‘Way too early’: Health officials warn about perils of restarting economy

The internal debate is uniting strange bedfellows from the economic world, with National Economic Council Director Larry Kudlow, trade adviser Peter Navarro, the Wall Street Journal editorial board and the former chief executive of Goldman Sachs Lloyd Blankfein all calling for a quick return to the workplace. Powerful Trump advisers have joined the chorus, including Tom Fitton, president of Judicial Watch, a conservative government accountability group, and Laura Ingraham, a Fox News host.

Not all of Trump’s closest allies agree. Some have advocated for Trump to be as severe as necessary to slow the coronavirus spread.

“Try running an economy with major hospitals overflowing, doctors and nurses forced to stop treating some because they can’t help all, and every moment of gut-wrenching medical chaos being played out in our living rooms, on social media, and shown all around the world,” Republican Sen. Lindsey Graham, a close Trump ally, tweeted on Monday. “There is no functioning economy unless we control the virus.”

Any lifting of restrictions would happen gradually, people familiar with the discussions said, given the uncertainty about how case counts nationwide could grow over the next several weeks and widespread concerns about hospital capacity.

One option would be for the White House to offer guidance that huge swathes of the country return to business as usual, while hard hit states like New York and Washington remain under a greater lockdown, said three people briefed on the White House’s internal discussions.

Trump touched on the idea during his briefing.

“We can start thinking about as an example, parts of our country are very lightly affected,” he said, citing Nebraska and Idaho as examples.

And even before the end of the 15-day period, Vice President Mike Pence, who is leading the government’s coronavirus task force, said there will soon be new guidance for some first responders and critical infrastructure workers.

“Even if they’ve been exposed to someone with coronavirus, as long as they don’t have symptoms, [these employees] would be able to return to work immediately, wear a mask for two weeks, but otherwise return to the important roles that they play in all our communities,” Pence told reporters during a visit to the Federal Emergency Management Agency.

Still, governors and local leaders will have the ultimate authority over states and cities and the extent to which businesses remain shut down, argued one person familiar with the White House talks, setting up a potential showdown between federal and state officials.

Top administration health officials, including coronavirus response coordinator Deborah Birx, have warned that case numbers are likely to spike in the coming days as testing ramps up. Outside public health experts, meanwhile, emphasize that lags in testing results and reporting mean the government’s data is already about a week behind the reality on the ground.

That’s made it difficult for officials to know how much of an impact the last couple weeks of nationwide social distancing have had on the virus’ spread.

“I can tell you for sure, from a public health standpoint and experience with other outbreaks, we know we are clearly having an effect,” said Anthony Fauci, head of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Disease, during a White House briefing on Sunday. “But we can’t quantitate it for you accurately.”

Fauci, a veteran of six presidential administrations, has emerged as a key vessel for health officials’ more cautious views, said one person close to the Health and Human Services Department, due to the broad respect he enjoys inside and outside the administration and his willingness to contradict Trump in public. As the nation’s top infectious disease expert, Fauci has openly advocated for tough distancing measures, reasoning that it’s worth potentially overreacting if it means avoiding a worst-case public health scenario.

That blunt approach has sparked speculation that Fauci could fall out of favor or be sidelined by the president, especially after giving a series of candid interviews detailing his relationship with Trump.

But Fauci’s job is not seen as in immediate danger, given his role as one of the few widely trusted officials leading the coronavirus response.

“The president worries most about the stock market,” said the person close to HHS. “You want to see a fall in the stock market? Fire Tony Fauci, watch what happens.”

The showdown between Trump’s economic advisers and public health officials has been building for weeks, as the stock market plummeted and confirmed coronavirus cases climbed, prompting a cascade of restrictions that have disrupted American life and threatened to plunge the nation into a depression.

“You’re going to see a clash between the economists and the public health guys, no doubt about it,” said one person with knowledge of the debate.

A former HHS official described the situation as a debate between two “horrendous” paths — one that could dramatically remake the economy for the worse by maintaining the current harsh restrictions, and another that could exact a human toll “that will be unacceptable to Americans” if the virus continues spreading for months on end.

“This is like managing a wildfire,” the former official said. “There are controlled burns going on right now. The other alternative is just to let the fire run through.”

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