President Trump might have been right Monday to consider loosening restrictions on social distancing after 15 days if the United States had responded aggressively to the coronavirus at the outset like South Korea and Singapore did.
South Korea, which reported its first case the same day as the United States, immediately began testing its citizens at a rate of 10,000 a day, using drive-thru testing centers and text messages sent out to people when new cases were reported in their districts.
Singapore focused early on diagnosis, isolation and contact tracing.
Both countries have now seen their rates of new cases drop.
The United States is a different story.
For six weeks – on at least 17 occasions – Trump minimized the threat, saying at various times it would disappear with the onset of spring, it was nothing more serious than the flu and we had it totally under control.
The federal government rejected an offer from the World Health Organization for testing kits and instead asked the Centers for Disease Control and Protection to develop a test of its own. A first effort failed, further delaying its use.
In the meantime, the virus spread with first Washington state and then New York City, Long Island and Westchester at its epicenter.
Nassau County Executive Laura Curran announced on Tuesday the number of confirmed coronavirus cases in Nassau County has reached 2,869 with 10 deaths.
New York has paid the highest price for Trump’s refusal to respond quickly.
As of Tuesday morning, New York state had 25,665 confirmed cases of coronavirus, with at least 157 deaths.
More than 46,000 coronavirus cases have been confirmed in the United States, although experts say the true number is much higher since the coronavirus has a 2-14 day incubation period. Which means the reported numbers are two weeks old.
And even in New York where testing has increased dramatically in recent days, the tests are limited to people over 65, with pre-existing conditions and first responders. That means many people with the virus are walking around without knowing – possibly without even showing symptoms.
Gov. Andrew Cuomo said Tuesday the infection rate in New York is accelerating and the state could be as close as two weeks away from a crisis that puts 40,000 people in intensive care.
Such a surge, he said, would overwhelm hospitals, which now have just 3,000 intensive care unit beds statewide.
Areas outside the metropolitan area should take little comfort. As Cuomo said Tuesday, New York is merely ahead of the curve. All areas that haven’t adopted a stay-at-home policy should do so now.
Trump, who has declared himself a war president, has refused to take charge of the country’s response, saying it is up to states’ governors and, in some cases, city mayors to respond.
This is as if a foreign power fired missiles at New York and the federal government responded by sending New York weapons.
The governors of the most affected states have filled the country’s leadership void with a presidential-type leadership missing in the White House.
This has included doing what health officials said is the best way to defeat the virus – by ordering non-essential businesses to close and residents to confine themselves at home.
Cuomo and other governors have also been left to fend mostly by themselves in the face of shortages of beds and ventilators and equipment to protect health care providers, such as masks, face shields and surgical gowns.
Trump promised Sunday that 2,000 badly needed hospital beds were en route to New York. He also said the federal government has provided more than 186,000 masks, 84,000 face shields and 68,000 surgical gowns.
But that is a fraction of the millions of masks New York needs.
Governors have been justifiably angry with Trump’s refusal to invoke the Defense Production Act, which would allow the government to order companies to ramp up the production of ventilators and protective masks among other products.
“I do not understand the reluctance to use the federal Production Act to manufacture ventilators,” Cuomo said in a tweet Tuesday. “If not now, when?”
The unavoidable consequence of the stay-at-home orders been an economy in free fall that has seen employees lose their jobs, businesses close — perhaps for a time, perhaps forever — and the stock market crater.
These businesses need our support as well as aid from the state and federal governments.
In the face of this economic fallout – and amid the calls of Wall Street executives for relief – Trump suggested Monday he would press for those restrictions to be relaxed by Easter, which falls on April 12.
“If it were up to the doctors, they’d say let’s keep it shut down, let’s shut down the entire world . . . and let’s keep it shut for a couple of years. We can’t do that.” Trump said.
There are two problems with this. The restrictions were imposed by governors and mayors. Trump doesn’t have the legal authority to remove the restrictions, although he might encourage people to ignore those in place and other governors not to impose them.
The second problem is that health officials say that relaxing those restrictions could significantly increase the death toll from the virus.
Dan Patrick, the lieutenant governor of Texas, has suggested that he and “lots of grandparents” would be willing to risk death from coronavirus to prevent the U.S. economy from tanking under the weight of social distancing measures that he fears will affect his grandchildren and lead to the “loss” of America.
Trump has seemed to embrace this approach, pointing out how 30,000 people a year die in auto accidents – far more than those who have died so far in the United States from the coronavirus.
But scientists – people who actually know something about dealing with viruses – offer a frightening picture if the stay-at-home restrictions are relaxed now.
Tom Inglesby, the director of the Center for Health Security at the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health, echoed a respected group of British epidemiologists following Trump’s promise to relax restrictions.
“Anyone advising the end of social distancing now needs to fully understand what the country will look like if we do that. COVID would spread widely, rapidly, terribly, could kill potentially millions in the year ahead with huge social and economic impact across the country,” Inglesby tweeted.
Does anyone really think that people will rush to stores and restaurants while hospitals are overwhelmed and the death toll rises?
Efforts are underway by the state officials, Congress and the Federal Reserve to rescue the economy from collapse.
But they must understand that this is a health problem first and an economic one second. Halfway measures in which the restrictions are lifted will only lengthen the pandemic’s grip and cause additional pain to businesses.
The federal and state governments must continue efforts underway to protect people and companies from the economic cost of this disruption until the health problem subsides.