White House risks backlash with coronavirus optimism
White House officials are taking an optimistic view of the country’s progress in the fight against the coronavirus pandemic, a risky bet that could backfire if cases flare up again as more states begin lifting social distancing measures.
Top administration officials in recent days have started laying out specific timetables for when they believe the pandemic will be in the rearview mirror. The sunny declarations come as the White House pushes to revive the economy that has been central to President Trump’s reelection bid.
Senior White House adviser Jared Kushner told “Fox & Friends” on Wednesday that “a lot of the country should be back to normal” by June and “really rocking again” by July, calling the federal response to the virus a “great success story.”
Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin on Sunday predicted the economy would “really bounce back” in July, August and September.
Those remarks followed comments by Vice President Pence, who told Geraldo Rivera that “if you look at the trends today … I think by Memorial Day weekend we will largely have this coronavirus epidemic behind us.”
While the number of U.S. cases continues to rise, now at more than 1 million confirmed infections, many public health experts agree the country may be turning a corner and that the daily death toll is showing signs of leveling off.
But Trump has been ridiculed for repeatedly downplaying the virus back in January and February, before it exploded across the country, underscoring the risks of declaring victory too soon.
Public health experts routinely say that even though businesses and schools might reopen with safeguards and social distancing in place, Americans are unlikely to return to normal life until a vaccine is developed. That timeline is in the ballpark of 12 to 18 months.
Deborah Birx, the coordinator of the White House coronavirus response, said Sunday that Pence’s Memorial Day projection was rooted in recent models and estimates showing cases flattening in several metro areas. But she acknowledged social distancing “will be with us through the summer” to keep the number of cases at bay.
The uncertainty surrounding the virus and whether states can contain future outbreaks also contributes to the risk of focusing on one timetable for a return to normalcy.
“No matter what we do in the near term, the virus isn’t going away,” said Anand Parekh, chief medical adviser at the Bipartisan Policy Center in Washington. “This virus is not going away for a couple of years until there is a vaccine or there is herd immunity, and we are not close as a nation on either front.”
“The question is, how are we going to continue to mitigate this threat for the next year or two?” added Parekh, who was a deputy assistant secretary at the Department of Health and Human Services from 2008 to 2015. “I think from a communications point, that needs to be the message.”
Experts say there is some cause for optimism. Infection rates have plateaued in areas previously considered hot spots, namely New Orleans, Detroit and Seattle.
Anthony Fauci, the nation’s top infectious disease expert and a member of the White House coronavirus task force, said Wednesday that results from a clinical trial of remdesivir showed promise for the drug as a potential treatment for patients who have contracted COVID-19.
“We think it’s really opening the door to the fact that we now have the capability of treating, and I can guarantee you as more people, more companies, more investigators get involved, it’s going to get better and better,” Fauci told reporters alongside Trump in the Oval Office.
Trump later described the development as a “very positive event” and emphasized that states would be carefully reopening their economies.
“We’re going to be very careful as we open,” he said. “If there is a fire, we are going to put it out.”
Trump has been the optimist in chief throughout much of the pandemic, despite receiving withering criticism for saying in January and February that the virus was “under control,” that cases would soon be “close to zero” and that the disease would dissipate in April with warmer weather. Those quotes have already been cut into campaign ads for groups supporting presumptive Democratic nominee Joe Biden.
Trump has been undeterred, however, and continues to offer rosy assessments of his administration’s handling of the virus and the path forward. At times, Trump’s statements have cut against messages from medical experts and his own administration’s public health guidance.
On Tuesday, Trump declared that government experts “believe the worst days of the pandemic are behind us” and that “Americans are looking forward to the safe and rapid reopening of our country.”
A week earlier, he predicted the virus would not hit the U.S. with the same severity if it returns in the fall, even suggesting the disease “may not come back at all.” Fauci has said he’s “convinced” there will be a second wave in the fall.
Trump advocated Monday for some governors to reopen public schools, citing data that the virus is less lethal for young, healthy individuals. But his administration’s guidelines say schools should remain closed until a state has seen a decline in cases for 28 days.
Experts such as Parekh say there is a significant threat of resurgence if states reopen too quickly.
“I think the issue is if you do so when you don’t have the testing capacity that you need and you don’t have the detective work, the contact tracing systems in place, you are setting yourself up for either a rebound for states that are on the way down … or for states that haven’t taken off, this could be the trigger for them to really take off,” Parekh said.
The president hasn’t offered a specific timeline on reopening since walking back his earlier prediction that some states could begin to reopen by Easter Sunday, April 12. Trump has insisted he believes the country will reopen as quickly as possible while leaving the final decisions up to states.
He’s also been more measured on the economy than even some of his own officials, predicting the U.S. may not see a full resurgence until the fourth quarter of 2020.
Trump has repeatedly defended his bullish pronouncements, describing himself as a “cheerleader” for the country. But the latest round of commentary from his officials may come back to haunt them if the coronavirus surges again in the summer.
Some states this week are allowing businesses such as salons, restaurants and movie theaters to reopen at limited capacity and with social distancing measures in place.
The White House’s confidence that the economy will come roaring back is at odds with the reality that most consumers may not feel comfortable venturing out again, even if the number of cases and deaths falls to a more manageable level by the time summer rolls around.
One former administration official said it’s fair to talk optimistically now that the focus has moved beyond hospitals being overrun or lacking adequate ventilators or masks.
“But that’s different from saying the economy will turn a corner and consumer confidence will be back to where it was,” the official said. “I think that’s less likely.”