New York City, though it was unclear what authority, if any, he had to institute one.
Instead, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention urged people in New York, New Jersey and Connecticut to refrain from nonessential domestic travel for 14 days.
The president said he doesn’t think he scared anyone by floating the quarantine and that, instead, it compelled people to stay home.
The decision-making on Saturday was the latest turn in America’s unpredictable bout with the virus.
On Feb. 26, Mr. Trump said the number of COVID-19 cases “within a couple of days is going to be down to close to zero. That’s a pretty good job we’ve done.”
“We’re going very substantially down, not up,” he said.
On Sunday, Mr. Trump again spoke of the possibility of “massive depression, meaning mental depression” and “large numbers of suicides.” He also raised the likelihood of more drug addiction.
“You will see drugs being used like nobody ever used them before,” he said.
Mr. Trump signed a $2 trillion bill from Capitol Hill on Friday to catch an economy in freefall, though he is already looking at additional measures.
The president said he ordered his Treasury and labor secretaries to look into restoring the tax deductibility of meals for corporations whose workers frequent restaurants, saying he developed the idea after talks with high-end chefs such as Thomas Keller, Wolfgang Puck and Daniel Boulud who operate in New York.
Eateries are among the hardest-hit businesses in the crisis because they operate on tight margins, and many restaurant workers have been laid off.
Mr. Trump also said he wants to get cruise lines and other industries going again.
“We had the greatest economy in the history of the world three weeks ago,” said Mr. Trump, who had hoped to highlight the economy as part of his reelection bid this year.
Mr. Trump defended his approach to the epidemic in Florida, a state that is pivotal to his election bid.
He said Florida’s requests for supplies have been fulfilled because they are “very aggressive.” But he quickly pivoted, saying all governors should be happy.
“Florida has been taken care of, Michigan has been taken care of,” Mr. Trump said.
In the same breath, he said he “doesn’t like” the Democratic governor of Washington state, Jay Inslee, and that’s why he gets Vice President Mike Pence to call instead.
“I want them to appreciate the incredible job we’re doing,” Mr. Trump said.
The president said New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo, a Democrat, is pleased with the speed at which the Army Corps of Engineers and Federal Emergency Management Agency managed to build 2,900 hospital beds at the Javits Center in Manhattan, to free up space for COVID-19 patients at traditional hospitals.
“People have never seen anything like that,” Mr. Trump said. “Everyone’s trying to figure out how they did it.”