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Trump sets expectations: Coronavirus toll will be 'very, very painful'

President Donald Trump with Vice President Mike Pence

President Donald Trump with Vice President Mike Pence and Dr. Anthony Fauci, the top federal infectious diseases official, at the Tuesday briefing. Credit: Getty Images / Win McNamee

Newsday is opening this story to all readers so Long Islanders have access to important information about the coronavirus outbreak. All readers can learn the latest news at newsday.com/LiveUpdates.

American horror story for the ages

Donald Trump was as somber and grim as Americans have ever seen him, and the president understood that as he tried to explain why he had sounded more optimistic for so long. “I’m not about bad news," Trump said. "I want to give people hope. I want to give people a feeling that we all have a chance."

At Tuesday's coronavirus briefing, Trump was the bearer of historically bad news. "This is going to be one of the roughest two or three weeks we've ever had in our country," he said. It will be "very, very painful" and "we're going to lose thousands of people."

According to the latest statistic models presented by the government's top health experts, Drs. Anthony Fauci and Deborah Birx, between 100,000 and 240,000 people could die even as the nation remains largely shut down. Without those measures to limit the virus's spread, said Birx, the dead could reach 1.5 million to 2.2 million.

Comparing the projected toll with the nation's dead in the world wars, Trump said, "We're going through the worst thing that the country's probably ever seen."

This time, it was Fauci, the voice of science-based foreboding, who offered cautious reasons for hope of holding the casualty count below 100,000. While "we are continuing to see things go up,” Fauci said. “We cannot be discouraged by that because the mitigation" — measures such as social distancing — "is actually working and will work.”

There’s also a wild card when it comes to treatment: whether drug therapies such as a combination Trump has touted — an antimalarial and an antibiotic — can make a difference. It's being tried already on thousands of patients, and Fauci said he would want to see a rigorous test of its effectiveness.

One of the statistical models projected that by Aug. 4, if social distancing conditions remain the same, some 15,800 New Yorkers will have lost their lives to COVID-19. Birx said the 48 states that have not yet seen as terrible a spike in cases as in New York and New Jersey still have a chance to flatten their curves of rising hospitalizations and deaths. For more, see Newsday's story by Laura Figueroa Hernandez.

Trump: New York acted 'late'

While Trump repeatedly rejected suggestions, based on his comments as recently as last week, that he was slow to recognize the magnitude of the COVID-19 threat, he said New York and New Jersey should have implemented stay-at-home measures sooner.

“For whatever reason, New York got off to a late start and you see what happens when you get off to a late start. New Jersey … and I think both governors are doing an excellent job … but they got off to a very late start,” Trump said Tuesday.

New York wasn't the first state to implement social distancing measures. That happened in California, where the disease hasn't reached New York levels, the Los Angeles Times reported. Six counties in the San Francisco area on March 16 ordered residents to shelter in place, and California Gov. Gavin Newsom imposed a statewide restriction on March 19. On March 20, New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo issued a stay-at-home order, effective March 22.

Two days after the New York restriction began, Trump was still voicing doubt about extreme actions to stop the spread, saying, "We lose thousands of people a year to the flu. We never turn the country off."

A slap at Cuomo

Trump derided Cuomo’s protest that New York has been forced into a bidding war for ventilators, competing with other states and FEMA to secure lifesaving equipment.

“Well, he shouldn’t be complaining because we gave him a lot of ventilators," Trump said at Tuesday's briefing. “No matter what you give, it’s never enough."

Trump added: "I think he'd like to run for president."

Cuomo was far from alone among governors who have criticized parts of the federal response. Maryland Gov. Larry Hogan, a Republican, described as “just not true” Trump’s claim that getting access to testing is no longer a problem. Hogan said states are “flying blind,” without enough data to assess the full scope of the outbreak.

Another risk Trump saw: his base

Trump has come a long way since last week, when he spoke of getting America going and packing the churches on Easter Sunday, April 12. He has concluded that the cure isn't worse than the disease after all.

Not with horrific predictions of six-figure deaths as a better-case scenario, if social distancing guidelines are kept in place in the face of economic carnage. But that may not be all that factored into his thinking.

