WASHINGTON – For the third time in three days, President Trump addressed the nation from the White House in an effort to address growing fears about the pandemic caused by the coronavirus, which has now infected about 3,200 Americans and killed more than 60.
“Beautiful day outside,” Trump said at the very outset of his remarks, referring to the nice weather that had residents of Washington, D.C., and other northeastern areas taking to the outdoors. With movie theaters, arts venues and—increasingly—restaurants and bars closed, and with large gatherings like sports events now canceled, there was little else to do.
“Take it easy,” Trump said. “Just relax.”
The president appears to have been heartened by a Sunday afternoon announcement from the Federal Reserve that interest rates would fall to nearly zero. The central bank would also buy $700 billion in U.S. Treasury and mortgage securities in a dramatic step that recalled the 2008 housing crisis and the bailout of the financial industry that is generally credited with having kept the economy out of a depression.
Trump has been acutely concerned about the state of the economy, seemingly aware that his reelection prospects rest in large part on that single factor. But concerns across the nation appear to be more immediate than that. The weekend saw reports about the difficulty of attaining a coronavirus diagnostic test, as well as confusion about social distancing measures that some people seemed to take seriously and others did not.
Though generally restrained, Trump did condemn what he called “fake news” reports about a Google coronavirus clearinghouse he had touted during Friday’s address from the Rose Garden. His promises about that website appear to have been well ahead of reality.
With a political personality built on cavalier machismo, Trump has struggled to provide the kind of empathy and fact-based reassurance that many Americans are plainly seeking. A longtime proponent of relentless optimism, he also struggled to tell Americans that difficult days could be ahead.
The last of these tasks fell to Dr. Anthony Fauci, the National Institutes of Health epidemiologist renowned for his efforts to fight HIV/AIDS in the 1980s. A member of the White House task force, Fauci said on Sunday that “the worst is yet ahead for us. It’s how we respond to that challenge that’s going to determine what the ultimate endpoint is going to be.” Fauci said that the window of the days to come will determine the severity of the outbreak in the United States.
For now, the primary question is about when Americans will be able to get a test where they live in a timely manner. The administration has spent about two weeks promising that both state-run and private labs would soon be testing hundreds of thousands, if not millions, of people. But those promises have been contradictory and confusing. More troubling, they have not been met, with only a few thousand Americans tested last week.
Even if some people are asymptomatic and others experience only mild symptoms, the virus cannot be contained if it cannot be tracked.
Admiral Brett Giroir, a Department of Health and Human Services deputy who has been appointed to head the testing regime, said that 1.9 million coronavirus tests would be available this week, though redundancies in how those tests are conducted does not mean that 1.9 million people will actually be tested. The priority, he and others said during the Sunday briefing, will be to make sure that the vulnerable—in particular, the elderly and people with weakened immune systems—be tested ahead of the so-called “worried well,” a term used to describe people whose genuine but overblown concerns could overwhelm the health care system.
“I'm not going to say that the lab testing issue is over, because it's not," Giroir said, even as he and other members of the task force reinforced the notion that the testing scarcity was over. Pence also said that, in keeping with the coronavirus emergency aid package that was passed by the House on Friday and is expected to pass the Senate and be signed by the president, all coronavirus testing will be free, including for Americans lacking health insurance.
Pence also said that the coronavirus task force would issue new guidance on Monday morning that would presumably include national guidelines on issues like travel and mass gatherings. So far, individual states have issued their own guidelines, absent clarity—or compulsion—from Washington (there was no indication that Monday’s guidelines will be mandatory, though details were not available.)
For his part, Fauci prepared Americans for precisely the kinds of measures that have turned some of Italy’s top tourist attractions into ghost cities.
“Literally, we will do everything that we can to make sure we safeguard the health and the well-being of the American people,” he said. “And that means, everything and anything, we’ll consider.”
A follow-up question from a member of the White House press corps pressed Fauci on what those measures could be; in particular, whether they could include the kind of lockdown provisions now in place in countries such as Italy and France.
“That could be,” Fauci said. “Absolutely.”
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