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Congress, White House move swiftly on new coronavirus efforts

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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.

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“Right now we're trying to deal with the direct impact of the virus on individual citizens," House Budget Committee Chairman John Yarmuth, D-Ky.

Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin, whom Trump tapped to negotiate with the Democratic leader, urged Congress "to pass legislation quickly."

Mnuchin said the federal aid was needed. “This is a little bit like a hurricane, and we need to cover these outside of normal expenses,” Mnuchin said.

To that end, the administration floated several other strategies, including the rare idea of declaring national disaster that could potentially unlock funding streams, according to a person unauthorized to discuss the planning and granted anonymity.

A major disaster declaration provides additional authorities for federal agencies, including the military, to assist in responding to an emergency, including medical care, sheltering and distributing goods.

The White House was also considering delaying the April 15 federal tax deadline for some taxpayers in a bid to soften the impact of the virus outbreak on the U.S. economy.

And the administration rolled out new recommendations for the counties most impacted by the virus in Washington state and California, while authorizing Health and Human Services Secretary to take whatever steps necessary to increase the supply of face masks available to doctors and nurses by providing them with masks intended for industrial use.

Mnuchin noted that Trump's executive authorities are “quite significant" and the administration would be rolling out other “various proposals."

As pressure mounted for Washington to respond, the GOP leader in the House, Rep. Kevin McCarthy of California, signaled potential Republican support for the funding package in Congress.

“We need to do something," McCarthy said. "I think they could become very bipartisan.”

For most people, the new coronavirus causes only mild or moderate symptoms, such as fever and cough. For some, especially older adults and people with existing health problems, it can cause more severe illness, including pneumonia.

The vast majority of people recover from the new virus. According to the World Health Organization, people with mild illness recover in about two weeks, while those with more severe illness may take three to six weeks to recover.

Congress' attending physician told staff there could be 70 million to 100 million coronavirus cases in the U.S. That's on par with other estimates. A Harvard official has estimated that 20% to 60% of adults will get the virus, noting it's “a pretty wide range.”

Trump had been promoting a broader economic stimulus package as the financial markets reel, but lawmakers from both political parties roundly panned his call for a payroll tax holiday or industry aid.

Pelosi's goal is to pass aid package before lawmakers leave town for a previously scheduled weeklong recess, and revisit potential stimulus measures later.

In Washington, tourists still arrived at the U.S. Capitol, but an official unauthorized to discuss the situation and speaking on condition of anonymity confirmed that tours would soon be shut down.

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Associated Press writers Lauran Neergaard, Marty Crutsinger, Laurie Kellman, Jill Colvin and Kevin Freking in Washington contributed to this report.

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The Associated Press receives support for health and science coverage from the Howard Hughes Medical Institute’s Department of Science Education. The AP is solely responsible for all content.

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