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President Trump shows impatience with public health experts on coronavirus

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WASHINGTON — With the nation’s economy shuddering to a stop, millions of Americans out of work and another cliff dive in the stock market Monday, President Donald Trump and his allies began showing public and private impatience with the extreme restrictions federal and state officials have ordered to deal with the exploding coronavirus crisis.

Even as U.S. infections and deaths jumped again, and additional cities and states issued stay-at-home orders, Trump said he will reassess his administration’s call to close schools and offices, encourage people to work from home and avoid gatherings after a 15-day period that ends March 30.

“WE CANNOT LET THE CURE BE WORSE THAN THE PROBLEM ITSELF,” Trump tweeted in capital letters just before midnight Sunday. “AT THE END OF THE 15 DAY PERIOD, WE WILL MAKE A DECISION AS TO WHICH WAY WE WANT TO GO!”

Epidemiologists say social distancing is necessary to slow the spread of coronavirus infections, and Trump’s surgeon general, Dr. Jerome Robbins, warned Monday that the outbreak will worsen this week because “not enough people … are taking this seriously,” citing those flocking to beaches in California or looking at cherry blossoms on the National Mall in Washington.

“We really, really need everyone to stay at home,” he said on NBC.

Vice President Mike Pence indicated Sunday at a White House briefing that the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention would issue new guidelines as soon as Monday to allow more people to resume working outside their homes if they wear masks.

That could allow states with relatively low numbers of confirmed infections to start to ease the most onerous restrictions. Whether Trump will lift the federal restrictions that have caused economic carnage isn’t clear.

Long disdainful of scientists and other experts, he is known to be frustrated with Dr. Anthony Fauci, who has been given a wide berth to drive White House policy in private meetings and to explain and defend it in public.

Fauci, the nation’s top epidemiologist for decades who has won bipartisan accolades, has at times publicly corrected or contradicted Trump with his blunt talk on the need to take aggressive measures to stop COVID-19, the disease caused by the virus, from overwhelming hospitals and potentially causing hundreds of thousands of deaths.

Trump’s tweets often reflect what he sees on cable TV, and his suggestion that he might lift the public health guidelines echoed language used Sunday by Fox News commentator Steve Hilton. On Monday, Trump retweeted Fox News personality Tomi Lahren, who equated the limits to “house arrest.”

Although coronavirus infections have been reported in every state, the worst hit states so far are on the coasts, including California and New York, both Democratic strongholds. For some of Trump’s supporters in more rural areas, the threat remains more abstract for now.

With warnings that unemployment could reach 20% or higher, Trump now faces the prospect that the nation will undergo a severe recession as he faces reelection. Until recently, he based his campaign almost entirely on the booming stock market, low unemployment and growing economy since he took office in 2017.

After his 90-minute White House news conference ended Sunday evening, Trump returned to his residence and began to work the phones, checking in on outside advisers and friends, many in the media and business world.

The president’s tweet hours later, according to one individual in touch with the president, seemed to reflect those conversations: shared concerns about the economic devastation being wrought by the public health response, as well as Trump’s frustrations with Fauci, who heads the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases.

In recent interviews, Fauci made clear he believed people should limit their contacts for several more weeks at least. He also acknowledged the daylight between his views of the crisis and the president’s.

At Saturday’s briefing, after Trump brushed off complaints a reporter read from doctors and nurses about the dangerous shortage of masks and other personal protective equipment, Fauci stepped to the lectern and said he knew the concerns reflected the reality at many hospitals.

Fauci was asked in an interview with Science magazine published Sunday night how he’s managed not to get fired despite contradicting the president in public.

“To his credit, even though we disagree on some things, he listens. He goes his own way. He has his own style. But on substantive issues, he does listen to what I say,” Fauci said.

But Fauci has struggled to get his message through at times. For example, he told Science that members of the coronavirus task force should stand farther apart when they give briefings.

“When you’re dealing with the White House, sometimes you have to say things one, two, three, four times, and then it happens,” Fauci said. “So I’m going to keep pushing.”

He also said that he had not, and would not, call the coronavirus the “Chinese virus,” as Trump does.

Some who have spoken to Trump in recent days have sought to exploit the president’s annoyance with Fauci, who has prioritized public health over the economy.

“Fauci is out of control,” said the person who spoke with Trump on Sunday and spoke on condition of anonymity because the conversation with the president was private.

“Just because he’s a doctor and a good media communicator doesn’t mean he can control the daily lives of all Americans. His views should be carefully considered but we never elected him, and he’s one input of many.”

Though Fauci has tried to choose his words carefully, many public health and governing experts say the disconnect with the president is symptomatic of a disjointed response to what is becoming the biggest crisis of his presidency.

“At the end of the day, the fish rots from the head. It starts at the top,” said Chris Whipple, who wrote a book on White House chiefs of staff and presidential decision-making. “He really should be empowering a wartime czar to deal with this and then stepping away.”

The scientists around Trump have pleaded with him to keep the social distancing plan in place and to use his position to promote vigilance and rebuke Americans who continue to congregate at malls and beaches.

Pence, who leads the coronavirus task force, has stuck to that script, thanking the American people Sunday night for sacrificing “on behalf of their own health and the health of their family, but more importantly, on behalf of the most vulnerable among us.”

Trump has vacillated in his response since it began. After repeatedly dismissing the pandemic threat, and suggesting it would soon disappear, he announced national guidelines March 16 and warned it could last through the summer, later claiming he always knew it was a pandemic.

His initial optimism did little to calm Wall Street, and reports of dangerous delays in getting critical supplies to hospitals have put the White House in a defensive crouch even as Congress moved toward approving a stimulus package that had soared to $1.8 trillion by Monday.

Trump wasn’t the only leader struggling with the balance between physical and economic health.

New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo, a Democrat whose state has become an epicenter for the contagion, said Monday that government officials must begin to plan “the pivot back to economic functionality”

But Cuomo suggested a more gradual shift than the 15-day window floated by Trump.

“You can’t stop the economy forever. We have to start to think about, does everyone stay out of work? Should young people go back to work sooner?” he said. “You’ve turned off the engine quickly. How do you now start, or begin to restart, or plan to restart that economic engine?”

The danger is reopening schools and offices, or reducing other restrictions too soon could backfire in lost lives and economic devastation.

“The worst thing for the economy would be to go back to work and see an upsurge in cases again,” Jeffrey Levi, a public health expert at George Washington University in Washington. “That’s the balancing act that policy makers need to perform.”

Levi said the country may need other public health measures, including widespread testing and temperature checks, to keep a handle on the coronavirus when people ultimately return to work.

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