President Donald Trump and top U.S. health officials addressed the nation Wednesday evening as governments worldwide worked to combat the spread of the new coronavirus. Their comments came as the U.S. saw its first instance of infection in a person without relevant travel history or exposure to another patient known to have the virus.
With more than 81,300 cases worldwide and spreading rapidly beyond China to South Korea, Italy and Iran, the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention warned Tuesday the virus would spread in the United States and cause “severe” disruptions across the country.
At a news conference the same day in India, President Donald Trump tried to tamp down concerns, saying the virus was “very well under control in our country.” The White House requested $2.5 billion in emergency funding this week to combat the outbreak, but congressional Democrats slammed the request as “woefully insufficient.”
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Here’s what the president said Wednesday evening, and what the facts are.
‘There’s a chance that it won’t spread’
Minutes after Trump downplayed the risk of coronavirus spreading in the United States, California confirmed a new case that might be the nation’s first example of a non travel-related case of coronavirus.
“There’s a chance that it could get worse,” Trump said. “There’s a chance that it could get fairly, substantially worse. But I don’t think it’s inevitable … there’s a chance that it won’t spread.”
Less than an hour later, the CDC confirmed the California case involving a person who did not travel to China and was not exposed to another person with the virus.
The CDC said it’s unknown how the person was exposed to COVID-19, but the agency said it could be the first example of “community spread,” which means an unknown source of infection. The agency has not ruled out that the person was exposed to a traveler with the virus.
The first 14 cases confirmed in the United States included 12 travelers returning from China and two individuals who had close contact with those travelers. The California man is the 15th confirmed case, not counting infected passengers from Diamond Princess and others repatriated from Wuhan, China.
On Tuesday, the CDC warned that such community spread of the virus was inevitable and predicted “severe” disruptions in everyday life. The agency warned schools could be closed and mass gathering suspended.
Coronavirus, explained: Everything to know about Covid-19, the deadly virus alarming the world
Flu kills ‘25,000 people to 69,000 people a year’
Trump compared the small number of COVID-19 cases in the U.S. to the number of flu cases this year and said, “The flu in our country kills from 25,000 people to 69,000 people a year. That was shocking to me.”
According to the CDC, there have been at least 29 million flu illnesses and 16,000 deaths from flu so far this season. The season is not yet over, but the number of estimated flu deaths so far this year is below the range that Trump cited.
The CDC reported annual flu deaths ranged from 12,000 to 61,000 since 2010, slightly lower than figured the president cited.
Vaccine in ‘fairly quick manner’
Trump again compared coronavirus to the flu and predicted a vaccine will soon be available. “We’ll essentially have a flu shot for this in a fairly quick manner,” he said.
Anthony Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, also spoke at the news conference and offered a more specific time frame for efforts to develop a coronavirus vaccine.
He said it will take about two months to determine whether a vaccine is safe through a small study in humans. That would be followed another six to eight months to conduct a larger, comprehensive medical study to gauge whether the vaccine works.
During a Feb. 17 meeting with USA TODAY’s editorial board meeting, Fauci said it would take at least one year to 18 months to make a vaccine that is safe and effective and ready to distribute.
“The solution to the containment of this current outbreak will not be a vaccine,” Fauci said.
Still, Fauci said the vaccine will be important and would be useful if COVID-19 returns next year as a seasonal respiratory virus.
Several drugmakers are working to develop vaccines and other treatments to combat coronavirus. Gilead Sciences, a pharmaceutical company, is testing the antiviral drug remdesivir as a potential coronavirus treatment in several countries. The experimental drug was also used on a suburban Seattle man who became the nation’s first coronavirus patient.
‘We’re rated No. 1 in being prepared’
“Johns Hopkins … they did a study, a comprehensive – the countries best and worst prepared for an epidemic – and the United States, we’re rated No. 1,” Trump said.
Trump was referring to the October 2019 Global Health Security Index by the Johns Hopkins Center for Health Security and the Nuclear Threat Initiative, with research by The Economist Intelligence Unit. The report evaluated the health security capabilities of 195 countries.
While the U.S. ranked No.1 overall, the report found that not a single country in the world is fully prepared to handle an epidemic or pandemic.
The United States scored in the bottom tier of countries for access to health care “owing to lack of governmentally guaranteed access to healthcare plus high out-of-pocket expenditures per capita,” the report said.
Pence’s Indiana had first case of MERS
Vice President Mike Pence, tapped to oversee the Trump administration’s coronavirus response, cited his experience handling MERS in Indiana, where the first U.S. case was confirmed.
In May 2014, CDC confirmed two cases of MERS, Middle East Respiratory Syndrome, in the United States – one in Indiana, the other to Florida. Both cases were health care providers who lived and worked in Saudi Arabia and traveled to the United States. Both were hospitalized in the U.S. and later discharged after fully recovering.
MERS, which originated in Saudi Arabia, resulted in 2,499 cases and 861 deaths worldwide, a fatality rate far higher than SARS or COVID-19.
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Pence’s health care record as governor
Trump lauded Pence’s record on health care when he was governor of Indiana.
“Everybody who knows anything about health care, they look at Indiana,” he said. “They’ve established a great health care (in Indiana) … a lot of other states have looked to. They wanted to change their health care systems.”
In 2015, Indiana implemented sweeping changes to the state’s Medicaid insurance program, requiring low-income adults to pay monthly premiums to maintain their health insurance coverage. The reforms were spearheaded by Pence and then-health policy consultant Seema Verma, who now oversees the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services.
Republican governors in states including Kentucky and Arizona, also sought federal approval for similar restrictions, arguing such incentives encouraged able-bodied adults to seek employment and helped curb unnecessary health spending. But critics said such restrictions were unnecessarily punitive and put vulnerable people at risk of losing their health coverage.
In October, facing a federal lawsuit challenging the state’s work requirement, Indiana said it would postpone eliminating Medicaid benefits for those who failed to meet the work requirement.
Also during Pence’s tenure, a small town in Indiana became the center of an HIV epidemic tied to people injecting drugs. In all, 235 people became infected, giving Austin, Indiana, an HIV infection rate rivaling nations in sub-Saharan Africa. The Pence administration was criticized for its slow response, and under pressure allowed a clean-needle exchange to slow new cases of HIV and hepatitis C infections, according to a study that appeared in The Lancet.
Indiana HIV outbreak:What to know about Austin’s struggles with drugs and HIV
Virus or Dems ‘a factor’ in stocks slump
Trump faced several questions from reporters about the stock market as U.S. stocks slumped for a fifth straight session on Wednesday. The President suggested the Democratic debates played a role in the fall.
“I think it took a hit maybe for two reasons. I think they take a look at the people that you watched debating last night and they say if there’s even a possibility that can happen, I think it really takes a hit because of that. And it certainly took a hit because of this,” Trump said, referencing the coronavirus outbreak.
Democrats held debates Feb. 19 and Feb. 25. On Wednesday, the Dow Jones industrial average slumped 124 points to close at 26,957.59, after shedding nearly 2,000 points following steep losses on Monday and Tuesday.
Financial managers have said investors are reacting to every positive or negative headline about the virus. Some companies, including United Airlines and Mastercard, have warned the outbreak of coronavirus could hurt their finances. Tech companies that rely on global sales and supply chains that could be stifled by the spreading outbreak were among the worst hit by sell-offs.