Trump Names Pence to Lead Coronavirus Fight, but Downplays Risk

(CN) – Amid fears of a widespread coronavirus outbreak in the United States, President Donald Trump sought to assure the American public on Wednesday his administration is “very, very ready” for any potential epidemic.

In a rare appearance in the James S. Brady Briefing Room, Trump said Vice President Mike Pence will head of a coronavirus task force and expressed support for any amount of funding Congress wants to approve to contain the threat.

“We are asking for $2.5 billion – I think that’s a lot,” he told reporters. “The Democrats and [Senator Chuck] Schumer want us to have much more than that. We’ll spend whatever is appropriate.”

Vice President Mike Pence speaks Wednesday in the Brady Press Briefing Room of the White House during a news conference about the coronavirus. (AP Photo/Evan Vucci)

Schumer, the Democratic minority leader from New York, released his own proposal Wednesday that calls for $8.5 billion to combat the virus.

Trump’s briefing comes a day after officials with the U.S. Centers for Disease Control warned the U.S. should brace for a widespread outbreak.

“It’s not so much of a question of if this will happen in this country anymore but a question of when this will happen,” Nancy Messonnier, director of the CDC’s National Center for Immunization and Respiratory Diseases, said in a media briefing Tuesday. “We are asking the American public to prepare for the expectation that this might be bad.”

So far, the U.S. has reported 56 people infected with the coronavirus, most from a cruise ship docked in Japan. Another three were repatriated from Wuhan, China, the epicenter of the virus.

The coronavirus, recently named the COVID-19 virus, has spread from Wuhan to 30 countries. It has so far killed more than 2,700 people.

In a series of tweets Wednesday morning announcing the press conference, Trump claimed emerging fears about the spread of the disease have been driven by overblown news reports. He accused Democrats and news outlets of making “the Caronavirus [sic] look as bad as possible” and “panicking markets.”

Trump continued to downplay the impact of the virus during the press conference, disagreeing that a rise in cases is “inevitable.”

“Whatever happens, we have the best people in the world working on this,” he said.

Trump, Pence and other officials credited the low number of cases to the early closing of U.S. borders to foreign nationals who have been in China.

“Our aggressive containment has been working,” said Dr. Anne Schuchat, principal deputy director of the CDC, at the conference. “However, we do expect more cases.”

The quick spread of the coronavirus in countries like South Korea, Iran, Italy and Brazil – the first case in Latin America – has stoked fears of a global pandemic.

The number of new cases reported outside of China surpassed the number of new cases in China for the first time Tuesday, according to the World Health Organization.

“We are in a fight that can be won if we do the right things,” WHO Director-General Dr. Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus said Wednesday during a briefing in Geneva.

In 2018, the Trump administration made massive cuts to the CDC’s efforts to prevent disease outbreaks in other countries. Over the last two fiscal years, the administration has asked for cuts to the Department of Health and Human Services and the CDC.

In the most recent budget for 2021, the White House proposed a 16% cut to the CDC and nearly 10% from the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, according to an analysis by The New York Times. The budget also called for a 40% cut in U.S. contributions to the World Health Organization.

This week, Trump asked Congress for $2.5 billion to combat the virus. On Wednesday, Health and Human Services Secretary Alex Azar told House lawmakers the CDC needs $136 million for immediate response measures. Azar suggested moving funds from other health programs but not from border wall construction, as one lawmaker suggested. Democrats like Schumer are pushing for many more billions.

As nervousness builds in communities across the U.S., some cities and municipalities are taking measures into their own hands.

On Tuesday, San Francisco Mayor London Breed declared a local emergency even though the city does not have any confirmed cases of the virus.

In Alabama, the city of Anniston passed a resolution to block the federal government from sending coronavirus patients to a FEMA facility for quarantine. In California, a federal judge temporarily blocked a quarantine site in the Orange County city of Costa Mesa and county officials have declared a local emergency.

One of the biggest challenges facing public health officials is the people who may have the coronavirus but show no symptoms, according to Dr. Kathryn Jacobsen, professor of epidemiology and global health at George Mason University.

“It became clear a few days ago that for this coronavirus, the asymptomatic infected people are playing a bigger role in transmission than it had appeared,” Jacobsen said in a phone interview. “Generally, from a public health perspective … we kind of hope that people who are infected have symptoms. Because then if they are sick enough to be in home in bed, they are not going to be out infecting people.”

She added, “The question is how many nonsymptomatic returned travelers may have passed the virus onto somebody else. We don’t know if community transmission is happening because we weren’t looking for it.”

Jacobsen said the situation still seems to be unfolding, but for now “the flu is obviously a bigger risk this week than the coronavirus in the U.S.”

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