Draft modeling from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention projects about 200,000 new cases of COVID-19 “each day” through the end of the month, the New York Times reported on Monday. By June 1, the virus may kill as many as 3,000 people per day. The CDC’s report was unfinished, and Justin Lessler, the epidemiologist who created the model, told the Washington Post that the data reported by the Times ought to be understood as one of many possible scenarios. Past trends suggest the death toll could be even higher — and some Republican lawmakers, encouraged by President Trump himself, are poised to bring the grimmest possibilities into being.
Republican governors are eager to reopen their states, even though voters themselves largely support ongoing social distancing. In Trump, these self-appointed defenders of the free market have an ally. But the CDC report underscores a growing fear. If lawmakers lift lockdowns prematurely, they could sacrifice thousands of lives. The right wing doesn’t seem to care.
A persistent strain of conservative rhetoric insists that a bit of death is the unavoidable price of economic revitalization. The pandemic brings that tendency to the fore, in ways both explicit and implied. “WE CANNOT LET THE CURE BE WORSE THAN THE PROBLEM ITSELF,” Trump tweeted in March. Georgia’s Republican governor, Brian Kemp, has already reopened his state, despite a severe outbreak. The lockdowns can’t last forever, but the people in charge don’t seem to have a very good plan.
Take Trump’s “Opening Up America” strategy, announced in April. The president outlined a strategy to reopen the country in phases, beginning on May 1. “Every state is very different,” he said. “They are all beautiful. We love them all, but they are very, very different. If they need to remain closed, we will allow them to do that. And if they believe it’s time to reopen, we will provide them the freedom and guidance to accomplish that task and very, very quickly, depending on what they want to do.” It may be true that some states can reopen more quickly and aggressively than others, as long as their outbreaks are slowing down. But Trump’s strategy leaves a lot to be desired. He’s touted contact-tracing, but America’s testing capacity and tracing infrastructure aren’t at the scale necessary to contain the pandemic. And if states lift lockdowns and implicitly signal an end to social distancing too early, rates of infection could surge. “There remains a large number of counties whose burden continues to grow,” the CDC warned in its report.
Trump is surely aware of the risk by now and has simply concluded that it either doesn’t matter or that it’s a hoax dreamed up by malicious epidemiologists. On Monday, the White House didn’t wait long to push back on the Times report.
The administration’s full statement calls Trump’s strategy a “a scientific driven approach that the top health and infectious disease experts in the federal government agreed with. The health of the American people remains President Trump’s top priority, and that will continue as we monitor the efforts by states to ease restrictions.”
If only that were true. The CDC report might be unfinished, but the possibilities it projects are realistic enough. If Trump and governors like Kemp carry the day, the near future may be even more tragic than the model suggests.