Trump Lincoln Memorial virtual town hall
US President Donald Trump participates in a live Fox News Channel virtual town hall called "America Together: Returning to Work" with hosts Bret Baier and Martha MacCallum about the response to the coronavirus disease (COVID-19) pandemic being broadcast from inside the Lincoln Memorial in Washington, US, May 3, 2020. Image Credit: Reuters

Washington: President Donald Trump predicted Sunday night that the death toll from the coronavirus pandemic ravaging the country may reach as high as 100,000 in the United States, far worse than he had forecast just weeks ago, even as he pressed states to reopen the shuttered economy.

Trump, who last month forecast that fatalities from the outbreak could be kept “substantially below the 100,000” mark and probably around 60,000, acknowledged that the virus has proved more devastating than expected. But nonetheless, he said that parks, beaches and some businesses should begin reopening now and that schools should resume classes in person by this fall.

“We’re going to lose anywhere from 75, 80 to 100,000 people,” the president said in a virtual “town hall” meeting at the Lincoln Memorial hosted by Fox News. “That’s a horrible thing. We shouldn’t lose one person over this.” But he credited himself with preventing the toll from being worse. “If we didn’t do it, the minimum we would have lost was a million two, a million four, a million five, that’s the minimum. We would have lost probably higher, it’s possible higher than 2.2” million.

The death toll passed 67,000 Sunday, more than the total American deaths in the Vietnam War and already higher than the president’s earlier prediction. More than 1,000 additional deaths have been announced every day since April 2 and while the rate appears to have peaked, it has not begun to fall in a significant, sustained way. The model embraced by the White House a month ago had assumed the death rate would begin to fall substantially by mid-April.

Despite that, Trump indicated again that he favoured lifting stay-at-home orders and other restrictions that have cratered the economy and put more than 30 million people out of work, arguing that the government had armed itself enough against the virus to be prepared to curb any additional outbreak even after people begin emerging from their homes to reenter workplaces and other public spaces.

This virus will pass. It will go. Will it come back? It might. It could. Some people say yes. But it will pass.

- Donald Trump, US President

“At some point we have to open our country,” the president said. “And people  are going to be safe. We’ve learned a lot. We’ve learned about the tremendous contagion. But we have no choice. We can’t stay closed as a country. We’re not going to have a country left.”

Trump asserted again that the virus would eventually fade. “This virus will pass,” he said. “It will go. Will it come back? It might. It could. Some people say yes. But it will pass.” While he has previously expressed doubt about a second wave in the fall anticipated by public health experts, he conceded that it could happen. “We may have to put out a fire,” he said.

The president’s appearance on Fox, in which he sat at a distance from the hosts at the foot of the Abraham Lincoln statue and took questions sent by video from around the country, came in the middle of a furious debate in the United States about how and when the states should begin restoring a semblance of everyday life. The programme was titled “America Together: Returning to Work.”

As of Friday, more than a dozen states had begun to reopen their economies and public life while many others had set plans to do so under certain conditions and with certain precautions, in some cases over the warnings of public health specialists who feared that moving too quickly would reignite a wave of infections.

Trump predicted that a vaccine would be developed by the end of 2020, which would be sooner than some public health experts anticipate and much faster than any other vaccine for such a major virus. “We are very confident that we’re going to have a vaccine at the end of the year, by the end of the year,” he said. Even if it is developed that soon, though, he did not say whether it could be approved and produced in sufficient quantities for widespread use by then.

Warning about virus

The president confirmed that he was warned about the virus, which originated in China, in an intelligence briefing in January, but asserted that it was characterised as if “it was not a big deal.” He said intelligence agencies would release information about his briefings as early as Monday.

In forecasting the toll of the virus, the White House had relied on models by the Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation at the University of Washington, which last month had predicted 60,415 deaths by the first week of August. Last week, the institute increased its estimate to 72,433 by early August. But now the toll looks likely to pass that number within a week.

“It looks like we’re headed to a number substantially below the 100,000,” Trump had said April 10. “That would be the low mark. And I hope that bears out.” He said a lower number would amount to a victory for him. “Hard to believe that if you had 60,000 - you could never be happy, but that’s a lot fewer than we were originally told and thinking.”