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US to issue new risk-based social distancing guidelines

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Via Financial Times

Donald Trump said on Thursday that his administration will soon issue new guidance to categorise US counties according to their coronavirus risk, in an effort to guide local authorities as they weigh whether to tighten, loosen or maintain restrictions on daily life designed to stop the outbreak.

In a letter to state governors, Mr Trump said counties would be classified low, medium or high risk according to data collected by “robust surveillance testing”. The president added that “expanded testing capabilities” would help the administration “quickly” identify the country’s virus hotspots

“With each passing day, our increasingly extensive testing abilities are giving us a better understanding of the virus and its path,” he wrote. “As testing gives us more information about who has been infected, we are tracking the virus and isolating it to prevent further spread. This new information will drive the next phase in our war against this invisible enemy.”

Larry Hogan, the Republican governor of Maryland who serves as chair of the bi-partisan National Governors Association, told the Financial Times that the White House had not informed the governors in advance. He said he held a conference call with Mr Trump and the governors earlier on Thursday and that the letter had not been raised.

 “I have no idea what the letter means, or how they would possibly categorise those things,” Mr Hogan said in an interview. “Since we’re not doing enough testing, I don’t know how you could possibly make a determination as to which counties are low risk or high risk or medium risk.”

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Mr Hogan said the lack of testing meant there was insufficient data to make any determine about the level of risk in counties across the country. 

“There’s no real data to show it because there’s not enough testing. So I’m not sure what that map is gonna show or what it’s gonna be based on,” Mr Hogan said. “But I think you’re gonna see a lot of concern from the governors and the local leaders about that.”

The White House did not respond to a request for comment. 

The US has taken steps to speed up nationwide testing after initially facing delays in rolling out the tests. One company, Roche, was granted emergency approval of a high-volume test, while the administration injected $1.4m into two other companies working on new tests that could detect the virus more rapidly.

But the widespread lack of testing has meant public health officials are struggling to understand the extent to which the virus has spread — and therefore what measures they should take to stop it.

In recent days, Mr Trump has expressed an eagerness to lift the lockdowns ordered by some cities and states, which have brought parts of the US economy to a halt and sent jobless claims soaring to a record high. 

Earlier this week Mr Trump suggested he could ease federal guidelines encouraging Americans to isolate themselves when the current 15-day window for the recommendations closes next week. 

Speaking in the Rose Garden on Tuesday, Mr Trump put a specific timeframe on his previous warning that “we cannot let the cure be worse than the problem”. “I would love to have the country opened up and just raring to go by Easter”, which falls on April 12, Mr Trump said on Fox News.

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His comments attracted criticism from those worried that the president is putting the economy over people’s physical health and wellbeing. Even some members of Mr Trump’s Republican party were critical of the move, including Lindsey Graham, the US senator from South Carolina who is usually one of Mr Trump’s most loyal supporters. 

If Mr Trump were to ease federal guidelines, the governors of states who have ordered the lockdowns are under no obligation to follow suit. Some of them have expressed concern about the president’s projections and reiterated that they would leave the restrictions in place until they were sure that public health was not at risk.

Mr Trump made no mention of a particular timeline in Thursday’s letter, but he did strike an optimistic note.

“There is still a long battle ahead, but our efforts are already paying dividends,” he wrote. “As we enhance protections against the virus, Americans across the country are hoping the day will soon arrive when they can resume their normal economic, social and religious lives.”

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