FRIDAY, March 13, 2020 (HealthDay News) -- President Donald Trump on Friday took a step many political and health care experts have long been urging him to do, declaring the U.S. coronavirus crisis a national emergency.
The announcement, nearly unprecedented in American history, immediately frees up more than $50 billion in federal funds to help states control the spread of COVID-19 before it overwhelms hospitals and health care systems.
"Through a very collective action and shared sacrifice and national determination, we will overcome the threat of the virus," Trump said at a White House press briefing, flanked by top officials engaged in the coronavirus fight.
The resources released by the announcement represent "a very large amount for states and territories and localities in our shared fight against this disease," he said.
As well as delivering a huge funding boost, the national emergency declaration also greatly broadens the powers of the Secretary of Health and Human Services (HHS), Alex Azar. The HHS can now bypass regulations that might otherwise hem in a hospital's ability to reach peak performance as critically ill cases flood in.
According to Trump, these new powers include the ability to waive laws in areas that might restrict rapid responses to the coronaviruses:
- 'Telehealth,' where doctors diagnose and treat patients online versus in person;
- State medical licensing laws, so that doctors from one state can help out in a state with more pressing needs;
- Hospital ward bed limits, limits on bed locations within a ward, or patient length-of-stay requirements.
The president also said his administration is doubling down on testing for COVID-19. Experts, including National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Disease director Dr. Anthony Fauci, have already called the slow rollout of such tests a system failure.
There's "a new partnership with the private sector to vastly accelerate and test for the coronavirus," Trump said.
He said drug giant Roche received fast-track approval for a test that could soon boost supplies by 500,000 units. Other deals are in place that could raise the national test kit supply by 5 million test units "within a month," Trump said.
Beyond that, Trump and health officials said that Google will soon create a new website that will let any American describe his or her symptoms onlie and, if applicable, be directed to the nearest drive-through testing site.
Stores such as Walmart, CVS and Walgreens will set aside part of their parking lots for drive-through testing. Trump
said further information on the website will be announced Sunday evening.
When asked about when coronavirus might peak in the United States, Fauci said that it is nearly impossible to predict, but hopefully it would be eight to nine weeks, although "it depends on how successful we are."
Crisis is changing lives
In the meantime, the public lives of Americans came to a halt on Thursday, as the coronavirus pandemic prompted officials across the country to close, cancel or postpone any event or activity that might foster the spread of COVID-19.
Six states shuttered all public schools, while Broadway went dark, Disney World and Disneyland were closed, March Madness was canceled, and most professional sports leagues postponed their seasons, the Washington Post reported.
Many American companies also went virtual so their employees could work from home, as the U.S. case count climbed to 1,700 on Friday, with 41 deaths, NBC News reported.
On Wednesday night, Trump announced that travel from most of Europe will be banned for 30 days.
The ban would apply only to foreign nationals who have been in what is known as the "Schengen Area" at any point for 14 days before their scheduled arrival to the United States, the Associated Press reported.
That area encompasses 26 nations, including France, Italy, Germany, Greece, Austria and Belgium. According to the White House, that area has the highest number of confirmed COVID-19 cases outside of mainland China.
Shortly after Trump's announcement, the State Department released an extraordinary advisory telling Americans to reconsider all travel abroad while coronavirus moves across the globe.
Trump's move followed a declaration from the World Health Organization earlier in the day that the coronavirus outbreak is officially a pandemic.
"WHO has been assessing this outbreak around the clock and we are deeply concerned both by the alarming levels of spread and severity, and by the alarming levels of inaction," agency director-general Dr Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus tweeted.
But the WHO chief also stressed that labeling the crisis a pandemic does not mean it's too late to turn things around.
"We cannot say this loudly enough, or clearly enough, or often enough: all countries can still change the course of this pandemic," he said.
In the United States, Congress neared agreement with the Trump administration on a coronavirus aid package that would include sick pay, free coronavirus testing and other resources to calm jittery Americans and calm volatile markets, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi said, the AP reported.
Public gatherings curtailed
In Washington state, Gov. Jay Inslee has banned gatherings of more than 250 people across the Seattle metro area, home to some 4 million people, as cases in that state spiked to 457, the AP reported.
In New York state, Gov. Andrew Cuomo turned a New York City suburb into a "containment zone." Schools and houses of worship in the town of New Rochelle will be closed for two weeks. A cluster of more than 140 cases there could be the largest in the nation, and National Guard troops were ordered to help clean public spaces and deliver food during the containment period, the AP reported.
In California, Gov. Gavin Newsom said all gatherings of more than 250 in that state should be postponed, as passengers on a cruise ship docked in Oakland and struck by coronavirus waited their turn to disembark.
Nearly all of the 3,500 passengers from the Grand Princess have been evacuated and flown to quarantine in the United States or their country of citizenship, but by late Thursday up to 200 still remained on board, CBS News reported. More than 1,100 crew members, at least 19 of whom are infected with coronavirus, will stay aboard, and the ship will then depart to an as yet unknown destination.
California, Washington state and New York now have the highest number of coronavirus cases in the United States, the New York Times reported. Washington state now has 357 cases, California has 198, and New York has 325.
Washington state continued to contend with an outbreak involving the Life Care Center nursing home in the town of Kirkland, CNN reported. State officials said a total of 31 people have now died from COVID-19 infection, with most either living at or connected with the nursing home.
Washington state officials said Tuesday that residents at a total of 10 senior care centers have been diagnosed with coronavirus.
While most people with robust immune systems appear to recover from COVID-19, frail and elderly nursing home residents may be in particular danger, experts noted.
Cases spread worldwide
As of Thursday morning, the WHO had reported 132,567 cases of coronavirus worldwide, including almost 4,947 deaths, the vast majority of which have occurred in China, where the outbreak began.
Internationally, hopes of containing the coronavirus are fading fast.
In Asia, South Korea and Iran are each battling major outbreaks of COVID-19. In Europe, Italy ordered a travel lockdown of the entire country, some 60 million people, as it tried to contain a major outbreak of COVID-19. By Friday morning, the case count in that country had topped 15,000, the New York Times reported.
"Our habits must be changed, changed now. We all have to give up something for the good of Italy. When I speak of Italy, I speak of our dear ones, of our grandparents and of our parents," Italy's Premier Guiseppe Conte said Monday, the AP reported. "We will succeed only if we all collaborate and we adapt right away to these more stringent norms."
The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has more on the new coronavirus.By Robin Foster and E.J. Mundell
SOURCES: March 11, 2020, Twitter statements, World Health Organization; March 9, 2020, media briefing with Vice President Mike Pence; U.S. Health and Human Services Secretary Alex Azar, Anthony Fauci, M.D., director, National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases; Washington Post; CNN; Associated Press; New York Times
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