Coronavirus pandemic

Top US expert says death toll in country could reach 200,000

People practising social distancing while waiting in line outside a grocery store in Brooklyn, New York, on Saturday. The death count in the United States has crossed 2,200, more than double the level from two days ago.
People practising social distancing while waiting in line outside a grocery store in Brooklyn, New York, on Saturday. The death count in the United States has crossed 2,200, more than double the level from two days ago.PHOTO: REUTERS

Estimate comes as US President backs off from cutting off New York area and issues travel alert

WASHINGTON • Deaths from the coronavirus in the United States could reach 200,000, a leading member of Mr Donald Trump's coronavirus task force said in a televised interview yesterday, as the US President backed down from a proposal to quarantine the entire New York area and issued a travel warning instead.

National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases director Anthony Fauci told CNN that models predicting a million or more deaths were "almost certainly off the chart". He offered a rough estimate of 100,000 to 200,000 deaths and "millions of cases".

But Dr Fauci quickly added: "I don't want to be held to that... It's such a moving target that you can so easily be wrong and mislead people."

Mr Trump's travel warning for the New York area came as the death count in the US crossed 2,200, more than double the level from two days ago. The US has now recorded more than 125,000 cases of the respiratory virus, the most by any country in the world.

He said on Saturday afternoon that he might impose a ban on travel in and out of New York and parts of New Jersey and Connecticut, the US epicentre of the disease, to protect other states that have yet to bear the brunt. He offered few specifics.

Critics promptly called the idea unworkable, saying it would cause chaos in a region that serves as the economic engine of the eastern US, accounting for 10 per cent of the population and 12 per cent of gross domestic product.

New York Governor Andrew Cuomo said on CNN that the plan stood at odds with the law and the President's desire to restart the economy. Hours later, Mr Trump dropped the idea, saying he would instead ask the US Centres for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) to issue a "strong travel advisory" that would be administered by the three states' governors.

The CDC later warned the states' residents against non-essential domestic travel for 14 days. It said the warning did not apply to employees of "critical infrastructure industries" including trucking, public health and financial services.

It was the latest reversal for Mr Trump, who has been reluctant to order US companies to produce much-needed medical supplies, despite the pleas of governors and hospital workers.

A planeload of desperately needed medical supplies arrived in New York from China yesterday, the first in a series of flights over the next 30 days organised by the White House to help fight the coronavirus, a White House official said.

A commercial carrier landed at John F. Kennedy airport carrying gloves, gowns and masks for distribution in New York, New Jersey and Connecticut, which are battling to care for a crush of virus patients.

Though Mr Trump has apparently opted not to impose checkpoints on highways and airports leading out of New York, some states have imposed limits of their own. New Yorkers arriving in Florida and Rhode Island face orders to self-isolate if they intend to stay, and the governors of Pennsylvania and West Virginia have asked visiting New Yorkers to voluntarily self-quarantine.

Any travel restrictions might be too late. The number of patients in California hospitals increased by more than one-third overnight, Governor Gavin Newsom said.

Officials in Louisiana, where Mardi Gras celebrations late last month in New Orleans fuelled an outbreak, reported 17 additional deaths and 569 new cases on Saturday.

In New York, nurses protested outside the Jacobi Medical Centre, saying supervisors asked them to reuse their masks, putting their own health at risk.

REUTERS, NYTIMES, AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on March 30, 2020, with the headline 'Top US expert says death toll in country could reach 200,000'. Print Edition | Subscribe