As fears spread of a possible coronavirus outbreak in the U.S, President Trump was addressing the nation in a Wednesday evening news conference at the White House to discuss how his administration was handling the virus threat — saying that a vaccine is being developed “rapidly” and “coming along very well.”
However, Anthony Fauci, who heads the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, said later at the press conference that a vaccine would not be applicable to the epidemic for a “year to a year-and-a-half,” due to delays from testing, development, production, and distribution.
The freewheeling and sometimes confusing press conference marked a rare appearance by the president in the James S. Brady Press Briefing Room, as he usually takes questions from reporters outside the White House while his Marine One helicopter prepares for takeoff.
“It’s really nice to talk to you without the helicopter,” a reporter shouted at one point, as others laughed and applauded. (“We’ll do more of ’em,” Trump said after some journalists asked him to “come back” to the briefing room in the future.)
Some of Trump’s targets remained the same, despite the new setting. In particular, the president excoriated both the Federal Reserve and House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif, calling her “incompetent” after she challenged his response to the virus and said he couldn’t be trusted on the matter.
“I think she’s not thinking about the country; instead of making a statement like that, where I’ve been beating her routinely at everything … she should be saying we should work together,” Trump said.
The president announced he was putting Vice President Mike Pence “in charge” of coronavirus prevention efforts, effective immediately. The White House had reportedly considered naming a virus czar to be the point person on the disease.
“Because of all we’ve done, the risk to the American people remains very low,” Trump said. “We’re ready to adapt, and we’re ready to do whatever we have to.”
The president revealed that of the “15” Americans confirmed to have the virus, eight have “returned to their homes to stay in their homes until fully recovered, one is in the hospital, and five have fully recovered; and one is, uh, we think in pretty good shape, and is in between hospital and going home.” Trump later said the person was “pretty sick and hopefully will recover.”
So far, there have been 60 confirmed cases of coronavirus in the U.S. in total. That figure includes individuals who have been repatriated to the United States, Health and Human Services Secretary Alex Azar later clarified at the podium. 15 people were in the initial set of cases, three came more from evacuation flights, and 42 from the Diamond Princess ship that was quarantined by Japanese health authorities earlier this month.
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Azar warned that the “degree of risk has the potential to change quickly.”
Even as he reassured Americans that “great quarantine facilities” have been set up, Trump noted that the scale of the virus has been somewhat misrepresentated. He said he was “shocked” and “amazed” when he spoke to medical experts to hear that the flu kills from 25,000 to 69,000 people per year. By contrast, only 2,700 people globally have been confirmed killed by coronavirus, although China and other countries are likely not reporting accurate numbers.
Asked whether he could trust China’s coronavius numbers, Trump said only that the Chinese government was “very talented,” “very tough and very smart.” The president also said it wasn’t certain that coronavirus’ fatality rate was higher than that of the flu.
Trump later recounted a recent awkward encounter with someone who had a fever, by way of explaining that hand-washing, avoiding hand-rails, and practicing common sense is the best way to avoid contracting the virus.
“I try to bail out as much as possible when there’s sneezing,” Trump said.
The U.S. is the most prepared country in the world to handle an epidemic, Trump said, citing Johns Hopkins University. He credited his decision to restrict travel from China, even though Democrats again accused him of racism.
Separately, Trump said the stock market was foundering “because of this,” but also in part because the public is worried one of the Democrats running for president might win and impose socialist policies.
Earlier in the day, after two days of the stock market tumbling, Trump blamed the media and Democrats for causing undue alarm and harming American financial markets. On Twitter, he singled out MSNBC and CNN for “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,” Trump continued. “USA in great shape!
In advance of his primetime address, Trump played down the mortality rate for a pathogen. His top economic adviser, Larry Kudlow, echoed Trump’s outlook, saying Tuesday that the U.S. had “contained” the threat of a domestic outbreak.
Trump’s and Kudlow’s comments were apparently at odds with warnings from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) officials who said that American communities need to prepare now for when the disease starts spreading domestically.
