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Trump Plans to Rank Counties by Virus Risk in Back-to-Work Drive

March 26, 2020, 7:26 PM

President Donald Trump told U.S. governors in a letter that the federal government will rank counties according to their risk of a coronavirus outbreak, as he seeks to return Americans to work by his aspirational Easter deadline.

“My administration is working to publish new guidelines for state and local policymakers to use in making decisions about maintaining, increasing, or relaxing social distancing and other mitigation measures they have put in place,” Trump said in the Thursday letter, which followed a video conference with governors from the White House.

“This is what we envision: Our expanded testing capabilities will quickly enable us to publish criteria, developed in close coordination with the nation’s public health officials and scientists, to help classify counties with respect to continued risks posed by the virus,” he wrote.

Parts of the U.S. may be able to relent on social distancing practices that have crippled the economy as the country fights the coronavirus outbreak, Anthony Fauci, the director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, said in an interview.

“There are places in the country now where you want to look at carefully and say you know maybe you want to pull back a little bit on the restrictions so long as you don’t just say let it rip and say I don’t care what happens,” Fauci said in the interview Thursday conducted by NBA star Stephen Curry on Instagram. “So you treat New York City a little different than you treat Nebraska.”

CDC Warning

But the principal deputy director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, Anne Schuchat, warned in an interview that relenting on social distancing risks outbreaks in new parts of the country.

“It would be surprising to me, based on what I’ve seen about how this virus spreads, if it were not going to increase in many other parts of the country,” she said in an interview with The Hill. “I would be very reluctant to let up on measures in the nation as a whole. There are probably geographies where the virus hasn’t yet arrived in great force but where the health-care system needs to be prepared for it.”

And former President Barack Obama commented on the Fauci interview with Curry from his verified Instagram account: “Listen to the science. Do your part and take care of each other. Thank you, Steph and Dr. Fauci.”

Trump has said he would like to see social distancing relaxed and the economy re-opened by the Easter holiday, April 12. But many governors and public health authorities have warned that is too ambitious, and that ending social distancing early risks worsening the outbreak and causing more American deaths.

There had been more than 75,000 cases of the disease in the country as of Thursday and more than 1,000 deaths, according to Johns Hopkins University. The U.S. outbreak trails only those in Italy and China in size and is on pace to overtake them by the weekend. The World Health Organization has said the U.S. may become the new epicenter for the global pandemic.

Fauci said in an interview with National Public Radio earlier on Thursday that he’s encouraged Trump to be “very flexible” about his Easter goal. And White House counselor Kellyanne Conway said on Fox News Thursday that Trump is using Easter “as an example.”

“He’s listening to his health professionals,” she said. In a news conference on Monday, Trump declined to commit to following the advice of medical professionals like Fauci when deciding whether to encourage Americans to return to work.

“I’ll be listening to them and others we have who are doing a good job,” he said.

‘Containment,’ Testing

Fauci said in the NPR interview that parts of the country that relent on social distancing must practice “containment” of the disease -- testing and isolating people with symptoms, and tracing, testing and isolating their recent contacts.

“To be honest, we don’t have all that data now uniformly throughout the country to make those determinations,” he said.

It isn’t clear if the U.S. now has testing capacity to practice containment across the country. The strategy failed in states including New York, Washington and California in part because the federal government was slow to develop and distribute a functional test for the virus.

“The testing situation is infinitely better than what it was a few weeks ago,” Fauci told NPR. “We now have hundreds of thousands of tests out there. And in the next week or so, we’ll be having like a million a week. In the beginning, it was a slow start.”

The U.S. had performed about 433,000 coronavirus tests as of Thursday, according to the Covid 19 Tracking Project, which relies on state data. Substantially all of those tests were conducted in the past two weeks. There had been less than 10,000 performed through March 12, according to the project.

The first U.S. case of the disease was identified Jan. 20 in Washington state.

(Updates with Obama comment in eighth paragraph)

--With assistance from Josh Wingrove, Alex Wayne, Jordan Fabian, Mario Parker and Jennifer Epstein.

To contact the reporters on this story:
Justin Sink in Washington at jsink1@bloomberg.net;
Angelica LaVito in New York at alavito@bloomberg.net

To contact the editors responsible for this story:
Alex Wayne at awayne3@bloomberg.net

Justin Blum

© 2020 Bloomberg L.P. All rights reserved. Used with permission.

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