WASHINGTON - A key U.S. coronavirus official voiced serious concerns Sunday about Americans failing to take the highly contagious disease seriously enough as the country begins to reopen its commercial and recreational life.
Dr. Deborah Birx, the White House coronavirus response coordinator, told the "Fox News Sunday" show, "I'm very concerned about people going out without social distancing," staying at least two meters away from others to curb the chances of passing on the disease.
"We have to have social distancing if they're in groups," she said. "They don't know if they're asymptomatic" and could unwittingly pass on the virus.
"We want to urge people to hike, golf, play tennis," but to do it safely by maintaining an appropriate distance from other people, she said.
With the U.S. world-leading coronavirus death toll likely to top 100,000 within a week, President Donald Trump erroneously claimed on Twitter, "Cases, numbers and deaths are going down all over the Country!"
In some states, the number of new cases has diminished, but not everywhere. Authorities say the number of new cases is especially concerning in two of the country's biggest cities, Los Angeles and Chicago, along with Washington, the national capital. Health experts say the death toll could reach more than 140,000 by early August.
Trump on Friday ordered the country's 50 state governors to reopen houses of worship although legal experts say he lacked the authority to do so. In some states, coronavirus restrictions allowed stores and restaurants to begin to reopen with restrictions but not churches, synagogues and mosques.
"In America, we need more prayer, not less," Trump said.
But Birx offered a cautionary note for worshippers, saying, "Although it may be safe for some to go to church, it may not be safe for those with [health] vulnerabilities."
She deplored some shoppers who have refused to wear face masks in stores, who claimed they had the constitutional freedom in the U.S. to defy store employee requests to do so.
"There's clear scientific evidence" that people without masks can pass on the virus to others, Birx said. "A mask does prevent others from becoming infected."
More than 38 million laid-off U.S. Workers - nearly a fourth of the country's labor force - has filed for unemployment compensation over the last nine weeks.
The official unemployment rate in April was 14.7%, but officials predict that it could top 20% in May, when the official count for the month is released in early June.
White House economic adviser Kevin Hassett told CNN he believes it is quite possible the national unemployment rate will still be in double digits when Trump faces reelection Nov. 3 against the presumptive Democratic nominee, former Vice President Joe Biden.
Hassett said the country's economic recovery will be well underway in the second half of the year, but that "unemployment is something that will move back slower. If there were a [coronavirus] vaccine in July I'd be way more optimistic."
U.S. health officials had originally suggested that it was not likely that a coronavirus vaccine would be available until well into 2021.
But Birx said the availability of a vaccine could be reached in late 2020 or early 2021. She said the push for the rapid development of a cure by several companies in the U.S. and elsewhere and the early production of the "most promising candidates" even before health officials have concluded that they are safe and effective could advance the timetable for inoculations.