WASHINGTON — This week, federal health officials warned Americans to prepare for the coronavirus to become a pandemic, stocks tumbled on fears of just how widespread the virus could get, and the White House sought $2.5 billion from Congress to fight the deadly infection.
But in the telling of President Donald Trump, everything is fine.
The media, he tweeted Wednesday, is “doing everything possible to make the Caronavirus [sic] look as bad as possible, including panicking markets, if possible. Likewise their incompetent Do Nothing Democrat comrades are all talk, no action. USA in great shape!” he said, announcing a 6 p.m. ET press conference addressing the issue.
With his re-election clearly in focus — Trump spent last week on the West Coast hosting high-priced fundraisers and holding three political rallies — there is little incentive politically for him to echo the growing concerns of the global health community.
But with public health officials warning the virus is far from being contained, Trump could be heading into the peak of his re-election bid with the virus affecting economic growth and depressing the stock market — two key selling points for his re-election pitch.
Stocks fell sharply Tuesday for a second day in a row and bond yields tumbled on rising concern that the global economy will face a significant blow because of the spreading virus — despite attempts by the president’s top economic adviser to argue otherwise.
“We have contained this. I won’t say airtight, but pretty close to airtight,” Larry Kudlow said on CNBC Tuesday.
Health experts disagreed. “This is like trying to control the wind, we will see serious problems here in the United States and no amount of political rhetoric will over-trump the science of what we have here,” Michael Osterholm, director of the Center for Infectious Disease Research and Policy at the University of Minnesota.
Past presidents have used moments of national emergency to bring the country together and project the image of a strong commander in chief, like George Bush following the Sept. 11 attacks or Barack Obama when Hurricane Sandy hit days before his re-election. But Trump has shown an unwillingness to do so when past opportunities have presented themselves, like with Hurricane Maria.
The response to the coronavirus is already off to a polarizing start with Democrats and Trump criticizing each other on Tuesday, and the president appearing to be operating off a different set of talking points than his top scientists.
Trump told reporters while traveling in India Tuesday that he thought the virus in China “a problem that’s going to go away,” and downplayed the mortality rate for a pathogen that has been confirmed to have killed 2,700 people.
He also said a vaccine, which hasn’t yet begun the months-long process of human testing, is “very close” — even as other officials warned it could be more than a year away.
And while Trump was traveling in India, he told reporters he hadn’t been paying very close attention to the situation over the previous two days because he had been pre-occupied with the trip.
“You may ask about the coronavirus, which is very well under control in our country,” he told reporters at a press conference in India before heading back to DC. “We have very few people with it, and the people that have it are, in all cases, I have not heard anything other. Maybe there’s something new cause for two days I haven’t been seeing too much of that news because it’s been very all encompassing.”
In less than a month since the virus was officially declared a public health emergency, the number of confirmed cases globally has risen to more than 80,000, with 54 new cases reported overnight in Italy where parts of the country are in lockdown.
Trump rejected the comparisons between the 2014 Ebola outbreak, which killed 11,310 people in West Africa, and the much more easily spread coronavirus when asked about it Tuesday, pointing to the lower mortality rate with the coronavirus. “There’s a very good chance you’re not going to die. It’s just the — it’s very much the opposite. You’re talking about 1 or 2 percent, where as in the other case, it was a virtual 100 percent. Now they have it, they have studied it, know very much. In fact, we’re very close to a vaccine.”
It was a perspective in stark contrast to that of the country’s top health officials. Shortly after Trump’s remarks, Nancy Messonnier, director of the National Center for Immunization and Respiratory Diseases, warned “it’s not so much of a question of if this will happen in this country any more, but a question of when this will happen” and told the public to “prepare for the expectation that this might be bad.”
Tony Fauci, head of the the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Disease, told NBC News it could be at least a year before a vaccine is widely available and said the mortality rate in China was closer to 2 to 2.5 percent.
Thomas Frieden, the former head of the CDC under the Obama administration, said Trump’s portrayal of a situation under control isn’t helpful and that the administration should be helping the public take steps to prepare. He said he believed it is inevitable that the virus will spread further within the United States.
“Whenever any leader says ‘we will control this’ and the public health experts say we have no idea if we can control it, it is an unfortunate occurrence,” said Frieden. “We don’t know if it is controllable. Right now, it does not look controllable.”
Behind the scenes at the White House, the administration has been working to mount a coordinated response with the acknowledgement they are dealing with a situation that could cost the lives of thousands of Americans. The White House put together a coronavirus task force last month, led by Health and Human Services Secretary Alex Azar, a former drug company executive who was walking a fine line this week between acknowledging the concerns of the scientists he oversees while reflecting Trump’s laissez-faire posture.
The White House could find itself hobbled in its response by cuts to programs over the past three years designed to respond to just such a scenario. The White House has reduced the budget for the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and eliminated several key positions focused on responding to a pandemic, including having a CDC staffer in China working with disease detectives there to quickly identify and contain new pathogens, said Frieden.
The White House also lost its head of global health security in 2018 during a restructuring of the National Security Council under then-national security adviser John Bolton. The Trump administration has also changed the way the U.S. manages its stockpile of medical equipment, like respirators and face masks needed by health workers, which Frieden warned would make it much more difficult for those resources to be quickly and effectively allocated.
On Monday the White House sent over to Congress a budget plan for $2.5 billion that would provide funds to speed up vaccine development and production and stockpile protective equipment like face masks and gloves. Administration officials briefed members of Congress about the actions they were taking Tuesday.
The funding request quickly came under fire from Democrats, who called it inadequate.
“Here in the United States, the Trump administration has been caught flat-footed. The administration has no plan to deal with the coronavirus, no plan and seemingly no urgency to develop one,” Schumer said on the Senate floor Tuesday, accusing the administration of a “towering and dangerous incompetence when it comes to the coronavirus.”
“The Trump administration is scrambling to respond. We have a crisis, and the Trump administration is trying to build an airplane while already in mid-flight,” he added.
Sen. Richard Blumenthal, D-Conn., called the White House response “disastrously inadequate.”
“The approach right now seems to be, take two aspirin and call us in the morning,” he told reporters following the administration’s briefing.
While the World Health Organization said the number of cases of the virus appeared to have reached its peak in China, it has expressed concern about the spike in cases in Italy, Iran and South Korea. There are currently 14 confirmed cases of the coronavirus in the U.S., along with 39 cases among those evacuated from the Diamond Princess cruise ship and China. But with limited testing for the virus so far, Osterholm warned that number could quickly grow.
“We need to just roll up our sleeves and say we will get through it with cool calm heads,” Osterholm said. “But it is going to have a big impact on our country just like it has in china.”