US President Donald Trump shifted rhetoric and tone on Tuesday as he urged Americans to wear masks if they could not follow social distancing and said the coronavirus pandemic would get worse before it improves.
His comments came at the first coronavirus press conference in nearly three months, a time in which about 80,000 Americans have died of the virus that the president has long said was likely to vanish – which he again reiterated, saying it would disappear at some point.
Mr Trump's remarks were a change in strategy from his robust emphasis on reopening the US economy after its long, virus-induced shutdown and represented his first recent acknowledgement of how bad the problem has become.
"Some areas of our country are doing very well. Others are doing less well. It will probably, unfortunately, get worse before it gets better. Something I don't like saying about things, but that's the way it is,” Mr Trump said.
Since his last briefing on April 23, major US hotspots such as New York have reported a drop in cases while areas such as Florida and Texas, which previously had few cases, are now struggling with daily surges.
In stark contrast with his past comments, Mr Trump encouraged Americans to wear a mask after months of avoiding being seen in front of the press wearing one himself. That changed when he visited a military hospital on July 11.
"We're asking everybody that when you are not able to socially distance, wear a mask, get a mask. Whether you like the mask or not, they have an impact. They'll have an effect. And we need everything we can get," he said.
"I mean, I carry the mask. When I have to go … And I will use it gladly. No problem with it. And I've said that, and I say, if you can, use the mask. When you can, use the mask,” he said. "Anything that potentially can help is a good thing."
Mask-wearing has become a partisan issue, with some supporters of the president arguing that requirements to wear one infringe on their civil liberties. Few people wore masks at Mr Trump's first rally since the pandemic in Tulsa, Oklahoma, earlier this summer.
The coronavirus task force was conspicuously absent at Tuesday's briefing. Dr Deborah Birx, the White House coronavirus response co-ordinator, and Dr Anthony Fauci, the head of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases – the two senior doctors who have become the faces of the battle against the pandemic – were missing.
Officials have said that physicians on the coronavirus task force, particularly Dr Birx, are frustrated that warning about rising cases were being ignored. The medical community is also unhappy about White House aides publicly humiliating Dr Fauci, the country's top infectious disease expert.
But with Mr Trump's poll numbers slipping, the former reality TV star decided to return to the podium.
"I was doing them and we had a lot of people watching, record numbers watching in the history of cable television. There’s never been anything like it."
Mr Trump's advisers also supported reviving the briefings as the US death toll topped 141,000.
But the president sought to leave some optimism about treatments even as he acknowledged the grim numbers at present.
"I think you're going to see something over the next fairly short period of time – maybe very short period of time – having to do with therapeutics and vaccines that are very good," he said.