Surgeon general says coronavirus death toll projections are 'sobering'

The White House said the pandemic could kill 100,000 to 240,000 people in the U.S. by mid-June, even with strict mitigation measures in effect.

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By Rebecca Shabad

WASHINGTON — Surgeon General Jerome Adams said Wednesday that projections presented by the White House a day earlier estimating that coronavirus could kill hundreds of thousands of Americans are “sobering.”

In an interview on NBC’s “TODAY” show, host Savannah Guthrie referred to the projection that, at the low range of the estimate, 100,000 people in the U.S. could die by mid-June, adding that 4,000 have succumbed to the illness so far. She asked Adams whether the country could see 96,000 people dying over the next several weeks.

“Those projections are definitely sobering, but they don’t have to be our reality,” Adams said in response.

“If we really do our part — stay at home, social distance — then we can flatten our curve even below those projections, but it really depends on all of us,” he added.

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President Donald Trump warned about the grave projections during the White House coronavirus task force briefing on Tuesday, when the models were shared publicly. They showed that the pandemic could kill 100,000 to 240,000 people in the U.S. by mid-June, even with strict mitigation measures in effect over the next month. Without social distancing, the model estimated between 1.5 and 2.2 million deaths.

"I want every American to be prepared for the tough days ahead," Trump said during the briefing. "This is going to be a very, very painful two weeks."

The White House has extended federal guidelines for social distancing until the end of April. Adams said Wednesday that some areas in the U.S. might not hit their peak number infections until after that period, which will require a continuation of restrictive measures. Other areas that “leaned in early” may be able to relax their recommendations by the end of the month, he said.

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“I think that in 30 days we will still be telling the country in general that you need to practice these measures, but in 30 days, some places may not need to have a shelter-in-place anymore,” he said. “We'll start to ease this in 30 days, I think, but in other places we’ll be ramping it up.”

Asked whether Americans should begin wearing face coverings to help flatten the curve, as some experts have suggested, Adams said the task force has asked the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention to look into whether the White House should change its recommendations.

If people do wear face coverings, they still should not touch their faces, Adams said, adding that those seeking to cover their faces should leave N95 masks to medical professionals and still practice social distancing.