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Donald Trump warns of up to 240,000 coronavirus deaths in US

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Via Financial Times

Donald Trump on Tuesday said the US coronavirus death toll could quickly reach almost a quarter of a million people, as the president warned Americans to prepare for a “very, very painful two weeks”.

In a dramatic change of tone from his recent optimistic comments, Mr Trump said there could be between 100,000 and 240,000 deaths even if Americans followed the strict social distancing guidelines that the White House has recommended remain in place until the end of April.

“I want every American to be prepared for the hard days that lie ahead. We’re going to go through a very tough two weeks,” Mr Trump said, adding that the situation had become “life and death”.

Anthony Fauci, the head of the US National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases who serves on the task force, said people should be prepared for such high fatalities, which he described as “sobering”. 

The release of the projections — calculated from models using data on how the virus has spread overseas and in hotspots such as New York — marked a turning point for the White House.

Mr Trump, who once said the virus would disappear “like a miracle” had steered very clear from making any dire predictions and had suggested that the country could return to normality within a matter of weeks.

Asked whether he had previously been too optimistic, Mr Trump said his job was to be a “cheerleader”, but that the models he had been shown suggested that the US was about to face an unprecedented period.

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“We lose more here potentially than you lose in world wars,” Mr Trump said at his daily White House briefing.

There were about 116,000 US deaths in the first world war and 405,000 in the second. Mr Trump spoke as the number of coronavirus cases in the US rose to 186,000, while the death toll topped 3,800, eclipsing the 2,996 people killed in the September 11 2001 terror attacks.

In a sign of how seriously Mr Trump had taken the data — which aides said formed the basis of his decision to extend federal guidelines on social distancing by one month after an initial 15 days — he repeatedly ceded the White House podium to his two top medical experts and listened intently. 

Mr Fauci and Deborah Birx, another respected scientist on the task force, both said they hoped that the total number of deaths would be lower, noting that the models were based on data from the hardest-hit states such as New York and New Jersey and how the disease spread in Italy.

“We really believe and hope everyday that we can do a lot better than that,” Ms Birx said about the 100,000 to 240,000 projected range.

Forecast from White House showing projected fatalities could hit 100,000-240,000 even with social distancing policies in place  © White House

Mr Fauci said the forecast was the best estimate based on scientific models even if the US continues lockdown policies that prevent large gatherings and impose social distancing. He said it was possible that the projections could change based on future data, and that the result was not “inevitable” but stressed the need for Americans to heed the guidelines for 30 days.

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“Now is the time when you’re having an effect not to take your foot off the accelerator,” Mr Fauci said.

Lawrence Gostin, director of the O’Neill Institute for National and Global Health Law at Georgetown University, said the explanations from the White House about the models were “utterly confusing”. 

“The truth is that we cannot predict. Models are notoriously unreliable because the variables they use are not verifiable,” said Mr Gostin. “It is likely that over the long term, say a year, we will see hundreds of thousands of deaths.

Mr Gostin said the death toll was likely to be reduced significantly only by therapeutic countermeasures such as effective treatments and a vaccine. But highlighting the steep road ahead for the US, Ms Birx said there was “no magic bullet” that would end the pandemic at the moment.

“There’s no magic vaccine or therapy,” Ms Birx said. “It’s just behaviours. Each of our behaviours, translating into something that changes the course of this viral pandemic over the next 30 days.”

While the US grapples with a growing number of hotspots, the Pentagon is also facing a tough challenge amid signs that a number of sailors aboard the USS Theodore Roosevelt, a US aircraft carrier, had contracted the virus.

Captain Brett Cozier, the commander of the aircraft carrier, wrote in a letter that the Pentagon needed to take “decisive” action to prevent what he said could become “tragic outcomes”.

“We are not at war. Sailors do not need to die,” Capt Cozier added, in calling on the navy to make arrangements to evacuate most of the 4,000 crew off the ship.

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But Mark Esper, the US defence secretary, told CBS News that “I don’t think we’re at that point”, while conceding that he had not read the letter sent by the ship’s commander.

Follow Demetri Sevastopulo on Twitter: @dimi

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