The week finally ended. The nation is shutting down. Everyone must stay home. Or we’ll all die. And the week ended with this:
The governor of Illinois issued a stay-at-home order on Friday, making it the latest state to make such a sweeping mandate in the fight against the spread of the new coronavirus.
California issued a stay-at-home order Thursday, and New York’s governor mandated that all nonessential businesses keep workers at home. Pennsylvania’s governor has also ordered that all businesses that are not “life-sustaining” close.
Illinois Gov. J.B. Pritzker announced the decision for his state at a press conference Friday afternoon.
“I don’t come to this decision easily,” he said. “I fully recognize that in some cases, I am choosing between saving people’s lives and saving people’s livelihoods. But ultimately you can’t have a livelihood if you don’t have your life.”
That’s a hell of choice, but there it is. New York to Chicago to Los Angeles, and actually most points in between, the nation is shutting down, for good reason:
New York also rolled out its new mandate on Friday. In addition to Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s ordering all nonessential businesses to cease operating outside the home, he put new requirements in place for people over 70 or with underlying health conditions to avoid public transportation and stay home except for solitary exercise.
The requirements also urge New Yorkers to practice social distancing and to stay in their homes as much as possible.
“Your actions can affect my health, that is where we are,” Cuomo said at a Friday press conference.
To hear President Donald Trump tell it, there is a website where you can find out if you need to get tested for coronavirus and millions of testing kits available for anyone who needs one. There is an approved treatment, a vaccine coming soon, plenty of protective masks in circulation, and a ship that will be off the coast of New York next week to help patients.
But the president’s description of the state of measures being taken by his administration stands in sharp relief to the reality being described by the experts on the ground involved in the response. And so the president – who was criticized early in the crisis for downplaying the risk posed by the virus while health officials were sounding the alarm – now faces claims that he is overplaying the available assistance.
Yes, this is a problem:
While Trump has given overly optimistic timelines and overstated his accomplishments throughout his time in office, in the case of the coronavirus pandemic, his alternate version of events threatens to create unnecessary confusion among the public, potentially leading to a false sense of security, drawing criticism from public health experts and political opponents.
“Memo to Donald Trump: take a day off from the briefing room where you hype cures that aren’t proven, promise websites that don’t exist, and talk about tests that aren’t being given – and let @CDCgov talk,” Ron Klain, a longtime adviser to Democratic presidential contender Joe Biden who led the Obama administration’s response to the Ebola outbreak, said Thursday in a tweet.
Yes, let Anthony S. Fauci, the nation’s leading immunologist, and your point man, speak, and just shut up. People trust Tony. People like Tony. And he means you no harm. Go work on your golf swing. Tony’s got this. But no:
On Thursday – during a news conference which Trump had described a day earlier as being held to announce “very important news from the FDA concerning the Chinese Virus” – he said a decades-old malaria drug had been approved to treat COVID-19 and could be a “game changer.” Moments later, the FDA said the drug was still going through the approval process to determine if it was safe and effective for coronavirus patients.
When Trump was pressed by NBC’s Peter Alexander on Friday about whether this claim was giving Americans false hope, he testily defended his positive spin. “I feel good about it, that’s all, just a feeling, smart guy,” Trump said. “I feel good about it, and you are going to see soon enough.”
What does the FDA know anyway? He feels good about this decades old malaria drug. Isn’t that enough? But his “feelings” have always been an issue:
As hospitals have scrambled to get the protective supplies they need, Trump has repeatedly expressed confidence the U.S. will have the supplies needed. Over the past week, Trump has said the U.S. had “massive numbers of ventilators” and plenty of protective masks for health care workers while assuring that more supplies were on the way.
“The masks are being made by the millions,” Trump said on March 14. “Millions and millions. We have plenty now, but we’re ordering for the millions. We’re ordering worst-case scenario.”
But a few days later, Trump had to call on the military to rush out protective supplies, as hospitals said they had to start reusing masks, making their own and asking the public for donations.
When Trump was asked at a press briefing Thursday about the gap between his own claims and what health care providers say they are experiencing, he denied over-hyping. “I’m hearing very good things on the ground,” he said.
