President Donald Trump on Friday offered his most optimistic reading yet of U.S. efforts to combat the coronavirus pandemic, even as his top health advisers cautioned that now is not the time to abandon the stringent mitigation measures that have sent the American economy into a tailspin.
"In the midst of grief and pain, we are seeing clear signs that our aggressive strategy is saving countless lives," Trump said during the daily news briefing of the White House coronavirus task force. Recalling the administration's projections last week that the highly infectious outbreak could claim between 100,000 and 240,000 lives, he said, "I think we will be substantially under that number."
Dr. Deborah Birx, the task force's coronavirus response coordinator, hailed new data showing that the aggressive social-distancing efforts in places like New York are indeed working. "You can see for the first time that in the United States, we are starting to level on the logarithmic phase like Italy did about a week ago," she said.
The encouraging numbers indicate that it may soon be time to re-open much of the U.S. economy, Trump and some of his top aides have suggested in recent days.
But health officials are cautioning that most Americans will not be able to resume their normal lives on May 1, when the Trump administration's guidelines aimed at countering the spread of the coronavirus in the United States are set to expire.
"Now is the time for us to continue to lean into" the social-distancing recommendations first issued in mid-March and extended last week until the end of April, Surgeon General Jerome Adams emphasized on Friday.
"There are places around the country that have seen consistently low levels. And as we ramp up testing and can feel more confident that these places actually can do surveillance and can do public health follow-up, some places will be able to think about opening on May 1," Adams said in an interview with Fox News.
"Most of the country will not, to be honest with you, but some will," Adams continued, "And that's how we'll reopen the country: place by place, bit by bit, based on the data."
The remarks of Adams and other top health officials don't directly contradict the optimism expressed by the president's economic advisers. And even Dr. Anthony Fauci, America's top infectious disease expert, now says he is seeing signs that the unprecedented lockdowns are working in parts of the country. But while Trump's economic team is floating an aggressive schedule for lifting federal guidelines to "slow the spread" of the disease, his health team is flashing a yellow light.
The contrast has been particularly striking over the last few days. White House economic adviser Larry Kudlow told POLITICO Tuesday it was possible to restart the economy "in the next four to eight weeks," and Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin endorsed a prediction Thursday on CNBC that "we could be open for business in the month of May" if public health experts approve.
Meanwhile, the president is leaning hard into the idea that the economy can open up again soon.
"There's something good going to happen. I really believe that. There's something very good going to happen. We have to get back. " Trump said Friday.
"This is not the time to feel that since we have made such [an] important advance in the sense of success of the mitigation that we need to be pulling back at all," Fauci said.
"The virus kind of decides whether or not it's going to be appropriate to open or not," he said in a TV interview hours earlier.
Other health officials are stressing the practical hurdles that currently stand in the way of lifting the federal guidelines. For instance, reopening the country would require a "substantial expansion of public health fieldworkers" to help monitor Americans who have come into contact with those who are infected, Dr. Robert Redfield, director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, said Thursday.
More than 600 CDC employees are stationed around the country assisting with coronavirus response efforts, Redfield told NPR, but the agency is "going to have to substantially amplify" that workforce to ramp up contact tracing.
"Obviously, if we're going to try to get this nation back to work shortly after the end of this month, we're far along in those planning processes, as we speak," he said, though he declined to specify how just far along.
State and local officials grappling with the outbreak, who will ultimately be responsible for lifting the restrictions in their areas of responsibility, sounded optimistic notes even as they urged their citizens to stick to them.
Although New York, the epicenter of the outbreak in the U.S., recorded 777 deaths Thursday, Gov. Andrew Cuomo nonetheless pointed to a rare bright spot at his daily news conference on Friday: The statewide headcount at intensive care units was down 17, the first decline since the outbreak began.
"That means there are fewer people in the intensive care units statewide than there were. And again, that's the first time we've seen a negative number, so that's good," Cuomo said. "The three-day average of that is down. A change in intubations is a tick higher than it's been the last few days, but it's overall down. The three-day average is also down."
In New Jersey, where Covid-19-related deaths are expected to eclipse 2,000 over the weekend, Gov. Phil Murphy said that he’s seeing some light at the end of the tunnel as the state navigates its worst public health crisis in more than a century.
Growth of new cases in Bergen County, so far the Garden State’s hardest hit community, has begun to plateau. Evidence suggests the growth curve in new cases is flattening elsewhere as well.
And while the number coronavirus-related hospitalizations continue to climb, the state Health Commissioner Judith Persichilli said he believes the state’s hospital systems added an adequate number of critical and intensive beds to withstand a surge.
Shortfalls in PPE, health care staff, ventilators and medications continue to bedevil state officials, however. Murphy, who’s traditionally been hesitant to borrow, also on Friday said he’s weighing using his emergency power to take out debt in order to meet the growing costs of the pandemic.
“Everything’s on the table,” Murphy said. “This is a power that we have and this is something we are looking closely at.”