WASHINGTON: (From left) US Surgeon General Jerome Adams, Response Coordinator for the White House Coronavirus Task Force Deborah Birx, US Vice President Mike Pence and US President Donald Trump take part in a Fox News virtual town hall meeting with anchor Bill Hemmer from the Rose Garden of the White House on Tuesday. – AFP

WASHINGTON: US President Donald Trump declared the beginning of the end of the coronavirus crisis in the United States on Tuesday and called for a quick end to social distancing, even as New York’s governor compared the growing pandemic to a “bullet train”. Trump, who is keen to get his reelection campaign back on track, said that social distancing has caused too much pain to the US economy, prompting Congress to debate a historic rescue package.

“Our country – it’s not built to shut down,” he said on Fox News. “You can destroy a country this way by closing it down. I would love to have the country opened up and just raring to go by Easter,” said Trump, declaring he could see “light at the end of the tunnel”. The president said he looked forward to “packed” churches on Easter, which is on April 12 – less than three weeks away.

Social distancing and quarantine measures have been instituted across much of the United States, with stay-at-home orders for more than a third of the population, bringing the world’s biggest economy to an abrupt halt. An Ipsos/Axios poll released Tuesday found that 74 percent of Americans have stopped attending large gatherings, while 48 percent have canceled travel plans, leaving airports deserted.

Another significant casualty of the shutdown has been the presidential campaign, with Trump having to halt a relentless series of big rallies around the country. Health experts have advised the measures as the foundation for preventing the easily transmitted, potentially fatal illness from multiplying uncontrollably. The administration on March 16 declared “15 Days to Slow the Spread”, a period which expires early next week.

But Trump made clear Tuesday that he thinks the response to coronavirus deaths has been blown out of proportion, saying “we lose much more than that to automobile accidents. We didn’t call up the automobile companies to say, ‘Stop making cars.'” Later, Trump appeared to retreat from his Easter goal at a press conference alongside the renowned government infectious diseases specialist Anthony Fauci.

“We’ll only do it if it’s good,” Trump said, adding that the reopening could be limited to a “portion” of the nation. He mentioned areas like farm country, Texas and the west, often sparsely populated. His own press secretary, Stephanie Grisham, quarantined since coming into contact with Brazilian officials almost two weeks ago, has tested negative, the White House said Tuesday.

‘We are not slowing it’
More than 700 people have died from the new coronavirus in the United States, while the number of confirmed cases is near 54,000, a tracker maintained by Johns Hopkins University showed Tuesday. The US has the third-highest number of confirmed cases globally, behind China and Italy. And despite Trump’s relentless optimism, New York Governor Andrew Cuomo warned of “astronomical numbers” in the state and the nation’s biggest city. “We are not slowing it. And it is accelerating on its own,” he said, comparing the spread of the disease to “a bullet train.”

Politics vs health?
With his reelection campaign temporarily knocked off track, Trump is now seeking to turn the coronavirus calamity into a dramatic comeback story that will deliver him a second term in November. One of his main claims to a second term, prior to the coronavirus outbreak, was the strong economy. “We can’t lose a Boeing, we can’t lose some of these companies,” he said on the Fox News broadcast from the White House. “If we lose those companies we’re talking about hundreds of thousands of jobs, millions of jobs.”

However, his push for a quick reopening of the economy carries the risk that some will see it as putting wealth over the survival of the sick, especially the vulnerable elderly. Texas Lieutenant Governor Dan Patrick said as much, urging those over 70 “not to sacrifice the country”. Cuomo, whose daily news conferences have made him a major national voice during the crisis, shot back at those calling for rapid economic reopening, saying “my mother is not expendable”.

Meanwhile, California officials on Tuesday pleaded for young people to heed safety warnings over the new coronavirus after a teen tested positive and died. It would be the first known juvenile death from the COVID-19 illness in the United States. A statement by the Los Angeles County Department of Public Health warned the cause of death “will require further evaluation”. “Though earlier tests indicated a positive result for COVID-19, the case is complex and there may be an alternate explanation for this fatality,” it said.

The novel coronavirus is not typically severe for juveniles, and the unidentified youth from Lancaster – just north of Los Angeles – did not have any pre-existing medical conditions, Mayor Eric Garcetti said. “A teenager in good health succumbed to this virus,” said Garcetti, calling the fatality a “sober reminder that this can take anyone”. “To the young people that are out there – this can hit you too. Know that your behavior can save a life, and can take a life. And that life could be yours,” he added.

Lancaster Mayor R Rex Parris told the Los Angeles Times the patient was a teenage boy who died of septic shock and the boy’s father was also infected with coronavirus. California Governor Gavin Newsom emphasized that the teenager’s death should be a warning to all, noting that half of the people infected in California are between the ages of 18 and 49. “What more evidence do you need than the loss of a young person’s life?” said Newsom. “I just cannot impress upon young people out there more, the seriousness of this moment, and how critical they are to ultimately getting us on the other side by practicing that social distancing.”

Newsom said while hospitalization rates are higher among older people, the virus was hitting all age groups. “Young people can and will be impacted by this virus,” he said. “With this tragic death, it is a reminder for everybody to take this seriously,” he added. Multiple studies have found the virus disproportionately affects older patients and those with underlying conditions.

A recent report by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) found juveniles “appear to have milder” illness, with no intensive care admissions or deaths in the US as of March 16. “Similar to reports from other countries, this finding suggests that the risk for serious disease and death from COVID-19 is higher in older age groups,” it found, using the scientific term for the disease caused by the SARS-coV-2 virus.

Only two known cases of minors dying from the disease in China, where the virus emerged late last year, have been recorded. In one case, an infant had a pre-existing intestinal condition. The other’s situation was not known. “The risk for serious disease and death in COVID-19 cases among persons in the United States increases with age,” the CDC report added. California, the most populous US state, has been one of the worst-hit during the pandemic. – AFP