The first COVID-19 death in the US was reported on Feb. 29. There was a coronavirus briefing at the White House that day, and Rolling Stone has identified it as a critical moment when the US response could have gone in a different, lifesaving direction—the instant when the tennis ball was frozen atop the net and might fall onto either side. "How should Americans prepare for this virus?" a reporter asked President Trump. "Should they go on with their daily lives? Change their routine? What should they do?" The president turned the microphone over to Dr. Robert Redfield, and the CDC director gave a reassuring answer that he already knew wasn't the whole story. "The risk at this time is low," Redfield said. "The American public needs to go on with their normal lives."
President Trump said similar things that day. "If you are healthy, you will probably go through a process and you'll be fine," he told the briefing. It was a bad time for reassuring messages. Imperial College researchers in London estimate that shutting the nation down by March 2 could have prevented 90 percent of US deaths. The Coronavirus Task Force had planned to recommend school and business closings on Feb. 24, per Rolling Stone, but dropped the idea after Trump became angry about the effects on the economy. Redfield instead stuck to the "aggressive containment" policy, and a critical moment passed. Travelers to the US infected others once they were here. "If you’ve got a community spreading respiratory virus, it’s not going to be containable," one expert said. "You have to shift to mitigation right away." (Read more Robert Redfield stories.)