U.S. 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.
Shortly after Trump spoke, the government announced a worrisome development: Another person in the U.S. is infected – someone in California who doesn’t appear to have the usual risk factors of having traveled abroad or being exposed to another patient.
At a White House news conference, 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. “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.
“We do expect more cases,” said Dr Anne Schuchat of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
If the CDC confirms that the latest U.S. case doesn’t involve travel or contact with an infected person, 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 in serious cases 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.
A day earlier, another CDC official, Dr Nancy Messonnier, was even more blunt, telling Americans to get ready for some of the same steps as occurred during the 2009 flu pandemic, such as school closings. “It’s not so much a question of if this will happen anymore, but rather more a question of exactly when this will happen – and how many people in this country will have severe illness,” she said.
The National Institutes of Health’s top infectious disease chief cautioned a vaccine won’t be ready for widespread use for a year or more. But Dr Anthony Fauci said even if the virus wanes soon, it’s “quite conceivable” that it might “come back and recycle next year.” By then, he said, “we hope to have a vaccine.”
Democrats were quick to condemn Trump’s response to the outbreak. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi called it “opaque and chaotic.”
“Instead of listening to public health and medical experts, the president has been downplaying the potential impact of the virus for over a month,” said Democratic Rep Bennie Thompson of Mississippi, chairman of the House Homeland Security Committee.
Thompson added that putting Pence, “someone with no public health expertise, in charge of the response will not instill confidence with the American people and raises questions about the administration’s ability to coordinate an effective response to a complex public health threat.”
During his time as Indiana’s governor, Pence faced criticism for his response to a public health crisis in the southern part of the state.
In 2015, Scott County saw the number of people infected with HIV skyrocket, with nearly 200 people testing positive for the virus in a span of months. Indiana law at the time prohibited needle exchanges, exacerbating the outbreak, which primarily infected intravenous users of the painkiller Opana.
Pence had long opposed needle exchanges but was eventually persuaded to issue an executive order allowing one in Scott County. Despite his own misgivings – Pence said he didn’t support the exchanges as an “anti-drug policy” – he signed a law allowing the state government to approve them on a case-by-case basis.
Arriving back in the U.S. from India early Wednesday, Trump immediately began to counter critics who say he should have acted sooner to bolster the federal response to the coronavirus.
U.S. lawmakers have accused the Trump administration of downplaying the crisis and underfunding the response.
During a trip to India, the president told reporters experts were “very close to a vaccine,” forcing White House officials to clarify later that he was talking about Ebola, not the novel coronavirus.
White House economic advisor Larry Kudlow has also come in for criticism after telling CNBC the virus was “contained” — on the same day the CDC warned that a U.S. outbreak was inevitable.
But Trump has insisted his administration is “doing a GREAT job,” blaming the media Wednesday for trying to stoke fear in a tweet in which he spelled the name of the virus incorrectly.
“Low Ratings Fake News MSDNC (Comcast) & @CNN are doing everything possible to make the Caronavirus look as bad as possible, including panicking markets, if possible,” he tweeted, using a derogatory name for cable news network MSNBC that suggests it is connected to the Democratic National Committee.
“Likewise their incompetent Do Nothing Democrat comrades are all talk, no action. USA in great shape!”
Wall Street stocks opened higher after suffering a second straight rout Tuesday, with losses picking up after U.S. health officials warned the epidemic was likely to hit the world’s biggest economy.
With cases being reported in more countries — and lockdowns in nations including Austria, Italy and Spain — traders are worried about the impact on the global economy.
In the U.S., officials have voiced fears for the supply of medical products because a high proportion of ingredients used to make medicine comes from China.
The Food and Drug Administration has also identified personal protective equipment, such as face masks, respirators and gowns, as being among products at risk of shortages.
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.