A leading White House coronavirus expert has warned the US “could get as bad as Italy” if proper measures were not taken to limit the spread of the disease, including staying at home if possible.
Anthony Fauci, head of the US National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, said life “is not going to be the way it used to be” in the US for a period, as he urged people to avoid unnecessary public outings.
“I don’t think we’re going there [down the path of Italy, which has the largest number of cases outside China] if we do the kinds of things that we are publicly saying we need to do, we need to be very serious about,” said Mr Fauci, speaking on CBS News.
“For a while, life is not going to be the way it used to be in the United States. We have to just accept that if we want to do what’s best for the American public.”
When asked by a reporter if hundreds of thousands of Americans could die from the disease, Mr Fauci replied: “I say that, and it sometimes gets taken out of context, but we have to be realistic and honest. Yes, it is possible.”
“Our job, our challenge is to try and make that not happen. But to think, if we go about our daily lives and not worry about everything, that it’s not going to happen, it could happen. And it could be worse.”
Mr Fauci’s comments come as the US faces a sharp escalation in the number of known coronavirus cases, with 2,700 diagnoses, while states across the country have closed schools and cancelled sporting events in a bid to prevent a mass outbreak from overwhelming the healthcare system.
Restaurants, bars and gyms across several cities, including New York and Washington, have emptied as many people work from home and attempt to limit social interaction. There has been chaos at US airports as a travel ban imposed on European countries, including the UK and Ireland, caused long delays. Frustrated passengers complained of hours-long lines while officials struggled to test them all.
Mr Fauci said on Sunday morning that closing restaurants “might be overkill right now”, but added that he personally would not go into a restaurant. “I just wouldn’t, because I don’t want to be in a crowded place.”
In New York City, the number of cases surged to 269 as of Sunday morning, and mayor Bill de Blasio predicted it would top 1,000 early this week. “It is clearly widespread already in New York City, and will continue to grow,” he said during an appearance on CNN.
The mayor also urged Washington to take more decisive action. “If the federal government doesn’t realise this is the equivalent of a war already, there’s no way that the states and localities can make all the adjustments we need to,” he said, urging “the federal government to take over the supply chain. Right now.”
Many of those with the means have left the city to decamp to second homes in places including the Hamptons and upstate New York. For those left behind, there is an intensifying argument about whether the city should close its public school system, the nation’s largest.
Mr de Blasio has refused to do so, arguing that it would worsen the situation. Many of New York City’s 1.1m students rely on schools for free meals, he has noted. Closing schools would also create childcare problems for parents, including desperately needed healthcare workers. This is one area where Mr de Blasio and Andrew Cuomo, the Democratic state governor, have found common ground.
Yet teachers are demanding a shutdown, citing the public health dangers — to themselves and the wider community — of children crowding in confined spaces and riding subways and buses across the city.
White House economic adviser Larry Kudlow said on Sunday that he expected US President Donald Trump to issue an executive order deferring the interest on student loans for the rest of the year.
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Meanwhile, US Treasury secretary Steven Mnuchin said the administration would discuss with Congressional leaders measures to help airlines, hotels and cruise ship businesses as he sought to reassure rattled financial markets.
“There is no question the travel industry has been impacted like we’ve never seen before,” said Mr Mnuchin on Fox News. “The president is absolutely determined that we will use whatever tools we have. And whatever tools we need, we will go to Congress and get.”
According to a new poll of 900 people conducted by the Wall Street Journal and NBC News, about 60 per cent of Americans think the US has not seen the worst of the coronavirus crisis, while nearly half of those surveyed said they had stopped exposing themselves to large crowds.
Whether respondents thought Mr Trump’s response to coronavirus had been adequate depended on their party political affiliation. Just over 80 per cent of Republican voters said they approved of Mr Trump’s handling of the outbreak, with 84 per cent of Democrat voters saying the opposite.