Americans remain deeply wary of eating at restaurants, shopping at stores and taking other steps to return to normalcy, a poll shows, even as the White House is contemplating shutting down its coronavirus task force.
With several COVID-19 models taking a wrenching turn toward bleaker death forecasts in recent days because of reopening moves in some states, most Americans say they worry about getting the virus themselves and they oppose ending the restrictions meant to slow its spread, according to the Washington Post-University of Maryland poll.
Experts around the country are now revising their forecasts about the spread of the virus, and several models in the past three days suggest that resuming normal activity would spur a significant increase in the number of cases and deaths.
The more dire outlook came as Vice President Mike Pence revealed that officials have discussed disbanding the White House coronavirus task force within a month because of "the tremendous progress we've made as a country." President Donald Trump said, "We can't keep our country closed. We have to open our country."
"I'm not saying anything is perfect," Trump said as he made one of his first forays out of Washington in weeks, visiting a mask factory in Arizona. "And, yes, will some people be affected? Yes. Will some people be affected badly? Yes. But we have to get our country open, and we have to get it open soon."
The developments suggest a country that is anxious and being pulled in two opposite directions. Some governors, backed by protesters and largely supported by Trump, are pushing to resume normal activity in hopes of staving off further economic disaster. But many other governors and public health officials, as well as medical experts, warn that such moves will open the door to thousands more American deaths.
On Monday, a modeling group at Columbia University - whose work has been used by New York leaders, as well as the White House - released research showing that even a small increase in the contact rate among individuals will lead to a rebound in transmission and an increase in cases, hospitalizations and deaths.
"These findings indicate that most states are not well-positioned to reopen their economies and simultaneously control the spread of COVID-19 infections," the researchers concluded.
New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo, a Democrat, said Tuesday that one model the federal government uses to project coronavirus deaths was now forecasting the pandemic could kill 134,000 people overall. That is more than double the 60,000 deaths the same model - created by the Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation at the University of Washington and commonly referred to as the IHME model - predicted last month, he said.
"The fundamental question, which we're not articulating, is: How much is a human life worth?" Cuomo said.
On Tuesday, the United States recorded over 22,000 new coronavirus cases and more than 2,400 deaths. The total of those infected now stands at almost 1.2 million.
More than 70,000 Americans have now died of COVID-19, the disease the novel coronavirus causes. Before revising his prediction recently, Trump had suggested that figure could be an upper limit of the potential death toll. Now the country is sweeping by it on its way to an apparently far higher number, potentially one more in line with the estimates used by the White House at an earlier stage.
Jeffrey Shaman, a top epidemiologist who leads the Columbia group, said it is particularly alarming that states are reopening without first developing the tools needed to detect and control the virus.
"The rebound will be masked because of the lag in the system," he predicted. "By the time you recognize the rebound, it could be too late. Cases will still increase for another two weeks or more."
Among several scenarios, the median results produced by the Columbia group show the number of cases could rise to 63,330 a day, and the daily deaths to 2,443.
A draft government report this week projected cases could surge to about 200,000 per day by June 1, a staggering jump that would be accompanied by more than 3,000 daily deaths. Officials quickly distanced themselves from the report, saying it was incomplete.
As the pandemic roils the American health-care system, it's also tearing through the nation's social fabric. Protesters have targeted governors and other officials in several states, upset by what they view as overly broad restrictions on their rights in the name of slowing the virus.
Trump and some conservatives have in recent months also attacked the models that show grim forecasts, though experts say they have been useful in showing trends and convincing the public to take social distancing steps.
The government-imposed measures have wreaked economic havoc, and even trillions of dollars in aid from Congress has not softened their effect. Speaking of a long shutdown, Trump said Tuesday, "The people aren't going to accept it."
The challenge for modelers, epidemiologists say, is that they make predictions based in part on human behavior, but that behavior can shift - sometimes driven by the very reassurance or fear produced by the models themselves.
"The models are great at helping us think through complex decisions and implications, and they're sometimes good at predicting the behavior of viruses. But human behavior and politics are sometimes so unpredictable. That's not something modelers are good at incorporating yet," said Dylan George, a former Obama administration official who helped oversee modeling efforts during the Ebola outbreak.
Polling suggests that despite the economic turmoil, most Americans are far from ready for a rapid reboot of society.
More than half, 56 percent, say they are comfortable making a trip to the grocery store, something many Americans have continued doing, according to The Post-U. Md. poll. But 67 percent say they would be uncomfortable shopping at a clothing store, and 78 percent would be uneasy at a sit-down restaurant.
