Trump to Brief on Virus as Markets Ignore Plea to Shrug Off Fear

Alex Wayne and Michael Shepard
Trump to Brief on Virus as Markets Ignore Plea to Shrug Off Fear

(Bloomberg) -- President Donald Trump and federal health officials plan to brief the public Wednesday evening on efforts to prevent the spread of the coronavirus, even as the White House continues to want global markets and the American public to believe that the disease poses little risk to the U.S.

“I will be having a News Conference at the White House, on this subject, today at 6:00 P.M.,” Trump tweeted Wednesday, adding that he’d be joined by representatives from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

The CDC warned Tuesday that the virus’s spread in America is inevitable and could bring significant disruption to the world’s largest economy -- a message that runs counter to the one that has been coming from Trump in recent days.

So far, the markets have sided with the CDC’s experts. U.S. stocks hit a 12-week low following the CDC warning, with losses on the S&P 500 totaling 7.6% over four days.

Read More: U.S. Futures Edge Up as Stocks Slide; Gold Gains

“The American people deserve some straight answers on the coronavirus and I’m not getting them from you,” Republican Senator John Kennedy of Louisiana told acting Homeland Security Secretary Chad Wolf at a hearing on Tuesday.

At the Democratic presidential debate in Charleston, South Carolina, on Tuesday night, candidates accused Trump of making the country more vulnerable by failing to take action.

The mixed messages from top U.S. officials illustrated the balance that Trump and his advisers are trying to strike: Demonstrating that they have control over the situation while avoiding any move that spurs a panic and subsequent stock market sell-off as the re-election campaign heats up.

Trump returned to Washington early Wednesday morning from his trip to India and indicated he would turn his attention to the potential of an outbreak in the U.S.

“Heading to the White House,” Trump tweeted. “Meetings and calls scheduled today. @CDCgov, @SecAzar and all doing a great job with respect to Coronavirus! Briefing this afternoon.”

Trump returns to growing questions about the administration’s handling of coronavirus. His Health and Human Services secretary, Alex Azar, will face a second day of scrutiny over the government’s response during House hearings Wednesday on his agency’s budget.

Earlier: Trump Administration Asks for $2.5 Billion to Battle Coronavirus

Earlier Tuesday, as he concluded a two-day trip to India, Trump told reporters that the disease was “well under control” in the U.S. His top economic adviser, Larry Kudlow, declared at the White House later in the day that “we have contained this virus.”

But they were contradicted by public health professionals at the CDC. “We expect we will see community spread in this country,” said Nancy Messonnier, director of the CDC’s National Center for Immunization and Respiratory Diseases.

“It is not a matter of if, but a question of when, this will exactly happen,” she said.

The benchmark S&P 500 index extended its losses for a fourth straight day, the longest such streak since Aug. 5, falling more than 3% on Tuesday. Compounding investors’ worries about the U.S. government’s preparedness, the World Health Organization reported on Tuesday that the number of global infections exceeded 80,000, up 900 in a day, and that cases were reported in four additional countries -- Afghanistan, Bahrain, Iraq and Oman.

There have only been 60 Americans infected so far, according to the CDC, and none have died. Nevertheless, there is deep concern on Capitol Hill that the government is unprepared for a domestic outbreak. Some lawmakers have pushed Trump for a more aggressive response, including broader restrictions on travel from countries with outbreaks, but there are worries within the White House about the impact on the economy -- and by extension, the president’s re-election campaign.

Read More: Fed’s Clarida Says Too Soon to Speculate on Virus Spillover

A test for the virus developed in part by the CDC and shared with states has produced inconclusive results, limiting the ability of local health departments to detect the disease and raise alarm if it’s silently spreading through U.S. communities. That’s crucially important, given that mild cases can resemble the flu.

“I am frustrated that we have had issues with the test,” Messonnier said. The agency is working on a modified test kit it hopes to send out to state and local health departments as soon as possible. Twelve states and localities are now able to perform testing on their own, she said.

Through Feb. 23, the CDC conducted 2,620 coronavirus tests on 1,007 patients. While it has no backlog, completing the test involves sending a sample back to the agency, potentially delaying results.

