(Bloomberg) -- President Donald Trump sought to reassure Americans on Tuesday that the coronavirus outbreak poses little threat, but the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention warned hours later to prepare for the disease to disrupt daily life in the U.S.
The virus is “very well under control in our country,” Trump said Tuesday at a news conference in New Delhi, where he’s concluding a two-day visit to India. “We have very few people with it,” he said, adding that 36 infected Americans brought home from Japan are recovering. “We think they’ll be in very good shape very, very soon,” he said.
“We are down to -- we’re really down to probably 10,” Trump said. “Most of the people are outside of danger right now.”
The benchmark S&P 500 index extended its losses for a fourth straight day, the longest such streak since Aug. 5, falling more than 2% on Tuesday.
Hours after Trump’s remarks, CDC officials told reporters in a conference call that Americans should prepare for daily life to be disrupted by the virus, including school closings and the cancellations of public events and business meetings.
“We expect we will see community spread in this country,” Nancy Messonnier, director of the CDC’s National Center for Immunization and Respiratory Diseases, said on a call with reporters Tuesday. “It is not a matter of if, but a question of when, this will exactly happen.”
The outbreak is “rapidly evolving and expanding,” she said.
National Economic Council Director Larry Kudlow later characterized the CDC’s warning as an emergency plan and said “it doesn’t mean it’s going to go into effect.”
“We have contained this,” he said, describing the U.S. government’s prevention of the virus’s spread as “pretty close to air-tight.”
“I don’t think there’s going to be an economic tragedy at all,” he said. He dismissed concerns about supplies of pharmaceuticals and medical supplies such as face masks and said a vaccine for the coronavirus will be developed much faster than people realize.
“This is very tightly contained in the U.S.,” he said. “Elsewhere it’s a human disaster.”
Trump downplayed the danger of coronavirus compared to Ebola Virus Disease, which killed more than 11,000 people including one American in a 2014-2016 outbreak.
“There’s a very good chance you’re not going to die,” from a coronavirus infection, Trump said. “It’s very much the opposite,” with Ebola, he added. “You’re talking about 1 or 2%, where in the other case it was a virtual 100%.”
Senator Roy Blunt, a Missouri Republican, said Tuesday after a classified briefing to senators on the outbreak that “it would be true that most of them are getting better.”
“They’re not all getting better. The ones that died aren’t getting better,” he added.
And even some of Trump’s allies expressed concern about the government’s response. Senator John Kennedy, a Louisiana Republican, complained after a hearing on Tuesday that the administration’s answers to even basic questions about the outbreak have been inconsistent and unclear.
“What is the mortality rate, compared to influenza? How many facemasks are we going to need, and are we working on getting more? How many respirators are we going to need? What steps -- in a concrete way, other than saying we formed a task force -- are we taking to stop the virus from getting into the United States?” he said.
“They need to speak straight up to the American people, and when they don’t know an answer, they need to say we don’t know the answer to that but we’re working on it.”
The White House said late Monday it had asked Congress for $2.5 billion to battle the disease. Half of that money is new, while the rest is being reallocated from other spending, including $535 million from funds to combat Ebola, an official familiar with the proposal said. The total includes $1 billion for development of a coronavirus vaccine, the official added.
Senate Democratic Leader Chuck Schumer on Monday night called the administration’s request “too little too late.”
“That President Trump is trying to steal funds dedicated to fight Ebola — which is still considered an epidemic in the Democratic Republic of the Congo — is indicative of his towering incompetence and further proof that he and his administration aren’t taking the coronavirus crisis as seriously as they need to be,” Schumer said in a statement.
Trump dismissed Schumer’s criticism. “If I gave more, they would say it should be less,” he said in New Delhi. “It’s automatic with these characters. They’re just not good for the country.”
Senator Lamar Alexander, the Republican chairman of the chamber’s Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee, also said additional funds may be needed.
“This is a very aggressive virus. What’s remarkable is that it hasn’t spread yet,” Alexander told reporters Tuesday after a closed briefing with administration officials. “I think we’re being honest to say it’s inevitably going to spread.”
There’s internal debate within the administration over the strength of the U.S. response, according to two people familiar with the discussions. Some officials say the government has not been aggressive enough at preventing spread of the disease within the U.S., while others fear that too many travel restrictions or other measures could harm the economy.
Trump claimed credit for preventing the spread of the disease at his news conference. U.S. authorities announced Jan. 31 that flights from China would be restricted to a handful of airports where passengers would undergo enhanced health screenings and that foreign nationals who had recently visited China would not be allowed into the country.
“Because of an early decision I made, I made a decision,” Trump said. “I believe it was the first time it’s ever been done. We closed the country to certain areas, as you know. And I was criticized for that decision. Now they’re saying it was a good decision.”
Kudlow said further travel restrictions are under consideration as infections increase in South Korea, Italy and elsewhere around the world, but no decision has been made.
Health and Human Services Secretary Alex Azar will testify in four separate congressional hearings this week, including before two House committees -- Energy and Commerce and Foreign Affairs -- that are holding hearings on the coronavirus outbreak itself. The latter committee will also hear from representatives of the State Department and the CDC.
“The administration’s on top of this,” Senator Bill Cassidy, a Louisiana Republican, said after U.S. intelligence and health care officials briefed senators on Tuesday. He is one of Trump’s closest allies in the Senate.
“It’s going to spread and ultimately it may get to our country,” he said. “In fact it probably will. The hope is we can push it off until we have the resources by which to mitigate it,” including a vaccine that he said is still at least a year from being available.
Officials advocating a more robust approach say the U.S. should impose further limits on travel; urge companies to encourage their employees to work at home; and take measures to protect workers in jobs involving food, power, water and supply chains, according to the people familiar with the discussions.
The people added that Trump was reluctant to restrict travel between the U.S. and China, and is even more wary of travel curbs involving other countries. His administration, the people said, must strike a balance between safeguarding Americans and not causing a panic that would jeopardize the economy.
In any event, the hearings mark an accounting of the administration’s response so far, and whether a U.S. outbreak can continue to be prevented. The administration has called on China to accept an offer of expanded support.
(Updates with market movement in fourth paragraph, Kennedy remarks in 16th)
--With assistance from Tony Capaccio and Drew Armstrong.
To contact the reporters on this story: Josh Wingrove in Washington at firstname.lastname@example.org;Jennifer Jacobs in Washington at email@example.com;Daniel Flatley in Washington at firstname.lastname@example.org
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