Congress, White House move swiftly on new coronavirus efforts
WASHINGTON — President Donald Trump was considering a national disaster declaration and new travel advisories while Congress unveiled a multi-billion dollar coronavirus aid package Wednesday as Washington raced to confront the outbreak that's moving dramatically across the country and disrupting the daily lives of Americans.
After days of downplaying the threat, Trump announced he would be delivering a prime-time Oval Office address to the nation Wednesday at 9 p.m. on the federal response to what is now the coronavirus pandemic.
The swiftly mounting effort to contain the outbreak and financial fallout intensified on a grueling day. Communities canceled public events nationwide in hopes of halting the virus' spread. The number of confirmed cases of the infection topped 1,000 in the U.S. and the World Health Organization declared that the global crisis is now a pandemic. The Capitol will halt tours as the shifting developments raise questions, urgency and a new level of unease.
Testifying on Capitol Hill, Dr. Anthony Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, warned that the outbreak in the U.S. is going to get worse.
"I can say we will see more cases, and things will get worse than they are right now," Fauci told the House Oversight and Reform Committee. He said it is "10 times more lethal than the seasonal flu.”
In a week of mixed messages and false starts, Washington suddenly seemed poised to act.
“I am fully prepared to use the full power of the Federal Government to deal with our current challenge of the CoronaVirus!” Trump tweeted before a meeting with bankers in which he assured that "we are going to get the problem solved."
“Now we're hitting a patch and we're going to have to do something with respect to getting rid of this virus as quickly as possible and as safely as possible," he said.
Among other measures, officials were considering placing a “Level 3 Health Travel Notice” on the entire European Union. Such a notice would recommend that Americans avoid nonessential travel to the region and quarantine themselves for 14 days after returning home.
“As you know, we have another part of the world, Europe, that is in very tough shape, having a hard time right now with the virus,” Trump said during a meeting with bankers to discuss how the financial services industry can help consumers and small businesses affected by the outbreak.
Yet there was confusion at the White House, even as officials began to come to grips with the enormous gravity of the situation. “The Trump Administration continues its aggressive whole-of-government approach while also leading a whole-of-America strategy to bring public health officials, academia, non-profits, and the private sector together to protect the American people,” the White House said.
Meantime, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi unveiled the economic assistance plan that was gaining bipartisan backing, with votes possible as soon as Thursday.
Central to the package is free coronavirus testing nationwide and emergency funding to reimburse lost paychecks for those self-quarantining, missing work or losing jobs amid the outbreak.
The draft legislation would create a new federal emergency sick leave benefit for people with the virus or caring for a coronavirus victim. It would provide two-thirds of an employee's monthly income for up to three months.
Facing a likely surge in unemployment claims, the package would also give states money for the newly jobless. It also would provide additional funding for food and nutrition benefits for pregnant women, mothers and young children. It also ups money for “meals on wheels” and food for low-income elderly people.