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Politics Trump’s Upbeat Virus Prediction Undercut by New CDC Warning

22:30  25 february  2020
22:30  25 february  2020 Source:   bloomberg.com

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(Bloomberg) -- President Donald Trump sought to reassure Americans on Tuesday that the coronavirus outbreak poses little threat, but the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention warned hours later to prepare for the disease to disrupt daily life in the U.S.

YOKOHAMA, JAPAN - FEBRUARY 17: A person waves from a bus transporting American citizens from the quarantined Diamond Princess cruise ship at Daikoku Pier to Haneda Airport where they will be repatriated to the United States, on February 17, 2020 in Yokohama, Japan. The United States has become the first country to offer to repatriate citizens on the Diamond Princess cruise ship while it remains quarantined in Yokohama Port as at least 355 passengers and crew onboard have tested positive for the coronavirus (COVID-19). Including cases onboard the ship, 408 people in Japan have now been diagnosed with COVID-19 making it the worst affected country outside of China. (Photo by Carl Court/Getty Images) © Photographer: Carl Court/Getty Images AsiaPac YOKOHAMA, JAPAN - FEBRUARY 17: A person waves from a bus transporting American citizens from the quarantined Diamond Princess cruise ship at Daikoku Pier to Haneda Airport where they will be repatriated to the United States, on February 17, 2020 in Yokohama, Japan. The United States has become the first country to offer to repatriate citizens on the Diamond Princess cruise ship while it remains quarantined in Yokohama Port as at least 355 passengers and crew onboard have tested positive for the coronavirus (COVID-19). Including cases onboard the ship, 408 people in Japan have now been diagnosed with COVID-19 making it the worst affected country outside of China. (Photo by Carl Court/Getty Images)

The virus is “very well under control in our country,” Trump said Tuesday at a news conference in New Delhi, where he’s concluding a two-day visit to India. “We have very few people with it,” he said, adding that 36 infected Americans brought home from Japan are recovering. “We think they’ll be in very good shape very, very soon,” he said.

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“We are down to -- we’re really down to probably 10,” Trump said. “Most of the people are outside of danger right now.”

Hours later, CDC officials told reporters in a conference call that Americans should prepare for daily life to be disrupted by the virus, including school closings and the cancellations of public events and business meetings.

“We expect we will see community spread in this country,” Nancy Messonnier, director of the CDC’s National Center for Immunization and Respiratory Diseases, said on a call with reporters Tuesday. “It is not a matter of if, but a question of when, this will exactly happen.”

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The outbreak is “rapidly evolving and expanding,” she said.

National Economic Council Director Larry Kudlow later characterized the CDC’s warning as an emergency plan and said “it doesn’t mean it’s going to go into effect.”

“We have contained this,” he said, describing the U.S. government’s prevention of the virus’s spread as “pretty close to air-tight.”

“I don’t think there’s going to be an economic tragedy at all,” he said. He dismissed concerns about supplies of pharmaceuticals and medical supplies such as face masks and said a vaccine for the coronavirus will be developed much faster than people realize.

“This is very tightly contained in the U.S.,” he said. “Elsewhere it’s a human disaster.”

Ebola Comparison

Trump downplayed the danger of coronavirus compared to Ebola Virus Disease, which killed more than 11,000 people including one American in a 2014-2016 outbreak.

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“There’s a very good chance you’re not going to die,” from a coronavirus infection, Trump said. “It’s very much the opposite,” with Ebola, he added. “You’re talking about 1 or 2%, where in the other case it was a virtual 100%.”

Senator Roy Blunt, a Missouri Republican, said Tuesday after a classified briefing to senators on the outbreak that “it would be true that most of them are getting better.”

“They’re not all getting better. The ones that died aren’t getting better,” he added.

The White House said late Monday it had asked Congress for $2.5 billion to battle the disease. Half of that money is new, while the rest is being reallocated from other spending, including $535 million from funds to combat Ebola, an official familiar with the proposal said. The total includes $1 billion for development of a coronavirus vaccine, the official added.

At the same time, a debate is being waged within the administration over the strength of the U.S. response, according to two people familiar with the discussions. Some officials say the government has not been aggressive enough at preventing spread of the disease within the U.S., while others fear that too many travel restrictions or other measures could harm the economy.

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Trump claimed credit for preventing the spread of the disease at his news conference. U.S. authorities announced Jan. 31 that flights from China would be restricted to a handful of airports where passengers would undergo enhanced health screenings and that foreign nationals who had recently visited China would not be allowed into the country.

“Because of an early decision I made, I made a decision,” Trump said. “I believe it was the first time it’s ever been done. We closed the country to certain areas, as you know. And I was criticized for that decision. Now they’re saying it was a good decision.”

Travel Curbs

Health and Human Services Secretary Alex Azar is testifying in four separate congressional hearings this week, including before two House committees -- Energy and Commerce and Foreign Affairs -- that are holding hearings on the coronavirus outbreak itself. The latter committee will also hear from representatives of the State Department and the CDC.

“The administration’s on top of this,” Senator Bill Cassidy, a Louisiana Republican, said after U.S. intelligence and health care officials briefed senators on Tuesday. He is one of Trump’s closest allies in the Senate.

