U.S. President Donald Trump announced Friday that he is declaring the coronavirus pandemic a national emergency, as Washington struggles with providing Americans with relief and officials race to slow the spread of the outbreak.
Speaking from the Rose Garden, Trump said, “I am officially declaring a national emergency.” He said the emergency would open up $50 billion for state and local governments to respond to the outbreak.
Trump said he was also giving Secretary of Health and Human Services Secretary Alex Azar emergency authorities to waive federal regulations and laws to give doctors and hospitals “flexibility” in treating patients.
He also announced a new public-private partnership to expand coronavirus testing capabilities, as his administration has come under fire for being too slow in making the test available. The partnership will include drive-through testing in some locations and an online portal to screen those seeking to get tested.
Trump said that officials don’t want people taking the test unless they have certain symptoms. “It’s totally unnecessary,” Trump said. He added, “This will pass.”
But Trump, who once described COVID-19 as a hoax, admitted Friday that the “next eight weeks are critical.”
Trump introduced a series of leaders from the corporate world to make brief comments about their willingness to help limit the spread of the virus. At times, Trump shook hands with the executives, despite general advice from medical experts to avoid the practice.
He praised leaders and sports organizations around the country doing their part to hit pause on large gatherings, saying the “short-term sacrifices will produce long-term gain.”
“No nation is more prepared or more equipped to face down this crisis,” he said.
Trump spoke as negotiations continue between the White House and Congress on an aid package, but there was no announcement of a breakthrough, as House Democrats prepare to vote on their own measure Friday.
Trump has struggled to show he’s on top of the crisis after delivering conflicting descriptions of what the U.S. is doing to combat the virus. The markets went into free fall after his address to the nation on Wednesday night led to clarifications from the administration and recriminations from foreign leaders who weren’t informed of the plan to restrict travel from the European Union.
Trump, when confronted by a reporter with the exception for Britain, which saw a rising number of cases Friday, admitted that the policy could be re-evaluated.
To a separate question, he said he hadn’t discussed the possibility of closing the border with Canada in conversations this week with Prime Minister Justin Trudeau.
Lawmakers from both parties, particularly Democrats, have expressed concern at the U.S. response and especially over the fact few patients have been tested.
“We’re basically, in my opinion, flying blind,” said Nevada House Democrat Susie Lee.
The highly contagious disease has killed at least 40 people in the United States. It has affected some U.S. states particularly hard, including New York, California and Washington, and has continued to creep into a number of other states that have acted to try to avoid becoming additional hot spots.
On Friday, it was announced that the Democratic primary scheduled for Louisiana on April 4 will be postponed to June. Primary votes are still scheduled next Tuesday in Arizona, Florida, Illinois and Ohio, with officials from those states releasing a joint statement indicating that they are working with public health experts and will ensure voting machines are properly sanitized.
WATCH: Expert says travel carries a number of risks amid COVID-19 pandemic
Pelosi pushes for ‘science-based response’
Responding to numerous complaints about the shortage of coronavirus tests in the U.S, the Trump administration is also naming a so-called czar of testing at the Department of Health and Human Services to co-ordinate between the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) and the Food and Drug Administration (FDA). Separately, the FDA posted on Twitter that labs having problems getting supplies for collecting patient samples for testing should call the agency’s toll-free information hotline.
Meanwhile, Democratic House Speaker Nancy Pelosi announced earlier Friday the House would soon approve its coronavirus aid package, imploring the Trump administration and congressional Republicans to “put families first” by backing the effort to provide Americans with relief as officials race to slow the spread of outbreak.
“We can only defeat this outbreak if we have an accurate determination of its scale and scope, so that we can pursue the precise science-based response that is necessary to put families first,” Pelosi said.
Pelosi and Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin, whom Trump tapped to negotiate for the administration, have engaged in around-the-clock negotiations.
Trump said a deal had not been reached, blaming Democrats without offering specifics.
The House aid package builds on an emergency $8.3 billion US measure approved last week and is aimed at providing additional health and financial resources to arrest the sudden spread of the pandemic and the kind of economic fallout unseen in a generation. Pelosi promised in a letter to colleagues that a third package was yet to come.
The new sick leave benefit would require businesses to provide up to 14 days of paid leave to workers who are home quarantined with the virus, with the federal government reimbursing them through tax credits. The bill facilitates unemployment benefits for those laid off during the crisis and boosts food and nutrition programs for working families, students and seniors. Work requirements for food stamps would be suspended, and states would be given additional Medicaid funds to cope with the crisis.
“We felt that putting together something that the American people can see co-operation on between the two parties in this difficult moment would be a confidence builder,” said Richard Neal, Democratic chair of the House’s ways and means committee.
Closures appropriate amid testing lag: expert
Dr. Anthony Fauci, infectious disease head at the National Institutes of Health, said in several television interviews Friday that more tests would be available over the next week, but that officials should not wait before trying to mitigate the virus’s effects.
“We will have considerably more testing in the future, but you don’t wait for testing,” Fauci said on CBS This Morning.
“We’re at a critical point now as we seek to blunt the rise in cases to make sure it’s a hill, not a mountain,” Fauci added.
“The next few weeks, for most Americans, what you’re going to see is an acceleration of cases,” Fauci he told MSNBC.
Less-affected areas can take less drastic measures such as physical separation, avoiding crowds and not travelling unnecessarily, Fauci said.
For most people, the novel coronavirus causes only mild or moderate symptoms, such as fever and cough. For some, especially older adults and people with existing health problems, it can cause more severe illness, including pneumonia.
The vast majority of people recover. According to the World Health Organization (WHO), people with mild illness recover in about two weeks, while those with more severe illness may take three to six weeks to be over it.
The coronavirus crisis also got personal for Trump and some members of Congress.
Australian Home Affairs Minister Peter Dutton was in isolation at a hospital after testing positive for the coronavirus. He met with Attorney General William Barr and Trump’s daughter, Ivanka, among others, last week.
That followed a report that Jair Bolsonaro’s communications chief, Fabio Wajngarten, tested positive for coronavirus. Photos of the Brazilian president and Wajngarten hobnobbing with top Republicans as well as Trump and Pence last weekend at Trump’s Mar-a-Lago resort have been posted to social media.
It was the first time someone infected with the virus was known to have been so near the president.
While several members of Congress at the events announced they are going into self-isolation, the White House has said neither Trump nor his daughter plan on getting tested currently.
Trump said Friday he doesn’t have symptoms and is surrounded by the best medical professionals.