Isn’t that enough? Perhaps not:
For patients confused about whether they need testing and how to get it, Trump announced last week that Google was developing a coronavirus testing website that was going to be “very quickly done, unlike websites of the past.” Vice President Mike Pence said Americans would be able to use the website “very soon” to find out if they needed testing and where to go to get it.
But the website being developed by Google sister company Verily has ended up being much more limited in scope than what the White House promised. Verily did launch a website this week similar to the one Trump described, but said in a statement to NBC News that the site is in the “early stages of development” and only being tested in two California counties.
While Pence clarified the day after the White House announced the site that it would just be for the San Francisco Bay Area, “with the goal of expanding to other locations,” Trump denied there was any miscommunication, saying the head of Google called to apologize, without elaborating on what that apology was allegedly for, and accused the media of putting out false information, without specifying what the inaccuracies might be.
So don’t worry, be happy, but something fishy has been going on here:
To address growing concerns by hospitals that they would soon run out of beds for patients, Trump said at a Wednesday press conference that the Navy was sending a medical ship to New York and another to the West Coast to help treat patients. Trump said the ships “are in tip-top shape. They soon will be.” On timing, he said “they can be launched over the next week or so, depending on need.”
Defense Secretary Mark Esper gave a less optimistic timeline later that day. During an interview on CNN, he said the ship to be sent to New York, which is currently undergoing maintenance, wouldn’t be ready for “a couple weeks plus” and the one on the West Coast “should be ready in a week and half, two weeks, definitely before the end of the month.” He said the ships still needed to be staffed with medical personnel, and only then moved to their locations.
Esper also clarified that the ships, built to deal with wartime trauma, wouldn’t be used to treat those infected with the coronavirus, but rather to take care of other patients to free up hospital operating rooms.
But no matter:
On Friday, Trump said again that the administration was not getting proper praise for the actions he had taken. “We haven’t been given the credit we deserve,” the president told reporters. “That I can tell you.”
He’s angry about that, very angry, but the Washington Post’s Kim Bellware reports on another way to do this:
As daily life undergoes rapid changes in response to the coronavirus outbreak and the death and infection total climb, a Chicago epidemiologist is drawing praise for her comments at a Friday news conference that outlined with clarity and urgency how seemingly small sacrifices today will prevent deaths of loved ones and strangers next week.
Emily Landon, the chief infectious-disease epidemiologist at University of Chicago Medicine, took the lectern after Illinois Gov. J.B. Pritzker (D), who on Friday afternoon announced that the state would undergo a shelter-in-place order for 2½ weeks starting Saturday evening.
“The healthy and optimistic among us will doom the vulnerable,” Landon said. She acknowledged that restrictions like a shelter-in-place may end up feeling “extreme” and “anticlimactic” – and that’s the point.
“It’s really hard to feel like you’re saving the world when you’re watching Netflix from your couch. But if we do this right, nothing happens,” Landon said. “A successful shelter-in-place means you’re going to feel like it was all for nothing, and you’d be right: Because nothing means that nothing happened to your family. And that’s what we’re going for here.”
Landon’s comments were less than 10 minutes of the nearly hour-long news conference, but they quickly made an impression on listeners and drew praise for their clarity and sense of empowerment while still conveying the urgency of the moment.
This wasn’t about her. She talked about others, and everyone:
Landon described herself as naturally optimistic, the kind of person who wants to see the bright side of things, but said that the United States is in a critical moment where people need to understand the seriousness of the crisis and how their seemingly small actions can affect it.
“In all honesty, if we say, ‘This is like the flu, we’ll be all right,’ that attitude is going to harm other people,” Landon told The Post. “And it’s really hard to wrap your head around that, especially in American culture: We’re individualistic and we pull ourselves up by our bootstraps and find a way to make it through. And that’s not going to work right now.”
And that’s fine:
Valerie Gunn, a marketing professional in Chicago, said Landon struck a chord.
“She was very human, and I thought she did a good job of sounding the alarm without making me feel like I need to go buy everything in the grocery store,” Gunn told The Post by phone Friday. “If you listen to not one other speech about this, this is the one I would listen to. It was concise and absorbable.”
And there was this:
For Michael Patrick Thornton, an actor and theater owner in Chicago, Landon’s remarks provided the information and professionalism he’s found lacking in the federal government’s remarks, including those of President Trump.