People in states with looser restrictions report similar levels of discomfort to those in states with stricter rules.
That dynamic, and the national mood, could change if researchers find a promising treatment or make significant progress toward a vaccine.
Pharmaceutical giant Pfizer began this week testing multiple versions of an experimental coronavirus vaccine in healthy young people in the United States. At least eight other vaccine candidates are being tested in people worldwide, according to a tracker by the Milken Institute.
But there remains much that scientists do not understand about the coronavirus. New York City health authorities warned this week of an unusual inflammatory condition possibly linked to COVID-19 that they have seen in 15 hospitalized children, though they noted they are still early in their research.
Americans continue to give Trump negative marks for his response to the outbreak, while offering widely positive assessments of their governors, a trend that has been consistent throughout the pandemic, according to The Post-U. Md. poll.
Trump's ratings are 44 percent positive and 56 percent negative, in line with where he was two weeks ago, while governors earn positive marks from 75 percent of Americans. Partisan differences remain sizable, with nearly 8 in 10 Republicans and about 2 in 10 Democrats rating Trump positively. In contrast, governors earn big positive majorities across party lines.
Trump and Pence both confirmed a New York Times report Tuesday that officials are discussing an end to the White House's coronavirus task force, with Pence saying "we're starting to look at the Memorial Day window, early June window" for that to happen.
Trump said that the government might convene a different group focused on "safety and opening," and that health experts such as Deborah Birx, the task force coordinator, and Anthony Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, would remain involved in the government response.
The president declined to endorse the notion that the mission was accomplished. "Mission accomplished is when it's over," Trump said.
Americans overwhelmingly approve of the way federal public health scientists, including Fauci, have dealt with the challenges from the coronavirus. Fauci's positive rating stands at 74 percent. Public health scientists in the federal government overall are rated 71 percent positive.
Fauci said in a phone interview Tuesday with The Washington Post that if states reopen too soon, ignoring federal recommendations, the risk of a resurgence of the virus is very real. The models' precise predictions are less important than that fundamental fact, he said.
"I've always said if you do that prematurely, you run the risk of there being rebound and [an] increase in cases," Fauci said. "How many cases there are going to be, how many deaths, I can't predict."
The White House has blocked Fauci from testifying before a House subcommittee investigating the coronavirus outbreak and response. Trump said Tuesday that's because the Democratic-controlled House is "a bunch of Trump haters," adding that Fauci would appear before a panel in the Republican-controlled Senate.
The White House also informed lawmakers in a memo this week that no member of the coronavirus task force could testify before congressional committees without the permission of Chief of Staff Mark Meadows.
Partisan divisions have shaped the response to the crisis from the beginning. On Tuesday, Cuomo urged those on both sides of the aisle to set aside their differences, though he seemed to take aim at Republicans who do not want to give aid money to Democratic-led states. New York, he said, gives tens of billions more to the federal government in taxes than it receives, unlike many GOP-led states.
Trump, who has suggested he would use the promise of aid to pressure states to change various policies, tweeted, "Well run States should not be bailing out poorly run States, using CoronaVirus as the excuse!"
A former top vaccine official removed from his post last month, meanwhile, alleged in a whistleblower complaint Tuesday that he had been reassigned to a less prestigious job because he tried to "prioritize science and safety over political expediency" and raised health concerns about a drug repeatedly touted by Trump and other administration officials.
Though the moves by some states toward reopening have been gradual, The Post-U. Md. poll indicates many residents oppose them.
The most significant opposition is to reopening movie theaters, with 82 percent of Americans saying they should not be allowed to open up in their state. There is also broad opposition to reopening gyms (78 percent opposed), dine-in restaurants and nail salons (both with 74 percent opposed).
The poll shows that Republicans are far more supportive of opening businesses than Democrats are.
Democrats and Democratic-leaning independents overwhelmingly oppose opening all types of businesses listed, while Republicans and Republican-leaning independents range from mostly in favor of opening (61 percent for golf courses) to mostly opposed (59 percent for dine-in restaurants).
Fear of infection, the poll finds, has not abated at all in recent weeks.
In the survey, 63 percent of Americans say they are either very or somewhat worried about getting the virus and becoming seriously ill, while 36 percent say they are not too worried or not at all worried.
The poll was conducted by The Washington Post and the University of Maryland’s Center for Democracy and Civic Engagement. Interviews were conducted on cellphones and landlines April 28 to May 3 among a random national sample of 1,005 adults, with a margin of sampling error of plus or minus 3.5 percentage points. The error margin was five points for results on which businesses should be open or closed.