President Trump started his daily coronavirus briefing Wednesday by, confusingly, bringing out military brass rather than health officials to talk about the war on drugs. He managed at one point to work in a brag about his Facebook popularity (“Did you know I was number one on Facebook? I just found out I’m number one on Facebook. I thought that was very nice for whatever it means.”).
So what did we actually learn about the U.S. government’s fight against the coronavirus on Wednesday? Here are six takeaways.
1. Will people be able to participate in normal summer activities? It’s an open question.
Trump extended social distancing guidelines through the end of April, but there’s a growing sense among public health experts that the virus won’t be beat by then. Anthony S. Fauci said only “if” the vast majority of Americans avoid unnecessary contact, stay at home when possible and wash their hands, the United States might see no new cases and deaths by this summer.
“When it goes down to essentially no new cases, no deaths at a period of time, I think it makes sense that you’re going to have to relax social distancing,” said Fauci, the nation’s top infectious disease expert. He also indicated that would depend on the government’s ability to develop what’s called contact tracing, to aggressively test and isolate people who have the virus, even if they don’t have symptoms. Public health experts have criticized the administration for not giving county and local health departments the resources, like effective tests, to do this much earlier.
Fauci also said the United States is “right on target” for having a vaccine in a year or a year and a half.
2. The administration does not have a plan to help people who are uninsured get coverage for coronavirus treatment
Under repeated questioning by Fox News’s John Roberts, neither Vice President Pence nor Trump said what they would do for people who are fighting the disease but don’t qualify for Medicaid and don’t have insurance.
They have decided not to open enrollment for the Affordable Care Act during the coronavirus pandemic, which would allow people who don’t have insurance to buy it on the marketplaces. Pence said they pushed to expand Medicaid coverage (something Republican governors had been opposed to during the Obama administration). He reiterated that insurance won’t charge co-pays for coronavirus-related health care.
But, basically, there is no plan to help the uninsured get insurance during this pandemic.
3. Trump said he’s looking at closing flights to and from ‘hot spots’
But he said he’s wary of closing down all air travel in America. If he did close down flights to and from hot spots, that would probably mean no one is flying in or out of New York City, Detroit, New Orleans and any other number of metropolitan areas where the virus is spreading quickly.
4. Trump again seems to doubt hospitals need what they ask for
Trump last week used the Defense Production Act to force U.S. manufacturers to make ventilators and protective equipment for medical workers. He now says “thousands” of ventilators are being made but warned it “takes time.” (Which is true. Ford and General Electric said its ventilators would be ready in July.) But even as he appeared to recognize the shortage of equipment, he also questioned the hospitals’ need for that many.
On Sunday, Trump accused hospitals of squandering tens of thousands of masks, without providing much detail about what he is alleging they did with them. On Wednesday, he did it again, if not as directly. He was talking about how he asked Walmart to make protective gowns, then said:
“When you look at these hospitals, the amount that they order, you almost say, how could they possibly use so much, whether it’s masks or the protective gear?” he said. “But we are supplying a tremendous amount.”
He also said he’s looking at building two new military hospital ships to deploy. It’s not clear whether they’d be ready in time for this crisis, since that could take years. Trump said he’d look at renovating existing ships — but that he leaned toward building totally new ones.
5. Trump says what changed his thinking on how coronavirus compares to the flu
The same day Pence said on CNN that Trump never “belittled the threat of the coronavirus,” Trump acknowledged he did compare it to the seasonal flu up until recently. He was asked what changed his mind. In his answer, Trump made sure to contrast the coronavirus with the flu. He also mentioned a friend he has said is in a coma from the virus.
I think the severity. I think also looking at the way, the contagion. It is so contagious, nobody’s ever seen anything like this where large groups of people all of a sudden just by being in the presence of somebody have it. The flu has never been like that. And the flu is contagious, but nothing like we’ve ever seen here. Also the violence of it. If it hits the right person — and you know what those stats are — if it hits the right person, that person’s in deep trouble. And my friend was the right person.
Trump’s critics say that had the president been saying that in February or March, people might have taken the virus more seriously, which could have reduced its spread.
6. Fauci appears to be on Trump’s good side
There’s been some reporting that the nation’s top pandemic expert was annoying Trump by giving frank interviews about what it’s like to work with the president and for telling the president what he doesn’t want to hear. Fauci is the head of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, a government position that means Trump can fire him at any time, even as Fauci helps lead the nation’s response to the coronavirus.
That doesn’t seem to be on Trump’s mind based on the briefing Wednesday. A reporter asked whether Fauci has security given his high profile and right-wing Internet attacks on him. Fauci didn’t answer. (He does.) “He doesn’t need security,” Trump said. “Everybody loves him. They’d be in big trouble if they ever attacked him. You know, he was a great basketball player.”