U.S. officials to urge ‘aggressive’ local steps against coronavirus

FILE PHOTO: U.S. Human Services (HHS) Secretary Alex Azar speaks to reporters in Washington, U.S., February 28, 2020. REUTERS/Kevin Lamarque

By Susan Heavey

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – The Trump administration on Wednesday plans to urge U.S. states and localities to take stronger steps to fight the coronavirus, Health Secretary Alex Azar said, as the governor of at least one state criticized the federal government’s handling of the outbreak.

“You’re going to hear from CDC today and the White House that we’re going to be making recommendations to those local communities about aggressive steps that we think they should be taking,” Azar told Fox News in an interview.

He did not detail what the recommendations would be. U.S. Vice President Mike Pence had told reporters on Tuesday that recommendations by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention would be aimed at communities that have already seen spread of the disease.

Azar said federal leaders were working with local officials in the hardest hit states so far, including Washington, California, New York, Massachusetts, and Florida, saying “strong mitigation steps” could help buy valuable time.

The governor of New York, however, said federal officials had left states scrambling to act on their own, including ramping up testing for the highly contagious – and sometimes fatal – respiratory illness.

“We can’t wait for the federal government because it’s not going to happen,” said Andrew Cuomo, who has deployed the National Guard to help contain an outbreak in the suburbs of New York City.

“The federal government has just fallen down on the job,” Cuomo, a Democrat, told MSNBC in an interview, adding that he had told other state governors, “you’re on you own.”

The number of U.S. coronavirus cases has risen steadily and has affected almost three-quarters of the states. More than 1,025 cases and 28 deaths have been reported, according to a count by Johns Hopkins University.

State and local officials have said a delayed U.S. response over testing capabilities has hampered their ability to manage the outbreak, even as U.S. President Donald Trump has offered assurances that anyone who wanted a test could get one.

Police wearing riot gear broke up a protest by hundreds of students at the University of Dayton in Ohio after the school announced the temporary suspension of classes and on-campus housing on Tuesday, the Dayton Daily News reported.

Washington Governor Jay Inslee is expected on Wednesday to restrict large gatherings in three counties at the center of the coronavirus outbreak in the state, according to the Seattle Times. The move will be aimed at sports, concerts and other cultural events and will not affect retail stores, the newspaper reported.

Pence, tasked by Trump to lead the nation’s coronavirus response, met with a number of U.S. governors at the White House on Monday.

Maryland’s governor, Republican Larry Hogan, afterward praised Pence but criticized the mixed message coming from Trump, telling the Washington Post after the meeting that the Republican president “at times just says whatever comes to mind or tweets.”

New York’s Cuomo said his state was moving aggressively on its own to expand testing, including the implementation of mobile testing seen in other countries.

“It’s either massive testing or massive quarantine, and we don’t want to quarantine, so we’re going to have to do the testing,” he told MSNBC.

(Reporting by Susan Heavey in Washington and Maria Caspani in New York; Writing by Alistair Bell; Editing by Steve Orlofsky and Rosalba O’Brien)

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