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Trump's target of May 1 restart from coronavirus looks iffy and maybe risky

Dr. Anthony Fauci, director of the National Institute

Dr. Anthony Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, with President Donald Trump last week. Credit: AP / Alex Brandon

Can we come out in May?

President Donald Trump is looking at May 1 as the day to realize the goal of starting to reopen the country. From health officials inside the administration and state leaders outside who appeared on Sunday's talk shows, there was hedging and doubt. A critical question is whether coronavirus testing will be widely available enough.

"All hands on deck to try to get more diagnostic tests in," said Dr. Stephen Hahn, commissioner of the Food and Drug Administration. Hahn said May 1 is "a target. And obviously, we're hopeful about that target, but I think it's too early to be able to tell that."

Dr. Anthony Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, said Sunday on CNN's "State of the Union" that there would likely be a "gradual re-entry of some sort of normality, some rolling re-entry" that "could probably start, at least in some ways, maybe next month." 

But Fauci cautioned that the approaches to ending social distancing measures would vary "depending where you are in the country" and the coronavirus conditions there. "When one starts to relax some of those restrictions, we know that there will be people who will be getting infected. I mean, that is just reality,” Fauci said. "The critical issue is to be able to, in real time, identify, isolate and contact-trace. That’s called containment.”

Governors and mayors ultimately have the say regarding the enforcement of stay-at-home orders in their states and cities. Gov. Phil Murphy of New Jersey, the second-worst-hit state, said that relaxing social distancing guidelines on May 1 could be catastrophic. "I fear, if we open up too early, and we have not sufficiently made that health recovery and cracked the back of this virus, that we could be pouring gasoline on the fire, even inadvertently," Murphy said on "State of the Union."

Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo said at a Sunday briefing that New York wants to reopen as soon as possible, but “we need to be smart in the way we reopen” because “the last thing” the hardest-hit state needs is “an uptick” in the COVID-19 infection rate that “we worked so hard to bring down.”

A Trump tweet late Sunday put the onus on the states to prepare: "Governors, get your states testing programs & apparatus perfected. Be ready, big things are happening. No excuses! The Federal Government is there to help. We are testing more than any country in the World. Also, gear up with Face Masks!" For more see, see Newsday's story by Scott Eidler.

Fauci: Delay was deadly

Did the nation wait too late by not adopting stay-at home policies until mid-March to slow the spread of coronavirus?

“Obviously if we had right from the very beginning shut everything down, it might have been very different. But there was a lot of pushback about shutting things down back then,” meaning in February, Fauci said on CNN's "State of the Union." Pushback from whom? Fauci didn't name the names.

"Obviously, you could logically say that if you had a process that was ongoing and you started mitigation earlier, you could have saved lives," Fauci said. "Obviously no one is going to deny that."

Fauci added a caveat: "I don't think you can say that we are where we are because of one factor." More than 20,000 people have died of COVID-19 in the U.S. and in excess of 550,000 have been infected.

How time was lost

Despite early obfuscation from China about its coronavirus outbreak in late 2019, the federal government had multiple warning signs in January. But key steps to prepare the nation for the coming pandemic were not taken, an Associated Press look back at the Trump administration's response finds.

Medical equipment was not stockpiled. Travel largely continued unabated. Urgent warnings were ignored by a president consumed by his impeachment trial and intent on protecting a robust economy that he viewed as central to his reelection chances, AP reported.

An array of figures inside Trump's government — from top White House advisers to experts deep in the Cabinet departments and intelligence agencies — identified the threat, sounded alarms and made clear the need for aggressive action, according to The New York Times.

But the president was slow to absorb the scale of the risk and to act accordingly, focusing instead on controlling the message, the Times said.

When Health and Human Services Secretary Alex Azar called with an update about the virus threat on Jan. 18 while the president was at Mar-a-Lago, Trump spent much of the conversation wanting to talk about vaping. Azar called again Jan. 30; Trump responded that he was being an alarmist.

Through February, Trump's public comments predicted the small number of active cases that reached the U.S. soon would diminish to zero. On Feb. 26, with stocks falling as reality began to set in, Trump erupted over a warning by a top Centers for Disease Control official, Dr. Nancy Messonnier, that severe disruption was coming and "it’s not so much of a question of if" but "exactly when."

