Donald Trump puts Mike Pence in charge of US coronavirus response

Amanda Holpuch in New York and Guardian staff
Photograph: Erik S Lesser/EPA

Donald Trump on Wednesday put Vice-President Mike Pence in charge of the US response to coronavirus.

In a lengthy, rambling and often confusing address meant to reassure Americans about the potential impact of the virus, Trump said the risk to the American people “remains very low”.

Pence’s announcement came ahead of a report from the Centers for Disease Control that a person in northern California contracted the virus without traveling outside of the US or having contact with a confirmed case.

Trump said on Wednesday he was ready to spend “whatever’s appropriate”, even if that meant the extra billions of dollars that Democrats have said is necessary to beef up the US response. Trump had told Congress earlier this week that the government needed to spend $2.5bn in emergency funding to fight the virus.

Trump said Pence would be working with the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), the National Institutes of Health (NIH), the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) and other government agencies to coordinate the response.

“Whatever happens, we’re totally prepared,” Trump said.

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Throughout the press conference, Trump sought to minimize fears of the impact of the virus across the US, mentioning several times how amazed he has been to have recently learned how many people are killed by the flu every year.

But several of the health officials gathered with him on the podium stressed that Americans need to get ready for what could become a wider outbreak.

“Our aggressive containment strategy here in the United States has been working and is responsible for the low levels of cases we have so far. However, we do expect more cases,” said Dr Anne Schuchat of the CDC.

The US health secretary, Alex Azar, confirmed there were 15 cases of coronavirus diagnosed in the US, bringing the total number of infected people in the country to 60. There are three cases from Americans repatriated from the Chinese province of Wuhan and 42 people who were repatriated from the Diamond Princess cruise ship that was docked in Japan. One of the Diamond Princess cruise ship passengers is a participant in the first US study of an antiviral drug to treat coronavirus.

The World Health Organization is recommending that people take simple precautions to reduce exposure to and transmission of the Wuhan coronavirus, for which there is no specific cure or vaccine.

The UN agency advises people to:

  • Frequently wash their hands with an alcohol-based hand rub or warm water and soap
  • Cover their mouth and nose with a flexed elbow or tissue when sneezing or coughing
  • Avoid close contact with anyone who has a fever or cough
  • Seek early medical help if they have a fever, cough and difficulty breathing, and share their travel history with healthcare providers
  • Avoid direct, unprotected contact with live animals and surfaces in contact with animals when visiting live markets in affected areas
  • Avoid eating raw or undercooked animal products and exercise care when handling raw meat, milk or animal organs to avoid cross-contamination with uncooked foods.

Despite a surge in sales of face masks in the aftermath of the outbreak of the coronavirus outbreak, experts are divided over whether they can prevent transmission and infection. There is some evidence to suggest that masks can help prevent hand-to-mouth transmissions, given the large number of times people touch their faces. The consensus appears to be that wearing a mask can limit – but not eliminate – the risks, provided they are used correctly.

Justin McCurry

The president on Wednesday once again praised his administration’s response to the crisis. But serious concerns have been raised about its response so far.

Azar requested $2.5bn in emergency funding from Congress to respond to the coronavirus. But Democrats have said that amount is insufficient given the magnitude of the challenges.

Chuck Schumer, the Senate Democratic leader, has been sharply critical of the US government response so far and on Wednesday unveiled an $8.5bn request to respond to the virus outbreak, more than triple Trump’s request.

Schumer is asking for $4.5bn for the Department of Health and Human Services to work to contain the outbreak in the US, $1bn to develop and manufacture a vaccine, $1bn to help other countries battle the coronavirus, and $2bn to reimburse states for costs incurred in tackling the outbreak.

Public health experts raised concerns that the US had tested fewer than 500 people for the virus, excluding people who had returned on evacuation flights. (By comparison, South Korea has tested more than 35,000 people.) That lack of testing, they warned, may be misrepresenting the spread of the virus across the country.

Trump said the US was “testing everybody that we need to test and finding very little problem. You treat this like the flu,” the president added, reminding Americans to wash their hands.

Lawmakers and policy experts had also pushed the administration to appoint a “czar” to oversee the US response, as the Obama administration did during the Ebola crisis. They warned the US’s ability to respond to the crisis was hampered by the Trump’s administration’s decision in May to dismantle the office in the national security council that existed to oversee a coordinated government-wide response in the event of a pandemic. Last week, 27 senators wrote a letter to Trump asking him to quickly fill the job.

It is unclear whether Pence’s appointment will quell their concerns. Pence has in the past been criticized for his role as Indiana governor in blocking clean needle exchange programs amid an HIV outbreak.

The coronavirus outbreak has so far affected 80,000 people globally. In mainland China there have been 2,663 deaths among 77,658 cases, mostly in the central province of Hubei. More than 12,000 people affected in China have already recovered and the World Health Organization said on Wednesday more new infections have been identified outside China than inside.

Public health experts have praised the CDC’s response to the outbreak in the US, though there is concern about how Trump and other members of his administration are responding to the outbreak.

Trump on Tuesday said the US was “very close” to a coronavirus vaccine, which Dr Anthony Fauci from the National Institutes of Health said on Wednesday was at least 18 months away from being available. The White House later said the president was instead speaking about the Ebola vaccine approved two months ago.

On Tuesday, the acting DHS head , Chad Wolf, failed to answer basic questions about the disease including what the projections are for the spread of the virus and how it was transmitted. DHS is among the agencies coordinating the response to the virus.

Senator John Neely Kennedy, a Republican from Louisiana, ended a round of questions by telling Wolf: “You’re supposed to keep us safe and the American people deserve some straight answers on the coronavirus and I’m not getting them from you.”

On Tuesday, the head of immunization at the CDC, Nancy Messonnier, had said in the absence of vaccines or medicines, officials would need to consider possible school closures and telecommuting as part of efforts to contain the spread of the disease.

“I understand this whole situation may seem overwhelming, and that disruption to everyday life may be severe. But these are things that people need to start thinking about now,” Messonier said. “I had a conversation with my family over breakfast this morning, and I told my children that – while I didn’t think they were at risk – right now, we as a family, need to be preparing for significant disruption of our lives.”

After the CDC announcement, the mayor of San Francisco, London Breed, declared a local emergency, though there are no confirmed cases among city residents.

Breed said the declaration was made to increase preparedness. “We see the virus spreading in new parts of the world every day, and we are taking the necessary steps to protect San Franciscans from harm,” Breed said.

The Associated Press contributed to this report