WASHINGTON (CN) — The world is knocking on the door of its second opportunity to suppress the novel coronavirus, the World Health Organization said Wednesday, but at the White House, President Donald Trump renewed calls for America to focus on returning to business as usual – and soon.
“America continues to gain ground in the war against the virus,” Trump said during the late day White House coronavirus task force briefing. “The sooner we can get people back to work, back to school, back to normal, large sections of our country can go back sooner than other sections. We’re looking at that also, people are asking if that’s an alternative and I say absolutely it is an alternative.”
Meanwhile, the number of confirmed coronavirus cases is rising. On Wednesday, the U.S. death toll from the respiratory illness surpassed 840 while confirmed cases climbed to 61,167. Worldwide, the number of cases steadily barrels toward nearly a half million people, with the Johns Hopkins University Medicine tracker reporting over 436,000 people infected. The international death toll is now 19,648.
The statistics are bleak, but in a call for action and unity during a virtual press conference Wednesday before the White House briefing, World Health Organization director Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus stressed the importance of world governments putting the pandemic in a containment framework first.
There are still more than 150 countries with fewer than 100 Covid-19 cases, Ghebreyesus said.
Countries that have introduced lockdown measures already must use this time as a force-multiplier to “attack the virus” within their own borders, he said, not to reopen businesses or schools as the threat of a coronavirus resurgence looms around the corner.
Maximizing this time is critical, the WHO director said, and he encouraged all nations to deploy and train health care workforces, implement systems to find every suspected case of Covid-19 at the community level, increase testing capacity and production, identify key facilities used for treatment and isolation, develop clear quarantine plans for those who come into contact with the exposed; and finally, refocus every nation’s “whole of government” to suppress and control the virus so that the world can reach a coveted outcome: a return to normalcy.
“You have created a second window of opportunity,” Ghebreyesus said. “The question is how will you use it?”
Meanwhile in the U.S. Senate, lawmakers are trying to finalize a deal that would only begin to answer some of those questions.
Congress is on the cusp of passing a $2 trillion relief package that is expected to deliver assistance in the form of $1,200 checks for adults and $500 checks for children, with payments to adults phasing out as income increases. Treasury Secretary Steve Mnuchin said during Wednesday’s White House coronavirus taskforce briefing that payments could come in three weeks.
Relief is also coming through expanded unemployment insurance, loans for small businesses and a $500 billion stake for various industries. But the House of Representatives must make the next move after the Senate finalizes the deal.
Republicans like South Carolina Senator Lindsey Graham objected to the deal arguing it creates disincentives for workers to remain on unemployment. But Trump was confident the Senate would have the package ready for his “immediate” signature.
“It’s time people want to get back to work. People want to get back to work,” Trump said.
He said again he is hopeful the U.S. will effectively reopen by Easter.
“There are areas that possibly, probably – they won’t qualify. There are other areas that qualify almost now. We’ll have to see what happens. It’ll be an interesting period of time. I’d like to get our country back,” Trump said.
Taskforce coordinator Deborah Birx said over the next five days, before the administration’s 15-day social distancing deadline expires, Americans must remain vigilant. National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Disease director Dr. Anthony Fauci urged caution too.
China went “through the entire cycle of the curve” to see their numbers drop, he said. But with travel restrictions eased, Chinese officials reported Wednesday they are now seeing a reintroduction of imported cases.
“I know we’re going to be successful in putting this under control, but I think we’re going to have to remember we don’t want to import cases in,” Fauci said. “When you look at the inflection of the curves, we now have multiple countries that have gone through various phases of their outbreaks and you could learn something from them about where you are in your own outbreak.”
Once the new number of cases starts to flatten out, that doesn’t mean you declare victory. It means you’re at least on the way to where you want to go, he said.
Early signs from the Southern hemisphere, where it is winter, indicate Covid-19 might be seasonal as cases creep upward there.
“If, in fact, they have a substantial outbreak, it will be inevitable that we will get a cycle a second time,” Fauci said. “This emphasizes the need to do what we’re doing: develop a vaccine, test it quickly and try to get it ready so we can have it available for the next cycle and to do randomized controlled trials for drugs so we we’ll have a menu of safe and effective drugs. I know we’ll be successful in putting this down now, but we really need to be prepared for a new cycle.”