WASHINGTON – Trump administration health officials urged the public Tuesday to prepare for the “inevitable” spread of the coronavirus within the United States, escalating warnings about a growing threat from the virus to Americans’ everyday lives.
The urgent new tone from leaders of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the National Institutes of Health came in response to a rapid surge in cases in new locations outside mainland China in the past several days, including new cases without a known source of exposure in Hong Kong, Iran, Italy, Japan, Singapore, South Korea, Taiwan and Thailand. It came as stock markets dived for the second straight day on fears of the virus spreading.
Sen. Patty Murray, D-Wash., said officials cautioned during a closed-door briefing with senators that there was a “very strong chance of an extremely serious outbreak of the coronavirus here in the United States.”
Separately, on a conference call with reporters, public health officials repeated dire warnings.
“Ultimately we expect we will see community spread in the United States. It’s not a question of if this will happen, but when this will happen, and how many people in this country will have severe illnesses,” said Nancy Messonnier, director of the National Center for Immunization and Respiratory Diseases.
Messonnier said evidence of so-called “community spread” far beyond mainland China is triggering new strategies to blunt the impact of illness and slow the spread of the respiratory virus. There is growing evidence that efforts to contain the spread of the virus outside of China have failed. There are now almost 1,000 cases in South Korea, at least 15 people have died in Iran, and cases were reported for the first time in Switzerland, Austria, and at a luxury resort in Spain.
The CDC said the agency would be focusing on containing the spread of the virus in the United States, as well as warning people to prepare. Health officials are urging businesses, health-care facilities and even schools to plan now for ways to limit the impact of the illness when it spreads in the community.
Businesses need to consider replacing in-person meetings with telework. Schools should consider ways to limit face-to-face contact, such as dividing students into smaller groups, school closures and Internet-based learning. Local officials should consider modifying, postponing or canceling large gatherings. Hospitals should consider ways to triage patients who do not need urgent care and recommend patients delay elective surgery.
School closures may be among the most effective ways to limit person-to-person spread, which is the main way coronavirus is transmitted. But it is also the one likely to cause the most unwanted consequences and disruptions from missed work and loss of income, Messonnier said.
“Disruptions to everyday life may be severe, but people might want to start thinking about that now,” she said. She said parents may want to call their local school offices to see what kinds of plans they have in place and consider what they would do if they had no child care. Messonnier added that she called her children’s superintendent office to find out what plans the school system had. These kinds of questions will help everyone be better prepared, she said.
The message from public health officials contrasts with that of the White House. On Tuesday, National Economic Council Director Larry Kudlow tried to assuage concerns over the coronavirus and its impact on the U.S. economy.
“We have contained this. I won’t say [it’s] airtight, but it’s pretty close to airtight,” Kudlow told CNBC’s Kelly Evans on “The Exchange.” He added that, while the outbreak is a “human tragedy,” it will likely not be an “economic tragedy.”
Some senators who attended Tuesday’s briefing downplayed any alarmist tone from health officials. However, Sen. Lamar Alexander, R-Tenn., said senators were told the number of cases in the United States would inevitably grow. There are now 57 people with the virus in the United States, almost all but 14 of them evacuees from the Diamond Princess cruise ship.
“What we heard was that it’s inevitable that we’ll have more than 14 cases as time goes on,” Alexander said. “And what we’ll have to try to do is the same thing we’ve already done through quarantining and monitoring through our public health system to limit that as much as possible.”
Lawmakers of both parties also raised concerns about the administration’s level of preparation, plans for devoting resources to combat the virus and poor communication between agencies and Capitol Hill.
Sen. John Neely Kennedy, R-La., criticized the lawmaker briefing, because he said that while issuing dire warnings, officials could not answer his basic questions.
“I thought a lot of the briefing was bull—-,” Kennedy said. “They would answer the question but dodge, bob and weave. I understand there’s a lot they don’t know. I get that. But they need to answer the questions straight up. They all talk about a task force, a committee – a committee’s not going to solve this problem.”
Sen. Roy Blunt, R-Mo., said he has had trouble getting answers about how exactly the administration is spending money Congress has already provided, including a new $105 million infectious disease fund that has allowed agencies flexibility in responding to the virus.
“With that flexibility comes responsibility, and I don’t think we’re getting the information we need as quickly as we should be getting it or need to have it,” Blunt said. The senator said he expressed his concerns to agency leaders and staff at the closed-door briefing Tuesday.
Blunt spoke to reporters after presiding over a separate Senate Appropriations hearing where Health and Human Services Secretary Alex Azar defended the administration’s new $1.8 billion emergency spending request for the virus, which includes $1.25 billion in new money and transfers other funds from ebola research. The total amount the administration proposes to spend to combat the virus is at least $2.5 billion, according to the request released late Monday.
Democrats slammed the request as woefully inadequate as they excoriated the administration for cutting public health budgets for years. Even some Republicans questioned whether it was enough.
“I think the American people are very concerned and should be. I’m concerned,” said Appropriations Chairman Richard Shelby, R-Ala. “It could be an existential threat to a lot of people in this country. This is not politics, this is doing our job for the American people.”
Shelby went on to tell Azar: “If you lowball something like this you’ll pay for it later. You’re not only dealing with the crisis you’re dealing with the perception of the American people.”
Azar pushed back against senators’ complaints. He pointed to the use of the first federal quarantine authority in more than 50 years to contain the disease and efforts to restrict travel from China. He said the administration’s supplemental request focused on “five key critical success factors”: expanding surveillance for coronavirus in the United States, support for state and local governments, procuring and supporting research and development of vaccines and therapeutics, and acquiring additional personal protective equipment such as masks and ventilators.
“The steps the president has taken are the most aggressive containment measures ever taken,” Azar said in response to senators’ questions about the supplemental and whether the administration was adequately preparing. “Our country is preparing every day.”
Murray also pressed Azar on administration efforts to test people for the coronavirus, asking whether a faulty CDC test has limited the ability to test potential carriers. Azar denied that the CDC test did not work, but only a handful of state laboratories can currently run tests outside of the CDC in Atlanta because the CDC kits sent out nationwide a week and a half ago included a faulty component. Azar told senators the administration hoped to expand the U.S. surveillance system for coronavirus to be comparable to flu surveillance.
Trump said the U.S. was “very close to a vaccine.” While top health officials have heralded the record speed with which they expect to get a coronavirus vaccine into early clinical safety tests – they have said that could happen within the next two months – it will likely be at least a year or year-and-a-half before the vaccine is widely available. Senators who were briefed by top health officials on Tuesday said they were told it would be about a year-and-a-half until the vaccine was completed.