One former White House official told the Los Angeles Times that Trump’s reelection campaign advisers are terrified that the pandemic, which so far has hit largely Democratic cities the hardest, will soon reach the rural areas that remain deeply loyal to Trump. 

The advisers have warned Trump that the political consequences at the ballot box in November will be even worse if he is seen as too lax. “Pay attention. You’re going to lose the election,” the ex-official said, is how the political stakes were presented.

Further reinforcing the point, political advisers described for Trump polling that showed that voters overwhelmingly preferred to keep containment measures in place over sending people back to work prematurely, The New York Times reported.

Janison: Otherwise, business as usual

While coronavirus crisis has eclipsed virtually every other concern for the nation, the Trump administration is keeping up with some of its usual business, including policies that continue to be deeply controversial, writes Newsday's Dan Janison.

The White House announced it's moving ahead with plans to weaken federal rules on motor-vehicle fuel efficiency. Critics say, as before, that the move will increase air pollution and boost gasoline consumption.

The administration also is moving ahead with the Mexican border wall, which involves siphoning $790 million, earlier allocated to National Guard units, to construct the barrier. Health professionals in Arizona are warning that wall workers living in close quarters along the border could spread the virus when they return to their families.

Infrastructure Week at end of tunnel?

More than three years of delay on Trump's 2016 promise for a massive infrastructure program spawned a long-running joke about an "Infrastructure Week" that never arrives.

Now Trump is bringing the idea back — bigger than ever with a $2 trillion price tag — as he looks for ways to spur economic recovery for when the pandemic is behind us.

He tweeted Tuesday: “It should be VERY BIG & BOLD, Two Trillion Dollars, and be focused solely on jobs and rebuilding the once great infrastructure of our Country!” Asked later at the coronavirus briefing how he'd pay for it, Trump said, “We’re going to borrow the money at zero-percent interest.”

Blame it on impeachment?

Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell on Tuesday blamed the Democrats’ push to impeach Trump in January for distracting the Trump administration from the threat posed by coronavirus.

"I think it diverted the attention of the government because everything every day was all about impeachment,” McConnell said in an interview on radio's “The Hugh Hewitt Show.”

But for Trump to agree, he would have to accept that he was slow off the mark in responding to the looming crisis. So he disowned that alibi.

At Tuesday's briefing, he conceded that impeachment "probably did" divert his attention. But he added: "I don't think I would have done any better had I not been impeached. I think that's a great tribute to something, maybe to me."

All the coronavirus news

For a roundup of major pandemic developments, see the story from Newsday's reporting staff, written by Bart Jones.

For a complete list of Newsday stories, click here.

What else is happening:

  • Trump said he is going to avoid travel. "I think it's important I remain healthy," he said. "You saw what happened with Boris Johnson," the British prime minister who tested positive for COVID-19.
  • The Trump administration has decided against reopening Obamacare enrollment to uninsured Americans during the coronavirus pandemic, rejecting calls from health insurers and Democrats to create a special sign-up window, Politico reported. A White House official said the administration is "exploring other options."
  • Trump opposed a Democratic-led push for vote-by-mail, same-day registration and early voting as states seek to run safer elections amid the pandemic. "If you’d ever agreed to it, you’d never have a Republican elected in this country again,” he said during an appearance Monday on "Fox & Friends."
  • The Justice Department's watchdog has found widespread failures in the FBI’s handling of a secretive surveillance program that came under scrutiny after the Russia investigation. The bureau was accused by Trump and his allies of political bias for eavesdropping on former campaign adviser Carter Page, but Inspector General Michael Horowitz found systemic problems in wiretap applications in more than two dozen national security cases.
  • As the virus spreads, New York Attorney General Letitia James and Long Island investigators are stepping up enforcement efforts against nonessential businesses that won’t close, people refusing to keep social distance and virus-related scams often aimed at military families and the elderly, Newsday's Michael Gormley reports.
  • The Military Officers Association of America has joined growing calls in Congress for the Pentagon to scrap or at least postpone during the pandemic some long-term plans to cut staff at military hospitals and send military retirees to civilian health care, Military.com reported.

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