Trump: Here's who to blame

With no live White House coronavirus briefings on Easter weekend, Trump stewed on Twitter at critics of his crisis management. Added to his blame list: a comment attributed to a businessman ally "that Congress was too distracted by the (phony) Impeachment Witch Hunt when they should have been investigating CoronaVirus."

There was also a tweet noting he had made history because every state in the nation is under presidential disaster declarations: "For the first time in history there is a fully signed Presidential Disaster Declaration for all 50 States. We are winning, and will win, the war on the Invisible Enemy!"

And there was a curious retweet of a supporter's message that ended with "Time to #FireFauci..."

Janison: Can't stay a world apart

The nationalism-versus-globalism debate has proved fairly useless in this enormous emergency, writes Newsday's Dan Janison.

Despite "America first" rhetoric, the Trump administration takes cues from abroad. The crisis in the oil markets is one example, with the U.S. lining up Russia and Saudi Arabia to agree to restrain production in the face of the shock drop in demand.

The World Health Organization is pointed to as a culprit in delayed reporting of China's outbreak, but Trump, still thinking about trade deals, shies away from personally criticizing China's President Xi Jinping.

Americans has had to glean lessons from the contagions in Italy and South Korea. Research on vaccines and treatments, meanwhile, goes on internationally, as it must. The health threat, and its economic damage, form one massive global disaster that knows no borders.

How Biden would reopen America

Joe Biden said widespread testing availability and a drastic drop in confirmed COVID-19 cases must take precedence before America can be reopened safely.

Even then, the presumptive Democratic presidential nominee acknowledged in a New York Times op-ed published Sunday: "Reopening the right way will still not be completely safe. Public health officials will need to conduct effective disease surveillance. Hospitals need to have the staff and equipment necessary to handle any local outbreaks, and we need an improved federal system to get help to these places as needed."

Biden said it's also critical to understand what Trump got wrong.

"As we prepare to reopen America, we have to remember what this crisis has taught us: The administration’s failure to plan, to prepare, to honestly assess and communicate the threat to the nation led to catastrophic results," the former vice president wrote. "We cannot repeat those mistakes."

More news on coronavirus

See a roundup of the latest pandemic news from Long Island and beyond by Newsday's reporting staff, written by Jesse Coburn.

For a full list of Newsday's coronavirus stories, click here.

What else is happening:

  • Navy Rear Adm. John Polowczyk — tasked by Trump with coordinating the federal government’s collection and distribution of medical supplies to hospitals nationwide — is a decorated officer who grew up in Manhasset. He has relatives working in Westchester and Long Island hospitals. Read a profile of Polowczyk by Newsday's Laura Figueroa Hernandez.
  • Trump mentioned in briefings late last month a friend who had fallen into a coma with coronavirus. He was referring to Stanley Chera, a New York real estate developer and major Trump donor. Chera died Saturday, according to TheRealDeal real estate news website. He was 78.
  • Trump administration officials are seeking ways to reduce wage rates for foreign guest workers on American farms as a way to help U.S. farmers struggling from the pandemic, NPR reported. The move is opposed both by immigrant-rights advocates and immigration hard-liners who decry making "cheap labor" even cheaper.
  • The New York Times examined an allegation by a former Senate aide, Tara Reade, who last month accused Biden of sexually assaulting her in 1993 while he was a senator. A Biden spokeswoman called her account false. The Times report reached no definitive conclusion, but found no corroboration from other former Biden staff members nor any comparable allegations against him. Several women have said Biden made them uncomfortable with hugs, kisses and touching.
  • Biden won the Alaska Democrats’ party-run presidential primary, beating Bernie Sanders days after the senator suspended his campaign. After in-person voting was called off, the balloting was conducted entirely by mail.
  • Trump has blocked potential emergency funding for the U.S. Postal Service, repeating an unsupported claim that higher rates for internet shipping companies Amazon, FedEx and UPS would fix its budget, The Washington Post reports. The pandemic has battered revenue for the agency that employs around 600,000 workers.

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