U.S. pumps $8.3 billion into coronavirus battle as more states report cases

U.S. President Donald Trump accompanied by Health and Human Services (HHS) Secretary Alex Azar, signs the Congressional funding bill for coronavirus response at the White House in Washington, U.S., March 6, 2020. REUTERS/Carlos Barria

By Gabriella Borter

(Reuters) – A bill signed by U.S. President Donald Trump on Friday will provide $8.3 billion to bolster the country’s capacity to test for the fast-spreading new coronavirus and fund other measures to stem an outbreak that has now hit 21 states, with Pennsylvania and Indiana reporting their first cases.

The president signed the legislation, approved by the Senate on Thursday, at the end of a week in which the virus began to disrupt daily life for many Americans.

In Seattle, the epicenter of the nation’s outbreak, there were school closings and orders to work from home. In Miami and Baltimore, areas less affected by the outbreak, music festivals and sporting events were canceled or curtailed as a precaution.

The funds will partly go toward expanding testing capacity, which health officials say is a key slowing the spread of the respiratory illness in the United States.

The U.S. death toll reached 14 by Friday with more than 230 cases. Worldwide, about 100,000 people have been infected and more than 3,400 have died, most of them in China.

“We’re doing very well,” the president said after signing the bill. “But it’s an unforeseen problem … came out of nowhere but we’re taking care of it.”

Trump’s spokeswoman said he would travel to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) in Atlanta on Friday.

The planned trip had been called off because a CDC staff member was suspected to have the virus, but the person tested negative, White House spokeswoman Stephanie Grisham said.

Washington’s King County has been the hardest hit area in the United States with 12 of the deaths, at least six whom were people living at a nursing facility in the Seattle suburb of Kirkland.

The University of Washington announced on Friday that all classes would be held virtually for the rest of the winter term to limit contagion.

Alphabet Inc’s Google on Thursday joined Amazon.com Inc, Facebook Inc and Microsoft Corp in recommending employees in the Seattle area work from home after some contracted the virus, a policy affecting more than 100,000 people. Gap Inc on Friday closed its New York headquarters because one employee had tested positive.

In Florida, Miami officials canceled two music festivals on Friday – Ultra and Calle Ocho – because of potential risk that coronavirus could spread at events that bring large crowds into close proximity.

For similar reasons, the NCAA Division III men’s basketball tournament will go ahead at Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore this weekend but without spectators, the university said on Friday.

As new states report their first cases, others watched their tally grow. Cases in New York jumped to 33 from 22, Governor Andrew Cuomo said on Friday, adding that some 4,000 people in the state were under precautionary quarantine and 44 under mandatory quarantine.

But he also tried to stem any sense of panic by the public. “I think the anxiety and the fear is more of a problem than the virus,” Cuomo said.

GRAPHIC: Tracking the spread of the novel coronavirus – https://graphics.reuters.com/CHINA-HEALTH-MAP/0100B59S39E/index.html


Trump said he had spoken to California Governor Gavin Newsom about a cruise ship that was barred from docking in San Francisco after at least 35 people developed flu-like symptoms while on board. The ship has been linked to two confirmed cases of the illness caused by the virus called COVID-19.

“We’re doing testing on those people,” Trump said.

Test results of passengers were due on Friday, according to Mary Ellen Carroll, executive director of San Francisco’s Department of Emergency Management. State and local officials airlifted diagnostic kits to the vessel.

More than $3 billion included in the $8.3 billion spending bill is intended for test kits, research and development into vaccines and treatments. There are currently no approved vaccines or treatments for the illness, which began in China and has spread to about 90 countries and territories.

Health and Human Services Secretary Alex Azar, who was present at Trump’s bill signing, said the CDC had already sent tests for 75,000 people to public health labs around the country, amid widespread criticism of not enough tests available for states in need.

Azar said a private contractor was working with the CDC to send kits capable of testing 400,000 people to private hospitals and labs nationwide.

“The production and shipping of tests that we’ve talked about all week is completely on schedule,” Azar said.

Anthony Fauci, the director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, acknowledged issues that slowed distribution of coronavirus tests, but said the overall response was going well.

“There were certainly some missteps in the beginning,” he told NBC’s Today program. “In the next couple of weeks we should be ratcheted up to get many more out.”

U.S. Vice President Mike Pence, tasked by Trump to lead the coronavirus response, on Thursday noted there were not yet enough tests to meet demand going forward.

The deepening crisis has hit stocks hard. The benchmark S&P 500 was down nearly 3% on Friday after also falling by as much on Thursday.

The Trump administration may take targeted steps to stimulate the U.S. economy as the outbreak may temporarily drag down some sectors, White House economic adviser Larry Kudlow said on Friday.

“We’re worried about individuals at home who may lose paychecks. We’re worried about small business,” he said.

(Reporting by Susan Heavey, Lisa Lambert Timothy Ahmann and Steve Holland in Washington, D.C., Gabriella Borter, Peter Szekely and Nathan Layne in New York; Writing by Gabriella Borter; Editing by Frank McGurty and Bill Berkrot)

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