New York, April 16 (IANS) With signs that the COVID-19 pandemic may be abating in the worst affected areas, US President Donald Trump is grappling with how to open up the diverse nation while avoiding flareups and facing political opposition.
“The battle continues, but the data suggests that nationwide we have passed the peak on new cases,” Trump said on Wednesday at his news briefing while surveying the road ahead.
“These encouraging developments have put us in a very strong position to finalise guidelines for states on reopening the country,” the President said, adding that he will announce the plan on Thursday.
But Trump said that ultimately it will be up to the governors of the 50 states to actually open up their states – “some states much sooner than others”.
He had muddied the waters by saying earlier that he had the absolute powers to determine nationwide the easing of the restrictions and override governors and faced fierce opposition, but on Wednesday he acceded the authority to the state leadership.
Given the risks of the pandemic suppressed by social distancing measures returning with a vengeance, he has said the decision would be the most important he would be making.
Trump had said that he wanted to open up the country on April 12, Easter Sunday, but received a push back because of fears of the pandemic resurging. He took the advice of his medical advisers, Anthony Fauci and Deborah Brix, and agreed to postpone the opening.
Fauci is seen as the voice of reason and the figure inspiring confidence in the nation as he has sometimes openly disagreed with Trump. His OK on a Trump plan would get the president credibility.
Trump’s current marker is May 1, but he has said that would take the advice of the two doctors.
He said: “We think some of the states can actually open up before the deadline of May 1st.”
The US will likely follow a variation of the plan announced by Prime Minister Narendra Modi on Wednesday, which calls for restarting some vital areas of the economy with provisions for social distancing and keeping some hot areas under strict controls.
One difference will be that the US programme will be more decentralised and rely heavily on testing, both to identify those who are infected and those who have recovered and will less likely be at risk.
Under the shadow of the November election, pulling the nation out of the Stay-at-Home slumber is a political issue.
Trump would want to get the economy to rebound, while for some Democrats and many in the media prolonging the restrictions could be seen as helping defeat him.
Opposing Trump’s plans, Democrat Speaker Nancy Pelosi said in a letter her party members: “The truth is, from this moment on, Americans must ignore lies (of Trump) and start to listen to scientists and other respected professionals in order to protect ourselves and our loved ones.”
But New York’s Democratic Governor Andre Cuomo, who has risen to national prominence with his measured, reassuring daily briefings, has also been looking at easing restrictions.
“Some businesses can say they can open tomorrow,” he said.
However, he said, it will have to be done in a phased manner considering how essential the businesses are, the degree of risk in opening them, with some able to maintain social distancing and other precautions.
The Stay-at-Home orders have crippled the US economy, created shortages of essential goods, disrupted education and taken a psychological toll on people shut in for weeks, even as it saved lives.
New York City has hired 11,000 drivers out of business from the restrictions to distribute food to people on the verge of starvation because of the Stay-at-Home orders, while victims have been buried in mass graves by prisoners.
Trump said that some governors were “chomping at the bit to get going” but there are vast differences between states that have to be taken into account.
New York with 118,392 COVID-19 cases and 10,899 deaths as on Wednesday night and some other big cities have dominated the narrative of the pandemic giving an image of national catastrophe, but vast areas have so far been spared.
Birx said: “We do have nine states that have less than 1,000 cases and less than 30 new cases per day. So we’re looking at states and metro areas as individual — individual areas.”
Vice President Mike Pence said that “24 per cent of the counties of this country have no reported coronavirus cases. In fact, half of the states in America have less than 2,500 cases per state”.
In preparation for opening up the economy, Trump said: “Today, I spoke with the leaders of many of our nation’s most renowned companies and organisations on how to achieve the full resurgence of the American economy.
“These experts and innovators provided extremely productive feedback on how to safely reboot our economy.”
The business leaders included CEOs Sundar Pichai of Google and Satya Nadella of Microsoft.
Meeting the criteria for opening up the country would hinge on three factors.
One of them, flattening of the infection curve appears to be happening.
Another is ensuring that there is no flare up. For this ultimately mass vaccination would be needed.
But meanwhile, an anti-bodies test that helps determine who has recovered from the disease and would likely be immune would be needed to determine who could safely go to work. The tests are ready, but would have to be deployed on a mass scale.
These would identify a large proportion of those who were infected with COVID-19 but had no symptoms or mild ones and safely return to work.
Yet another would be creating conditions for social distancing in work environments.
(Arul Louis can be contacted at [email protected] and followed on Twitter @arulouis)