Trump teases new coronavirus distancing guidelines based on county risk

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Donald Trump. | Alex Brandon/AP Photo

President Donald Trump on Thursday teased a new plan to reopen swaths of the country shuttered by the coronavirus pandemic via a targeted, county-by-county mitigation effort.

In a letter to the nation’s governors released by the White House, Trump outlined a system to conduct “robust surveillance testing” that would allow the federal government to “classify counties with respect to continued risks posed” by the coronavirus, rather than apply one set of nationwide social distancing guidelines, as the CDC did a little over a week ago.

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The promise of new guidelines, which the president said his administration was still working on, represents the latest push by Trump to roll back restrictions on Americans’ activities and blunt the economic devastation from the still-surging outbreak.

Trump’s letter comes hours after the Department of Labor reported a record number of unemployment claims, and on the heels of the Senate’s passage of a mammoth $2 trillion rescue package on Wednesday, the deadliest day yet in the country’s battle with Covid-19, the illness caused by the novel coronavirus.

The new initiative, however, would require a significant ramp-up in the nation’s capacity to test Americans for the virus. And it’s unclear when states and counties will be able to conduct testing on that scale, after earlier stumbles hampered the country’s response to the pandemic.

In the letter, released on the heels of the president’s teleconference with governors Thursday, Trump writes that the new guidelines would incorporate data gleaned from “expanded testing capabilities” to “monitor the spread of the virus throughout the country.”

Based off that data, the administration would categorize counties as “high risk, medium risk and low risk.” This would allow areas less impacted by the virus to put in place looser restrictions than ones that have been ravaged by the illness.

It’s uncertain how effective such labels may be in containing the virus, however, given that asymptomatic carriers may move from region to region undetected. Just this week, the administration urged anyone who’d recently been in New York City, the new epicenter of the U.S. outbreak, to self-quarantine after health experts raised questions about whether people fleeing the city were transmitting the virus to other locales.

And before more governors began to order the closure of “nonessential” businesses like bars and restaurants in the name of social distancing, some state leaders complained that a patchwork of different guidelines in neighboring states undermined their more stringent restrictions.

Trump’s letter did not set a date for publishing or implementing the county-by-county guidelines. But he made no mention of the Easter deadline he spoke of Tuesday, when he said he’d like to have the country “opened up and raring to go” by the holiday.

The omission may indicate he’s heeding the advice of medical experts, who’ve warned it’s still premature to lift the current nationwide guidelines.

Trump’s latest proposal is also a sign of rising confidence in the testing rollout among members of the president’s coronavirus task force — and the administration’s hopes to use that testing data in a more strategic manner.

“With each passing day, our increasingly extensive testing capabilities are giving us a better understanding of the virus and its path,” the president wrote Thursday, adding that the new information “will drive the next phase in our war against this invisible enemy.”