United States President Donald Trump on Tuesday said the coronavirus outbreak would “go away” and urged Americans to remain calm as the number of confirmed cases climbs, heaping pressure on the White House to boost its response to the health crisis and minimise the blow to the economy.
A steady rise in the number of US cases of COVID-19 has concerned health officials and spurred calls within Congress for action to expand testing and avert an economic meltdown.
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About three-quarters of US states now have confirmed COVID-19 cases, with over 800 Americans infected. On Tuesday, Washington state’s governor warned of tens of thousands more cases without “real action” and New York’s governor deployed US National Guard troops as a containment measure in a hard-hit New York City suburb.
“It will go away. Just stay calm. It will go away,” Trump said after a meeting on Capitol Hill with Republican lawmakers. “We want to protect our shipping industry, our cruise industry, cruise ships. We want to protect our airlines industry.”
Trump offered no specific details on what had been discussed in a meeting with his top economic officials.
A source told Reuters News Agency that Trump told Republican senators that two options for a coronavirus economic relief plan would be to waive the payroll tax through the end of the year or make the tax cut permanent.
A payroll tax cut would put more money in workers’ paycheques, helping them absorb coronavirus-related work disruptions and encouraging them to keep spending and grow the economy.
Democrats accused Trump, a Republican, of being more focused on soothing Wall Street’s nerves after the stock market’s historic 2,000 point plunge on Monday than on protecting the public from the health and economic fallout of the fast-spreading epidemic.
“President Trump and his administration should be putting people before corporations, and they should be focused on taking appropriate steps to keep the American people and their economic security safe,” Senate Democratic leader Chuck Schumer said.
Democrats are pushing for paid sick leave, expanded and free testing for the coronavirus and other measures.
Senate Republicans said they hoped the administration could reach a deal with House Democrats for an economic relief package, including a possible $300bn in payroll tax relief that could help people make rent and mortgage payments, or pay medical bills if family members’ work hours are reduced during the outbreak.
The White House has come under attack for a lack of epidemic preparation by the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and early problems with coronavirus test kits that delayed confirmation of results.
Vice President Mike Pence, who is heading the government’s response to the outbreak, said more than one million test kits for the coronavirus were in the field and that four million more were going out this week. “We want people to get tested,” he said after he and Trump met with health insurer executives.
Pence announced that private US health insurers had agreed to extend coronavirus treatment coverage in all of their plans and waive copayment fees for testing. He did not mention the millions of uninsured Americans.
More than 116,000 people have contracted the coronavirus worldwide, with over 4,000 deaths since it surfaced in China late last year, according to the World Health Organization. It has spread to more than 100 nations. Italy, which has the highest death toll outside of China, has put its entire population of 60 million on virtual lockdown.
Along with the more than 800 US cases, there have been 28 deaths, most of them in Washington state, according to a tally by Johns Hopkins University. New Jersey on Tuesday reported its first coronavirus death.
At least 35 US states and the District of Columbia have reported infections of COVID-19.
Washington state has been hardest hit, with a nursing home in the Seattle suburb of Kirkland accounting for the bulk of the state’s 22 confirmed deaths.
Washington’s Governor Jay Inslee on Tuesday said he was considering “real action” to prevent a rapid increase of cases in the state. Asked whether he was considering mandatory measures to slow the virus, he said: “I would not be shocked if we have some news on that in the next few days.”
New York Governor Andrew Cuomo said schools would be closed and public gatherings suspended in a coronavirus “hot zone” in New Rochelle, a New York City suburb, and deployed US National Guard troops there. New York state has one of the highest numbers of cases, most of them in and around New Rochelle.
The United Nations announced that it would be closing its headquarters in New York to the public until further notice.
In California, the Grand Princess cruise ship docked at the Port of Oakland continued offloading its 2,400 passengers, most of whom will go into quarantine at military bases. The vessel was barred from returning to San Francisco last week due to a coronavirus outbreak on board.
The governors of North Carolina and Colorado on Tuesday declared a state of emergency in their states.
As the outbreak spreads, daily life in the country has been increasingly disrupted, with concerts and conferences cancelled, universities telling students to stay home and take classes online, and more businesses asking workers who can to stay home and work remotely.
US health officials have urged older people, especially those with chronic medical concerns, to avoid big social gatherings, cruise ships and airline flights.
“Not every community has an outbreak going on right now, but people should know that this is likely to get worse before it gets better,” US Surgeon General Jerome Adams said on the ABC television show Good Morning America.