Donald Trump announced a national emergency over the outbreak of the novel coronavirus spreading across the country on Friday, for some reason bringing along the CEOs of some of America’s largest companies to trot up to the podium and explain the merits of public-private partnerships that they’ve formed with the feds.
“I am officially declaring a national emergency—two very big words,” Trump told the nation. “The action I am taking will open up access to up to $50 billion... and a large amount of money for states, territories and localities.”
Trump’s emergency declaration will free up that $50 billion in badly needed federal funds for states and territories to fight the epidemics, and it will direct states to begin opening emergency coordination centers. It also gives Health Secretary Alex Azar extended authority to waive rules on how doctors and hospitals can treat patients, such as extending doctors’ licenses to work across state lines and loosening restrictions on the number of emergency beds available. Trump also claimed that the U.S. will have 1.4 million tests available by the end of next week and five million by the end of the month. He went on to say that his administration is taking steps to set up the kind of drive-through testing centers that other countries have had for weeks.
Confirmed cases of the disease the virus causes, covid-19, have now risen to over 2,000 across 47 states and Washington, D.C., with around 41 reported deaths. The actual number is likely far higher, as a massive delay and bureaucratic obstacles in providing test kits have resulted in numerous ill people being denied access to testing and a lag in detection; these problems remain ongoing. The Covid Tracking Project has only been able to identify 16,521 total tests across the U.S. as of March 12, while for comparison South Korea has run over 10,000 a day or over 240,000 total.
Amid that immense failure, Trump welcomed a bizarre procession of CEOs to step up and address the nation as an audience of consumers. Those included Walmart CEO Doug McMillon, who said his stores would allow parking lots to be used as testing centers; Target CEO Brian Cornell, who reassured shoppers store shelves would remain filled; Quest Diagnostics CEO Steve Rusckowski, who pledged to bring new tests to market; and others including the CEOs of CVS Health, Labcorp, and Roche. One testing infographic held up by White House coronavirus response director Dr. Deborah Birx touted “new options for consumers”.
It’s not clear why the CEOs of the nation’s big-box stores and pharmacies needed airtime to talk about how much they’re helping, though almost all of them shook Trump’s hand in violation of Centers for Disease Control and Prevention guidelines and despite the fact he was in close proximity to a Brazilian official who later tested positive for the virus. One wary CEO just gave him an arm bump.
In other words, the White House is betting on the private sector to get the country through the crisis after completely fumbling the government response—which is nice for Republican orthodoxy but shouldn’t be reassuring to anyone else.
Beyond that, Trump touted other measures like pumping up the strategic oil reserve “right to the top,” expanding telehealth (“a fairly new and incredible thing that’s happened in the not so, uh, distant past”), and assisting the airline and cruise industries. (While lavishing praise on Trump’s handling of the situation, Vice President Mike Pence took the time to state that “the American people cherish our cruise line industry.”) The president conceded that the UK, which was excluded from Trump’s order suspending travel by most foreign nationals to the U.S. from Europe for seemingly no reason other than it fell outside an open borders treaty, may be added to the restricted list. And Trump said that the White House believes Democrats aren’t “giving enough” ground in the battle over a bill to relieve workers losing income; Republicans want a less sweeping package, believing it bloated.
Birx also said that automated techniques may reduce testing time to 24-36 hours; in South Korea and other countries, that is down to a handful of hours.
“I don’t take responsibility at all,” Trump told a reporter who asked about the delays in testing. “Because we were given a set of circumstances, and we were given rules, regulations, and specifications from a different time. It wasn’t meant for this kind of—an event with the kind of numbers that we’re talking about.”
Trump downplayed the number of tests needed when asked about the five million number, saying “I doubt we’ll need anywhere near that... Again, we don’t want everybody to take this test, it’s totally unnecessary and this will pass. This will pass through, and we’ll be even stronger for it.”
Trump also tried to pivot to favorably comparing himself with former President Barack Obama, saying “If you go back to the swine flu, it was nothing like this, they didn’t do testing like this, and they lost approximately 14,000 people. They started thinking about testing when it was far too late.” As CBNC noted, former Obama health official Ron Klain said that at this point in the H1N1 outbreak, over a million tests had been performed.
When asked about his administration’s decision to disband the White House pandemic office by PBS’s Yamiche Alcindor, Trump called it a “nasty question,” said “I don’t know anything about it,” and blamed unnamed other administration officials. Then he had Alcindor’s mic cut off.
“I don’t know,” Trump added. “I haven’t seen the picture. Somebody said there’s a picture with somebody taking a picture with me. I haven’t seen it.” (Here’s the picture.)
At the end of the conference, Trump responded to a question by saying he hoped to have a vaccine for the virus “very quickly” but as with most points during the conference, he did not provide specifics. National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases director Dr. Anthony Fauci recently told reporters they hoped to have a vaccine candidate ready in weeks, putting it on course to be available within 12 to 18 months.