STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:
Now, just days after he urged the nation to practice social distancing, the president is offering a somewhat different message. Here he is on Fox yesterday.
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PRESIDENT DONALD TRUMP: We have to get our country back to work. Our country wants to be back at work. That was not a controversial thing I said the other day; our country wants to go back to work. And again, the cure, it's like - this cure is worse than the problem. Again, people - many people, in my opinion, more people are going to die if we allow this to continue. We have to go back to work. Our people want to go back to work.
INSKEEP: The president also told Fox that he would like to reopen the country for business by Easter, which is 18 days away. He would like churches, which are now empty for safety, to be full on Easter Sunday. He later acknowledged he did not have a fact-based reason for that date; it just seemed like a beautiful time to revive. Dr. Tom Inglesby is with us via Skype. He is director of the Johns Hopkins Center for Health Security. Good morning.
TOM INGLESBY: Morning, Steve.
INSKEEP: What did you think about when you heard the president use that Easter Sunday date?
INGLESBY: Well, you know, this epidemic is really still spreading and on the steep rise in the United States. We're now the country with the third-most cases in the world, and possibly we'll overtake Italy at some point in the near future. And this isn't the right time to be talking about relaxing social distancing measures. Those are the only measures we really have to slow this epidemic down.
We saw in China and especially in Wuhan city that social distancing measures were able to turn around a completely disastrous epidemic, starting in about three weeks after they began and then continuing over the next six weeks. And so I think at this point, we really need to keep social distancing measures in place around the country. It's really our only big tool to slow this epidemic down.
INSKEEP: Although there's no doubt about the economic damage being done, about the millions of people by now who are out of work and don't know if they're either furloughed or completely laid off or their businesses are shuttered. What do you think about when you hear the president say the cure cannot be worse than the problem, that we might actually be killing people because they're out of money?
INGLESBY: I think for anyone considering whether to stop social distancing measures, we should look at the whole net effect of what's happening now and then what would happen if we discontinued them altogether. And if we discontinue them altogether, what we're going to see is what's happening in New York begin to happen in other cities and other parts of the country. We will really have no effective measures in place to slow this down.
We're beginning to get a sense of where the disease is with better and better diagnostic tests. But our health care workers are not fully prepared. They don't have the masks, gowns, gloves that they need. We don't have the ventilators we need for the surge in cases that we expect. And we don't have a health care system that's really prepared around the country for this.
So I completely understand the economic disruption that's going on around the country, and I think - I'm so grateful that that bill passed last night will begin to help people who have been disrupted by this. But if we let these measures go, then we're going to have all sorts of economic disruption caused by a rapidly spreading virus around the country.
INSKEEP: Meaning this is not an either-or because you would destroy the economy if you let the virus go even further out of control. I do want to ask you about something here. The president, I think it's fair to say, is following a familiar sort of reality show plot line here. He boldly contradicts the experts. He makes a very simple proposal. He spars with Democrats. And he commands a lot of attention because now he's got everybody focused on the end of this 15 days of social distancing and what he will decide next. But he's also just wishing for better times. Is there any harm in the president just wishing for an early opening?
INGLESBY: I think the problem is that it sets expectations in the public that this is going to be something that's over sometime soon, and it's not going to be. It hasn't been in any other place where it's erupted in the world, and it's a long - it's going to be a long process. And so I think we have to really come together and understand what's going to be required to slow this virus down around the country. So that's why I'd be worried about signaling that this can end sometime soon.
INSKEEP: Could the president be endangering lives by encouraging people to get out there and go back to church or whatever else they might do?
INGLESBY: My hope is that by the time we get to a week or two weeks from now, that it'll be clear that there's no chance that we can stop social distancing measures and that everybody will be on the same page.
INSKEEP: Dr. Inglesby, thanks so much.
INGLESBY: Thank you.
INSKEEP: Tom Inglesby is director of the Johns Hopkins Center for Health Security. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.