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Utah Transit Authority personnel clean and disinfect a train station to prevent the spread of the coronavirus virus Friday, April 17, 2020, in Salt Lake City. Crews are sent out daily to clean and disinfect all rail stations, including all surfaces that are frequently touched. (AP Photo/Rick Bowmer)
Published: 17 April 2020

WASHINGTON (AP) — A day after laying out a roadmap for gradually reviving economic activity, President Donald Trump urged his supporters to “LIBERATE” three states led by Democratic governors Friday, in effect encouraging protests against the stay-at-home restrictions aimed at containing the coronavirus.

The president took to Twitter with the kind of rhetoric some of his supporters have used to demand the lifting of the orders that have thrown millions of Americans out of work.

“LIBERATE MINNESOTA!” “LIBERATE MICHIGAN!” “LIBERATE VIRGINIA,” Trump said in a tweet-storm in which he also lashed out at New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo for criticizing the federal response. Cuomo “should spend more time `doing' and less time `complaining,'” he said, adding: "Less talk and more action!"

Trump puts the burden on states

Responding to pleas from some governors for help in ramping up testing for the virus, Trump put the burden on them, tweeting: “The States have to step up their TESTING!"

On Thursday, the president detailed a three-step set of guidelines for methodically easing the restrictions over a span of several weeks in places that have robust testing and are seeing a decrease in COVID-19 cases, assuring the nation's governors: “You’re going to call your own shots."

But some governors made it clear they are not ready to break out the roadmap, saying they badly need help from Washington in expanding testing.

Cuomo, whose state is the most lethal hot spot in the nation and is still seeing over 600 deaths a day, accused the federal government of “passing the buck without passing the bucks.”

“The federal government cannot wipe its hands of this and say, `Oh, the states are responsible for testing.'

"We cannot do it. We cannot do it without federal help," the governor said.

Many Americans, especially in rural areas and other parts of the country that have not seen major outbreaks, have urged governors to reopen their economies. Protesters have taken to the streets in Ohio, Texas, North Carolina, Kentucky, Virginia and Michigan, where more than 3,000 turned out on Wednesday in what looked like one of the president's rallies, with MAGA hats and Trump flags.

The protests have brought together small-government groups, anti-vaccine advocates, gun rights backers and supporters of right-wing causes.

Public health experts have warned that lifting the restrictions too soon could enable the virus to come back with a vengeance. And they have said that an easing of the stay-at-home measures must be accompanied by wider testing and tracing of infected people to keep the scourge in check.

Michigan Gov. Gretchen Whitmer, a Democrat who has been critical of the federal government’s response to the crisis, said that she hopes to begin reopening parts of the state’s economy May 1, but that it would be done in “smart way” to avoid a second wave of infections.

Missouri Gov. Mike Parson, a Republican, announced he was extending the state’s stay-at-home order through May 3 but planned to gradually begin lifting restrictions after that.

Trump requests 'thank you'

The clash between Trump and Cuomo was personal, with the president complaining he hasn't heard the governor say thanks for the help he has received from Washington. Cuomo countered by saying: “I don't know what I'm supposed to do, send a bouquet of flowers? `Thank you to the federal government for participating in a federal emergency.'”

Death toll accuracy questioned

Meanwhile, China acknowledged that the coronavirus death toll in the one-time epicenter city of Wuhan was nearly 50% higher than reported, underscoring just how seriously the official numbers of infections and deaths around the world may be understating the dimensions of the disaster.

In Italy, Spain, Britain, the United States and elsewhere, similar doubts emerged as governments revised their death tolls or openly questioned the accuracy of them.

“We are probably only seeing the tip of the iceberg,” said Barcelona University epidemiologist Antoni Trilla, who heads the Spanish government’s expert panel on the crisis.

Worldwide, the outbreak has infected nearly 2.2 million people and killed over 145,000, according to a Johns Hopkins University tally based on figures supplied by government health authorities around the globe. The death toll in the U.S. neared 34,000, with more than 670,000 confirmed infections.

Authorities say infections and deaths have been under-reported almost everywhere. Thousands have died with COVID-19 symptoms — many in nursing homes, which have been ravaged by a disease that hits the elderly the hardest — without being tested. Four months into the outbreak, nations are still struggling to increase their testing capacity, and many are still far from their goal.

In Italy, officials have acknowledged that the country’s official death toll of more than 22,000 understates the true number, primarily because it doesn’t include those who died in nursing homes and were not tested.

A government survey released Friday of about one-third of Italy's nursing homes found more than 6,000 residents have died since Feb. 1. It was unclear how many were a result of COVID-19.

In Britain, the official death toll of about 14,600 come under increasing scrutiny because it likewise does not include any deaths at home or in nursing homes. The country’s statistics agency has said the actual number of dead could be around 15% higher; others think it will be far more.

And in Spain, the country’s 17 autonomous regions were ordered to adopt uniform criteria on counting the dead. The country has recorded more than 19,000 deaths, but the system leaves out patients who had symptoms but were not tested before they died.

“There is a general feeling that the epidemiologists don’t have a clue of what’s going on, that experts know even less and that governments are concealing information, but I don’t think that’s true,” said Hermelinda Vanaclocha, an epidemiologist on Spain's top virus advisory panel.

“It’s simply not easy.”

China raised its overall death toll to over 4,600 after Wuhan, where the outbreak first took hold, added nearly 1,300 deaths. Questions have long swirled around the accuracy of China’s case reporting, with critics saying officials sought to minimize the outbreak that began in December.

That has been a struggle around the world, though. The official death toll in New York City soared by more than half earlier this week when health authorities began including people who probably had COVID-19 but died without being tested. Nearly 3,800 deaths were added to the city’s count.

Such figures can have a huge influence on governments' actions, as medical staffs struggle to figure out how to cope with surges of sick people and officials make crucial decisions about where to devote resources and how to begin easing lockdowns to resuscitate their economies.

China’s economy shrank 6.8% in the quarter ending in March compared with the same period a year ago, its worst contraction since market-style economic reforms began in 1979.

The number of people applying for unemployment benefits in the U.S. rose by 5.2 million, bringing the four-week total to a staggering 22 million. U.S. unemployment could reach 20% in April, the highest since the Depression of the 1930s. Layoffs are spreading well beyond stores, restaurants and hotels to white-collar professionals such as software programmers and legal assistants.


Sedensky reported from Philadelphia. Associated Press journalists from around the world contributed to this report.

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