Thornton listened to Landon’s comments and heard “a very clear story about shared responsibility in a time of pandemic.”
“People are trying to wrap their minds about what fighting this even feels like, and she did a masterful job in managing explications,” Thornton said.
And meanwhile, in Washington, Trump went the other way, as Aaron Blake reports here:
President Trump on Friday excoriated an NBC reporter for pressing him on whether he was being overly optimistic about the government’s ability to deliver drugs to treat the coronavirus. …
At the daily news briefing, Trump played up the promise of a malaria drug to possibly treat the coronavirus. He was asked about its application to other similar diseases like severe acute respiratory syndrome, for which he said he thought the drug had been “fairly effective.”
But then Anthony S. Fauci, the nation’s leading immunologist, stepped in to qualify things.
“You’ve got to be careful when you say ‘fairly effective,'” Fauci told Fox News’s John Roberts. “It was never done in a clinical trial that compared it to anything. It was given to individuals and felt that maybe it works.”
Trump shrugged. Perhaps he thinks Fauci is a harmless fool, but then things got hot:
In the next exchange, NBC’s Peter Alexander noted that Trump had said the day before about some of the drugs “we’re in really good shape on, and that’s for immediate delivery – immediate – like as fast as we can get it.”
Trump watered that down somewhat Friday, acknowledging there is a process to approving drugs for the new purpose. But he added, “I am a man that comes from a very positive school when it comes to, in particular, one of these drugs.” He added: “People may be surprised by the way there would be a game-changer.”
Alexander noted that Fauci has sung a very different tune on this topic, saying here is no “magic drug.” Alexander suggested Trump might agree, but before he could finish his question, Trump cut in.
“Well,” Trump said, “you know I think we only disagree a little bit. I disagree. Maybe and maybe not. Maybe there is; maybe there isn’t. We have to see.”
But that was obviously problematic:
Alexander countered: “Is it possible that your impulse to put a positive spin on things, may be giving Americans a false sense of hope?”
“No, I don’t think so,” Trump said.
Alexander noted it was not yet an approved drug.
“Such a lovely question,” Trump shot back. He tried to say he agreed with Fauci – despite what he had said just a moment before – but then again offered a more optimistic tone than the doctor has about the drug.
“I feel good about it. That’s all it is – just a feeling. [I’m a] smart guy,” Trump said, adding: “We have nothing to lose. You know the expression: What the hell do you have to lose?”
Alexander responded with what might seem like an innocuous question: “What do you say to Americans who are scared, though? Nearly 200 dead. Fourteen thousand are sick. Millions, as you witness, who are scared right now. What do you say to Americans who are watching you right now who are scared?”
That was a bad move:
“I say that you’re a terrible reporter; that’s what I say,” Trump said. “I think it’s a very nasty question. And I think it’s a very bad signal that you’re putting out to the American people. The American people are looking for answers, and they’re looking for hope. And you’re doing sensationalism.”
He added: “Let me just say something: That’s really bad reporting. And you want to get back to reporting instead of sensationalism. Let’s see if it works. It might and it might not. I happen to feel good about it, but who knows? I’ve been right a lot.”
In short, his hunches really are good, so back off, asshole, but Blake adds this:
Alexander rightly noted that Trump was saying something that medical experts like Fauci have strained to avoid – that this drug could be the kind of “game-changer.” Trump actually volunteered that he disagreed with that and said it might be. There is a real difference in what they are saying, and it’s completely fair for a reporter to ask Trump to account for that…
Trump told Alexander he was putting out a “very bad signal” to the American people, but Alexander was simply noting that the signal Trump is emitting was on a much more optimistic frequency than Fauci seems to desire.
Blake thinks that could be dangerous:
Trump has long had a tendency to oversell things as president, which perhaps owes to his history as a salesman and a showman. But this is precisely the time when health officials caution against over-selling things. And Trump losing his temper over a reporter trying to inject some realism into the situation – which Trump has likened to a war – doesn’t exactly suggest he’s making cold, calculated decisions.
But Trump seems almost immune to bad news on the coronavirus; he also cut off another reporter earlier this week who said the economy had “ground to a halt.”
“Thanks for telling us,” Trump said sarcastically. “We appreciate it.”
Ah well, everyone is used to this, but:
Alexander asked the same question of Vice President Pence later. Pence’s response: “I would say do not be afraid; be vigilant.”
