Trump tells Americans coronavirus risk low, puts Pence in charge of US response

US President Donald Trump and Vice President Mike Pence (right) are seen just before the conclusion of the news conference on the coronavirus outbreak at the White House in Washington February 26, 2020. — Reuters pic
US President Donald Trump and Vice President Mike Pence (right) are seen just before the conclusion of the news conference on the coronavirus outbreak at the White House in Washington February 26, 2020. — Reuters pic

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WASHINGTON, Feb 27 — President Donald Trump told Americans yesterday that the risk from coronavirus remained “very low,” and placed Vice President Mike Pence in charge of the US response to the looming global health crisis.

At a White House briefing with his coronavirus task force, Trump defended his administration's response to the crisis and said public health officials were “ready, willing and able” to move quickly if the virus spreads.

Public health officials yesterday warned Americans to prepare for more coronavirus cases and New York City announced plans to provide up to 1,200 hospital beds if needed as US stock markets fell for the fifth consecutive day.

Trump said he would accept whatever emergency spending Congress decided was appropriate for the crisis, and that he was not ready to institute new travel restrictions for countries such as South Korea and Italy that are dealing with outbreaks — although he could not rule it out.

“The risk to the American people remains very low,” Trump said, flanked by Pence and public health officials.

“We're ready to adapt and we're ready to do whatever we have to as the disease spreads, if it spreads,” he said, adding the spread of the virus in the United States was not “inevitable.”

“It probably will, it possibly will. It could be at a very small level, or it could be at a larger level. Whatever happens we’re totally prepared,” he said.

Dr Anthony Fauci, the head of the National Institute of Allergy and Infections Diseases, said earlier in the day that while the virus was contained in the United States, Americans must prepare for a potential outbreak as transmissions spread outside of China.

“If we have a pandemic, then almost certainly we are going to get impacted,” Fauci told CNN.

US Health and Human Services Secretary Alex Azar said the United States has 59 coronavirus cases, including 42 American passengers repatriated from the Diamond Princess cruise ship docked in Japan.

“We have to be alert to the possibility of a pandemic,” Peter Marks, director of the Food and Drug Administration's Center for Biologics Evaluation and Research, said in an interview.

New York Mayor Bill de Blasio called on the federal government to help it obtain 300,000 extra protective masks. There were no confirmed cases of coronavirus in the city, he said.

Global stock markets have slumped in recent days due to worries over a prolonged disruption to supply chains and economies from the virus, which has infected about 80,000 people and killed nearly 3,000, mostly in China.

Trump, who is running for a second term in the November election, has been increasingly alarmed by the drop in US stock markets, which he considers a barometer of the health of the American economy and sees as important to his re-election.

He told reporters at the White House that fears of the coronavirus had hurt the stock markets. But he also blamed the Democratic presidential candidates for spooking investors.

“I think the financial markets are very upset when they look at the Democrat candidates standing on that stage making fools out of themselves,” Trump said in a reference to debates that are part of the process toward nominating a Democrat to run against Republican Trump.

Earlier in the day, Trump accused two cable TV news channels of presenting the danger from the virus in as bad a light as possible and upsetting financial markets.

The CDC has advised Americans to not visit China and South Korea, and yesterday stepped up travel warnings for Iran, Italy and Mongolia.

House of Representatives Speaker Nancy Pelosi, a Democrat, yesterday dismissed Trump's assertion in India that the coronavirus was under control at home.

“I don't think the president knows what he’s talking about, once again,” she told reporters.

Asked about her comment, Trump responded: “I think Speaker Pelosi's incompetent.”

Trump is seeking US$2.5 billion (RM10.6 billion) from Congress to boost the government's virus response, an amount Democrats said falls far short of what is needed and have also urged the White House to appoint a “czar” to coordinate a national response.

Senate Democratic Leader Chuck Schumer yesterday called for US$8.5 billion to prepare.

“We're going to spend whatever is appropriate,” Trump said.

A congressional source said the Democratic-controlled House would attempt to advance a coronavirus emergency funding bill before the next recess, scheduled to begin on March 12. — Reuters

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