(WASHINGTON) — As the U.S. death tolls nears 15,000, President Donald Trump continues to try to shift blame for his response to the coronavirus crisis, lashing out at the World Health Organization, claiming the United Nations agency got “every aspect” of the outbreak wrong, and threatened to put a hold on U.S. funding amid the ongoing pandemic.
As Trump’s GOP allies like Sen. Lindsey Graham and Fox News hosts pushed that narrative, newly-surfaced documents reveal the White House was warned of the deadly pathogen — and its potential to cost the economy trillions and to claim half a million American lives — even before the president’s travel ban on China which he continues to tout.
With the U.S. death toll climbing and markets crashing, Democratic leaders said Wednesday they are seeking to double the $250 billion in funding the Trump administration proposed Tuesday for small businesses, adding aid to hospitals and local governments, among other benefits, to the interim relief package.
The CDC also plans to release guidance Wednesday that could allow people who have been close to positive COVID-19 individuals — but remain asymptomatic — to return to work, Vice President Mike Pence said at Tuesday’s White House briefing, after the president for weeks has emphasized that the U.S. wasn’t built to be shut down.
Here are the latest developments in the government response:
Trump notes Americans must celebrate Passover and Easter amid the crisis
President Trump began the daily White House briefing by noting that Passover begins this evening and Easter is being marked this coming Sunday.
“We’re going to have many Easters together in churches in the future,” he said.
He was joined by Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, who gave an update on State Department efforts to bring thousands of Americans home from abroad.
“The worldwide scale of our repatriation efforts is without parallel in our lifetime,” Pompeo said.
Since Jan. 29, Pompeo said, the State Department has repatriated over 50,000 citizens in more than 490 flights back to the U.S. from 90 countries across the world.
Asked by ABC News’ Mutliplatform Reporter Rachel Scott if China should face consequences for withholding information about the spread of the virus, as the U.S. has charged, Pompeo responded,
“This is not the time for retribution. But this is the time for clarity and transparency — China included.”
“Every country needs to be transparent about what’s gone on in their country,” Pompeo said, not directly answering Scott’s follow up on whether China specifically should have shared information sooner. “Every country has an obligation to share that information accurately, timely, completely, transparently and thoroughly, just as quickly as they can gather it.”
The president confirmed that CDC would release guidance that would allow some people to return to work amid the pandemic.
“Later today, the CDC will release further guidance to help ensure critical infrastructure workers can perform their job safely, after potential exposure to the virus and so they’re working on that,” the president said.
Pressed on when he first learned about the pathogen — following an ABC News report Wednesday that the White House was warned back in November — President Trump said he learned “about the gravity” of the virus “just prior to closing the country to China” on Feb. 2.
Trump diminishes death toll as one key model reports lower projections
A leading forecasting model for COVID-19 used by the White House task force is now predicting the U.S. may need less medical equipment, that the peak may hit sooner in some states, and that the total death toll may be lower than previously projected.
As of Wednesday morning, the Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation at the University of Washington predicted 60,415 COVID-19 deaths by Aug. 4, 2020, and that the peak of those deaths will come in just four days. Last week, the model had forecasted roughly 84,000 deaths by early August with a predicted peak on April 16. The White House task force has projected a death toll of between 100,000 and 240,000 in a best-case scenario — even with extensive social distancing measures.
“We’re way under any polls or any of the models, as they call them — they have models, and we’re way under, and we hope to keep it that way, in terms of death,” the president told Fox News Sean Hannity Tuesday night.
In Tuesday’s briefing, Trump also suggested that states would need fewer hospital beds, ventilators and other equipment than governors originally requested.
“A lot of the occupancy is really getting a little bit lower than anticipated, and that is good. We sort of thought that was going to happen,” the president said.
CDC Director Robert Redfield also suggested Monday that because Americans are taking social distancing recommendations “to heart,” the death toll will be “much, much, much lower” than models have projected.
However, some officials suggest the model may be too optimistic.
When asked about the new model projections this morning on Fox News, Fauci said, “There’s no doubt in my mind it’s because of the social distancing” and repeated his note that models are not ideal.
“The thing that trumps models is real data,” Fauci added, responding to a question about the projected number of deaths dropping. “And as we continue to accumulate real data, you go back and modify the models. So that’s the explanation for what you just said.”
New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo acknowledged in his press conference Wednesday that hospital admissions in the hard-hit state are decreasing but cautioned that now is the time to “double down” on social distancing, as the death toll continues to steadily go up.
CDC to release guidance that could allow some to return to work
Vice President Pence said at Tuesday’s White House briefing that the CDC planned to release new guidance today that could allow people who have been in proximity to a person who tested positive for COVID-19 — but subsequently showed no symptoms — to return to work.
“The CDC will have new guidance tomorrow that the CDC will be publishing for people who were in proximity to an individual that tested positive for coronavirus but have no symptoms,” Pence said Tuesday. “And CDC will be publishing new guidance about how those individuals and the circumstances under which they might be able to return back to work using some facial protection and monitoring their temperature.”
“Some of the best minds here at the White House are beginning to think about what recommendations will look like that we give to businesses, that we give to states,” Pence added.
The CDC recommended on Friday that all American wear non-medical masks in public.
Birx says U.S. may investigate WHO’s handling of pandemic after Trump threatens to put hold on funding
Dr. Deborah Birx, the White House’s coronavirus response coordinator, was asked to explain Wednesday what President Trump meant when he threatened on Tuesday to put a “powerful hold” on U.S. funding to the World Health Organization, the United Nations health agency.
Birx appeared to partially walk back those comments on ABC’s Good Morning America, noting that the U.S. contributes to the WHO annually.
“When the president said he was holding funds, he didn’t say he was restricting and keeping funds permanently away, but instead said, let’s investigate what happened,” Birx said. “I think that the president wants to complete an investigation of what happened during this current outbreak.”
The U.S. is, by far, the single largest financial contributor to the organization.
When asked about an ABC News report that sources say U.S. intelligence officials warned of a potentially disruptive contagion in China’s Wuhan region as early as last November — and that those concerns were laid out in an intelligence report and later briefed to the White House — Birx responded she was only detailed to the White House five weeks ago.
“I wasn’t here during any of those events,” she explained. “I was working in sub-Saharan Africa on HIV/AIDS, so I don’t really know the situational awareness around that report.”
Birx also said they hope to roll out an antibody test “within the next 10 or 14 days” that can detect how many Americans have already had the virus but were asymptomatic.
“This makes a very big difference in really understanding who can go back to work and how they can go back to work,” she said. “So all of those pieces need to come together over the next couple of weeks.”
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