In a first, small step toward reopening the country, the Trump administration could relax coronavirus guidelines as early as Wednesday to make it easier for Americans who have been exposed but have no symptoms to return to work, particularly those in essential jobs.
The proposed new guidelines are in the works even as the nation mourns some 13,000 deaths from the virus and grapples with a devastated economy and medical crises from coast to coast. Health experts continue to caution Americans to practice social distancing and to avoid returning to their normal activities. At the same time, though, they are planning for a time when the most serious threat from COVID-19 will be in the country's rear-view mirror.
Dr. Anthony Fauci, the nation's top infectious disease expert, said if the existing guidelines asking people to practice social distancing through the end of April are successful in halting the spread of the virus, more relaxed recommendations could be in order.
"If, in fact, we are successful, it makes sense to at least plan what a re-entry into normality would look like," Fauci said on Fox News Channel. "That doesn't mean we're going to do it right now, but it means we need to be prepared to ease into that."
Under the expected new guidance from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, people who have been exposed to someone who was infected would be allowed back to work if they are asymptomatic, take their temperature twice a day and wear a face mask, said a person familiar with the proposal under consideration. The person described the proposal on the condition of anonymity because the draft had not been finalized.
The guidelines would not be a foolproof guard against spreading infection.
Recent studies have suggested that somewhere around 10% of new infections might be sparked by contact with individuals who are infected but do not yet exhibit symptoms. Scientists say it's also possible that some people who develop symptoms and then recover from the virus remain contagious, or that some who are infected and contagious may never develop symptoms.
In an interview last week with a radio station in Atlanta, CDC Director Dr. Robert Redfield cited an estimate that 25% of infected people might not have symptoms. During a press briefing on Sunday, Fauci said between 25% and 50% of infected Americans are not exhibiting symptoms. He added: "That is an estimate. I don't have any scientific data yet to say that."
As of Wednesday, the U.S. had more than 400,000 confirmed cases of infection.
On the other side of the globe, the journey back to normalcy is farther along.
In Wuhan, the Chinese industrial city that first reported cases of the new coronavirus, authorities ended a 76-day lockdown Wednesday. Residents can travel in and out of the city without special authorization, but must use a smartphone app powered by a mix of data-tracking and government surveillance showing they are healthy and have not been in recent contact with anyone confirmed to have the virus.
Dr. Deborah Birx, coordinator of the White House coronavirus task force, warned against a premature lifting of the 30-day guidelines on social distancing in the U.S., but said she is hopeful the country will have fewer than the 100,000 to 240,000 deaths health officials had earlier projected.
She said people have been following the 30-day recommendations to stay at least 6 feet away from others, wash their hands regularly with soap and water, use hand sanitizer and avoid gatherings of more than 10 people.
"If people start going out again, socially interacting, we could see a very acute second wave very early," she told NBC's "Today."
President Donald Trump is itching to get people back to work and businesses reopened after taming the virus.
"Once we OPEN UP OUR GREAT COUNTRY, and it will be sooner rather than later, the horror of the Invisible Enemy, except for those that sadly lost a family member or friend, must be quickly forgotten," Trump tweeted. "Our Economy will BOOM, perhaps like never before!!!"
Reminders of the pandemic, however, will linger. Under the new guidelines being considered, facial masks will be commonplace at work and businesses will be taking their workers' temperatures for signs of fever.
Trump's predecessor, Barack Obama, chimed in with a cautionary tweet from the sidelines, writing: "Social distancing bends the curve and relieves some pressure on our heroic medical professionals. But in order to shift off current policies, the key will be a robust system of testing and monitoring – something we have yet to put in place nationwide."
Conservative voices, for their part, are pushing for an economic and social restart, urging Trump to overrule health officials.
"At some point, the president is going to have to look at Drs. Fauci and Birx and say, we're opening on May 1," Fox commentator Laura Ingraham tweeted. "Give me your best guidance on protocols, but we cannot deny our people their basic freedoms any longer."
For most people, the new coronavirus causes mild or moderate symptoms, such as fever and cough that clear up in two to three weeks. For some, especially older adults and people with existing health problems, it can cause more severe illness, including pneumonia, and death.
"Some of the best minds here at the White House are beginning to think about what recommendations will look like that we give to businesses, that we give to states, but it will all, I promise you, be informed on putting the health and well-being of the American people first," Vice President Mike Pence said Tuesday.