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Understanding the coronavirus as the pandemic reaches its peak is an exercise in holding onto two apparently contradictory messages at the same time — in some ways, an exercise in hope. While the U.S. surpassed Italy on Saturday for the most reported deaths from COVID-19 in the world, Dr. Anthony Fauci, the director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Disease, told CNN’s State of the Union on Sunday that the outbreak is slowing down, and that the country could open “in some ways” next month.
Fauci expressed what he called a “cautious optimism,” citing the decreasing numbers of New York City hospitalizations, intensive-care check-ins, and intubations that suggest the pandemic is “starting to level off.” In states with more moderate outbreaks than New York — which has more coronavirus patients than any other country — he said that at the end of April, “we can look around and say, ‘Okay, is there any element here that we can safely and cautiously start pulling back on?’ If so, do it. If not, then just continue to hunker down.” When asked when parts of the country could ease up on social distancing, Fauci said “at least in some ways, maybe next month.”
Though Fauci’s message would placate President Trump in his goal of bringing the economy back to something resembling normalcy to protect his electoral prospects, the NIAID director added a note on State of the Union that could further jeopardize his potentially rocky employment. Responding to a New York Times report on Saturday stating that public-health officials, including Fauci, determined on February 21 that social distancing would be necessary, he said “it is what it is” in regard to a question about Trump’s decision to implement the measures almost a month later. “I mean, obviously you could logically say that if you had a process that was ongoing and you started mitigation earlier, you could have saved lives,” he added. “Obviously, no one is going to deny that.”
While Fauci’s projection of a soft May opening is good news, actually returning to a state of normalcy will be a tremendous challenge with very real consequences, considering the high risk of a second wave determined by the Department of Health and Human Services. Before any genuine progress can be made, serological tests will have to be rolled out on a massive scale to find out just how many Americans have been exposed to the virus; theoretically, they’d also determine who could return to work without risk of getting sick, or infecting others. But perhaps more concerning than any practical barrier to opening the economy is the reality that the Trump administration has no endgame for the crisis, despite pushing hard for a life after the shutdown.