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USA TODAY

Sen. John Kennedy said Thursday that restrictive measures aimed at slowing the spread of the coronavirus are not worth the risk of economic collapse, even if that means more people become infected. 

“We’ve got to open this economy,” the Louisiana Republican told Fox News host Tucker Carlson. “If we don’t, it’s going to collapse. And if the U.S. economy collapses, the world economy collapses.”

“Trying to burn down the village to save it is foolish. That’s a cold, hard truth,” he said. 

Kennedy said the shutdown failed to stop the spread of the virus and only slowed its spread at “enormous cost.”

Health officials made clear from the beginning that social distancing measures were aimed at slowing, rather than stopping, the spread of the virus in order to disperse the burden on hospitals and buy precious time to develop treatments. The White House social distancing guidelines are titled, “30 days to slow the spread.” 

“When we end the shutdown, the virus is going to spread faster,” Kennedy acknowledged. “That’s just a fact. And the American people understand that.” 

Health experts such as Dr. Anthony Fauci, the director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, have said that without stringent social distancing measures, the death toll from the virus, which now stands at more than 30,000 Americans, would have been much higher. 

A projection from the Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation, which has been cited by the White House coronavirus response coordinator, Dr. Deborah Birx, currently estimates 68,000 Americans will die from COVID-19 if social distancing measures are followed through the end of May. Previously, the IHME model estimated that number would be about 100,000. 

Kennedy’s home state of Louisiana has been one of the hardest-hit states, with more than 1,000 people dead as a result of the pandemic. 

Kennedy is part of a growing chorus of lawmakers calling for the shutdown to be lifted as soon as possible. President Donald Trump has also embraced that message and said he will issue updated guidelines for social distancing measures and business closures on Thursday.

“The data suggests that nationwide we have passed the peak on new cases. Hopefully, that will continue,” Trump said at White House briefing on Wednesday. “These encouraging developments have put us in a very strong position to finalize guidelines for states on reopening the country.” 

Trump, who has sometimes painted concerns about the virus as a conspiracy meant to harm his reelection chances, previously hoped to open the country back up by Easter but health experts persuaded him to extend the deadlines through April. 

The calls to reopen the economy sooner rather than later come as people in multiple states have started to protest stay-at-home orders and other social distancing measures. 

Since the shutdowns began, record numbers of Americans have filed new claims for unemployment benefits. And experts predict the unemployment rate could climb to 16% in the coming months, a level not seen in the U.S. since the Great Depression. 

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“If we continue to keep the economy shut down for weeks and months, there are going to be enormous public health harms from that,” Sen. Ted Cruz, R-Texas, said Wednesday, echoing a concern voiced by Trump.

“We’re going to see mental illness issues and depression. We’re going to see increased rates of suicide. We’re going to see substance abuse, alcohol abuse, and that’s going to cost real lives,” Cruz said. “Our objective should be to save lives and that means we need to fight this pandemic and let people get back to work.” 

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Both Cruz and Kennedy stressed the need for increased testing for the virus, which experts agree is required to allow people to safely return to work and to keep other preventive measures in place.

“We’ve got to be smart about how we do it,” Kennedy said. “Don’t open up in the middle of a hot spot. Encourage your elderly and those with preexisting conditions to stay quarantined and provide them financial support. Wear masks, try to socially distance. Use technology without violating privacy to try to track the hot spots and track people who have been exposed. Test as much as we can.” 

Though Trump has at times claimed testing is widely available, health officials have expressed concern about the accuracy and availability of tests for the coronavirus. 

Kennedy said having to choose between the risks of ending stay-at-home order and the economic costs of continuing them was “like choosing between cancer and a heart attack.” He bristled at the “sophomoric accusations” from some that not wanting “to see the American economy crash” meant he did not value human life. 

But he said that if someone who thinks the economy can remain shut down until there are no more coronavirus cases “probably still believes in Bigfoot.” 

Those arguing that the strict distancing measures should stay in place argue that the costs of reopening the country too soon could be devastating in terms of human life and the economy. 

“This is a false choice,” former Vice President Joe Biden told MSNBC on Thursday. “The way you revive the economy is you defeat the disease.” 

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