WASHINGTON, D.C. — President Donald Trump on Sunday extended the voluntary national shutdown for a month, bowing to public-health experts who told him the coronavirus pandemic could claim over 100,000 lives in the U.S. if not enough is done to fight it.
The initial 15-day period of social distancing urged by the federal government expires Monday and Trump had expressed interest in relaxing the national guidelines at least in parts of the country less afflicted by the pandemic. But instead he decided to extend them through April 30. Many states and local governments have stiffer controls in place on mobility and gatherings.
Trump’s impulse to restore normalcy met a sober reality check Sunday from Dr. Anthony Fauci, the government’s top infectious disease expert, who said the U.S. could experience more than 100,000 deaths and millions of infections from the pandemic. Trump’s decision to extend the guidelines reflected a recognition that the struggle will take place over the longer haul and the risk of deaths spiraling into the hundreds of thousands is real.
“I want our life back again,” the president told reporters in the Rose Garden.
Trump, who has largely avoided talk of potential death and infection rates, cited projection models that said potentially 2.2 million people or more could have died had the country not put social distancing measures in place. And he said the country would be doing well if it “can hold” the number of deaths “down to 100,000.”
“It’s a horrible number,” Trump said, but added: “We all together have done a very good job.”
Brought forward by Trump at the outdoor briefing, Fauci said his projection of a potential 100,000 to 200,000 deaths is “entirely conceivable” if not enough is done to mitigate the crisis. He said that helped shape the extension of the guidelines, “a wise and prudent decision.”
The federal guidelines recommend against large group gatherings and urge older people and anyone with existing health problems to stay home. People are urged to work at home when possible and avoid restaurants, bars, non-essential travel and shopping trips.
The extension would leave the federal recommendations in place beyond Easter, April 12, by which time Trump had hoped the country and its economy could start to rev up again. The U.S. had more than 139,000 COVID-19 cases reported by Sunday evening, with more than 2,400 deaths. One in 3 Americans remain under state or local government orders to stay at home to slow the spread of the virus, with schools and businesses closed and public life upended.
Dr. Deborah Birx, head of the White House coronavirus task force, said parts of the country with few cases so far must prepare for what’s to come. “No state, no metro area, will be spared,” she said on NBC’s “Meet the Press.”
Fauci’s prediction would take the death toll well past that of the average seasonal flu.
On Saturday, Trump was discussing tightening restrictions, suggesting then backing away from an “enforceable” quarantine of hard-hit New York, Connecticut and New Jersey. Instead, the White House task force recommended a travel advisory for residents of those states to limit non-essential travel to slow the spread of the virus to other parts of the U.S.