But reports in South Korean media and the Los Angeles Times said a Korean Air cabin crew member who tested positive for the disease may have worked on flights between Seoul and Los Angeles — a development that could have exposed Americans and people coming into America to the virus that takes up to 14 days after exposure to trigger symptoms, according to the CDC.
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On Capitol Hill, senior lawmakers called for a bipartisan spending package that would give federal, state and local officials more resources. Congress in recent years took a similar approach with the opioid epidemic, pumping out federal dollars for treatment and prevention. Senate Democratic Leader Chuck Schumer of New York unveiled an $8.5 billion coronavirus proposal.
Trump, at the press conference, called Schumer “Cryin’ Chuck” for attacking Trump’s funding proposals, saying he simply wants to be contrarian.
Democrats did not mince words on the matter. “The Trump administration is absolutely bungling the response to coronavirus, putting our public health and our economy at risk,” Massachusetts Sen. Elizabeth Warren said earlier this week. “This is why we need a real plan and an adult in charge.”
“Trump is putting American lives at risk every day, ignoring science, claiming the virus will ‘miraculously’ disappear by April and relying on ‘warm weather’ to end the spread of the virus,” presidential candidate Mike Bloomberg’s campaign said in a press release. “It is clearer than ever that the country needs a leader with real experience managing a crisis.”
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There have been renewed signs that the economy will continue to be affected internationally. Microsoft on Wednesday its supply chain is being hurt by the virus outbreak in China and the company will return to normal operations at a slower pace than expected.
The tech giant had predicted it would make between $10.75 billion and $11.15 billion in revenue from its personal computing segment in the January-March quarter. But Microsoft now says the supply chain for its Windows business and Surface devices “are more negatively impacted than previously anticipated.”
And last week, Apple warned investors that it won’t meet its second-quarter financial guidance because the viral outbreak in China has cut production of iPhones. The Cupertino, California-based company said all of its iPhone manufacturing facilities in China have reopened, but production is ramping up slowly. The company said demand for iPhones was also down in China because Apple’s retail stores are closed or operating with reduced hours.
Broadly, major U.S. stock indexes gave up early gains and closed mostly lower Wednesday, extending the market’s heavy losses for the week. The benchmark S&P 500 fell for the fifth straight day after swinging between a 0.6 percent loss and 1.7 percent gain. Smaller company stocks bore the brunt of the selling. The bond market continued to flash warning signs as long-term Treasury yields fell further below short-term yields.
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Worry about economic fallout from the virus outbreak that originated in China has fueled a sharp sell-off this week that’s wiped out the market’s gains for the year.
“The messaging by the White House is unhelpful,” said Lawrence Gostin, a professor of global health law at Georgetown University. “What the White House is doing is conveying a sense of overconfidence. … Of course, we do want to maintain calm with the public, but it flies in the face of facts. There is strong likelihood that we will see an outbreak in the United States and that we could see community transmission.”
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Trump’s public efforts to project calm masked a behind-the-scenes focus. During his 36-hour visit to India, Trump received briefings from staff and periodically checked the impact on Wall Street, tweeting at all hours to try to reassure Americans and the markets about the spread of the virus.
Trump reportedly expressed deep concern to aides about the impact on the markets, according to White House officials and Republicans close to the West Wing. Trump has tied his fortunes to Wall Street more closely than any of his recent predecessors and has made a strong economy his No. 1 one argument for reelection.
As the media coverage of the virus has increased, Trump has grown concerned that even fears of an outbreak would stagger Wall Street, leading him to wonder aloud if Azar was the right person to lead the administration’s response, the officials said.
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“Americans want to see their president taking charge and showing leadership, and that is exactly what President Trump is doing,” said Trump campaign spokeswoman Kayleigh McEnany. “In restricting travel and implementing quarantines, President Trump has taken unprecedented action to protect American citizens from the coronavirus.”