WASHINGTON — President Trump has made no secret of his impatience to lift the social distancing measures that have about nine out of 10 Americans at home and the U.S. economy at a near standstill. But speaking at the daily briefing of the White House coronavirus task force on Thursday evening, Vice President Mike Pence, who heads that task force, indicated that the end to those restrictions might not come anytime soon.
Without offering specifics, Pence listed conditions that appear to be many weeks, if not many months, from being met. He explained that while it was important to “reopen” the country, it was even more so for it to “stay open.” This was a reference to concerns that lifting injunctions against venturing out in public could allow for a return of the coronavirus.
“No one wants to reopen America more than President Donald Trump,” Pence said, even as he hinted that expectations for a speedy reopening were unrealistic. He said that data would ultimately “inform the president’s decision and timing.”
Pence said that “the best thing we can do to reopen America is put the coronavirus behind us, to reach the end of that curve with as little loss of life or hardship as possible.” The curve he was referring to is the by now ubiquitous graph showing data on daily infections. Flattening that curve — that is, decreasing the number of day-over-day new infections — has been the primary goal of public health officials across the country. But even after the epidemic apex is reached, coming back down to a point when there are virtually no new infections at all could take a number of weeks.
Even countries like Germany, which has been among the most successful in the world in battling the disease, have seen a recent rise in infections, a testament to the difficulty in ridding any society of the coronavirus altogether.
Trump said last month that he wanted to see the country reopened by Easter, which will be celebrated this Sunday. He later backed off that assertion, yet has continued to insist that isolation and inactivity could be more dangerous than the coronavirus itself. Public health officials do not share that view.
The coronavirus causes a disease called COVID-19, which, as of Thursday evening, had killed about 16,500 Americans. It has often fallen to the former Indiana governor to explicate or mitigate Trump’s pronouncements, which can be contradictory or confusing. So far, the vice president has managed to do so without angering his famously sensitive boss.
Thursday’s briefing was no exception, with Pence tamping down expectations of a quick return to normal after Trump had raised that very possibility. As the briefing was coming to an end the Washington Post published an account of White House deliberations in which Trump was, according to administration officials, desperately searching for “a strategy for resuming business activity by May 1.”
In recent days, China has claimed a decisive victory over the pandemic, reporting no new deaths on Wednesday from COVID-19, though some are reluctant to trust Beijing’s authoritarian leaders. Other nations hard hit by the coronavirus, including Italy, have shown signs that lockdown measures are indeed bringing the desired results. Even so, a speedy return to normal appears to be an unrealistic goal, and many analysts warn that a post-coronavirus reality will be starkly different from the pre-outbreak world.
Pence also said that for Americans to resume some semblance of ordinary life, there would have to be coronavirus therapeutics. “I call them medicines that make you feel better,” he quipped, while conceding that they were not yet readily available.
Also necessary, Pence said, was “more widespread testing.” Expanded, more sophisticated testing could allow public health officials to not only diagnose potentially sickened individuals — who would then be isolated or hospitalized — but also to identify people who may have fought off the coronavirus without necessarily knowing they had done so. Such people may be endowed with antibodies that confer coronavirus immunity. That, in turn, would make it safe for them to return to work.
Pence added that he and Trump would wait for guidance from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention before reopening the country. So far, the CDC has given no indication that such guidance is forthcoming.
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