WASHINGTON, D.C. – Insisting the federal government is not a "shipping clerk,” President Donald Trump on Thursday called on states to do more to secure their own critically needed masks, ventilators and testing supplies as the pressure mounted on hospitals struggling to cope with a rising number of coronavirus patients.
During another fast-moving day in the capital, Trump and his administration took additional, once-unthinkable steps to try to contain the pandemic. The State Department issued a new alert urging Americans not to travel abroad under any circumstances. And Trump said the government should take partial ownership of companies bailed out during the pandemic, a step that would mark an extraordinary federal reach into the private sector.
Hoping to inject some good news into the dreary outlook, Trump held a White House briefing trying to highlight new efforts underway to find treatments for COVID-19 as infections in the country climbed past 11,000, with at least 168 deaths.
He offered an upbeat promotion of therapeutic drugs in early testing that he said could be “a game-changer” in treating those suffering. But critics quickly accused him of spreading misleading information and overly optimistic projections after the head of the Food and Drug Administration made clear that the drugs Trump discussed were still being tested for their effectiveness and safety. That process takes months and may or may not yield any results.
The FDA later reminded the public in a statement that there are “no FDA-approved therapeutics or drugs to treat, cure or prevent COVID-19.”
On Capitol Hill, lawmakers worked urgently toward a $1 trillion aid package to prop up households and the U.S. economy that would put money directly into American's pockets. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell has proposed making direct payments of $1,200 per person, $2,400 for couples and $500 for each child, according to a copy of the legislation obtained by The Associated Press.
Congress has also been discussing loans that would have to be paid back to shore up airlines and other industries and was working to increase production of medical supplies and build temporary field hospitals under new authorities unlocked when Trump invoked the Defense Production Act Wednesday.
At the White House, where temperature checks continued and officials and journalists sat separated from one another as they practiced social distancing, Trump also stepped up his criticism of China, chastising the country he had previously praised for not warning the world earlier about a disease that started in Wuhan, but has since spread across the globe.
Indeed, the death toll in Italy from the coronavirus overtook China’s on Thursday, with at least 3,405 deaths in a country with a population of 60 million."
“If people would have known about it, it could have... been stopped in place, it could have been stopped right where it came from,” Trump said.
“But now the whole world almost is inflicted with this horrible virus and it's too bad," he added, lamenting how the U.S economy was healthy “just a few weeks ago.”
Trump grew agitated when one reporter noted the economy had essentially ground to a halt. “We know that," Trump snapped. “Everybody in the room knows that.”
More than eight weeks after the first U.S. case of the virus was detected, the federal government is still struggling to respond. Testing in the U.S. lags dramatically behind other developed nations, and states still say they cannot conduct wide-scale testing because they don't have the swabs or other materials necessary to process them.
And as the number of confirmed cases mounts, doctors and nurses are sounding warnings about the shortage of crucial supplies, including masks and other gear needed to protect health care workers, along with ventilators to treat respiratory symptoms of the virus.
Indeed, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention this week issued guidance telling health care workers that if no masks are available, they could turn to “homemade” options “(e.g., bandana, scarf) for care of patients with COVID-19 as a last resort.”
But Trump insisted against the evidence Thursday that there are more than enough supplies available to meet needs. And he said that it was up to states to obtain them.
While willing to “help out wherever we can,” he said “governors are supposed to be doing a lot of this work.”
“The federal government's not supposed to be out there buying vast amounts of items and then shipping," Trump said. “You know, we're not a shipping clerk.”
After the briefing, Trump traveled to the Federal Emergency Management Agency, which has now been tasked with leading the national coronavirus response, for a teleconference with governors — some of whom have complained about a lack of guidance from Washington.
Again and again during the call, governors said they were having difficulty securing supplies, including the materials needed to process tests, with some sounding panicked. Some said they were competing with the federal government for purchases. Officials in the room, however, insisted there was plenty available on the market to purchase.
Among those expressing concern was Louisiana Gov. John Bel Edwards, who told Trump he feared the state would begin to exceed its capacity to deliver health care in as soon as a week.
“I’m asking for help in terms of surging our medical capacity here in Louisiana," he told the president. He said the state was “going to do everything we can to mitigate and slow the spread, but in the time that we have, we’ve got to increase our surge capacity. That is my biggest concern.”
For most people, COVID-19 causes only mild or moderate symptoms, such as fever and cough. For some, especially older adults and people with existing health problems, it can cause more severe illness, including pneumonia.
As the virus threat has become more acute, Trump has begun to describe himself as a “wartime president." As he and members of Congress craft bailout packages, Trump said he believed the government should take partial ownership of some companies hard hit by the pandemic and aided by taxpayers. Some Republicans in Congress have pushed back on the idea, saying it amounts to the government picking winners and losers, as they criticized President Barack Obama of doing after the 2008 financial crisis.
On the medical front, Trump and Dr. Stephen Hahn, the Food and Drug Administration commissioner, described several existing drugs and treatments currently under testing to see if they can help those with COVID-19. Among them: chloroquine, a drug long used to treat malaria; remdesivir, an experimental antiviral that's being tried in at least five separate studies; and antibodies culled from the blood of COVID-19 patients when they recover.
Chloroquine is widely available already and could be used off-label, but Hahn said officials want a formal study to get good information on whether it helps people with COVID-19 and is safe. No new and imminent treatments were announced at the briefing.
"We're looking at drugs that are already approved for other indications" as a potential bridge or stopgap until studies are completed on drugs under investigation, Hahn said.
Social distancing has proved to be a challenge in the tight quarters of the White House briefing room. When task force members walked out for the briefing, they spread out widely. “We practice what we preach,” Surgeon General Jerome Adams said.
But moments later, the vice president’s press secretary popped out into the briefing room and directed them to move closer together, presumably to make room for her boss.
Trump, who is at increased risk of serious illness because of his age, stood so close to some of the officials answering questions at the podium that they could not stand fully in front of it.
Trump took note of the cramped quarters, too, and claimed that social distancing was making the media “nicer.” Yet he later laced into reporters, suggesting he would like to limit briefings to two or three of his favorite supporters. And he assailed some of his coverage, slamming as “fake news” outlets whose reporters have worked to hold his administration accountable for its delayed response.
Associated Press writer Matthew Perrone contributed to this report.
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