WASHINGTON – As many as 240,000 Americans may die from the new coronavirus according to estimates released by the White House on Tuesday, a grim prediction that influenced President Donald Trump’s decision to extend social distancing guidelines.
Trump administration officials laid out somber projections to underscore the impact of the nation’s effort to avoid public spaces and groups. Without those changes, between 1.5 million to 2.2 million people could have died, they said. If Americans continue to hunker down, the number of projected deaths falls to between 100,000 and 240,000.
The president warned the nation to brace for a painful next two weeks and signaled that the estimates were so bad he abandoned his desire to “reopen” the country for business or allow less hard hit areas to loosen up social distancing restrictions. The president announced Sunday he would extend federal guidelines to April 30.
‘A great national trial’
“This is going to be one of the roughest two or three weeks we’ve ever had in our country,” the president said during a lengthy and at times dark press conference at the White House. “Our country is in the midst of a great national trial.”
Deborah Birx, the White House coronavirus response coordinator, and Anthony Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, cautioned that models can change based on new information. And they said they hoped mortality from the disease could be reduced below the low end of the estimate.
“We really believe and we hope every day that we can do a lot better than that,” Birx said.
But even the low end estimates would mean a significant event for the country, representing one of the nation’s worst public health crises and exceeding the deaths caused by many wars. By comparison, an estimated 58,220 American soldiers died in Vietnam. From April 12, 2009, to April 10, 2010, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimated 12,469 Americans died from the H1N1 flu.
About 675,000 Americans died from the 1918 influenza pandemic.
Earlier this month, as the first signs of the tumbling economy appeared, Trump suggested the guidelines could at least be relaxed by Easter, which falls on April 12. He said it would be a “beautiful” time to ease up. But over the weekend, after reviewing the projections, Trump said he decided to reverse course immediately.
Johns Hopkins University tallied more than 181,000 confirmed cases as of midday Tuesday – more than any other nation – and more than 3,600 deaths.
The president said Sunday he hoped the nation would be “well on our way to recovery” by June 1. The social distancing guidelines recommend Americans work from home, avoid groups larger than 10, don’t visit nursing homes and avoid unnecessary travel.
Trump said the worst is far from over, warning of a “very, very painful two weeks” ahead.
“As a nation, we face a difficult few weeks as we approach that really important day when we’re going to see things get better,” he said. “Our strength will be tested, and our endurance will be tried. This is the time for all Americans to come together and do our part.”
New York, New Jersey expected to be hit the hardest
In assessing the threat of the coronavirus nationwide, Trump and his aides showed models indicating that two states have it worse than anywhere: New York and New Jersey.
Analysts said New York got hit hard in part because of heavy travel at the start of the new year between the Big Apple and Wuhan, China, where the coronavirus originated.
Trump said New York and New Jersey may have gotten “off to a very late start” in trying to contain the coronavirus.
The president offered sympathy to his former hometown, saying “We pray for the doctors and the nurses, for the paramedics and the truck drivers, and the police officers and the sanitation workers, and above all, the people fighting for their lives in New York and all across our land.”
Contributing: Michael Collins