“It’s going to spread and ultimately it may get to our country,” he said. “In fact it probably will. The hope is we can push it off until we have the resources by which to mitigate it,” including a vaccine that he said is still at least a year from being available.

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Financial markets were battered Monday in the U.S. amid concerns over the disease, which has infected at least 79,000 people worldwide and killed more than 2,600, almost all in China, according to the World Health Organization.

Officials advocating a more robust approach say the U.S. should impose further limits on travel; urge companies to encourage their employees to work at home; and take measures to protect workers in jobs involving food, power, water and supply chains, according to the people familiar with the discussions.

The people added that Trump was reluctant to restrict travel between the U.S. and China, and is even more wary of travel curbs involving other countries. His administration, the people said, must strike a balance between safeguarding Americans and not causing a panic that would jeopardize the economy.

In any event, the hearings mark an accounting of the administration’s response so far, and whether a U.S. outbreak can continue to be prevented. The administration has called on China to accept an offer of expanded support.

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“We’ve offered our help, so we’re hoping that more people will take advantage of the help of the most well-heeled, best public health system in the world,” White House counselor Kellyanne Conway told reporters on Monday. “Whatever they need, the president has said, ‘We’re here to help you,’ and he’s repeated that person-to-person to China’s president.”

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Italian Outbreak

In what appeared to be a particularly worrying development for investors, Italy has reported more than 200 cases and six deaths. U.S. stock benchmarks slid more than 3% on Monday, with the S&P 500 Index falling the most since February 2018.

Trump, who is visiting India, said in a tweet earlier Monday that the virus is “very much under control” in the U.S.

But Senate Democratic Leader Chuck Schumer on Monday night called the administration’s request “too little too late.”

“That President Trump is trying to steal funds dedicated to fight Ebola — which is still considered an epidemic in the Democratic Republic of the Congo — is indicative of his towering incompetence and further proof that he and his administration aren’t taking the coronavirus crisis as seriously as they need to be,” Schumer said in a statement.

Trump dismissed Schumer’s criticism. “If I gave more, they would say it should be less,” he said in New Delhi. “It’s automatic with these characters. They’re just not good for the country.”

Senator Lamar Alexander, the Republican chairman of the chamber’s Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee, also said additional funds may be needed.

“This is a very aggressive virus. What’s remarkable is that it hasn’t spread yet,” Alexander told reporters Tuesday after a closed briefing with administration officials. “I think we’re being honest to say it’s inevitably going to spread.”

Azar Task Force

The Trump administration took several steps to prevent the spread of the illness to the U.S. once the severity of the outbreak became clear. Flights from China were restricted to seven airports; as much as a 14-day quarantine was ordered for citizens returning from the province at the center of the outbreak; entry to the country was denied to some foreigners; and the State Department issued a travel advisory warning Americans not to travel to China.

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But those restrictions become less and less effective the further the virus migrates beyond China.

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Trump appointed a task force to coordinate the response to the outbreak led by Azar and including National Security Advisor Robert O’Brien.

There are 53 people in the U.S. infected by the novel coronavirus, the CDC said on Monday, including 36 who had been aboard the contaminated Diamond Princess cruise ship in Japan, the site of one of the largest outbreaks outside China.

The Washington Post reported that the president was furious with senior advisers, including Azar, last week over a decision to allow Americans who tested positive for the coronavirus to return to the U.S. from Japan, after he had been assured that infected people would remain in quarantine overseas.

The coronavirus is also starting to affect American military operations overseas. Secretary of Defense Mark Esper told reporters Monday that U.S. and South Korean commanders are looking into “scaling back” command post training over health concerns.

South Korea’s Defense Minister Jeong Kyeong-doo, who met with Esper at the Pentagon, called the situation “quite serious” and said that 13 cases of coronavirus had been confirmed among South Korean armed forces.

More cases are likely to be identified, including in the U.S., the CDC has warned. U.S. agencies have prepared in part by running an information campaign for local governments, clinics and hospitals.

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The CDC said earlier this month that it would start using its flu surveillance network to screen for the coronavirus, working under the assumption that it might be circulating in mild form, masquerading as the seasonal influenza. The surveillance screening will start in Los Angeles, San Francisco, Seattle, Chicago and New York, and expanded to other cities.

“This is just the starting point, and we plan to expand to more sites in the coming weeks until we have national surveillance,” Nancy Messonnier, director of the CDC’s National Center for Immunization and Respiratory Diseases, said on Feb. 14.

The CDC has said it’s preparing as if the virus’s spread in the U.S. is inevitable and that border control measures to screen travelers will only slow the outbreak, not stop it.

(Updates with Kudlow comments beginning in seventh paragraph.)

--With assistance from Tony Capaccio and Drew Armstrong.

To contact the reporters on this story: Josh Wingrove in Washington at jwingrove4@bloomberg.net;Jennifer Jacobs in Washington at jjacobs68@bloomberg.net;Daniel Flatley in Washington at dflatley1@bloomberg.net

To contact the editors responsible for this story: Alex Wayne at awayne3@bloomberg.net, Joshua Gallu

For more articles like this, please visit us at bloomberg.com

©2020 Bloomberg L.P.

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