The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

What you need to know from Tuesday’s White House coronavirus briefing

President Trump comes to the White House Rose Garden to address reporters. (Jabin Botsford/The Washington Post)

President Trump holds daily briefings at the White House about the federal government’s coronavirus response. Here’s what you need to know from Tuesday’s briefing.

1. Trump is suspending U.S. funding for the World Health Organization

His top stated reason: Because it opposed his travel ban on China in late January, which is the only early proactive action Trump took against the virus. “They actually fought us,” Trump said.

There are reasons to be critical of the WHO’s repetition early on of the Chinese government’s communications about the novel coronavirus, like saying there’s no evidence yet of human-to-human transmission. But Trump was also giving China the benefit of the doubt at the same time, praising it for transparency — despite the fact that his intelligence agencies and advisers were warning that the virus was far more serious than China’s government was letting on.

Trump also accused the WHO — often with exaggerated claims — of not getting into China soon enough to examine the virus or declaring a public health emergency soon enough. (Trump was also accused of not declaring a national health emergency soon enough.)

It’s hard to assess with any finality how the WHO performed on advising the world on the coronavirus, because we are in the middle of the pandemic. Public health analysts have questioned whether now is the time to battle with the WHO over this, let alone cut its funding. The United States is the largest funder of the WHO, and its leaders have implicitly accused Trump of politicizing the virus, memorably by saying that doing so could lead to “many more body bags.”

When Trump first floated cutting WHO funding last week, he acknowledged it might not be the best thing to do in a pandemic. But on Tuesday, he displayed no such hesitation.

Trump has reached frequently for people and organizations other than himself to blame for the U.S. response to the novel coronavirus. His comments Tuesday about the WHO fit that pattern: “Many countries said, we’re going to listen to the WHO, and they have problems, the likes of which they cannot believe,” Trump said.

2. Trump backs down on his ‘absolute’ authority to open the economy

On Monday, Trump insisted he alone can reopen the economy even though it’s governors who shut down their states with stay-at-home orders. There is no such authority granted to presidents in the Constitution.

New York Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo (D) said Tuesday he would challenge in court any such attempts by the federal government to preemptively reopen. And after a day of criticism from politicians, even some Republicans, and constitutional experts, Trump was more circumspect.

He announced that “plans to reopen the country are close to being finalized” and that the White House would soon share details after talking with governors this week. That sounds very federal-government-centric. But read the next part closely:

“I will be speaking to all 50 governors very shortly, and I will then be authorizing each individual governor of each individual state to implement a reopening and a very powerful reopening plan of their state at a time and in a manner as most appropriate.”

In other words: It sounds like he wants to play more of a consulting role with the states, helping them decide when to reopen their economies by “authorizing” governors to make their own decisions.

(While Trump was speaking, The Washington Post reported that a strategy is being developed by the CDC and Federal Emergency Management Agency to reopen parts of the country.)

When a reporter asked Trump whether he would consider taking away states’ federal funding if governors didn’t listen to his advice, Trump did not say he would. He also did not repeat Monday’s claim that he has the authority to force governors to send people back to work.

Instead, he offered various admonitions about how governors would work with him on his timetable. He mentioned how much the government is helping states with medical equipment and said: “The governors will be very, very respectful of the presidency.”

And he ended his briefing by saying: “The governors are going to do a good job. And if they don’t do a good job, we’re going to come down on them very hard. We’ll have no other choice.”

3. The federal government is organizing a ventilator reserve

The plan is to share 4,000 ventilators among hospitals from coast to coast as hospitalizations ebb and flow in different regions.

But for hard-hit states like New York, that will probably be a drop in the bucket. Cuomo has estimated his state will need 30,000 to 40,000 ventilators to get through this crisis. The Trump administration purchased 10,000 total. For the whole nation. An unnamed Trump administration official told The Post the number of ventilators the federal government has secured is “kind of a joke.”

Trump led into this announcement by downplaying how many ventilators states may need. And he is still going out of his way to doubt New York’s request for ventilators: “40,000 ventilators for one state,” he said Tuesday. “Ridiculous.”

4. Trump was conspicuously dubious that the U.S. is ready to do contact tracing

Public health experts have said that a critical component of reopening the economy is to have the manpower to do what’s known as contact tracing, or tracking down anyone who comes into contact with an infected person and asking them go into quarantine. Earlier Tuesday, one of Trump’s top coronavirus medical advisers, Anthony S. Fauci, told the Associated Press “we’re not there yet” on having those capabilities.

When a reporter asked Trump about what Fauci said, Trump interrupted: “I don’t know what he said.”

The reporter tried again. Trump cut him off. “I don’t know what he said.”

When the reporter finished the question, Trump ignored the fact that Fauci doesn’t think much of the country is ready to open up by May 1, in large part because of its lack of contact tracing capabilities. He simply offered: “We have many forms of testing, and new testing is being developed,” which is not what the reporter asked about. (Testing and contact tracing are two different things.)

Trump seems to go out of his way to avoid appearing divergent from one of the most trusted public officials on the coronavirus. He has stepped in before to prevent Fauci from answering questions about treatments.

Coronavirus: What you need to know

Vaccines: The CDC recommends that everyone age 5 and older get an updated covid booster shot designed to target both the original virus and the omicron variant. Here’s some guidance on when you should get the omicron booster and how vaccine efficacy could be affected by your prior infections.

Variants: Instead of a single new Greek letter variant, a group of immune-evading omicron spinoffs are popping up all over the world. Any dominant variant will likely knock out monoclonal antibodies, targeted drugs that can be used as a treatment or to protect immunocompromised people.

Tripledemic: Hospitals are overwhelmed by a combination of respiratory illnesses, staffing shortages and nursing home closures. And experts believe the problem will deteriorate further in coming months. Here’s how to tell the difference between RSV, the flu and covid-19.

Guidance: CDC guidelines have been confusing — if you get covid, here’s how to tell when you’re no longer contagious. We’ve also created a guide to help you decide when to keep wearing face coverings.

Where do things stand? See the latest coronavirus numbers in the U.S. and across the world. In the U.S., pandemic trends have shifted and now White people are more likely to die from covid than Black people. Nearly nine out of 10 covid deaths are people over the age 65.

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