A somber President Trump on Wednesday said the coronavirus posed a “very low” risk to the American public — and that he had chosen Vice President Mike Pence to spearhead the government’s effort to contain it.
“The risk to the American people remains very low. The level has been very low and those people are getting better,” the president said during a rare appearance in a packed James Brady Briefing Room.
“We have the greatest experts in the world right here, the people that are called upon by our country when things like this happen. We are ready to adapt and we’re ready to do whatever we have to as the disease spreads if it spreads.”
“We are totally prepared. We are ready, willing and able” to respond if the virus becomes more widespread in the US.
The president also touted his decision to ban some flights from China and other “infected areas,” and have quarantined Americans who either have been diagnosed with the virus or were suspected of having it.
Trump was joined in the briefing room by Pence and his Coronavirus Task Force, led by Alex Azar, his secretary of Health and Human Services, and acting Deputy Homeland Security Sec. Ken Cuccinelli.
Trump alluded to the $2.5 billion his administration had requested to fight the virus and acknowledged that Democrats wanted to spend more, with Sen. Chuck Schumer calling for an outlay of $8.5 billion.
“We’ll spend whatever is appropriate. Hopefully we won’t have to spend so much because we really think that we’ve done a great job in keeping it down to a minimum. And again, we’ve had tremendous success, tremendous success beyond what people would have thought,” Trump said, adding that flight bans from affected countries could be on the table.
Trump also noted that influenza is far deadlier so far than the coronoavirus has been.
“I was really amazed and I think most people are amazed to hear it, the flu in our country kills from 25,000 people to 69,000 people a year. That was shocking to me,” Trump said.
“So far if you look at what we have with the 15 people and their recovery, one is pretty sick, but hopefully will recover. But the others are in great shape.”
The president also said that the US was working to develop a vaccine for the virus, and Dr. Anthony Fauci of the National Institute of Health said could be ready for trials in a matter of months.
Pence praised the administrations’ efforts to date.
“President Trump’s made clear from the very days of in administration we have no higher priority than the safety, security, health and well-being of the American people,” Pence said.
“And from the first word of an outbreak of the coronavirus, the president took unprecedented steps to protect the American people from the spread of this disease.”
Azar then outlined the task force’s goals.
“There are five major priorities in the White House request to Congress. These priorities are first, expanding our surveillance network, second, support for state and local governments’ work, third and fourth, development of therapeutics and vaccines, and fifth, manufacturing and purchase of personal protective equipment like gowns and masks,” Azar said.
The task force also included experts from the White House and some of the nation’s foremost experts on infectious diseases, including the National Institute of Health and the Centers for Disease Control.
Trump earlier Wednesday pushed back against criticism that his administration wasn’t doing enough to meet the coronavirus threat, as lawmakers called for giving disease fighters far more cash than the $2.5 billion the White House has requested.
The president took to Twitter to lash out at the media and Democrats for supposedly sensationalizing the threat — and sending the stock market into the toilet.
“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. Likewise their incompetent Do Nothing Democrat comrades are all talk, no action. USA in great shape!” the commander-in-chief charged.
Stock markets globally have wiped out $3.3 trillion of value in the past four trading sessions, as measured by the MSCI all-country index.
In the US, the Dow dropped nearly 2,000 points Monday and Tuesday — and closed down more than 123 points Wednesday.
Trump also tweeted that the CDC, Health and Human Services Secretary Alex Azar and others in the administration were “doing a great job with respect to Coronavirus!”
New York state hasn’t reported any cases of the coronavirus, but there have been 60 confirmed diagnoses across the US, according to the CDC.
Schumer’s plan called for $4.5 billion for the Department of Health and Human Services to work to contain the outbreak in the US, $1 billion to develop and manufacture a vaccine, $1 billion to help other countries battle the coronavirus, and $2 billion to reimburse states for costs incurred in tackling the outbreak.
“We will put together a supplemental that will address this issue,” said Rep. Rosa DeLauro, D-Conn., who chairs a key panel that sets spending for health agencies.
DeLauro also dismissed the White House’s $2.5 billion request, saying the two-page summary submitted with it appeared to have been put together without much thought.
She contrasted it to a 28-page submission from the Obama administration on Ebola.
Testifying before her committee Wednesday, Azar said, “I appreciate your frustration with the two-page letter being the documentation,” but he said he believes $2.5 billion will be enough for now.
“If it doesn’t fund it, we’ll come back to you,” he added.
Trump’s budgets have proposed cuts to public health, only to be overruled by Congress, where there’s strong bipartisan support for agencies like the CDC and NIH. Instead, financing has increased.
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