US president Donald Trump has wound back his ambition to open the country back up for business in time for Easter after extending social distancing measures until the end of April.
Just last week, Trump had sparked widespread concern among medical professionals by saying he wanted to eschew further lockdown and social distancing measures to get the economy back online by the second weekend of April.
“We can’t have the cure be worse than the virus,” Trump told reporters just days ago.
Known for closely monitoring the media, the president appeared to be echoing earlier calls from conservative pundits including Fox News host Steve Hilton who used the same language, which was parroted by Trump on Twitter just hours later.
But in a coronavirus press conference on Sunday afternoon, local time, there was no escaping the grim reality facing the White House, and the country it governs.
In a sombre press address in the Rose Garden, Trump said the government’s modelling estimates that the country’s peak death rate will come in two weeks.
“I’ll say it again. The peak – the highest point – of death rate is likely to hit in two weeks.
“Nothing would be worse than declaring victory before the victory is won. That would be the greatest loss of all,” Trump said, in a stark departure from previous remarks.
The US president has now extended the voluntary national shutdown for a month, bowing to public health experts who told him the coronavirus pandemic could claim more than 100,000 lives in the country if harsh measures weren’t taken to fight the spread of the disease.
The initial 15-day period of social distancing urged by the federal government was due to expire on Monday in the US.
“The better you do, the faster this whole nightmare will end,” Trump said when urging the public to adhere to the measures for at least another month.
‘Body bags all over’
His earlier impulse to restore normality had met a disturbing reality check from Dr Anthony Fauci, the government's top infectious disease expert, who said the US could experience more than 100,000 deaths and millions of infections from the pandemic.
During the somewhat uncharacteristic address, Trump cited modelling that 2.2 million people or more could have died had social distancing measures not been put in place.
He said the country would be doing well if it could 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.”
The president was clearly rattled by haunting TV images coming out of New York, some from Elmhurst Hospital in his native Queens.
“Body bags all over, in hallways. I've been watching them bring in trailer trucks – freezer trucks, they're freezer trucks, because they can't handle the bodies, there are so many of them,” he said.
At one point, the president echoed the likely thoughts of many watching on by saying: “I wish we could have our old life back.”
Coronavirus deaths could hit 200,000 in the US
The higher end of the US government’s current modelling suggests even with full mitigation measures in place, the death toll in the country could rise as high as 200,000, the Associated Press reported.
Though the US leads the world in reported cases, five other countries currently have higher death tolls: Italy, Spain, China, Iran and France.
By Sunday night, local time, the US had more than 140,000 infections and 2,400 deaths, according to the running tally kept by Johns Hopkins University, though the true number of cases is thought to be considerably higher because of testing shortages and mild illnesses that have gone unreported.
Italy reported more than 750 new fatalities on Sunday, bringing the country's total to nearly 10,800. However, the number of new infections showed signs of easing, with officials expressing cautious optimism the most severe shutdown in the industrialised West is showing results.
Spain moved to tighten its lockdown and ban all non-essential work as it hit another daily record of almost 840 dead. The country's overall official death toll was more than 6,500.
In the UK, the number of confirmed cases looked to surge passed the 20,000 mark on early Monday morning with at least 1,231 deaths from the novel coronavirus.
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