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Top U.S. officials sought to ease public concern over the risks of coronavirus to the American public ahead of President Donald Trump’s address to the nation on Wednesday evening, as the virus continued to spread across the globe.
Trump and his senior advisers see coronavirus as a serious health threat that warrants a full response yet assess the risk of the virus in the U.S. as more comparable to the flu in terms of the fatality rate, according to people familiar with internal discussions.
Trump and representatives from theU.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention plan to speak at the White House on Wednesday at 6 p.m. on their coronavirus response.
The administration is facing increasing pressure from Congress over its response to the crisis, with Democrats and Republicans calling for more funding. Markets, coming off a five-day sell-off, briefly dipped after a U.S. Food and Drug Administration official warned of a possible pandemic.
Health and Human Services Secretary Alex Azar suggested Wednesday that the Trump administration may seek more money for a virus response than the $2.5 billion announced earlier this week. He told a House panel that the administration is planning to spend “at least” that amount and would work with Congress on a final figure.
“We’re trying to be flexible,” he said in response to questions.
Trump’s advisers believe that fear of dying from the virus is overblown, but that the strain on the U.S. health system, chiefly through hospitalizations, could be severe, according to people familiar with the administration’s thinking.
At the same time, the State Department is warning U.S. ambassadors, who are in Washington this week for an annual Chiefs of Mission conference, to make preparations for the coronavirus a top priority, said people familiar with the matter. The message is that the virus hasn’t been contained and is likely to spread to still more countries.
The president’s comments will come a day after the administration sent conflicting messages about the risk that the virus would spread in the U.S. Trump, speaking Tuesday in New Delhi during a two-day trip to India, said the virus was “very well under control in our country.” But hours later, the CDC warned that the virus’s spread in America is inevitable and could significantly disrupt the world’s largest economy.
Peter Marks, head of the FDA’s Center for Biologics Evaluation and Research, said in an interview on Wednesday that “we are on the cusp of the pandemic. “Is it definitely going to happen? No, but there is significant concern, as of overnight we have cases on six continents,” he said.
Compounding investors’ worries about the U.S. government’s preparedness, the World Health Organization reported on Tuesday that the number of global infections exceeded 80,000, up 900 in a day, and that cases were reported in four additional countries — Afghanistan, Bahrain, Iraq and Oman.
There have only been 60 Americans infected so far, according to the CDC, and none has died. Nevertheless, there is deep concern on Capitol Hill that the government is unprepared for a domestic outbreak.
The Trump administration asked Congress on Monday to provide $2.5 billion to help fight the looming outbreak, money that would be used to help expand disease surveillance, bolster state and local health agencies, fund work on vaccines and drug treatments and help fortify the strategic national stockpile with protective gear including masks and respirators.
About half of the $2.5 billion would come from reallocated funds, including $535 million for efforts to combat Ebola, according to a person familiar with the matter.
Some lawmakers have pushed Trump for a more aggressive response, including broader restrictions on travel from countries with outbreaks. But there are worries within the White House about the impact on the economy — and by extension, the president’s re-election campaign.
Democrats have responded with their own plans to combat the virus. Senate Democratic leader Chuck Schumer on Wednesday proposed $8.5 billion in spending for the virus response. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi called Trump response “meager, anemic,” and a Democratic aide said the House would vote on its own funding plan the week of March 9.
Senate Appropriations Chairman Richard Shelby said he hasn’t looked at Schumer’s proposal but indicated Republicans also are moving toward “a higher number” than the amount proposed by Trump.
“We have to take this very, very seriously and I believe the administration will go along with us,” Shelby said.
But Chad Wolf, acting secretary of homeland security, told a House panel on Wednesday that the risk to the American public “remains low.” He added that the Department of Homeland Security has responded with proactive safeguards and is ready to increase those measures if necessary.
Wolf’s testimony came a day after Republican Senator John Kennedy of Louisiana accused the DHS chief of downplaying the risk the virus posed to the U.S. “The American people deserve some straight answers on the coronavirus and I’m not getting them from you,” Kennedy told Wolf at a hearing.
On Wednesday, the death toll in China from the virus reached 2,715, making up the bulk of the 2,771 fatalities worldwide. Four more cases were reported at an Italian resort — bringing the country’s number of cases to 374 — and Brazil confirmed the first coronavirus case in Latin America.
Anthony Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Disease, which is part of the National Institutes of Health, said Wednesday that the spread of the virus around the globe is putting the U.S. at greater risk.
“Nothing has changed inside our country, but things have changed outside that may ultimately have an impact here,” Fauci said during a television interview Wednesday.
The mixed messages from top U.S. officials illustrated the balance that Trump and his advisers are trying to strike: Demonstrating that they have control over the situation while avoiding any move that spurs a panic and subsequent stock market sell-off as the re-election campaign heats up.
Trump’s response to the virus could prove a major theme in the 2020 election. At the Democratic presidential debate in Charleston, South Carolina, on Tuesday night, candidates accused Trump of making the country more vulnerable by failing to take more aggressive action.
Senator Amy Klobuchar, former Vice President Joe Biden and former New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg all said Trump has sought to cut funding to the CDC, and Klobuchar said that the president “hasn’t really addressed the nation on this topic.”
(Bloomberg is the founder and majority owner of Bloomberg LP, the parent company of Bloomberg News.)
Trump, on his way back from India, responded on Twitter that “CDC and my Administration are doing a GREAT job of handling Coronavirus, including the very early closing of our borders to certain areas of the world.” He added that “so far, by the way, we have not had one death. Let’s keep it that way!”
But Trump’s message has been contradicted by public health professionals at the CDC. “We expect we will see community spread in this country,” said Nancy Messonnier, director of the CDC’s National Center for Immunization and Respiratory Diseases.
‘Question of When’
“It is not a matter of if, but a question of when, this will exactly happen,” she said.
Read More: Fed’s Clarida Says Too Soon to Speculate on Virus Spillover
A test for the virus developed in part by the CDC and shared with states has produced inconclusive results, limiting the ability of local health departments to detect the disease and raise alarm if it’s silently spreading through U.S. communities. That’s crucially important, given that mild cases can resemble the flu.
Through Feb. 23, the CDC conducted 2,620 coronavirus tests on 1,007 patients. While it has no backlog, completing the test involves sending a sample back to the agency, potentially delaying results.
The U.S. also has far fewer protective masks than it would need in the case of a major coronavirus outbreak, Azar told lawmakers on Tuesday.
Azar said Tuesday that there are about 30 million stockpiled N95 masks that can block infective particles. He amended that number on Wednesday to 12 million. The country would need as many as 300 million for health workers in an outbreak, Azar said.
Trump returns to a city consumed by concerns about the coronavirus and his government’s preparations. His message to Americans, so far, has been that even if they get sick, the virus is unlikely to kill them.
Of the 60 Americans who have become infected so far, 36 were on a cruise ship in Japan that was the site of one of the largest outbreaks outside China. None have died.
“We think they’ll be in very good shape very, very soon,” Trump said.
— With assistance by Nancy Ognanovich, Josh Wingrove, Erik Wasson, and Jennifer A Dlouhy
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