That’s how it’s done, and it’s not hard at all, but Paul Waldman sees this:
When President Trump decided to give daily news conferences during the coronavirus crisis, it was not because he alone knows enough to keep the American people properly informed during this trying time. The obvious intent was to demonstrate command and show the public that he is on top of the situation, so they can see their president actively confronting the biggest challenge of his time in office.
But it has also exposed a huge weakness he has as a president, one we saw only intermittently before in a visit to a flood zone or a hurricane’s aftermath: Trump is simply incapable of offering the kind of emotional support the country needs at a time like this.
And there is the full quote from Trump:
I say that you’re a terrible reporter, that’s what I say. I think it’s a very nasty question, and I think it’s a very bad signal that you’re putting out to the American people. The American people are looking for answers, and they’re looking for hope. And you’re doing sensationalism, and the same with NBC and Concast. I don’t call it Comcast, I call it Concast.
He can say the American people are looking for hope, but he can’t offer it to them. He interprets mention of people’s fear as an attack on him, and, as we know, he feels strongly that any attack on him must be met with an attack in response. So that’s how he treated it, and the opportunity was lost.
That’s not to say Trump isn’t aware of the need. He has been extremely conscious from the beginning of the fear and uncertainty the coronavirus can inspire. That’s why he spent weeks pretending it was no big deal and he had everything completely under control – nothing to worry about, it’ll be gone before you know it, everything’s fine, it’s gonna be great.
Now that he can’t say that anymore, he struggles to give voice to anything resembling an emotional resonance with the national mood.
But we will have to live with this:
Trump will never deliver great rhetoric, because he isn’t a good orator and the people who write his speeches aren’t very good either. But Trump is so focused on himself that he can’t even understand when he’s being given an opportunity to express empathy, as Peter Alexander gave him.
When we look back on this presidency and this moment in particular, we’ll think of the mismanagement, the divisiveness, the shortsightedness, the pettiness and everything else that makes Trump the president he is. But we’ll also remember the void in the White House, the place where connection and empathy and reassurance should have been.
And it didn’t have to be this way:
NBC News White House correspondent Peter Alexander said he was tossing President Trump a “softball” question during Friday’s coronavirus task force briefing, asking the president what he would “say to Americans who are watching you right now who are scared.”
Alexander spoke about the confrontation on MSNBC on Friday afternoon, with the reporter telling host Andrea Mitchell and Chuck Todd during separate interviews that he was only attempting to provide the president with an opportunity to reassure the American people.
“I was trying to provide the president an opportunity to reassure the millions of Americans, members of my own family … and plenty of people sitting at home right now,” Alexander, who has clashed with the president during press briefings in the past, said. “This was his opportunity to do that, to provide a sort of positive or uplifting message.”
There won’t be any positive or uplifting message. It’s too late for that. The week ended with this:
New York State’s long-feared surge of coronavirus cases has begun, thrusting the medical system toward a crisis point.
In a startlingly quick ascent, officials reported on Friday that the state was closing in on 8,000 positive tests, about half the cases in the country. The number was 10 times higher than what was reported earlier in the week.
In the Bronx, doctors at Lincoln Medical and Mental Health Center say they have only a few remaining ventilators for patients who need them to breathe. In Brooklyn, doctors at Kings County Hospital Center say they are so low on supplies that they are reusing masks for up to a week, slathering them with hand sanitizer between shifts.
That which was going to happen, all at once, later, happened on one Friday afternoon:
As it prepares for the worst-case projections, the state is asking retired health care workers to volunteer to help. The city is considering trying to turn the Jacob K. Javits Convention Center in Manhattan into a makeshift hospital.
“The most striking part is the speed with which it has ramped up,” said Ben McVane, an emergency room doctor at Elmhurst Hospital Center in Queens. “It went from a small trickle of patients to a deluge of patients in our departments.”
And now that the help didn’t arrive, there’s this:
Medical workers exposed to the coronavirus had been self-quarantining, but this week state and city health officials issued new guidance recommending that hospital workers stay on the job until they show symptoms of the virus. People with symptoms of the virus spread it most easily, but research has also indicated that asymptomatic transmission is possible.
