Trump tells governors he's working on new Covid-19 guidelines for social distancing measures

Trump tells governors he's working on new Covid-19 guidelines for social distancing measures
President Donald J. Trump signs H.R. 4334- The Supporting Older Americans Act of 2020, Wednesday, March 25, 2020, in the Oval Office of the White House. (Official White House Photo by Shealah Craighead)
Personal Health

President Donald Trump sent a letter to U.S. governors on Thursday, telling them that the administration is developing new guidelines for state and local leaders to respond to the coronavirus.

"There is still a long battle ahead, but our efforts are already paying dividends," it said.

The letter took a strikingly different tone than Trump's public comments, in which the president has lambasted the media for trying to use social distancing practices to take him down. This week, he announced that he would like to see the country roll back social distancing measures by Easter — April 12 — when we could see "packed churches" across the country. Public health experts, however, have almost uniformly said this plan is far too optimistic. Packing churches full of people while the coronavirus is still spreading rapidly throughout the population could be cataclysmic.

In his letter, Trump didn't mention Easter, but he indicated that the administration will "publish new guidelines for State and local policymakers to use in making decisions about maintaining, increasing, or relaxing social distancing and other mitigation measures they have put in place."

It continued: "Our expanded testing capabilities will quickly enable us to publish criteria, developed in close coordination with the Nation’s public health officials and scientists, to help classify counties with respect to continued risks posed by the virus. This will incorporate robust surveillance testing, which allows us to monitor the spread of the virus throughout the country. Under these data-driven criteria, we will suggest guidelines categorizing counties as high-risk, medium-risk, or low-risk."

It's not really clear how helpful these different risk-level designations will be since people can travel easily across county lines.

The letter also expressed more concern for the people affected by the virus than is common in Trump's public appearances: "The virus has inflicted a heavy toll on our country. A number of our fellow citizens have tragically succumbed to its ravages, while many more are fighting for their lives."

At other times, Trump has downplayed the fatality risk from Covid-19 by comparing it to the mortality rate of the flu or automobile accidents (though the total death count from the coronavirus is expected to surpass both, potentially many times over). And he has now repeatedly said that the "cure is worse than the problem" — indicating that he's less concerned about the cost of the coronavirus compared to the economic costs of widespread shutdowns.

The letter represents an effort by the White House to frame Trump's new push to "reopen the country" in a way that seems more sensible and science-based. But he remains in charge — and his reckless messaging will continue — so this may be a sign that more reasonable voices in the administration are actually losing influence.

The New York Times' Maggie Haberman noted in response to the letter: "Some in White House share POTUS view that there has to be an end date that people can look toward when life might resume. But division over whether April 12 [Easter] is overly optimistic."

It is likely too soon to begin talking about relaxing social distancing measures at all. Obviously, that will need to come eventually, but there's no sign yet that the spread of the virus has even begun to slow down. Social distancing is hard, and sending signals that make people think it may not be so important can reduce compliance and put many more lives at risk.

Read the full letter below:

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