"This is really easy to be negative about," he said. "But I want to give people hope too. You know, I'm a cheerleader for the country"

The news was grim out of the White House on Tuesday night: In a best-case scenario, according to the available models and data, between 100,000 and 240,000 people will die in America from the novel coronavirus pandemic.

The peak, in this timeline, will hit on April 15 — with a lessening tail of death and infection stretching into mid June.

This assessment was, the White House’s health experts stressed, still only a projection. And it was one that was shifting by the day, as health care workers, scientific researchers and everyday people all ramped up their own efforts to slow and treat new infections, including by practicing social distancing.

The final death toll could be lower. The new virus, which emerged only months ago, was not yet fully understood. Modeling out what it would do to people was still only an informed guess.

Even so, said Dr. Anthony Fauci, a leading infectious disease expert and member of President Donald Trump‘s coronavirus task force: “This is a number that we need to anticipate.”

“I want every American to be prepared for the hard days that lie ahead,” Trump, 73, told reporters at Tuesday night’s coronavirus briefing, using some of his starkest language to date about a virus he had previously downplayed.

“We’re going to go through a very tough two weeks,” he said. “And then, hopefully, as the experts are predicting, as I think a lot of us are predicting, after having studied it so hard, you’re going to start seeing some real light at the end of the tunnel. But this is going to be a very painful — a very, very painful two weeks.”

At the peak, more than two thousand people were projected to die daily from a respiratory illness that has killed more than 3,000 people in the U.S. so far.

That could still change, though.

“This is the thing that we need to anticipate, but that doesn’t mean that that’s what we’re going to accept,” Dr. Fauci told reporters. “We want to do much, much better than that.”

“Models,” Fauci noted, “are as good as the assumptions you put into them. And as we get more data, then you put it in and that might change.”

Donald Trump
President Donald Trump
| Credit: MANDEL NGAN/Getty Images
Donald Trump
President Donald Trump
| Credit: Win McNamee/Getty Images

Fauci and others on the task force, along with Trump and Vice President Mike Pence, urged everyone to continue to follow the federal social distancing guidelines that have been extended through April: Stay home as much as possible, avoid gatherings of more than 10 people and practice regular hygiene such as good hand-washing and coughing and sneezing into your elbow.

This isolation has been unprecedented in modern society, leaving much of daily life frozen and millions of workers stranded as businesses shutter or cut back operations.

“‘Why don’t we ride it out?’ a lot of people have said,” the president acknowledged on Tuesday. “A lot of people have thought about it — ‘ride it out, don’t do anything, just ride it out and think of it as the flu.’ But it’s not the flu. It’s vicious.”

In light of this sobering calculation, a reporter asked the president: “Hasn’t your thinking on this evolved? You’re taking this more seriously now.”

Indeed, as recently as March 9, the president was doing what he said on Tuesday others should not: comparing the coronavirus to the flu.

“So last year 37,000 Americans died from the common Flu. It averages between 27,000 and 70,000 per year. Nothing is shut down, life & the economy go on,” he tweeted then. “At this moment there are 546 confirmed cases of CoronaVirus, with 22 deaths. Think about that!”

On March 22, after announcing the initial social distancing guidelines that health experts say are key to avoiding the worst fatalities, Trump tweeted in apparent agitation about the economic side-effects, suggesting they were more of a concern: “WE CANNOT LET THE CURE BE WORSE THAN THE PROBLEM ITSELF.”

In late February, he said of the virus, “One day — it’s like a miracle — it will disappear.”

The next day, he said his opponents were trying to politicize the virus as a “hoax” to damage him.

And on March, he wondered whether the estimated fatality rate of 3.4 percent was legitimate and said he thought it was actually much lower. (While the majority of patients experience only mild or moderate symptoms, people over 60 and with underlying conditions are more vulnerable to severe complications and death.)

On Tuesday, asked if he had changed his attitude toward the virus, the president said, “I’m not about bad news. I want to give people hope. I want to give people a feeling that we all have a chance.”

“I think, from the beginning, my attitude was that we have to give this country — I know how bad it was,” he insisted.

“I want to give people a feeling of hope. I could be very negative. I could say, ‘Wait a minute, those numbers are terrible. This is going to be horrible,’ ” he said. “This is a horrible thing.”

Donald Trump
President Donald Trump (center) and the coronavirus task force
| Credit: MANDEL NGAN/Getty Images

Labeling himself a “cheerleader” for America, Trump said he had nonetheless taken what he called critical early steps to slow the virus, such as restricting travel from China and Europe.

Last week, the U.S. became the country with the most confirmed cases worldwide.

“This is really easy to be negative about,” he said. “But I want to give people hope too. You know, I’m a cheerleader for the country. We’re going through the worst thing that the country has probably ever seen.”

Asked about a January comment about the virus when he said, “We have it totally under control. It’s one person coming in from China. We have it under control. It’s going to be just fine,” Trump maintained Tuesday that he was aware even back then of the potential dangers.

But he was being optimistic, not dismissive. This is despite previous reports of the White House being slow to awaken to or fully acknowledge the virus’ threat even given evidence from China, where the pandemic began. White House experts had also warned of a possible pandemic.

“I knew everything,” Trump said. “I knew it could be horrible and I knew it could be maybe good.”

“I think they’ve done an incredible job,” he said of the health officials and others arrayed against the virus. “But I don’t want to be a negative person. It’d be so much easier for me to come up and say, ‘We have bad news. We’re going to lose 220,000 people and it’s going to happen over the next few weeks.’ ”

“I want as few a number of people to die as possible,” he said. “And that’s all we’re working on.”

As information about the coronavirus pandemic rapidly changes, PEOPLE is committed to providing the most recent data in our coverage. Some of the information in this story may have changed after publication. For the latest on COVID-19, readers are encouraged to use online resources from CDC, WHO, and local public health departments. To help provide doctors and nurses on the front lines with life-saving medical resources, donate to Direct Relief here.