Vice President Mike Pence will lead the U.S. response to a potential global pandemic of the coronavirus COVID-19, President Donald Trump announced Wednesday evening.
The move came amid growing political pressure on his administration to take a more energized response to the coronavirus, which has infected more than 82,000 people in 37 countries and killed nearly 3,000.
The situation within the United States may have gained new urgency as well: Shortly after the news briefing, the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention announced the first case of COVID-19 within the United States in a person who “did not have relevant travel history or exposure to another known patient with COVID-19.”
The case, occurring in California, “could be an instance of community spread,” the CDC said in a statement.
The patient was brought to the University of California, Davis, Medical Center from another hospital on Feb. 19, the Associated Press reported. The patient was on ventilator support upon arrival. UC Davis has treated other coronavirus patients, so additional safety measures were already in place, the AP said.
The hospital immediately asked the CDC to test the patient for coronavirus, the AP said. Because the patient did not meet the full criteria for testing, the test was not performed until last Sunday, the wire service reported. The results came back positive on Wednesday.
There have now been 60 coronavirus cases confirmed in the United States.
During the press briefing, Trump highlighted Pence’s role in leading Indiana’s health care as that state’s former governor, and Pence himself noted that his state was where the first U.S. case of the coronavirus MERS emerged back in 2014.
“I know full well the importance of presidential leadership, the importance of administration leadership, and the vital role of partnerships of state and local governments and health authorities in responding to the potential threat of dangerous infectious diseases,” Pence said.
However, Trump continued to downplay the potential threat of COVID-19 to the United States in the Wednesday press conference — despite the fact that his own health officials reiterated that outbreaks of the virus are certain to strike this country.
“I don’t think it’s inevitable,” Trump said. “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. We have the best people in the world.”
Minutes earlier in the same press conference, U.S. Health and Human Services Secretary Alex Azar and Centers for Disease Control and Prevention Principal Deputy Director Dr. Anne Schuchat had both warned that more COVID-19 cases will emerge in the United States.
“Our containment strategy has been working,” Azar said. “At the same time, what every one of our experts and leaders have been saying for more than a month now remains true. The degree of risk has the potential to change quickly, and we can expect to see more cases in the United States.”
Azar and Schuchat both recommended that people familiarize themselves with COVID-19 and with the steps necessary to prevent the spread of infection during a pandemic.
“We do expect more cases, and this is a good time to prepare,” Schuchat said. “It’s the perfect time for businesses, health care systems, universities and schools to look at their pandemic preparedness plans, dust them off and make sure they are ready.”
Money no object
Trump headed off one potential political fight over the COVID-19 response by saying that he will accept any amount of money Congress approves for the public health emergency.
The Trump administration has asked for $2.5 billion in funding, but Republicans in Congress have floated $4 billion and Democrats have suggested $8.5 billion as more appropriate figures for responding to the coronavirus.
“With respect to the money, it’s being negotiated,” Trump said. “They can do whatever they want.”
Trump also left open the possibility that the type of tough travel restrictions now placed on China could be applied to other countries where the virus reaches epidemic proportions .
“If it means placing a very strong situation on the border so people can’t come into our country from a country that’s infected, we’re doing that,” Trump said.
When asked by reporters whether he might consider banning incoming flights from other countries, including Italy and South Korea (both battling outbreaks), Trump said “at a right time, we may do that.”
Long wait for a vaccine
Americans should not count on the quick rollout of a vaccine to protect them during the current crisis, Dr. Anthony Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, warned during the press conference.
Even at an expedited rate, a COVID-19 vaccine will still require as much as three months of testing to ensure its safety and another six to eight months to prove its effectiveness in protecting people, Fauci said.
“Although this is the fastest we have ever gone from a sequence of a virus to a trial, it still would not be applicable to the epidemic unless we wait a year to a year and a half,” Fauci said.
It’s not all bad news on the research front, however. Fauci added that an antiviral drug is in testing that might be ready to help treat people who’ve become infected with COVID-19.
The drug, remdesivir, started clinical trials a few days ago, and has shown promise in lab and animal studies, Fauci said.
“We will know reasonably soon whether it works, and if it does we will then have an effective therapy to distribute,” Fauci said.
Meanwhile, internationally, hopes of containing the coronavirus are beginning to fade.
The World Health Organization announced Wednesday that new coronavirus cases outside China eclipsed those inside China for the first time on Tuesday. While 411 new cases were reported in China, 427 new cases were reported in other countries around the world, The New York Times reported. The total number of cases globally has now passed 82,000 and nearly 3,000 have died.
South Korea and Iran are each battling major outbreaks of COVID-19. In Europe, a similar fight is raging in Italy, even as new cases were recorded in Austria, Croatia, France, Germany, Greece and Spain, the newspaper reported. Most of those cases have been tied to travel to Italy, which is struggling to contain an outbreak that has been centered in the northern part of the country.
Brazil also announced Wednesday that it had identified the first case of COVID-19 in Latin America. That means there are now cases on all continents except Antarctica.
Focus shifts to equipment, prevention
“As more and more countries experience community spread, successful containment at our borders becomes harder and harder. Ultimately, we expect we will see community spread in this country,” Dr. Nancy Messonnier, director of the U.S. National Center for Immunization and Respiratory Diseases, said during a media briefing Tuesday.
The case now identified in California on Wednesday has the potential to be the first sign of that community spread, the CDC said.
As Messonnier was speaking on Tuesday, U.S. Health and Human Services Secretary Alex Azar issued a similar warning to a Senate committee, the Times reported.
Federal and local health departments will need as many as 300 million masks for health care workers and additional ventilators for hospitals to prepare for a major outbreak of coronavirus, the Times reported.
“We cannot hermetically seal off the United States to a virus,” Azar said. “And we need to be realistic about that.”
If domestic outbreaks occur, people may need to home quarantine if they or a family member is sick, and some schools may need to be closed, Messonnier added. Phone meetings may replace face-to-face meetings at work.
In Wednesday’s press conference, Dr. Anne Schuchat, Principal Deputy Director of the CDC, reminded Americans that the best way to protect themselves and others is to take the same sort of precautions as they would during cold and flu season.
“It’s spread through coughs and sneezes, and so those everyday sensible measures we tell people to do every year with the flu are important here — covering your cough, staying home when you’re sick and washing your hands,” Schuchat said. “Tried and true, not very exciting measures, but really important ways you can prevent the spread of respiratory viruses.”
The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has more on the new coronavirus.
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