President Trump: 'US is very, very ready' for COVID-19 outbreak

President Donald Trump, center, with members of the president's coronavirus task force speaks during a news conference at the Brady press briefing room of the White House, Wednesday, Feb. 26, 2020, in Washington. (AP Photo/Manuel Balce Ceneta)

The Associated Press

'You don't want to see panic because there's no reason to be panicked'

Lauran Neergaard and Ricardo Alonso-Zaldivar 

Associated Press

WASHINGTON (AP) — President Donald Trump declared that a widespread U.S. outbreak of the new respiratory virus sweeping the globe isn't inevitable even as top health authorities at his side warned Americans that more infections are coming.

Shortly after Trump spoke Wednesday, the government announced a worrisome development: Another person in the U.S. is infected — someone in California who doesn't appear to have the usual risk factors of having traveled abroad or being exposed to another patient. 

At a White House news conference, Trump sought to minimize fears as he insisted the U.S. is "very, very ready" for whatever the COVID-19 outbreak brings. Under fire about the government's response, he put Vice President Mike Pence in charge of coordinating the efforts.

"This will end," Trump said of the outbreak. "You don't want to see panic because there's no reason to be panicked."

But standing next to him, the very health officials Trump praised for fighting the new coronavirus stressed that schools, businesses and individuals need to get ready.

"We do expect more cases," said Dr. Anne Schuchat of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. 

If the CDC confirms that the latest U.S. case doesn't involve travel or contact with an infected person, it would be a first in this country and a sign that efforts to contain the virus' spread haven't been enough.

"It's possible this could be an instance of community spread of COVID-19," the CDC said in a statement.

More than 81,000 cases of COVID-19, an illness characterized by fever and coughing and in serious cases shortness of breath or pneumonia, have occurred since the new virus emerged in China. 

The newest case from California brings the total number infected in the U.S. to 60, most of them evacuated from outbreak zones.

Trump credited border restrictions that have blocked people coming into the U.S. from China for keeping infections low. But now countries around the world — from South Korea and Japan to Italy and Iran — are experiencing growing numbers of cases. Asked if it was time to either lift the China restrictions or take steps for travelers from elsewhere, he said: "At a right time we may do that. Right now it's not the time."

Keenly aware of the stakes not just for public health but also his credibility, Trump conducted a lengthy press conference Wednesday evening aimed at reassuring everyone that he has the crisis well in hand.

Trump surrounded himself with his administration's top health experts. And he encouraged Americans to be prepared for the virus' potential spread.

But he continued to minimize the risk, saying the outbreak "may get a little bigger; it may not get bigger at all." And he continued to distance himself from the stated opinion of public health officials that it's inevitable the virus will spread within the United States. 

As businesses, schools and people in general think about preparing, the X-factor may be an unpredictable president who has clashed repeatedly with scientists in his own administration and tends to see any crisis through the lens of his own reelection chances. 

"I don't think it's inevitable," Trump said at the news conference, where he announced Vice President Mike Pence would lead the administration's response to the outbreak. "I think it has a chance that it could get worse. There is a chance you can get fairly substantially worse. But nothing's inevitable."

He also said he had recently learned that thousands die from the flu each year, contrasting that to the coronavirus.

After two days of the stock market tumbling, Trump took to Twitter Wednesday morning to blame the media and Democrats for causing undue alarm and harming American financial markets.

He singled out MSNBC and CNN for "doing everything possible to make the Caronavirus look as bad as possible, including panicking markets, if possible," and added that "incompetent Do Nothing Democrat comrades are all talk, no action."

He blamed part of this week's stock market slide on people's reaction to Tuesday night's Democratic debate and the possibility one of those candidates might replace him. And Trump acknowledged that the outbreak could "have an impact on GDP" but insisted that the U.S. economy is still "doing great."

The setting for Trump's evening press conference — the White House press briefing room — was meant to offer a sense of calm and assurance by the Republican president. It was only the second time in his presidency that Trump had spoken from the podium in that room, and aides acknowledged he was trying to underscore that he has the situation under control and understands the gravity.

"The messaging by the White House is unhelpful," said Lawrence Gostin, a professor of global health law at Georgetown University. "What the White House is doing is conveying a sense of overconfidence. ... Of course, we do want to maintain calm with the public, but it flies in the face of facts."

"Americans want to see their president taking charge and showing leadership, and that is exactly what President Trump is doing," said Trump campaign spokeswoman Kayleigh McEnany. 

Trump spent close to an hour discussing the virus threat, after a week of sharp stock market losses over the health crisis and concern within the administration that a growing outbreak could affect his reelection. He blamed the Democrats for the stock market slide, saying, "I think the financial markets are very upset when they look at the Democrat candidates standing on that stage making fools out of themselves." And he shifted to defend his overall record and predict a win in November.

A key question is whether the Trump administration is spending enough money to get the country prepared — especially as the CDC has struggled to expand the number of states that can test people for the virus. Other key concerns are stockpiling masks and other protective equipment for health workers, and developing a vaccine or treatment.

Health officials have exhausted an initial $105 million in emergency funding and have been looking elsewhere for dollars. Earlier this week, Trump requested $2.5 billion from Congress to fight the virus. Senate Democratic Leader Chuck Schumer of New York countered with a proposal for $8.5 billion.

Trump told reporters he was open to spending "whatever's appropriate."

Trump compared the new virus repeatedly to the flu, which kills tens of thousands of people each year. The new coronavirus has killed more than 2,700 people — most in China and none in the U.S. — but scientists still don't understand who's most at risk or what the death rate is.

Without a vaccine, the CDC's Schuchat advised people to follow "tried and true, not very exciting" but important precautions: Wash your hands, cover your coughs and stay home when you're sick.

A day earlier, another CDC official, Dr. Nancy Messonnier, was even more blunt, telling Americans to get ready for some of the same steps as occurred during the 2009 flu pandemic, such as school closings. "It's not so much a question of if this will happen anymore, but rather more a question of exactly when this will happen — and how many people in this country will have severe illness," she said.

The National Institutes of Health's top infectious disease chief cautioned a vaccine won't be ready for widespread use for a year or more. But Dr. Anthony Fauci said even if the virus wanes soon, it's "quite conceivable" that it might "come back and recycle next year." By then, he said, "we hope to have a vaccine."

Democrats were quick to condemn Trump's response to the outbreak. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi called it "opaque and chaotic."

"Instead of listening to public health and medical experts, the president has been downplaying the potential impact of the virus for over a month," said Democratic Rep. Bennie Thompson of Mississippi, chairman of the House Homeland Security Committee. 

Thompson added that putting Pence, "someone with no public health expertise, in charge of the response will not instill confidence with the American people and raises questions about the administration's ability to coordinate an effective response to a complex public health threat."

During his time as Indiana's governor, Pence faced criticism for his response to a public health crisis in the southern part of the state.

In 2015, Scott County saw the number of people infected with HIV skyrocket, with nearly 200 people testing positive for the virus in a span of months. Indiana law at the time prohibited needle exchanges, exacerbating the outbreak, which primarily infected intravenous users of the painkiller Opana.

Pence had long opposed needle exchanges but was eventually persuaded to issue an executive order allowing one in Scott County. Despite his own misgivings — Pence said he didn't support the exchanges as an "anti-drug policy" — he signed a law allowing the state government to approve them on a case-by-case basis.

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Associated Press writers Jonathan Lemire, Zeke Miller, Andrew Taylor and Darlene Superville contributed to this report. Also Josh Boak, Lauran Neergaard and Darlene Superville contributed to this report.

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