President Donald Trump assured Americans that they face little risk from the coronavirus outbreak and said Vice President Mike Pence will lead the government’s response, seeking to ease public concern after lawmakers raised alarm the U.S. is unprepared.
“Because of all we’ve done the risk to the American people remains very low,” Trump said Wednesday at a news conference at the White House.
Trump said he had no disagreement with government health officials who have warned of a U.S. outbreak.
“Whatever happens we’re totally prepared,” Trump said, adding later: “There’s a chance it could get worse; there’s a chance it could get fairly substantially worse, but nothing’s inevitable.”
Minutes after Trump concluded his remarks, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention announced it had identified the first coronavirus case in the U.S. of unknown origin. The California patient hasn’t traveled to China or had contact with other known victims of the disease, the CDC said.
Trump and Pence appeared with U.S. health officials to discuss the government’s coronavirus response. Trump said that of 15 Americans initially infected by the virus, eight have returned home and one remains hospitalized. Five have fully recovered, he said.
“We have quarantined those infected and those at risk,” he said. “We are rapidly developing a vaccine. The vaccine is coming along well.”
The best vaccine candidate may be ready for safety trials in about two months, said Anthony Fauci, the director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases. But he said it would be at least several months to a year before it would be approved for clinical use. He didn’t name the company developing the drug.
“We can’t rely on a vaccine over the next several months to a year,” Fauci said at the news conference, saying “public health measures” would be required to fight the virus until then. He said it is possible the coronavirus will circulate the globe again next year after the current outbreak is brought under control.
Asked whether the government has envisioned measures such as imposing quarantines on entire cities, the president said that there are plans on “a much larger scale” but that “we don’t think we’re going to need it.”
Trump’s advisers believe that fear of dying from the virus is overblown, but that in the event of an outbreak the strain on the U.S. health care system could be severe, chiefly because of hospitalizations, according to people familiar with the matter. They see coronavirus as a serious health threat that warrants a full government response yet assess the virus’s potential mortality rate in the U.S. as comparable to the flu.
While the seasonal flu kills tens of thousands of Americans annually, that’s because it infects millions of people. Its mortality rate is low, at about 0.1% most years, according to the CDC.
Trump said that “69,000 people die every year” from the flu, calling it “incredible,” and compared the coronavirus to flu. The CDC estimates that at least 16,000 people have died in the current flu season and nearly 300,000 have been hospitalized.
“Treat this like a flu,” Trump said. “You want to wash your hands a lot. You want to stay, if you’re not feeling well, if you feel you have a flu, stay inside.
“In many cases when you catch this, it’s very light,” he continued. “You don’t even know there’s a problem. Sometimes they just get the sniffles. Sometimes they just get something where they’re not feeling quite right. And sometimes they feel really bad. But that’s a little like the flu. It’s a little like the regular flu that we have flu shots for.
“And we’ll essentially have a flu shot for this in a fairly quick manner,” he said.
Health and Human Services Secretary Alex Azar suggested Wednesday that the Trump administration may seek more money for its virus response than the $2.5 billion announced earlier this week after tough questioning from lawmakers of both parties. He told a House panel that the administration is planning to spend “at least” that amount and would work with Congress on a final figure.
Azar said at the White House news conference that early travel restrictions Trump imposed on people returning from China “succeeded in buying us incredibly valuable time” to prepare for the virus. “Our containment strategy has been working.”
But he cautioned: “The degree of risk has the potential to change quickly and we can expect to see more cases in the United States.”
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