They will save who they can but this will now spread everywhere, and specifically among these hospital workers, but it seems all of this was a matter of principle:
President Trump and his advisers have resisted calls from congressional Democrats and a growing number of governors to use a federal law that would mobilize industry and provide badly needed resources against the coronavirus spread, days after the president said he would consider using that authority.
Mr. Trump has given conflicting signals about the Defense Production Act since he first said on Wednesday that he was prepared to invoke the law, which was passed by Congress at the outset of the Korean War and grants presidents extraordinary powers to force American industries to ensure the availability of critical equipment.
The next day, he suggested that obtaining medical equipment should be up to individual governors because “we’re not a shipping clerk.” But on Friday, he reversed himself, asserting that he had used the law to spur the production of “millions of masks,” without offering evidence or specifics about who was manufacturing them or when they would reach health workers.
Ronald Reagan said that the nine most terrifying words in the English language are “I’m from the Government, and I’m here to help” and that government is always the problem and never the solution. The solution is the private sector. If someone has to make money they’ll do a great job. The government never has to make money. The government never has to show a profit. How could the government ever do a good job at anything? What’s the incentive?
These people have been thinking this way since FDR came up with that damned New Deal and ruined capitalism, and that what this seems to be about:
Business leaders have said invoking the defense law is not necessary. During his appearance with the members of his coronavirus task force on Friday, Mr. Trump supported that idea and said that private companies, including General Motors, had volunteered to produce supplies without any prompting from the government.
“We are literally being besieged in a beautiful way by companies that want to do the work and help our country,” Mr. Trump said. “We have not had a problem with that at all.”
Some of the president’s advisers have privately said that they share the longstanding opposition of conservatives to government intervention and oppose using the law, and the president again signaled his own ambivalence about it.
The government shouldn’t do anything, on principle, as in the old battles:
As the coronavirus has spread, Mr. Trump has come under withering attack from Democrats for the speed at which he has mobilized the government to respond.
“We’re talking about a president who is basically doing what Herbert Hoover did at the beginning of the Depression and minimizing the danger and refusing to use available federal action,” Mayor Bill de Blasio of New York said Friday in an interview with the radio station WNYC.
“And people are going to die, and they shouldn’t, they don’t have to, if we could get the support that we’re asking for.”
Mayor de Blasio should remember that the famous conservative think tank out here at Stanford is the Hoover Institution – not the FDR Institution – so he’s invoking a hero to these people:
The president’s advisers say they see the role of the federal government as a facilitator, as opposed to the chief producer or a national governor. They have tried to encourage states to get by with what they can, suggesting there will be support from the federal government but that this should not be the first option.
In practice, the administration has been trying to use the provision to jawbone companies into taking voluntary action while holding over them the possibility that the federal government would intervene, according to administration officials familiar with the state of play.
Okay, threats may be necessary, but if they offer the guys fat government contracts – especially those “cost plus” contracts where they can charge the feds extra big bucks every quarter endlessly – they’ll come around one day, sooner or later.
And people will die, unless they starve:
Senators worked late into the night Friday in search of a deal on a trillion-dollar stimulus bill to save the economy from collapsing under the ravages of the coronavirus. They finally left the Capitol around 10:30 p.m. reporting progress but with a number of issues still unresolved. They planned to resume talks Saturday morning.
Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) had hoped to clinch an agreement Friday night in order to ensure a vote Monday on the massive legislation that will allocate enormous sums of money to help individual Americans and businesses large and small that are getting clobbered by the coronavirus crisis. Negotiators now hope they are close enough to finalize an agreement on Saturday…
The frantic negotiations are taking place as the economic problems in the United States are multiplying. JPMorgan Chase has estimated that the U.S. economy could shrink by 14 percent between April and June, the biggest contraction in the post-World War II era. Goldman Sachs has estimated that 2.25 million people filed for unemployment this week, a nearly tenfold increase from one week ago and the largest number ever recorded.
Underscoring the urgency of the situation as the administration searches for every possible tool to respond, Treasury Secretary Mnuchin announced Friday that the nation’s tax filing deadline would be pushed back from April 15 to July 15.
Mnuchin has been muttering that unemployment could hit twenty percent. Others say that’s optimistic. The nation has been shut down so this will be that bad. And people are dying. And more will die, soon. And this president… Now there are no words.