Donald Trump praised US health officials’ response to the coronavirus outbreak on Wednesday, as he and other members of his administration attempted to play down its possible impact.
Trump is due to speak about the outbreak on Wednesday evening after briefings from officials in the health department and the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).
The CDC on Tuesday warned that the spread of coronavirus in the US was a question of when, not if, and urged communities to prepare.
The head of immunization at the CDC, Nancy Messonnier, said in the absence of vaccines or medicines, officials would need to consider possible school closures and telecommuting as part of efforts to contain the spread of the disease.
“I understand this whole situation may seem overwhelming, and that disruption to everyday life may be severe. But these are things that people need to start thinking about now,” Messonier said. “I had a conversation with my family over breakfast this morning, and I told my children that – while I didn’t think they were at risk – right now, we as a family, need to be preparing for significant disruption of our lives.”
After the CDC announcement, the mayor of San Francisco, London Breed, declared a local emergency, though there are no confirmed cases among city residents.
Breed said the declaration was made to increase preparedness. “We see the virus spreading in new parts of the world every day, and we are taking the necessary steps to protect San Franciscans from harm,” Breed said.
The only cases of coronavirus to be identified in the US are from 12 travelers returning from abroad, and two patients who had contact with those returning travelers. Coronavirus has not yet spread beyond those few close contacts in the US.
In addition, 40 Americans who tested positive on the Diamond Princess cruise ship that was docked in Japan have been repatriated, and three repatriated from China.
One of the Diamond Princess cruise ship passengers is a participant in the first US study of an antiviral drug to treat coronavirus. The National Institutes of Health confirmed on Tuesday the study is under way at the University of Nebraska medical center in Omaha.
The health and human services secretary, Alex Azar, requested $2.5bn in emergency funding from Congress to respond to the coronavirus. Trump tweeted on Wednesday morning that Azar and the CDC “and all doing a great job with respect to Coronavirus!”
Chuck Schumer, the Senate Democratic leader, has been sharply critical of the US government response so far and on Wednesday unveiled an $8.5bn request to respond to the virus outbreak, more than triple Trump’s request.
Schumer is asking for $4.5bn for the Department of Health and Human Services to work to contain the outbreak in the US, $1bn to develop and manufacture a vaccine, $1bn to help other countries battle the coronavirus, and $2bn to reimburse states for costs incurred in tackling the outbreak.
So far, the outbreak has affected 80,000 people globally. In mainland China there have been 2,663 deaths among 77,658 cases, mostly in the central province of Hubei. More than 12,000 people affected in China have already recovered and the World Health Organization said on Wednesday more new infections have been identified outside China than inside.
Public health experts have praised the CDC’s response to the outbreak in the US, though there is concern about how Trump and other members of his administration are responding to the outbreak.
Trump on Tuesday said the US was “very close” to a coronavirus vaccine, which is at least a year away from being available, in the best scenario. The White House later said the president was instead speaking about the Ebola vaccine approved two months ago.
His administration has also dismantled the office in the national security council that existed to oversee a coordinated government-wide response in the event of any illness pandemic.
The White House national economic council director, Larry Kudlow, told CNBC the US had “contained” the outbreak on Tuesday, contradicting warnings from US health officials made the same day.
The US Department of Homeland Security (DHS) is coordinating the response to coronavirus with the CDC and its leader faced intense questioning at a congressional hearing on Tuesday.
The acting head of the DHS, Chad Wolf, failed to answer basic questions about the disease including what the projections are for the spread of the virus and how it was transmitted.
Senator John Neely Kennedy, a Republican from Louisiana, ended a round of questions by telling Wolf: “You’re supposed to keep us safe and the American people deserve some straight answers on the coronavirus and I’m not getting them from you.”
The Associated Press contributed to this report