Here’s a massive messaging problem facing President Trump as he indicates he wants to curtail his administration’s social-distancing recommendations as soon as next week: How do you argue for reopening the economy when science says doing so will cost lives?

Trump’s comments have driven to the forefront a public debate over whether and when to put people back together in public. Those who think we should, and soon, are struggling with how to articulate that in a way that doesn’t sound callous. They haven’t been successful.

The chief example of this is Texas Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick (R), who is 69, old enough to be in a high-risk category for the virus. He literally said he would be willing to risk his life to go back to work.

“No one reached out to me and said, ‘As a senior citizen, are you willing to take a chance on your survival in exchange for keeping the America that all America loves for your children and grandchildren?’ ” he said Monday on Fox News. “And if that’s the exchange, I’m all in.”

Patrick used his own personal willingness to be more exposed to the coronavirus to argue that the rest of the nation should be okay with it, too. “I just think there are lots of grandparents out there in this country like me,” he said. The not-so-subtle message: Senior citizens’ lives are worth the risk.

Contrast that with new New York Times reporting that as Fox News was downplaying the seriousness of the virus to its viewers, the channel’s chairman, Rupert Murdoch, canceled his 89th birthday party “out of concern” for his health.

Fox News host Ed Henry didn’t come off much better Tuesday when trying to frame Trump’s thinking on reopening the economy to pose a question.

“The best estimate of the mortality rate is … less than 1 percent,” he said. “Now, every life matters, and you don’t want to minimize any of them. But when the mortality rate is that low, what is the balance?” He asked Peter Hotez, a doctor and global public health expert, what he’d advise the president weighing those mortality rates.

President Trump said he wanted to reopen the economy by Easter during a town hall hosted by Fox News on March 24. (The Washington Post)

Hotez, as nearly every public health expert has done, pushed back on the notion that the coronavirus isn’t that serious or that people can be protected from it if they’re out and about: “That may sound like a low mortality rate, but that’s about five to six times higher than influenza,” he said, stressing that hospitals are already overwhelmed, including by people under 44. “Even though they’re not dying, their lives are being saved by being in ICU and being taken care of."

Trump has tried to flip the “death” argument the other way, that people will die if the economy doesn’t open up: “I’m talking about where people suffer massive depression, where people commit suicide, where tremendous death happens,” he said Monday.

We haven’t seen evidence of mental health strains from a shuttered economy causing the kind of death toll he’s talking about. And as Trump considers lifting federal social-distancing guidelines, the World Health Organization is warning that the United States could be the next epicenter of the virus.

Tom Inglesby, head of the Johns Hopkins Center for Health Security, warned that disaster would greet Americans if they went back to loosened restrictions on public gatherings.

“To drop all these measures now would be to accept that COVID [patients] will get sick in extraordinary numbers all over the country, far beyond what the US health care system could bear,” he tweeted Monday night as Trump was holding a news conference indicating he was inclined to loosen social distancing as soon as next week.

Some prominent Republican lawmakers are also saying it’s a bad idea.

“It would be a major mistake to suggest any change of course when it comes to containment,” Sen. Lindsey O. Graham (S.C.) told my colleagues Monday, citing Anthony S. Fauci, a prominent White House coronavirus task force member urging more social distancing. “I just spoke with Dr. Fauci — he believes that, if anything, we should be more aggressive and do more … You can’t have a functioning economy if you have hospitals overflowing.”

And Tuesday, Rep. Liz Cheney (Wyo.), who is in House Republican leadership, argued that even if you push people out the door and to work, “There will be no normally functioning economy” if Americans are overrun by the virus.

Trump’s argument also ignores that it isn’t only older people who will die of the coronavirus. And then what about all the people who need medical care for the serious non-coronavirus medical problems that Americans face every day?

“That’s not just for folks with coronavirus, that’s for all the health-care challenges,” New York Mayor Bill de Blasio (D), speaking from one of the hardest-hit areas in the nation, told Fox News on Tuesday. “All the folks with cancer and heart disease. We have to protect everyone in danger by keeping our hospitals going. And that means that social distancing is the key to slowing this thing down.”

The coronavirus is forcing society to weigh extremely difficult decisions, about livelihoods vs. lives. If the virus rampage gets worse, medical professionals warn we could be weighing lives vs. lives. Against that backdrop, it’s very hard for Trump and allies to argue for opening up the economy without sounding like they’re willing to risk that.