I heard something strange and remarkable and frightening at the White House coronavirus press briefing Tuesday. I’m pretty sure it was something very much like the truth.
Yes, the charts were scary. The numbers were more than daunting. But I keep up. I read the papers and listen to the experts. So it wasn’t the modeling — no matter how shocking — that surprised me.
What got to me, right in the gut, was that matters had gotten so desperate that Donald Trump was finally forced to level with us. He had to come clean. He had to admit, with Drs. Tony Fauci and Deborah Birx at his side, what the models show — that even if we do everything right, if we follow the guidelines, if we take this as seriously as possible, that somewhere between 100,000 to 240,000 Americans will die.
Fauci and Birx said they hoped we could do better. They hoped the curve would flatten more than the model suggested. They hoped, but admitted the 100,000 to 240,000 are real numbers.
Trump, meanwhile, said that if only 100,000 to 240,000 die, it will show what a great job he has done. Yes, really. That’s how deep a hole he has dug for himself — and for all of us.
Sit with that for a minute, if it hasn’t already knocked you over.
And sit with this: After months of trying to wish away the inevitable, Trump would say, “I want every American to be prepared for the hard days that lie ahead. We’re going through a very tough few weeks.”
He added that we’re facing a “great national trial unlike any we have ever faced before,” which would require, “the full absolute measure of our collective strength, love and devotion.”
He said it was “a matter of life and death.” He said it a few times. Because it is. We’ve faced greater trials — the Civil War would quality — but this one is great enough. The weeks ahead will be tough. It will take collective will.
And yet, Trump didn’t exactly take responsibility for his slow response to this great national trial. And Mike Pence couldn’t quite explain why there still aren’t enough tests to go around or why governors are begging for more ventilators or why the federal government didn’t take this thing seriously enough when everyone — I mean, everyone who doesn’t watch Fox News — knew in late January what could be coming. Do you wonder how many lives might have been saved?
Nobody accepted blame for Trump’s inaction, especially Trump. I mean, it was only the day before that the president was saying that “hospital masks might be going out the back door,” essentially accusing nurses and doctors of stealing them.
Governors are now saying that states are competing with each other and with FEMA for desperately needed ventilators and masks and other protective gear. Governors are loath to criticize Trump — who says that really all he wants is for everyone to be more appreciative of him and his team — but New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo, who has projected the strength and calm that Trump must wish for himself, had to say, “You now literally will have a company call you up and say, ‘Well, California just outbid you.’ It’s like being on eBay with 50 other states, bidding on a ventilator.”
Meanwhile, CNN’s Jim Acosta would ask if it was fair to say that Trump, over the many weeks, had “lulled Americans into a false of security.”
Trump answered: “I’m not about bad news. I want to give people a feeling of hope.”
And all I can wonder is whether he thought there was ever enough hope — unlike ventilators — to go around.
For Trump, even when faced with telling at least part of the truth, there were still embellishments and the expected self-praise and the excuse that his previous happy talk on the pandemic — it’s totally under control; or, lately, it’ll all be over by Easter! — was part of a grand strategy, since he knew, remember, that it was a pandemic from the beginning. Or something.
But even Trump couldn’t defend Mitch McConnell’s absurdity of the day when the Senate majority leader blamed the lack of early response by Trump on Democrats — yes, for distracting him with impeachment. It’s a bad joke, of course. The impeachment trial ended on Feb. 5. Nearly a month later, after a series of campaign rallies, after many golf games, after ignoring briefings from his intelligence people and from his scientific people, Trump said of the virus: “It’s going to disappear. One day, it’s like a miracle, it will disappear.”
When he was asked about impeachment, he said he didn’t think he could have acted any faster. “I think that’s a great tribute to something,” he said. “Maybe it’s a tribute to me.”
But back on planet Earth, where tributes should be reserved for the doctors and nurses et al, everyone must now fully understand the dangers, including, of course, the danger to the economy. We’re almost certainly in recession and that the numbers, for a while, will look far worse, maybe depression-like. It will get so bad that maybe even Lindsey Graham will regret saying that we’re paying too much in unemployment.
Congress came up with the $2 trillion stimulus, but that won’t be enough. In New York, they’re expecting that as many 40% of tenants won’t pay their rent this month. In Denver, the numbers will also be high. And in the House, Nancy Pelosi is talking of yet another bill to help.
There are no other options. The pandemic is here until it goes away, at its own pace. As Dr. Birx said, “There’s no magic bullet. There’s no magic vaccine or therapy. It’s just behaviors — each of our behaviors translating into something that changes the course of this viral pandemic.”
The guidelines are simple enough, and they have nothing to do with anti-malarial treatment. We keep the numbers at 100,000 or 200,000 if we continue to stay in our homes. If the schools stay closed. If we don’t travel. If the restaurants and bars are shut down. If non-essential businesses are shut down. If we continue to physically distance. If we obsessively wash our hands.
Birx mentioned behaviors, which, when enforced, some of our state Republican leaders will tell you threaten to turn us into a police state. Here’s what the model says will happen if we didn’t follow the guidelines now mostly in place in more than three dozen states: Somewhere between 1.5 million and 2 million Americans would die.
I wonder if that impresses Ken Buck, who has been saying that it was “just craziness” to shut down restaurants and bars and other businesses. I know it scares the hell out of me.
As I write this, 173,741 people have tested positive for the virus across the country. And 3,433 patients have died. And that is still just the beginning. Dr. Fauci says it looks as if mitigation might be working, but that we haven’t come close to reaching the top of the curve yet, even as he reminded us that it’s a long way down once we do. Deaths, he said, are the last piece of the deadly puzzle. They lag all the other indicators.
In New York, which has been the hardest hit, they’re being forced to use freezer trucks for morgues. Trump said he saw it on TV at the hospital in Queens near where he lived as a kid. It’s part of what led him to understand that there would be no Easter parades this year. There were also poll numbers, The New York Times reported, showing that people strongly favored the restrictions, wanting, more than anything, to get past this. They’ve seen what’s happening in Italy, in Spain. They must have seen, too, what early mitigation did in slowing down the virus in South Korea.
A friend of mine asked me the other day if it was possible to wrap my head around just how great a disaster it is that we’re facing. I had to say I could not. It’s too much. It’s so terrible, so beyond understanding, that it’s too late to spend much time trying to comprehend it.
Instead, we follow the rules set down by the governor and the guidelines from the CDC. We insist the doctors and nurses and paramedics and first responders and the rest absolutely get everything they need. And, like Dr. Birx, like Dr. Fauci, all of us, we hope that that’s enough to save as many people as we can.