What Trump’s doing wrong in the coronavirus battle

President Trump steps to a White House podium every day to brag about the terrific job he and his aides are doing to battle the coronavirus outbreak. Some disagree.

“The president’s being foolish, and I think he is being irresponsible,” Democratic Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand tells Yahoo Finance. “He’s creating misinformation on television, that we’ll all be better by Easter. That’s going to confuse people. They will have a sense of safety and they will not socially distance from their neighbor and friends, they will start going back out. And I tell you that this will just last that much longer.”

Trump has suggested he could “reopen” the economy by Easter Sunday, which is April 12. The idea is that areas with low infection rates could continue or resume business as usual, with restaurants open and most people going to work. The Trump administration even plans to rate every county in the nation on the rate of infection, to identify who can venture out and who needs to hunker down.

US President Donald Trump speaks during the daily briefing on the novel coronavirus, COVID-19, at the White House on March 25, 2020, in Washington, DC. (Photo by MANDEL NGAN / AFP) (Photo by MANDEL NGAN/AFP via Getty Images)

But there’s widespread opposition to this idea from public health experts and economists. The coronavirus is very infectious, and a low infection rate today can become a high infection rate a week later. Ashish Jha, director of Harvard’s Global Health Institute, told Yahoo Finance that “coronavirus is going to hit every city in America.” Economists warn that reopening businesses too soon could prolong a downturn or even cause back-to-back recessions, if the unvanquished virus returns in waves, forcing cascading shutdowns.

‘He squandered three months’

Gillibrand has endorsed Joe Biden for president and obviously hopes Trump loses his reelection bid in November. Yet her criticism of Trump’s handling of the crisis echoes some nonpartisan analysis. “He knew from his intelligence community in January that this was a highly contagious virus that would soon be on our shores,” Gillibrand says. What his administration should have done sooner and faster, according to her: Warn hospitals, roll out testing, let labs nationwide develop their own tests, use federal powers to manufacture more ventilators, masks, gowns and test kits. “He squandered three months of time,” Gillibrand says.

The coronavirus materialized in December, with the first U.S. case confirmed on Jan. 21. Trump downplayed the virus through mid-March. “It will go away,” Trump said on March 10. “Just stay calm. It will go away.” There are now 86,000 confirmed coronavirus cases in the United States, with multiples of additional infections likely among people who haven’t been tested. More than 1,300 Americans have died.

Graphic by David Foster/Yahoo Finance

Trump finally began to take the virus seriously about two weeks ago, declaring a national emergency on March 13 and issuing federal social-distancing guidelines on March 16. Yet Trump remains reluctant to invoke federal powers that would help address a shortage of medical equipment, despite urgent pleas from governors and hospitals for more ventilators. He appears to have backed off a plan, for instance, to use federal funds to pay manufacturers such as General Motors to build ventilators.   

Trump has vacillated on exploiting the Defense Production Act, which allows Washington to tap private-sector manufactures to produce needed goods in an emergency. Trump has said the act is in effect, while also saying that he’s not using it yet and saving it for a worst-case scenario. “I do not for the life of me understand the reluctance to use the federal Defense Production Act,” New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo said on March 24. Maybe Trump will, whenever his worst-case scenario arrives.

Rick Newman is the author of four books, including “Rebounders: How Winners Pivot from Setback to Success.” Follow him on Twitter: @rickjnewman. Confidential tip line: [email protected]. Encrypted communication available. Click here to get Rick’s stories by email.

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