U.S. lawmakers talk sweeping COVID-19 aid package as states grapple with testing shortages

House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and the Trump administration hoped to announce agreement Friday on a coronavirus aid package to reassure anxious Americans by providing sick pay, free testing and other resources in an effort to address the mounting crisis and calm teetering financial markets.

Final details were being worked out, but the top House Democrat, who held daylong talks with Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin, expected an announcement Friday. The House could then swiftly vote.

Mnuchin said Friday morning that negotiations were going very well.

“I think we’re very close to getting this done,” Mnuchin said, appearing on CNBC.

On the COVID-19 illness, Mnuchin cautioned that “people should understand the numbers are going to go up before they go down,” reflecting the recent change in tone from the administration after initially downplaying the seriousness of the virus’s implications on the U.S. health system and economy.

President Donald Trump and Vice-President Mike Pence were also scheduled to meet with industry leaders later on Friday, according to the White House. It gave no other details.

Trump is also expected to address the ongoing crisis at 3 p.m. ET.

Administration ‘flying blind’: House Democrat 

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.

Trump claimed falsely Thursday that the U.S. is currently screening all Americans and foreigners who are entering the country, saying: “People coming in have to be tested.” And he claimed that those who return are being forced to isolate themselves, adding: “It’s going to be a pretty strong enforcement of quarantine.”

No widespread quarantine orders have been announced.

Lawmakers from both parties, particularly Democrats, expressed alarm 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.

WATCH: Expert says travel carries a number of risks amid COVID-19 pandemic

Travellers risk not only getting sick, but also not being able to return home if they leave the country, Frederic Dimanche says. 11:34

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.

Pelosi promised that a third coronavirus package will follow soon, though the House is adjourning Friday for a previously scheduled recess. That measure will include more aggressive steps to boost the U.S. economy, which economists fear has already slipped into recession.

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.– Dr. Anthony Fauci, National Institutes of Health

Republican Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, meanwhile, has already left D.C. for Kentucky.

There’s little appetite within either party for Trump’s proposal to suspend collection of the 6.2 per cent Social Security payroll tax, and Democratic economic stimulus ideas like more generous food stamp benefits aren’t favoured by Republicans.

States are already clamouring for fiscal relief from Washington as the virus threatens their budgets.

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. He said school closings and similar measures are “generally an appropriate approach.”

“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 said.

Director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases at the National Institutes of Health Dr. Anthony Fauci continued to spread the message on Friday that mitigation efforts are critical at this state in the U.S. (Manuel Balce Ceneta/The Associated Press)

Classes, sports events, concerts and conferences have been cancelled across the nation, with many states declaring states of emergency.

“The next few weeks, for most Americans, what you’re going to see is an acceleration of cases. There’s no doubt about it because that’s how these outbreaks work,” Fauci said to MSNBC.

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 state, and has continued to creep into a number of other states that have acted to try to avoid becoming additional hot spots.

WATCH: Confusion at European airports after Trump’s travel restrictions

Long lines, anxiety and confusion at European airports after Donald Trump bans travel from Europe to the U.S. 2:01

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.

A pair of women are shown Thursday in Marietta, Ga., behind a blackened fence where quarantined Grand Princess cruise ship passengers are isolated in a housing area at Dobbins Air Reserve Base. (The Associated Press)

Trump’s Wednesday announcement of travel restrictions prompted clarifications and criticisms. While Trump said all European travel except from Britain would be cut off, Homeland Security officials clarified that the new travel restrictions would apply only to most foreign nationals who have been in the Schengen Area at any point in the 14 days prior to their scheduled arrival to the United States. The area encompasses most European countries, among them France, Italy, Germany, Greece, Austria and Belgium.

The restrictions don’t apply to legal permanent residents, immediate family of U.S. citizens or others identified in the proclamation signed by Trump. Pence said the administration is also asking travellers returning to the U.S. from Europe to voluntarily quarantine for 14 days.

Trump, daughter near those who’ve tested positive

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 returned to Australia on Sunday from Washington, where he met Attorney General William Barr and Trump’s daughter, Ivanka, 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 like senators Rick Scott of Florida and Lindsey Graham of South Carolina announced they are going into self-isolation, the White House has said Trump is not getting tested.

“We had dinner in Florida at Mar-a-Lago with the entire delegation,” Trump told reporters on Thursday. “But we did nothing very unusual. We sat next to each other for a period of time.”

Asked whether he should be tested, Trump replied, “I am not concerned.”

Fauci told NBC News when asked Friday whether the president should be tested that it was a decision for the “very good White House physician and physician staff there.”   

When NBC’s Willie Geist followed up and asked the doctor if people should get tested if they’ve been next to someone who had been diagnosed with coronavirus, Fauci replied: “Yes.”

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