As the U.S. struggles to ramp up testing and respond to the spread of novel coronavirus within the nation’s borders, the president announced a series of stepped-up efforts to help the country and individuals.
FEMA has been activated at the highest level, Level 1, nationwide and President Donald Trump is invoking the Defense Production Act (DPA) to increase supplies of equipment. Additionally, the Department of Housing and Urban Development is planning to provide “immediate relief” by suspending all foreclosures and evictions until the end of April. Two military hospital ships will also be dispatched to help as the number of patients is expected to spike.
Trump, who called himself a “war-time” president, opened Wednesday’s press conference by referring to the coronavirus as the “Chinese virus,” a phrase he has repeatedly been criticized for using. While COVID-19 was first discovered in China, critics say the phrase is unnecessarily stigmatizing.
DPA, which the president said he intends to sign soon, gives him the authority to force the private sector to supply resources for military, energy, space and other programs. For issues surrounding COVID-19, that will likely mean increasing the production of personal protective equipment (PPE) for healthcare workers and supplies like ventilators and respirators.
Two military ships — the USNS Comfort and USNS Mercy — have been dispatched to New York City and a location on the West Coast yet to be determined. Secretary of Defense Mark Esper said the military was “ready and capable” to defend the nation. The Pentagon had been preparing Navy hospital ships for deployment, though it could still be days to load the required personnel and supplies aboard.
Esper also said the Department of Defense would give five million respiratory masks and PPE from its reserves to the Department of Health and Human Services for civilian health care efforts, the first one million of which he said will be available “immediately.”
Vice President Mike Pence said there are “in excess of 10,000” ventilators in the stockpile, as hospitals warn there could be shortages in critical supplies like ICU beds, ventilators and respirators.
Dr. Deborah Birx, coordinator of the White House Coronavirus Task Force, cautioned that the number of cases will dramatically increase in the next five to six days, as the nation deals with a backlog in testing and said the last report from labs had seen about seven percent of tests returning positive.
When asked why athletes and celebrities seem to have access to tests while others struggle to find tests, the president suggested “perhaps that’s been the story of life.” Pence said tests are increasing “by the thousands,” and suggested again that those without symptoms “should not get tested.”
The president said he will be asking the FDA to approve self-swabbing to free up medical personnel now performing tests.
While much of the biggest concern thus far has been the devastating health impact the coronavirus can have on older people, Birx is now raising stronger concerns about the threat to young people.
She said there were “concerning reports coming out of France and Italy about young people getting very ill...seriously ill,” a problem that may have been driven, in part, by the earlier focus on older adults. “People heeded the early data coming out of China, and coming out of South Korea, that the elderly or those with pre-existing medical conditions were at particular risk,” said Birx, suggesting that the public focus on older people may have dissuaded younger people from taking their own health seriously. She cautioned there may actually prove to be a disproportionate number of infections of younger people, whom the administration and public health officials have begged to stay home.
“We must sacrifice together because we’re all in this together, we’ll come through together,” Trump said. He called the coronavirus the “toughest enemy, the invisible enemy.” The president has changed his tone in recent days after first suggesting concerns about the disease were overblown.
When questioned on the shift in federal messaging, Dr. Birx pointed to new data suggesting the virus can live on surfaces for longer than previously thought. “None of us really understood the level of the surface piece,” she said. “We’re still working out how much is this by human transmission and how much is it by surface.”
Seema Verma, the administrator of the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services, said elective medical and dental procedures should be delayed. “The shared sacrifice is essential to help those on the front lines,” she said.
During the president’s remarks, the Dow Jones Industrial Average dropped, erasing all of the gains investors have seen since Trump took office.