Flanked by retail and pharmaceutical CEOs Friday, President Trump declared a national state of emergency and announced a public-private partnership to fight the spread of the coronavirus pandemic.
At a press conference in the White House Rose Garden, Trump said he was taking “decisive action” to defeat the new virus, adding that the action is “only the beginning of what we’re doing.”
Separately House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) has struck a deal with the White House on a coronavirus financing package that would guarantee free testing for all Americans, two weeks of paid emergency leave for workers and fund a food stamp program for anyone who needs it. The new package would be in addition to the $8.3 billion that was approved by Congress to develop a coronavirus vaccine. The House is expected to pass the legislation Friday night, with the Senate likely to approve it on Monday.
Invoked under the Stafford Act, the national state of emergency declaration allows access to $50 billion to help fund state actions to fight the outbreak, Trump said. It also allows for hospitals to activate their emergency awareness plans and provides waivers of certain requirements such as state licensing requirements. That will enable cross-border tele-health options for remote doctor visits so physicians from other states can help in places where an outbreak needs additional medical support outside of their established practice area.
Trump said the aim is to get patients the “care they need and are entitled to. No resource will be spared.”
The coronavirus outbreak is expected to reach its peak in about the next two months, the president said during the briefing. “The next eight weeks are critical. We can learn and we will learn,” Trump added.
A new public-private sector partnership has been assembled to facilitate COVID-19 testing for the coronavirus. Roche, Lab Corp. and Quest Diagnostics have been working over the past two weeks on ways to accelerate the testing process and offer drive-up testing procedures.
As part of this partnership, Walmart Inc. and Target Corp. are doing their part to support the initiative. “We’ve been asked to make portions of our parking lots in certain locations [available for] drive-throughs,” Walmart CEO Doug McMillon said.
“We’re keeping our stores open to serve the American consumer who’s stocking up on household essentials,” Target CEO Brian Cornell said, adding that the retailer is strengthening its store cleaning practices and santization protocols. Cornell, referring to fellow initiative partners Walmart, Walgreens and CVS, noted that while they generally view each other as competitors, they are all now working together to combat a common competitor, the coronavirus.
Google is similarly throwing its support into the anti-viral initiative, dedicating 1,700 engineers to develop a site educating visitors on when a coronavirus test is warranted, and the nearest location where they can get tested. The site is expected to be live by Sunday night.
Dr. Deborah Birx, the newly named White House Coronavirus Response Coordinator, noted how new drive-through testing represents an overhaul of the country’s outdated procedures that aren’t designed to handle a modern pandemic. New procedures, she added, could provide results within 24 to 36 hours.
Behind the scenes health officials have been planning for different scenarios, and the national state of emergency declaration now means resources stockpiled under disparate governmental agencies can be “unlocked” as part of the coronavirus response, Dr. Birx added.
Though outbreaks tend to follow a similar trajectory, National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases director Dr. Anthony Fauci is hoping for a different outcome.
“The curve goes up,” he said. “We don’t want to have that curve. We want to suppress it.”
“It’s hard to predict when the virus will peak,” Fauci said, adding that ongoing collective efforts are aimed at “blunting that peak.”
Coronavirus cases have been confirmed 46 states, Vice President Mike Pence said, adding that the “risk of illness remains low” and stressing the importance of hygiene. Health and Human Services Secretary Alex Azar repeated the emphasis on washing hands with soap and hot water for 20 seconds.
Trump addressed concerns, noting that China is set to buy $250 billion worth of goods and agricultural products under their Phase One trade truce. “We’ll start negotiating” Phase 2 of the trade deal connected to the tariff issue, he added, but didn’t provide a timeframe.
The press briefing capped a roller coaster week as investors panicked and reacted to every news break on the coronavirus, sending the equity markets careering wildly with every new disclosure. States and cities were also hard at work mobilizing resources to combat and contain the virus.
In New York City, Mayor Bill de Blasio on Thursday declared sweeping emergency moves to stall the spread of the virus. The safety moves include shutting down the city’s Broadway theaters and drastically restricting access to gathering places. The St. Patrick’s Day parade scheduled for Tuesday has been was canceled. The actions followed the decision of New York’s Governor Andrew Cuomo to order the immediate shutdown of gathering venues that had capacity for 500 people or more.
Other organizations have also made necessary decisions to facilitate social distancing. Major League Baseball pushed back the start of the season, while the National Basketball Association temporarily suspended the 2019-2020 season. The National Collegiate Athletic Association canceled March Madness, its men’s and women’s basketball tournaments, due to the coronavirus.
As of Friday, the U.S. now has more than 1,700 confirmed COVID-19 cases, as well as 40 deaths. Cases are expected to surge in the coming weeks as more people are tested.