WASHINGTON (CN) – As the World Health Organization warned the U.S. could become the next major epicenter of the coronavirus pandemic, President Donald Trump bemoaned interruptions to daily life Tuesday and said he wants the economy reopened by Easter.
“I’d love to have it open by Easter, it’s such an important day for other reasons, but I would love to have the country opened up and just raring to go by Easter,” Trump said during a virtual town hall hosted by Fox News.
Easter Sunday is April 12, less than three weeks away. Public health experts have warned against pulling back on social distancing and other restrictions so soon, saying the U.S. has yet to hit its peak of virus cases.
Though regular White House coronavirus task force briefings have become a near daily occurrence and air publicly on CSPAN, Trump and other members of the task force fielded questions Tuesday morning from Twitter, Facebook and other social media venues about the pandemic for the Fox News town hall.
The town hall was moderated by Fox anchors Bill Hemmer and Harris Faulkner and pundits like Mehmet Oz, known as Dr. Oz, also joined the forum. The White House conducted its usual briefing late Tuesday, where much of what Trump and other task force members said earlier in the day was repeated.
“Our country is not built to shut down, our people are built of vim and vigor and energy,” Trump said to Hemmer. “I said I don’t want the cure to be worse than the problem itself.”
Trump, referring to his own comments from this past weekend, explained he is concerned that state and local shutdowns to limit the spread of the virus known as Covid-19 have been overly damaging to the U.S. economy.
“You can get worse this way … where it literally goes from being the most prosperous economy, and then all of the sudden we’re supposed to shut it down? And now we have to pay people not to go to work?” Trump said as he noted how the U.S. has historically lost “thousands of people to the flu.”
“We didn’t turn the whole country off,” the president added, saying thousands of people are killed in car accidents annually but it never prompted a shutdown of the auto industry.
As of Tuesday afternoon, the number of confirmed Covid-19 cases around the globe has surpassed 400,000, according to a Johns Hopkins University tracker. There are over 49,000 confirmed cases in the U.S. and the American death toll hit 600 on Tuesday.
Fox relied on the Johns Hopkins University numbers during the virtual town hall instead of figures from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, which has lagged with its data. The agency only updates statistics at 4 p.m. on weekdays. A representative for the CDC did not return multiple requests for comment.
Trump said Tuesday people must use common sense to slow the spread of the virus but he wants to see certain sectors of industry brought online again soon.
“You’re going to lose a number of people to the flu but you’re going to lose more people by putting the country into a major recession,” he said. “You’re going to have suicides by the thousands, you’re going to have instability. You can’t just say ‘Let’s close up the United States of America, the most successful country in the world by far.’”
Covid-19 has a higher mortality rate the common flu and unlike flu, there are no vaccines available. They are still more than a year off from mass production, experts say.
Coronavirus also spreads faster. Unlike common flu, which takes roughly two days to show, Covid-19 symptoms take up to 14 days to emerge, meaning people can have the virus and spread it for days before even realizing they are contagious.
Testing capacity is increasing across the U.S., but when asked whether broader testing would be available soon, Vice President Mike Pence noted the Food and Drug Administration’s recent approval of a swab test.
Immunologist Deborah Birx, who serves as coordinator of the task force, said the swabs are self-administered in the sense that people might soon be able to drive to a testing site, receive the swab in their car, perform it themselves and submit the specimen securely.
Finger-prick blood tests are also being explored by the FDA. These tests could identify coronavirus antibodies and confirm whether a person had it in their system already.
Birx said labs spanning the U.S. are capable of conducting 50,000 to 70,000 tests daily but believes capacity could soon reach 150,000 tests daily.
Later, during a separate meeting of the coronavirus task force, Birx said the administration remains “deeply concerned” about outbreaks continuing to stem from areas like New York which have been inundated by the virus. Roughly 56% of U.S. Covid-19 cases overall stem from the New York metro area, as do 60% of all new cases, Birx said.
“And there are 31% of the people succumbing to this disease,” Birx added. She then noted that this mortality rate, when compared with other regions in the U.S., means that anyone who has left New York in the last few days may have been exposed and should self-quarantine.
“Everybody who was in New York should be self-quarantined for the next 14 days to ensure that virus doesn’t spread to others,” Birx said. “No matter where they have gone, whether it’s Florida or North Carolina or out to the far reaches of Long Island.”
New cases have cropped up in Long Island in recent days which suggests people have left the city, she said.
During Tuesday’s town hall, Vice President Pence also said the FDA is working on off-label use of the antimalarial drug hydroxychloroquine and noted there is “no barrier” to that supply.
Pharmaceutical giant Bayer will produce “massive amounts” of it, while also engaging in clinical trials of potential vaccines, the vice president said. Thousands of hydroxychloroquine doses were distributed to New York on Tuesday morning.
Pence also said the Federal Emergency Management Agency shipped 4,000 ventilators to New York and expects another 2,000 shipped from the national stockpile on Wednesday. Communities hardest hit take priority.
New York has acquired 7,000 ventilators but needs roughly 30,000 more to treat patients and avoid crashing the state’s medical infrastructure, New York Governor Andrew Cuomo said Tuesday.
Trump lamented Cuomo’s remarks during Tuesday’s virtual town hall.
“We’re building him hospitals, we’re building him medical centers and he was complaining about — we’re probably doing more, definitely more than anybody else — and he was talking about ventilators,” the president said.
Ahead of the town hall, Treasury Secretary Steve Mnuchin indicated progress in negotiations on stimulus funding for hamstrung businesses. Trump told Fox the deal fell apart this weekend because Democrats asked for “terrible” things like “windmills that kill the birds and ruin the real estate” and failed to amply consider the impact to corporations.
“Workers first but you have to protect companies like Boeing. We can’t lose some of these companies,” Trump said. “We have a pent up energy that is unbelievable and we will bring it back fast.”