In the past day, about a third of all new confirmed coronavirus cases were in the United States, according to the World Health Organization.
WHO spokesperson Margaret Harris told reporters Tuesday morning that 85 percent of the previous day’s new confirmed cases of Covid-19, the disease caused by the novel coronavirus, were in the United States or Europe. And 40 percent of those cases were reported in the US.
Even as President Donald Trump has begun publicly considering relaxing social distancing guidelines and restarting the economy, Harris warned that the “very large acceleration” in new cases could make the United States the new epicenter for the global pandemic.
The US “has a very large outbreak and an outbreak that is increasing in intensity,” she said, according to a Reuters report.
As of March 24, there have been more than 42,000 infections reported in the US, resulting in 591 deaths, according to the Johns Hopkins tracker. Part of the reason for the jump in cases in the US is due to increased testing capacity, which Harris praised Tuesday. But those case numbers likely don’t reflect the full scope of the outbreak here, as US testing rates still lag behind other developed countries. And part of what worries health officials is the substantial acceleration in deaths resulting from the virus.
The virus was first reported in the US on January 20, and it took until March 17 to report the first 100 deaths. But that number has skyrocketed over the past week, and US states reported more than 100 Covid-19-related deaths on Monday alone, marking the first time the death count reached 100 in a single day in the US.
Up until this point, Europe was considered the epicenter for the virus, with Italy being the primary source of both new cases and deaths. Deaths in the country have begun to slow there recently. “There is a glimmer of hope there,” said Harris about Italy. “We’ve seen in the last two days fewer new cases and deaths in Italy but it’s very, very early days yet.”
Despite ominous warnings from Harris and other public health experts about an explosion of new cases in the US — even as states have issued social distancing orders — Trump has signaled in recent days that he is considering lifting the restrictions to get the economy going again.
Trump considers abandoning social distancing orders
On March 16, the White House released its “15 Days to Stop the Spread” guidance, encouraging people to stay home as often as possible in order to “flatten the curve.” Trump has hinted that he may try to lift such restrictions to try to rev the economy back up.
WE CANNOT LET THE CURE BE WORSE THAN THE PROBLEM ITSELF. AT THE END OF THE 15 DAY PERIOD, WE WILL MAKE A DECISION AS TO WHICH WAY WE WANT TO GO!— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) March 23, 2020
A severe outbreak that could result in hundreds of thousands of American deaths would also harm the economy. But the president and some of his economic advisers have begun making the case that it’s not worth tanking the economy in order to prevent widespread coronavirus deaths, as recounted by Vox’s Aaron Rupar:
On Monday, the president followed up on his previous night’s tweet by retweeting a number of accounts with sketchy handles like @steph93065 that urged him to get people back to work — not only for the sake of the economy, but for his reelection hopes as well.
“15 days. Then we isolate the high risk groups and the rest of us get back to work before it’s all over for everyone!! #Landslide2020,” wrote @FedupMil in a post that was retweeted by the president.
On Monday morning came a slew of news reports that Trump is “itching to scale back social distancing after 15-day period,” as CNN put it. The New York Times reported that “at the White House, in recent days, there has been a growing sentiment that medical experts were allowed to set policy that has hurt the economy, and there has been a push to find ways to let people start returning to work.”
Then came a Fox News appearance from top White House economics adviser Larry Kudlow in which Kudlow echoed points Trump made on Twitter.
“The president is right: The cure can’t be worse than the disease, and we’re gonna have to make some difficult trade-offs,” Kudlow said. “I spoke with the president about this very subject late last evening.”
While Trump may wish to bolster a nosediving economy, in part perhaps to help his own reelection prospects, it’s unlikely that employers and employees will just return to normal because he says it’s okay. As president, Trump’s words matter, and some people might. But it’s still hard to imagine people being willing to just go back to regular commutes and workdays while loved ones around them are hospitalized or dying.
And if the US does reverse course on social distancing, it’s likely the curve will turn into a spike in cases, triggering a potential collapse of a health care system already struggling to keep up with the pandemic.
But ultimately, Trump can’t just turn the economy off and on himself, as Vox’s Nicole Narea explained:
Trump might want to send workers back to work, but it’s really not up to him.
Trump can’t unilaterally reopen the economy — that power lies with states and localities, many of which have imposed “shelter in place” policies that have resulted in the closure of non-essential businesses where people typically congregate, such as bars and restaurants. In hotspots of infection and areas where the rate of new daily infections hasn’t yet peaked, that could mean social distancing could prevail for much longer than just a few weeks.
But Trump can advise states to reopen for business as usual, and at least some of them will likely heed his advice, despite what medical professionals may say. Lifting the social distancing restrictions prematurely could place vulnerable populations at risk by allowing the virus to spread too quickly and overwhelming the resources of the medical system, leading to preventable deaths.
The irony for Trump is that he could have potentially steered the US into a much less punishing economic downturn if he had taken the outbreak seriously from the start. Aggressive testing from the outset could have potentially shortened the needed social distancing window because we could have known whom to isolate or quarantine much more quickly.
That was South Korea’s approach to the pandemic, for which the country has been praised internationally.
An immediate ramp-up in medical supply production and action to increase hospital ICU capacity in January could have helped mitigate the effects, too.
It’s not too late to do those things now to shorten social distancing time, but blame-shifting and misleading medical advice from the president won’t help.