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By Alexandra Alper and Jeff Mason
WASHINGTON, July 21 (Reuters) - President Donald Trump, in a shift in rhetoric on facial coverings, encouraged Americans on Tuesday to wear a mask if they cannot maintain social distance from people around them in an effort to curb the spread of the coronavirus.
In his first briefing in months focused on the pandemic, Trump told reporters at the White House that the virus would probably get worse before it gets better, in one of his first recent acknowledgements of how bad the problem has become.
Trump, who downplayed the virus in its early stages and has been focused on reopening the economy in recent months despite an increase in cases, has been reluctant to wear a mask himself in public. He wore one for the first time in public during a recent visit to a military hospital but has otherwise eschewed putting one on in front of the press.
Mask-wearing has become a partisan issue, with some Trump supporters saying being required to do infringes on their liberties.
As coronavirus cases skyrocket across the country, including in politically important states such as Florida, Texas and Arizona, the president is shifting his tone to try to get the number of cases under control as he fights for re-election against Democrat Joe Biden, who leads in opinion polls ahead of the Nov. 3 election.
"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," Trump said.
Trump said he was getting used to masks and would wear one himself in groups or when on an elevator.
"I will use it, gladly," he said. "Anything that potentially can help ... is a good thing."
The president also urged young Americans to avoid crowded bars where the virus could spread.
The briefing, conducted on his own and without doctors or other members of the White House Coronavirus Task Force, represented a change in strategy for Trump, who has been focused on reopening the economy, praising Republican governors who did so in their states and knocking Democratic governors who have put tough restrictions in theirs.
It comes amid tension within his senior staff about the best way to discuss the virus with the American public and frustration among doctors on the task force that their advice is not being heeded.
The reopening has gone too quickly in some states, leading to spikes in cases and an ever-increasing number of deaths. Following Trump's initial lead, some Republican governors have also resisted rules requiring that their populations wear masks.
Trump again argued that the virus would disappear at some point, but most of his comments on Tuesday were largely a sober recognition of how bad the problem has become.
"We're … asking Americans to use masks, socially distance and employ vigorous hygiene - wash your hands every chance you get while sheltering high-risk populations. We are imploring young Americans to avoid packed bars and other crowded indoor gatherings. Be safe, and be smart," he said.
Trump sought to leave some optimism about treatments even as he acknowledged the grim statistics 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.
(Reporting by Alexandra Alper and Jeff Mason; Additional reporting by David Brunnstrom, Timohty Ahmann and Eric Beech; Editing by Alistair Bell and Peter Cooney)
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