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Public Health Experts Decry Trump's Suggestion Shutdowns Could Soon Ease

Public health experts say they are alarmed by President Trump's suggestion that some parts of the country could soon ease some of the dramatic measures being taken to slow the spread of the coronavirus.

"That is exactly the wrong thing to do," Dr. Howard Markel, a noted medical historian at the University of Michigan, wrote NPR in an email. "Cases would go up and so would deaths...we now need to stay the course!"

During a briefing at the White House late Monday, Trump suggested the damage to the economy could do more damage than the virus, including increasing deaths from suicide.

"Our country wasn't built to be shut down," Trump said. "We cannot let the cure be worse than the problem itself."

Public health experts acknowledge the widespread shutdowns are painful and difficult but argue that it's far too soon to consider easing them up. If anything, many parts of the country need to do far more to slow the virus, allowing more time to ramp up testing and to prepare hospitals for a possible onslaught of sick people. Many people could die, especially the most vulnerable, such as the elderly, they say.

"This is a deadly epidemic and will be painful for all to keep the distancing up," Barry Bloom of the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health wrote NPR in an email. "But we would be wiping out a big swath of people of all ages."

Trump said officials would evaluate whether to continue recommending the tough steps that have stalled large parts of the economy after the first 15 days ends on Monday. The recommendations could continue for another, but some parts of the country could start to reopen, Trump said.

Some business leaders and researchers have been suggesting in recent days that what they consider draconian restrictions are too severe and are doing too much damage to the economy, causing too much economic and social distress.

"Extreme measures to flatten the virus 'curve' is sensible — for a time — to stretch out the strain on health infrastructure. But crushing the economy, jobs and morale is also a health issue — and beyond," wrote Lloyd Blankfein, the former chief executive of Goldman Sachs, on Twitter. "Within a very few weeks, let those with a lower risk to the disease return to work."

But many health experts disagree.

"I'm dismayed," says Lawrence Gostin, a public health expert at Georgetown University. "It's utterly irresponsible."

Kenneth Bernard, a biodefense expert who served in both Democratic and Republican administrations, agrees.

"Eventually we will have to scale back isolation for some populations and stratify at-risk populations," Bernard says. "But we need more info and data and testing data. Won't happen in a week."

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Rob Stein is a correspondent and senior editor on NPR's science desk.