WASHINGTON — President Donald Trump painted a wishful view Wednesday of the U.S. response to the coronavirus pandemic, in which existing treatments can almost cure patients flooding hospitals, all schools will safely reopen this fall, and the country’s soaring cases are confined to a handful of states.
But the rosy assessment he issued at a White House news briefing — alone at the lectern without any top public health experts — was undermined by the alarming reality that on Wednesday, almost every metric showed just how badly America is losing its fight against the virus.
The number of daily deaths on Wednesday surpassed 1,100, the first time that mark had been reached since May 29. And total deaths in the United States since the start of the pandemic increased to more than 140,000.
California on Wednesday passed New York in the number of total confirmed coronavirus cases, according to data tracked by The Washington Post, as the pandemic once concentrated in the Northeast continued to boom in the South and the West.
With transmission rapidly spiking in many areas, governors in Indiana, Minnesota and Ohio joined the growing number of states mandating face coverings statewide. More than 30 states require people to wear masks.
Trump’s optimistic outlook Wednesday contrasted with his reluctant acknowledgment on Tuesday that America’s situation “will probably, unfortunately, get worse before it gets better.”
The president — once skeptical of the need for masks — declined to press for a nationwide mandate for masks, despite the near-universal urgings of public health experts. “Some of the governors are strong on masks, others aren’t. I think it’s really going to ultimately be up to them,” Trump said.
He said he was considering a mask requirement for the White House and federal properties in light of a mandate by local officials in the District of Columbia.
Similarly, Trump blamed the soaring number of infections on many things except for the rush in several states to reopen — which he championed and experts say is the primary cause for the sudden increased viral transmission in recent months.
“There are likely a number of causes for the spike,” said Trump. He said recent protests against police brutality had led people to relax mitigation efforts. He blamed holidays such as Memorial Day, young people gathering in bars and immigrants from Mexico. He also invoked China as ultimately responsible, calling the pathogen “the China virus.”
Pushing back on criticism that his administration has yet to provide the country with a national coordinated plan to thwart the virus, Trump boasted of a $1.95 billion deal announced Wednesday with pharmaceutical giant Pfizer and German biotechnology firm BioNTech to supply the federal government with 100 million doses of a possible coronavirus vaccine — the administration’s largest investment to date in a vaccine that has not yet been proved effective.
He also said his administration was going to focus more of its efforts on nursing homes — which local officials and health experts have sought for months. Trump said the federal government would distribute 15,000 rapid point-of-care diagnostic devices that can quickly provide test results.
Having such point-of-care testing ability in nursing homes could enable them to better stem outbreaks and alleviate pressure and lag time created by having to send test samples to overwhelmed labs. He also said the Department of Health and Human Services would be distributing an additional $5 billion to nursing homes.
After being hammered by critics for not showing empathy even as hundreds of thousands of Americans have mourned their loved ones, Trump read aloud from prepared remarks: “I want to send a message of support and hope to every senior citizen who has been dealing with the struggle of isolation in what should be the golden years of your life. We will get to the other end of the tunnel very quickly, we hope. The light is starting to shine.”
Trump praised his administration’s progress on developing possible vaccines and therapeutic treatments for the novel coronavirus. “That would be great if we could go into the hospital and cure people, and we’re at a position where we’re actually able to, to a certain extent, with what we have right now,” he said. But the most promising therapeutics currently do not cure patients with COVID-19, the disease caused by the virus. One drug has reduced the length of hospitalization in some patients. Another appears to reduce a percentage of deaths among patients who require supplemental oxygen.
In contrast to Trump’s optimism, in recent days, the surging numbers of coronavirus cases have prompted urgent questions among public health officials about just how dire the pandemic could get in the United States and what can be done about it.
On Wednesday, Robert Redfield, director of the Centers for Disease Control and Protection, told ABC News it was “very hard to predict” how bad the crisis could get, and he emphasized the importance of wearing face masks but would not commit to supporting a national mask mandate.
As transmission spirals out of control in several states, America is reaching a critical point, said Michael Osterholm, director of the University of Minnesota’s Center for Infectious Disease Research and Policy. Osterholm compared the virus’s spread to a dangerous phenomenon in forest fires. If such fires grow large enough, they can generate winds on their own, which fan the fire, making it hotter and spreading it further — a vicious, devastating cycle.
“The direction of these next few weeks could determine our trajectory for months to come. If we don’t shut down transmission in a meaningful way, we’re just going to burn hotter and hotter,” he said. “The case numbers are going to get to a point where our ability to reduce them is totally compromised. And there will no longer be choice in whether to lock down.”
In an open letter sent Wednesday to the Trump administration, Congress and governors, more than 150 public health experts asked U.S. leaders to reboot America’s pandemic response, saying, “Shut it down, start over, do it right.”
The letter, organized by the consumer advocacy organization U.S. Public Interest Research Group, was signed by epidemiologists, physicians and health experts from institutions including Brown, Columbia, Harvard and Northwestern.
They argued for shutting down all but essential businesses to buy time. But unlike earlier in the pandemic, they called for using that time to reinforce the infrastructure needed for testing, contact tracing and manufacturing personal protective equipment.
“Reopening before suppressing the virus isn’t going to help the economy,” they wrote in the letter. ‘Economists have gone on record saying that the only way to ‘restore the economy is to address the pandemic itself.’ “
In recent days, other epidemiologists have also begun pushing for some states to return to shutdowns. That’s because as outbreaks begin to spiral out of control in multiple states — such as Arizona, Florida and Texas — the strategies other countries have used to contain the virus, including testing, contact tracing and isolating infected people, no longer work.
Most areas of the United States still lack capacity to carry out all three missions, but that capacity has become even more strained as cases have risen. Labs say they are being overwhelmed, and it’s taking up to 10 days in some states to get test results, rendering them useless for combating the virus. With those delays, contact tracing has become impossible. And persuading people to self-isolate also becomes difficult.
“I’m not sure if the answer will be to do a full lockdown or a smarter lockdown,” Harvard epidemiologist Marc Lipsitch said. “But if we do nothing, it’s clear the virus will simply spread faster than we can catch up to it.”
On Wednesday, an influential model created by the Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation — widely known as IHME — at the University of Washington said wider mask-wearing by Americans had caused the institute to revise projections on how many people will die of COVID-19 by Nov. 1. Earlier, it had forecast 224,500 deaths by that date. Now, it estimates 219,900 deaths by Nov. 1 — a decrease of about 5,000 deaths.
If 95 percent of Americans wore masks when leaving their homes, that number would drop further to 185,900, IHME researchers said.
It’s imperative that the nation gains control of the pandemic soon because the fall could be even worse, disease trackers said.
“Once you get to the fall, you’ll have people spending even more time indoors. You may see some schools reopen, businesses starting up. You have the election, Thanksgiving, Christmas — all things that involve travel or crowds, or both,” said Eleanor Murray, an assistant professor of epidemiology at Boston University.
The arrival of flu season will further complicate matters, as patients inundate physician offices with coronavirus-like symptoms. And the only way to tell if they have the flu or the coronavirus is to test them through labs already stretched to capacity.
“However deep we dig ourselves in the hole right now, that’s our starting point in the fall for how much worse we will get,” Murray said. “That’s what really worries me when I look around our country right now.”
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The Washington Post’s Hannah Denham, Derek Hawkins and Carolyn Y. Johnson contributed to this report.