Updated at 7:00 p.m. ET
More than a dozen states have unveiled formal plans to move from coronavirus disaster response and toward reconstruction, the White House said Thursday — but officials also didn’t rule out the need for more mitigation.
Vice President Mike Pence said that 16 states have released formal plans about progressing out of the crisis. Many are pursuing a “phased approach” county by county, he said, pointing specifically to Missouri, Pennsylvania, Oregon and Idaho.
Pence and President Trump said on Thursday all the countermeasures and precautions to slow the spread of the virus are working. If they keep up, “by early summer we could be in a much better place as a nation,” Pence said.
All the same time, Trump and Pence didn’t rule out the possibility that they might need to extend the federal guidelines for social distancing and other mitigation measures past their current expiration date on May 1.
Thursday’s briefing followed a report that some 4 million more people have filed for unemployment, according to statistics released by the Labor Department, bringing the approximate total of Americans out of work to around 26 million.
Although the rate at which jobs are being lost is slowing, the big picture is one of historic disruption following the imposition of social distancing, isolation and other countermeasures aimed at slowing the spread of the coronavirus.
Trump has sought to talk up the prospects that some parts of the nation could begin to get back to normal soon, citing the record unemployment as a key reason: America can’t afford to stay closed, he argues.
Authorities around the country felt forced to place sections of the economy in stasis in order to keep people apart to slow the explosive spread of the coronavirus.
Those measures were punishing for restaurants, brick-and-mortar retail, travel, energy and other sectors, prompting the vertiginous unemployment statistics.
The response also has been devastating to the fiscal health of state governments as they manage their responses. That has brought calls for more federal funding in future relief legislation.
Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., has been cool about another batch of spending beyond the trillions of dollars Washington already has committed. He mused this week that a better strategy might be for states to declare “bankruptcy.”
Trump was asked about that idea on Thursday and declined to comment on McConnell’s comments.
“We’ll be looking to do what’s right for the country,” he said.
The president did say that he intended to sign the latest relief legislation, passed by the House on Thursday as Trump was talking, after his press conference.
Nearly 900,000 Americans have now been diagnosed with the disease, according to researchers at Johns Hopkins University, and nearly 50,000 have been killed in the pandemic.
Trump and his aides have acknowledged the toll of the ordeal — he alluded to it several times as “the plague” on Thursday — but the White House says the peak of cases nationally has passed and the U.S. can begin to look ahead to reconstruction.
Testing concerns persist
Even though the federal government has released guidelines for the way it recommends states attempt to navigate their way out of the crisis, authorities around the country warn about consequential shortfalls that remain in the ability to test for COVID-19.
Testing is seen as a critical way to provide assurance to millions who’ve spent the last six weeks or so isolating that if they begin to go about their routines again, they won’t simply encounter virus-carriers and bring about a boomerang spike in infections.
Public health authorities need more tests, processing throughput and accessories in order to field enough materiel to verify which people are infection-free and which might be carrying the coronavirus without suffering any symptoms.
“We need to significantly ramp up not only the number of tests, but the capacity to perform them, so that you don’t have a situation where you have a test but it can’t be done because there isn’t a swab, or because there isn’t extraction media, or not the right vial,” said Dr. Anthony Fauci, a top physician advising the White House, in an interview on Thursday with Time Magazine.
Continued Fauci: “I am not overly confident right now at all that we have what it takes to do that. We are doing better, and I think we are going to get there, but we are not there yet.”
One of the big unanswered questions about this stage in the disaster is the practical uncertainty about how — and how long — it may take to get from the current near-lockdown environment for many Americans and into one of the next “phases” in the federal guidelines.
Some states are going quicker than others. Georgia, for example, is on the verge of permitting many now-closed businesses to reopen including gyms and tattoo parlors.
Even Trump, the booster-in-chief for a return to normalcy, said on Thursday he thought that might be moving too fast, and he said he said as much to Georgia Gov. Brian Kemp.
“I’m not happy about it,” Trump said.
Trump: UK’s Johnson doing well
Trump told reporters he’d spoke with British Prime Minister Boris Johnson, who is recovering from COVID-19, and said he thought the British leader sounded good.
“He sounded incredible,” Trump said. “He was ready to go. I’m very surprised. It was the old Boris — tremendous energy, tremendous drive. I think he’s doing great, he was so sharp and incredible.”
Johnson was hospitalized for a time in intensive care after falling ill as part of the pandemic’s spread in Great Britain. Trump’s description suggested he was reengaged with his work.
In the past, Trump has said Johnson has asked for help with the British response to the pandemic, including with medical equipment such as ventilators.