WASHINGTON - Days after President Donald Trump said he hoped the country would be "opened up and raring to go" by Easter, he instead announced on Sunday an extension of federal guidance on social distancing until the end of April, in a continued effort to slow the spread of the novel coronavirus.
Public health experts had widely scoffed at Trump's idea of packed churches and bustling businesses by the holiday on April 12. The nation has reached more than 136,000 confirmed cases of covid-19, the disease caused by the coronavirus, and more than 2,400 related deaths - with numbers continuing to climb across the country.
Calling his previous statements targeting Easter "just an aspiration," Trump said he now expects the covid-19 death rate to peak in two weeks, around the same time as the holiday.
"Nothing would be worse than declaring victory before the victory is won," Trump said at an evening news conference in the Rose Garden. "That would be the greatest loss of all."
Trump said that by June 1, he expects that the country "will be well on our way to recovery."
The president's comments came after a top medical adviser to the White House and state governors said in television interviews Sunday that they did not expect to soon ease measures designed to slow the virus's spread, warning that the outbreak will continue taxing hospitals and could kill thousands more people.
Anthony Fauci, the White House adviser, said on CNN's "State of the Union" that models suggest the virus could cause between 100,000 and 200,000 deaths and that millions of people could be infected. But he stressed that the 200,000 figure was a worst-case estimate that is unlikely to come to pass.
In the Rose Garden on Sunday, Trump compared those numbers favorably with the more than 2 million deaths forecast as a worst-case scenario had the nation not taken strict measures to respond to the virus. If coronavirus-related deaths remained under 200,000, he said, "we all together have done a very good job."
However, he said the economic impacts of the crisis as businesses are forced to close down would be felt in rising suicides and drug abuse.
"You're going to have mental depression for people," he said. "You're going to have large numbers of suicides. Take a look at what happens in a really horrible recession or worse. So you're going to have tremendous suicides."
He added that, "you will see drugs being used like nobody's ever used them before, and people are going to be dying all over the place from drug addiction."
The president checked off steps his administration has taken to address the outbreak and invited leaders of medical supply and logistics companies to describe what they are doing to help.
But governors in hard-hit states and the president's advisers continued to talk darkly about the spread of the virus and the toll it would take.
In an earlier television appearance, Deborah Birx, coordinator of the White House coronavirus task force, said: "No state, no metro area, will be spared."
Fauci, the director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, said that making rapid testing for the coronavirus more accessible, providing results in minutes, would be key in determining when it is safe to open schools and businesses and ease social distancing rules in certain cases.
"I think we can reasonably, with the safety of the American people in mind, pull back on the restrictions" in places where testing is adequate.
The number of covid-19 cases continues to soar worldwide, surpassing 700,000, with a reported nearly 34,000 deaths. About 80% of people who have tested positive for the virus have mild or moderate symptoms, health experts have said, and some have no obvious symptoms.
The virus continued to rage in Europe on Sunday, with Spain reporting a record daily death toll of 838. Italy, which has the second-largest number of coronavirus cases, reported a daily death toll of 756. A British health official said it could be six months before life there returns to normal.
In a CNN interview before Trump announced the extension of federal guidelines, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., sharply criticized the president's handling of the coronavirus pandemic and warned against the relaxing of social distancing guidelines.
"I think the best thing [to do would be] to prevent more loss of life rather than open things up, because we just don't know," Pelosi said on "State of the Union."
"As the president fiddles, people are dying," the speaker said. "And we just have to take every precaution."
While New York has seen by far the worst of the virus so far, the governors of Maryland, Louisiana and Michigan said in television interviews that their states' health systems were at risk of becoming overburdened. The three states could become the next hot spots as cases climb in the Washington suburbs, Detroit and New Orleans.
Maryland Gov. Larry Hogan, a Republican, said the president's comments about reopening the government and business were unhelpful, conflicting with governors who are urging people to hunker down.
"The virus is going to dictate the time frame, and we're going to follow the advice of the scientists and doctors," Hogan said on "Fox News Sunday." "We don't see any way we're going to be opening up in a couple of weeks."
"In two weeks, around Easter, we're going to be looking a lot more like New York," Hogan said.
In Michigan, Gov. Gretchen Whitmer, a Democrat, said on NBC's "Meet the Press" that officials were seeing numbers "climbing exponentially."
"We see this astronomical rise," said Whitmer, who has attracted Trump's ire in recent days by criticizing what she saw as a lack of federal assistance. "We've got hospitals that are already at capacity, we're already running out of [supplies] as well."
Whitmer added: "We're going to be in dire straits again in a matter of days."
Louisiana Gov. John Bel Edwards, a Democrat, warned that his state had only a few days before becoming overwhelmed. By the end of the week, he said on ABC News' "This Week," New Orleans will be at capacity on ventilators. Next, he warned, area hospitals will be out of beds.
"We remain on a trajectory, really, to overwhelm our capacity to deliver health care," he said.
Edwards said the state has ordered 12,000 ventilators from both the national stockpile and private options but has received only 192.
States have been scrambling to find medical supplies, faced with a depleted federal stockpile that also was not designed with a nationwide outbreak in mind. Governors have said they are left effectively battling among themselves as they try to track down equipment.
Hogan, who is the chairman of the National Governors Association, said the lack of equipment was "the big pinch point." He said governors were frustrated that the federal government and states are unable to solve some of the problems.
"There's frustration out there, but we should do less arguing and more working together," Hogan said.
At a news conference, New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo, a Democrat, tried to strike a more optimistic tone, saying officials had a plan and were following it, even as he offered his opinion that the death toll would eventually reach the "thousands."
Cuomo announced that the number of cases in the state was approaching 60,000, almost half the national total, and that the illness had killed almost 1,000 people.
He offered his perspective on the likely eventual death toll - stressing that it was his own opinion rather than scientific fact - after Howard Zucker, the New York state health commissioner, said the state's fatality rate is about 1%.
"I don't see how you can read that and not see thousands of deaths," Cuomo said.
Nonetheless, Cuomo said, the latest data showed some reasons for optimism: The rate at which the number of confirmed cases double has slowed to every six days compared with every two days in mid-March. The number of people discharged daily from hospitals who were infected is also climbing, meaning people continue to recover, Cuomo said.
With the outbreak still so severe in New York, Cuomo said he would extend the state's PAUSE executive order through April 15. The order mandates that all nonessential workers stay home and that people maintain a six-foot distance from one another in public.
Experts and political leaders have converged on the need for rapid testing before the distancing measures can be eased. A plan issued Sunday by Scott Gottlieb, a former Food and Drug Administration commissioner in the Trump administration, set forth a staged approach that hinged on the availability of tests.
Fauci and Cuomo echoed that view, but neither said when the time to make the shift might arrive. Fauci said it would be "a matter of weeks."
Modifying the intensity of closures can only happen when the daily number of new cases starts decline, Fauci said. He pointed to "serious problems" in hot spots such as New York City and New Orleans with other areas, such as Detroit, emerging.
"To be honest, we don't have any firm idea" of the peak infection rate, he said.
The Washington Post's Kim Bellware, Tony Romm and Cat Zakrzewski contributed to this report.
This article was written by Ian Duncan and Felicia Sonmez, reporters for The Washington Post.