A pedestrian wears a surgical mask as she walks by the VacaValley Hospital in Vacaville, California. (Photo: AFP)
Federal health officials scrambled Friday to get coronavirus testing up and running in every state, as the Trump administration signaled it may also invoke a 70-year-old defense law to guarantee the availability of protective gear should the virus spread.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention said two more Americans tested positive for the virus out of the group of quarantined passengers from the Diamond Princess cruise ship.
Santa Clara County in California reported its second case in that state, and Oregon reported its first case. Each of those cases involved a person who hadn’t traveled internationally or come in close contact with anyone who had it.
The World Health Organization upgraded the risk level from the virus to “very high” as it continued to spread around the globe. Friday evening, the State Department issued an advisory telling Americans to avoid nonessential travel to Italy, which has seen nearly 900 cases. A travel advisory already is in place for China.
Two days after the White House abruptly shifted gears from President Donald Trump’s initial assurances of minimal U.S. fallout to an all-out mobilization under Vice President Mike Pence, the administration’s messaging still wasn’t completely seamless.
Trump administration political appointees and nonpartisan career government scientists both agree that the current risk to Americans is low, although that could quickly change. But some political officials are continuing to offer assurances that concerns will blow over soon, while the scientists are emphasizing preparations for circumstances as yet unknown.
“I acknowledge that this could change. I acknowledge the situation could deteriorate. I acknowledge the risks,” White House economic adviser Larry Kudlow told reporters Friday. “But, given what we know ... looks to me like the market has gone too far.”
Financial markets continued to slide, with the Dow Jones average suffering its worst week since the 2008 financial crisis.
Later in the day Federal Reserve Chairman Jerome Powell signaled that the central bank would cut interest rates to support the economy if needed. On Capitol Hill, lawmakers of both parties are working on a spending bill to be unveiled early next week and expected to be two to three times more than the $2.5 billion the White House had requested for anti-virus efforts.
Health and Human Services Secretary Alex Azar called attention to the breadth of options under consideration, telling reporters the administration may invoke the 1950 Defense Production Act to ensure production of needed supplies for anti-virus effort. For example, the government says it needs 300 million masks for health care workers, but only has 30 million stockpiled.
“We will use the Defense Production Act as necessary,” said Azar. “So that is the authority that we have and we intend to use to acquire anything we need to acquire.” However, he added the government wants to avoid disruptions.
Shortly before the new case was announced, Trump told reporters, “We’re at the same number.”
“We haven’t lost anybody yet and hopefully we can keep that intact,” he said as he left the White House for a political rally in South Carolina.
Trump said he’s still considering denying entry to people from countries affected by coronavirus. “We’re looking at that right now,” he said. “And we’re looking at a couple of countries, a few countries that have little bit disproportionately high number, and we’re going to make that decision very soon.”
For the CDC’s disease detectives, the priority now is setting up a nationwide testing infrastructure after a shaky start. Dr. Nancy Messonier, the CDC’s chief of respiratory diseases, told reporters the goal is to have every state capable of testing for the virus by the end of next week.
A three-step test kit from CDC is being replaced with a two-step process that Messonnier said should work better.
“Our goal is to have every state and local health department doing its own testing by the end of next week,” said Messonnier. That’s a considered a critical step, because it would push the front lines of surveillance closer to local communities where new cases might present themselves.
Disease detectives are still tracing the contacts of a Northern California woman who may be the first person in the U.S. to get sick without having traveled to China or having been in close contact with a returning traveler.
“We need to remember right now that the case count in the U.S. is really low,” said Messonnier. “That is a reflection of the aggressive containment efforts of the U.S. government. We hope that if there is spread, the spread will be limited and that any disease in the United States will be mild.”
The global virus outbreak has become a test of Trump’s credibility and his administration’s capacity to protect the nation. Public health experts say the president should let the scientists in government take the lead.
“The White House functions best when it follows the leadership of experts in emergency response,” said John Auerbach, president of the nonprofit Trust for America’s Health, which works with government at all levels to improve public health.
Although the president himself is famously skeptical of science, the White House is now trying to surround itself with top-flight scientific expertise. Friday, officials announced the White House and the National Academy of Sciences have established a committee of experts on infectious diseases to help on the coronavirus threat.
“We are creating a direct line to the nation’s top scientific minds on public health,” said Kelvin Droegemeier, director of the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy.
Next week, Congress is expected to expedite a bipartisan spending bill for the anti-virus campaign that could total between $6 billion and $8 billion.
The administration says it has enough funding to get through to April but that Congress should act as quickly as possible to approve additional funding. The White House wants Trump to sign the spending bill it by mid-March.
As other countries hard hit by coronavirus cancel public activities and shutter schools, HHS Secretary Azar said such measures could be part of the containment toolkit here, if needed.
Keeping kids home from school and running workplaces on a skeleton staff is part of what experts call “social distancing,” a way to keep people from passing disease to one another. As recently as 2009, a flu pandemic led to school closures in many U.S. communities.
“It can be indicated under certain circumstances that it might make sense to close a school or schools, or take other measures like that,” said Azar. In the U.S. that would be a decision made at the local level.
“What we’re all trying to do is just be very transparent ... with the public to get our mental frame around that there are things that you might see,” said Azar. “That doesn’t mean you will see (them).”