Coronavirus response efforts ramp up as first US death confirmed

House, Senate negotiators working on a COVID-19 aid package between $7 billion and $8 billion

President Donald Trump speaks during a press conference at the White House on the coronavirus outbreak on Saturday.  (Roberto Schmidt/AFP via Getty Images)
President Donald Trump speaks during a press conference at the White House on the coronavirus outbreak on Saturday. (Roberto Schmidt/AFP via Getty Images)
Posted February 29, 2020 at 1:15pm

House and Senate negotiators working through the weekend on a COVID-19 aid package are now trying to agree on a figure between $7 billion and $8 billion, people familiar with the talks said, in advance of likely floor action the week of March 1.

Lawmakers and aides were hashing out the final details as public health officials confirmed more cases of the disease caused by the novel coronavirus that originated in China last year — including the first reported U.S. death.

At a press conference Saturday, President Donald Trump warned "additional cases in the United States are likely," but healthy individuals "should be able to recover should they contract the virus."

Of 22 confirmed U.S. cases, 15 individuals have recovered or are "well on their way," Trump said. Seattle-area health officials said the patient who died was a man in his late 50s.

In addition to the death, officials confirmed two additional cases at a nursing home in Washington state, including one health care worker in her 40s, the first U.S. health provider to have a known infection.

Trump said he planned to meet with pharmaceutical executives at the White House on Monday to discuss how to expedite development of a vaccine, which public health officials said this week was probably a year to 18 months away. The meeting had been scheduled weeks ago to discuss drug pricing legislation, Trump said, with vaccines now added to the agenda.

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Vice President Mike Pence, who is coordinating the response effort, also attended the press conference. He said the government would expand a ban on travel to the U.S. from Iran, which has seen upwards of 200 COVID-19 deaths, to "any foreign national who has visited Iran in the last 14 days."

Trump added he's thinking about travel restrictions at the U.S.-Mexico border as well. "We are looking at that very strongly," he said, allowing that "this is a border that doesn't seem to be much of a problem right now."

Pence also said the administration is advising Americans not to travel to the hardest-hit regions in Italy and South Korea.

Similar to seasonal flu?

Others at the press conference included Health and Human Services Secretary Alex Azar; National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases Director Anthony Fauci; Food and Drug Administration Commissioner Stephen Hahn; Centers for Disease Control and Prevention Director Robert Redfield and Surgeon General Jerome Adams.

The Trump administration's top health officials continue to say the risk to Americans remains low. Trump and others emphasized if people are infected by the virus, most people should expect symptoms similar to seasonal cold and flu.

The most at risk groups are the elderly and those with underlying health conditions, like heart or lung disease, diabetes and obesity. Fauci noted there could be instances of young and healthy people developing serious symptoms, but that would likely be rare. Redfield encouraged the American people to "go on with their normal lives" and Trump said he hopes Americans "don't change their routine."

Added Pence: "The average American does not need to go out and buy a mask." He said the nation's medical supply stockpile has 40 million masks available for patients and health professionals who might need them, and that the government has contracted with manufacturer 3M Co. to make 35 million more masks per month.

[States counting on reimbursements for coronavirus response]

On Friday, Fauci, Redfield and Clifford Lane, another top NIAID official, wrote in the New England Journal of Medicine that the death rate from COVID-19 could be well below China's reported 2 percent.

In fact, the officials wrote, assuming the number of cases ultimately goes much higher than those reported thus far, "the case fatality rate could be considerably less than" 1 percent, or more like a flu outbreak than SARS or MERS, which were similar coronavirus-caused respiratory illnesses.

Nonetheless, they wrote it's important for the U.S. to be prepared for a "shift from containment to mitigation strategies" including telecommuting, school closures and similar measures.

In the money

The supplemental appropriations dollar figures in play mark a slight step up from talks earlier last week when the negotiating range was between $6 billion and $8 billion. The largest portion in the emerging package would go to HHS, with the State Department and the U.S. Agency for International Development also in line for new funding, said the sources, who spoke on condition of anonymity so they could share information freely.

Negotiators aim to reach a final agreement by the end of the weekend, with plans for the package to be filed in the House by Monday evening if possible, though talks could slip into Tuesday. The House could vote on the package as early as Wednesday.

Funding discussions were taking place as the first COVID-19 related death was reported on U.S. soil, in King County, Wash., state and county officials confirmed.

That was after the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reported four new confirmed West Coast cases Friday night. Of those, the CDC said three were instances of "community spread," where no known cause such as international travel or direct exposure to someone else infected has been found.

Pence said he's been communicating with governors, including Washington Gov. Jay Inslee, a Democrat and one-time presidential contestant who bowed out of the race last year. Pence said the supplemental funding package would include reimbursements to state public health agencies.

The coronavirus scare has also wiped out trillions of dollars in wealth as well and threatens a worldwide economic slowdown. Last week, major U.S. stock market indices had their worst week since the 2008 financial crisis, with the Dow Jones Industrial Average and S&P 500 Index each shedding roughly 12 percent.

Federal Reserve Chairman Jerome Powell said Friday that the central bank was "closely monitoring developments and their implications for the economic outlook," amid pressure from Trump and market participants for another interest rate cut as early as next week.

Commentators have suggested another cut in the Fed's target benchmark rate could inspire confidence to pile back into risky assets, like stocks, as well as boost lending.

"The Fed has a very important role, and especially psychological," Trump said. "Our Fed should start being a leader, not a follower."

The president downplayed the possibility of a tax cut package to provide fiscal stimulus and counteract a coronavirus-inspired downturn. However, he reiterated that the White House would "announce in the not-too-distant future a very major middle-income tax cut." Administration officials have said for months they'd propose a new tax cut sometime closer to the November elections, perhaps over the summer, though there's no indication House Democrats would go along.

At the press conference, Trump clarified his Friday night comments at a rally to mean that the Democrats' accusations of mishandling the coronavirus response were a "hoax," not the disease itself. 

Trump also denied that he'd "muzzled" his top scientists from speaking freely about the situation. "He's had the ability to do whatever he wants to do," Trump said of Fauci. 

Fauci, who has served in his role since the Reagan administration, said: "I've never been muzzled, ever."

Andrew Siddons and Doug Sword contributed to this report.