The U.S. also has far fewer protective masks than it would need in the case of a major coronavirus outbreak, Alex Azar told lawmakers.

There are about 30 million stockpiled N95 masks that can block infective particles, Azar said, but the country would need as many as 300 million for health workers in an outbreak.

More Money

The Trump administration asked Congress on Monday to provide $2.5 billion to help fight the looming outbreak, money that would be used to help expand disease surveillance, bolster state and local health agencies, fund work on vaccines and drug treatments and help fortify the strategic national stockpile with protective gear including masks and respirators. About half of the $2.5 billion would come from reallocated funds, including $535 million for efforts to combat Ebola, according to a person familiar with the matter.

Democrats and some Republicans said the White House’s request was not enough.

Even some close Trump allies expressed frustration with the government’s preparations and public statements. Asked to comment on Kudlow’s assertion that the virus is contained in the U.S., Senator Roy Blunt, a Missouri Republican, demurred.

“I can’t comment on what the White House has been saying on this, because the people who work for the White House are not saying that,” he said.

Kennedy complained that U.S. officials couldn’t consistently answer even basic questions about the virus. In a hearing Tuesday morning, he asked Wolf about the disease’s mortality rate.

“Worldwide I believe it’s under 2%,” Wolf said, saying he’d provide an exact figure from the CDC. “It changes daily. It’s under 2%, it was as high as 3.”

Asked the mortality rate of influenza, Wolf said, “it’s also right around that percentage as well.”

“You sure of that?” Kennedy said. While seasonal flu kills as many as tens of thousands of Americans each year, its mortality rate is less than 0.5% this year, in part thanks to broad vaccination.

During the Tuesday night debate, Senator Amy Klobuchar, former Vice President Joe Biden and former New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg all said Trump has sought to cut funding to the CDC, and Klobuchar said that the president “hasn’t really addressed the nation on this topic.”

(Bloomberg is the founder and majority owner of Bloomberg LP, the parent company of Bloomberg News.)

Trump, on his way back from India, responded on Twitter that “CDC and my Administration are doing a GREAT job of handling Coronavirus, including the very early closing of our borders to certain areas of the world.” He added that “so far, by the way, we have not had one death. Let’s keep it that way!”

‘Radical Transparency’

After the Senate hearing, Kennedy said that officials “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.” A Homeland Security Department spokeswoman said that Kennedy should have directed his questions about the virus’s mortality to health care officials, not Wolf.

Azar said that the administration is “trying to engage in radical transparency with the American public as we go through this.”

“Each of those messages is accurate, but addresses a particular aspect of what we’re talking about,” he said. “Abroad, this is spreading quite rapidly. In the United States, thanks to the president and this team’s aggressive containment efforts, this disease is contained.”

Trump, tweeting grievances about the prosecution of his friend Roger Stone as he flew back to Washington, will return to a city consumed by concerns about the coronavirus and his government’s preparations. His message to Americans, so far, has been that even if they get sick, the virus is unlikely to kill them.

Of the 60 Americans who have become infected so far, 36 were on a cruise ship in Japan that was the site of one of the largest outbreaks outside China. None have died.

“We think they’ll be in very good shape very, very soon,” Trump said.

Blunt, the Missouri Republican, took a darker and more global view. After a classified briefing from U.S. officials at the Capitol, Blunt said: “It would be true that most of them are getting better.”

But he added: “They’re not all getting better. The ones that died aren’t getting better.”

(A previous version corrected the chamber holding hearings, in the sixth paragraph.)

--With assistance from Billy House, Steven T. Dennis, Jordan Fabian, Jennifer Jacobs, Daniel Flatley, Drew Armstrong, Justin Sink and Kathleen Hunter.

To contact the reporters on this story: Alex Wayne in Washington at awayne3@bloomberg.net;Michael Shepard in Washington at mshepard7@bloomberg.net

To contact the editors responsible for this story: Alex Wayne at awayne3@bloomberg.net, Elizabeth Wasserman

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