WASHINGTON (AP) — President Donald Trump declared Wednesday that a widespread U.S. outbreak of the new respiratory virus sweeping the globe isn’t inevitable even as top health authorities at his side warned Americans that more infections are coming.
Trump sought to minimize fears as he insisted the U.S. is “very, very ready” for whatever the COVID-19 outbreak brings. Under fire about the government’s response, he put Vice President Mike Pence in charge of coordinating the efforts.
“This will end,” Trump said of the outbreak at a White House news conference. “You don’t want to see panic because there’s no reason to be panicked.”
But standing next to him, the very health officials Trump praised for fighting the new coronavirus stressed that schools, businesses and individuals need to get ready.
Shortly after Trump spoke, the CDC announced a worrisome development: Another person in the U.S. is infected — someone in California who doesn’t appear to have traveled abroad or been exposed to another patient. If the CDC confirms that, it would be a first in this country and a sign that efforts to contain the virus’ spread haven’t been enough.
“It’s possible this could be an instance of community spread of COVID-19,” the CDC said in a statement.
More than 81,000 cases of COVID-19, an illness characterized by fever and coughing and sometimes shortness of breath or pneumonia, have occurred since the new virus emerged in China.
The newest case from California brings the total number infected in the U.S. to 60, most of them evacuated from outbreak zones.
Trump credited border restrictions that have blocked people coming into the U.S. from China for keeping infections low so far. But now countries around the world — from South Korea and Japan to Italy and Iran — are experiencing growing numbers of cases. Asked if it was time to either lift the China restrictions, or take steps for travelers from elsewhere, he said: “At a right time we may do that. Right now it’s not the time.”
Trump spent close to an hour discussing the virus threat, after a week of sharp stock market losses over the health crisis and concern within the administration that a growing outbreak could affect his reelection. He blamed the Democrats for the stock market slide, saying, “I think the financial markets are very upset when they look at the Democrat candidates standing on that stage making fools out of themselves.” And at one point he shifted to defend his overall record and predict a win in November.
A key question is whether the Trump administration is spending enough money to get the country prepared — especially as the CDC has struggled to expand the number of states that can test people for the virus. Other key concerns are stockpiling masks and other protective equipment for health workers, and developing a vaccine or treatment.
Health officials have exhausted an initial $105 million in emergency funding and have been looking elsewhere for dollars. Earlier this week, Trump requested $2.5 billion from Congress to fight the virus. Senate Democratic Leader Chuck Schumer of New York countered with a proposal for $8.5 billion.
Trump told reporters he was open to spending “whatever’s appropriate.”
Trump compared the new virus repeatedly to the flu, which kills tens of thousands each year. The new coronavirus has killed more than 2,700 — most in China and none in the U.S. so far — but scientists still don’t understand who’s most at risk or what the actual death rate is.
Without a vaccine, CDC’s Schuchat advised people to follow “tried and true, not very exciting” but important precautions: Wash your hands, cover your coughs and stay home when you’re sick.
Republican and Democratic lawmakers alike have questioned whether Trump’s original request is sufficient.
House Appropriations chairwoman Nita Lowey, D-N.Y., said it’s premature to put a price tag on the package. “We’re working on it and we’ll have a number but I’m not sure it’s going to be the number that Schumer’s proposing,” said Lowey, adding that she’s working with lawmakers of both parties.
Aides said the House measure is likely to be unveiled next week. Bipartisan “four corner” meetings — Democrats and Republicans in both the House and Senate — began Wednesday, a House Democratic aide said, with a bipartisan bill the goal.
Schumer has been harshly critical of Trump’s response to the outbreak, and his request — announced before the Democratic-controlled House Appropriations Committee has weighed in — rankled some Democrats hoping for quick, bipartisan action to address the crisis.
Arriving back in the U.S. early Wednesday, Trump immediately began to counter critics who say he should have acted sooner to bolster the federal response to the coronavirus.
Trump has wondered aloud if Health and Human Services Secretary Alex Azar is the right person to lead the administration’s response. The White House had considered naming a virus czar, but was not sure that was the right route, said a person familiar with the discussions. Azar himself was said to be supportive of naming a czar.
Among those under consideration for such a post: Former Food and Drug Administration Commissioner Scott Gottlieb. The person spoke on condition of anonymity to discuss private deliberations.
White House press secretary Stephanie Grisham was also pushing back. Grisham retweeted a CDC post that said “there is currently no reported community spread” of coronavirus in the U.S.
This week, the NIH received a shipment of test doses of a vaccine candidate from Moderna Inc., in preparation for first-step safety testing in a few dozen people aimed to begin by April. But Fauci cautioned reporters that in a best-case scenario, “you’re talking about a year to a year and a half” before any vaccine would be ready for widespread use.
Fauci said that while only a few cases have turned up in the U.S. from travelers outside the country, “we need to be able to think about how we will respond to a pandemic outbreak.”
“It’s very clear. If we have a global pandemic, no country is going to be without impact,” Fauci said.
A pandemic involves the continual spread of sustained transmission from person to person in multiple regions and hemispheres throughout the world simultaneously, Fauci noted.
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