Trump declares national emergency to contain coronavirus

U.S. President Donald Trump announced Friday that he is declaring the coronavirus pandemic a national emergency, as Washington struggles with providing Americans with relief and officials race to slow the spread of the outbreak.

Speaking from the Rose Garden, Trump said, “I am officially declaring a national emergency.”

He said the emergency would open up $50 billion US for state and local governments to respond to the outbreak. 

Trump also waived interest on federally held student loans and moved to prop up energy markets by directing the Department of Energy to buy oil to fill the strategic petroleum reserve “right up to the top.”

Trump said he was also giving Secretary of Health and Human Services Secretary Alex Azar emergency authorities to waive federal regulations and laws to give doctors and hospitals “flexibility” in treating patients.

“Through a very collective action and shared sacrifice, national determination, we will overcome the threat of the virus,” Trump said.

He also announced a new public-private partnership to expand coronavirus testing capabilities, as his administration has come under fire for being too slow in making the test available.The partnership will include drive-through testing in some locations and an online portal to screen those seeking to get tested.

Still, Trump said that officials don’t want people taking the test unless they have certain symptoms. “We don’t want people without symptoms to go and do that test,” Trump said, adding, “It’s totally unnecessary.”

Congress working on aid package 

Trump said the White House and Congress have yet to agree on a broader aid package, claiming that he doesn’t believe House Democrats are “giving enough.” Lawmakers are preparing to vote on their own measure Friday.

Speaker Nancy Pelosi said Friday the House would approve its coronavirus aid package, imploring the Trump administration and congressional Republicans to “put families first” by backing the effort to provide Americans with relief.

The House Democratic leader spoke from the speaker’s balcony at the Capitol ahead of Trump’s news conference, as the power centres of Washington were shuttered to visitors.

House Speaker Nancy Pelosi updates reporters Friday as lawmakers continue work on a coronavirus aid package. (J. Scott Applewhite/The Associated Press)

“Our nation, our great nation has faced crisis before,” Pelosi said. “And every time, thanks to the courage and optimism of the American people, we have prevailed. Now, working together, we will once again prevail.”

Central to the package is free testing for the virus and guaranteed sick pay for workers who are taking time away from jobs, along with an infusion of dollars to handle unemployment benefits and boost food programs for children, families and seniors.

Pelosi and Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin, whom Trump tapped to negotiate for the administration, have engaged in around-the-clock negotiations that continued even as Trump was speaking.

But Republican leaders in Congress slowed the deal, wanting assurances that Trump would publicly support the agreement before signing off on it ahead of any vote, according to a top congressional aide unauthorized to discuss the private talks and speaking on condition of anonymity.

Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin talks to reporters about the economic impact of the coronavirus at the White House on Friday. (Evan Vucci/Associated Press)

Declaration welcomed

The White House is under enormous pressure, dealing with the crisis on multiple fronts as it encroached ever closer on the president.

The virus has swept in alarming ways across American life, sending the financial markets into a dangerous slide and shuttering schools and sporting events and limiting everyday interactions in communities across the country.

And a personal health scare intensified as White House officials worked to determine the level of exposure by the president and senior aides to several foreign officials who have since tested positive for the virus.

The Washington Monument and a drained Reflecting Pool are visible Friday on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial. (Andrew Harnik/The Associated Press)

Trump said he was gratified that Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro tested negative for the virus, after the pair sat next to each other for an extended period last weekend. A senior aide to Bolsonaro tested positive. “We have no symptoms whatsoever,” said Trump, who has not gotten tested for the virus or taken steps to self-isolate.

Hospitals welcomed Trump’s emergency declaration, which they and lawmakers in Congress had been requesting. It allows the Health and Human Services Department to temporarily waive certain federal rules that can make it harder for hospitals and other health-care facilities to respond to an emergency.

Such rules include a Medicare requirement that a patient spend three days in the hospital before the program will pay for care in a nursing facility. Waiving the rule would make more inpatient beds available. Another rule requires doctors and other clinicians to be licensed in the state in which they are providing services. It can be waived if the physician is licensed in another state.

WATCH | How scientists at Johns Hopkins University are tracking COVID-19:

Scientists at Johns Hopkins University had predicted the COVID-19 outbreak and are now working to track the virus. 2:03

The American Medical Association said the emergency declaration would help ensure the health-care system has sufficient resources to properly respond to the ongoing outbreak.

Trump’s actions were also viewed favourably on Wall Street, sending the Dow Jones Industrial Average up 1,985 points, or 9.4 per cent, its best gain since October 2008. Stocks doubled their gains in the last half-hour of trading as Trump made his remarks.

For most people, the coronavirus 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.

The vast majority of people recover. According to the World Health Organization, people with mild illness recover in about two weeks, while those with more severe illness may take three to six weeks.

More relief

Pelosi and Mnuchin continued their constant cross-town phone calls throughout a tense day of negotiations to firm up and salvage the emerging deal that has widespread support from Democrats and some in the business community seeking certainty.

Providing sick pay for workers is a crucial element of federal efforts to stop the rapid spread of the infection. Officials warn that the nation’s health-care system could quickly become overwhelmed with gravely sick patients, as suddenly happened in Italy, one of the countries hardest hit by the virus.

The ability to ensure paycheques will keep flowing — for people who stay home as a preventative measure or because they’re feeling ill or caring for others — can help assure Americans they will not fall into financial hardship.

A sign informs visitors that Space Needle is closed on Friday in Seattle. (Ted S. Warren/Associated Press)

The potential deal between Congress and the White House would cap a tumultuous week in which Washington strained for a comprehensive response to an outbreak that is testing the nation’s political, financial and health-care systems.

Trump has struggled to show he’s on top of the crisis, after giving conflicting descriptions of what the U.S. is doing to combat the virus.

The House aid package builds on an emergency $8.3 billion US measure approved last week.

Pelosi promised a third coronavirus package will follow soon, though the House is leaving Washington on Friday for a previously scheduled recess. That measure will include more aggressive steps to boost the U.S. economy, which economists fear has already slipped into recession.

But there’s little appetite within either party for Trump’s proposal to suspend collection of the 6.2 per cent Social Security payroll tax. States are already clamouring for fiscal relief from Washington as the virus threatens their budgets.

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