- The Washington Times - Tuesday, February 25, 2020

Senators on Tuesday warned President Trump not to underestimate the cost of fighting the coronavirus and complained about conflicting messages from his team, as cases neared 1,000 in South Korea, an Iranian health minister got sick, and Wall Street continued to take a beating from the outbreak.

Democrats said Mr. Trump’s plan to spend $2.5 billion — including $1 billion in new funding — clashed with proposed cuts to health agencies in his latest budget, while the GOP’s chief appropriator said the administration could be “lowballing” what’s needed.

“You cannot afford to do that,” Sen. Richard Shelby, Alabama Republican, told Health Secretary Alex Azar. “We want to help the administration and we want to help you do your job. But if you lowball something like this, you’ll pay for it later.”

Other Republicans said the situation appeared to be under control and that Mr. Trump could request additional money if the outbreak emanating from China worsens.

The U.S. is monitoring 53 cases of the virus, including a dozen travelers from the epicenter in Wuhan, China, and two of their spouses, who were exposed at home in the states.

A trio of Americans repatriated from Wuhan and 36 ex-passengers of the Diamond Princess cruise ship in Japan make up the rest.

“The people are getting better, they’re all getting better,” Mr. Trump said at a press conference in India. “I think that whole situation will start working out.”

Hours later, his administration asked Americans to prepare for the worst.

“We are asking the American public to work with us to prepare for the expectation that this is going to be bad,” said Dr. Nancy Messonnier, who is leading the response at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Mr. Azar, who leads Mr. Trump’s task force on the virus, defended the administration’s “aggressive” measures before Congress, citing unprecedented efforts to restrict travelers from China and pursue a vaccine. At the same time, he told senators to brace for more cases.

“We cannot hermetically seal off the United States to a virus,” Mr. Azar told the Senate Appropriations Committee.

U.S. stocks slid again Tuesday as a selloff driven by fears of the coronavirus entered a second day.

The Dow Jones Industrial Average had plunged more than 500 points as of 1:30 p.m., after the worst session in two years on Monday.

Investors are coming to terms with the global spread of the coronavirus, which is gaining a foothold in Europe. Italian authorities have reported 283 cases.

Iran reported nearly 100 patients, including Deputy Health Minister Iraj Harirchi, who contracted the virus while guiding the response. It is unclear how he was infected, though he was seen mopping his brow during a press conference Monday.

South Korea reported nearly 1,000 infections and its 11th death. Most of the cases are centered on the southeastern city of Daegu and the surrounding province, though the capital city of Seoul has reported cases.

The CDC told travelers to avoid nonessential travel to South Korea, prompting U.S. airlines to waive cancellation fees for trips to Seoul.

Mr. Trump, meanwhile, is contending with competing pressures.

He wants to take the reins and shield the U.S. from contagion, though he also wants to exude confidence in an election year. His core message about the robust economy and soaring stock market could be undercut if the outbreak continues.

Mr. Trump told Congress late Monday he wants to repurpose $500 million from the Ebola fight to the new fight. He also plans to tap funding from other sources, prompting an outcry from Democrats who say Mr. Trump is weakening health initiatives without backfilling the money in his budgets.

“It’s absurd to me you’re proposing cuts at the same time you’re proposing a supplemental on the same topic,” Sen. Brian Schatz, Hawaii Democrat, told Mr. Azar.

Others said the request was simply inadequate, citing President Barack Obama’s plea for more than $6 billion to combat Ebola during his second term.

Mr. Trump chafed at the complaints, saying Democrats like Senate Minority Leader Charles E. Schumer will never be satisfied.

“If I gave more, he would say it should be less,” Mr. Trump said.

Republican senators who attended a closed-door briefing said Mr. Trump’s request isn’t the final word on the response to the virus.

“If it is not enough, we’ll appropriate some more. We have to have a balance here. Ten days ago, we had 14 cases in the United States, and today we have 14,” Senate Health Committee Chairman Lamar Alexander said.

Other senators complained that they’re getting conflicting information.

Sen. John Kennedy, Louisiana Republican, exploded Tuesday at acting Homeland Security Secretary Chad Wolf after he was unable to detail projections for the virus’s trajectory in the U.S.

“You’re supposed to keep us safe and the American people deserve some straight answers on the coronavirus. And we’re not getting them,” Mr. Kennedy said.

Mr. Wolf said he’s taking his cues from Mr. Azar’s agency and that’s where Mr. Kennedy must seek answers.

Later Tuesday, Mr. Kennedy told Mr. Azar that Mr. Wolf seemed to believe a vaccine could be developed within a month and a half.

The health secretary said that’s impossible, and it would take up to a year.

“Maybe you ought to talk to the secretary of Homeland Security,” the senator said, “before he spreads that too far.”

• Stephen Dinan contributed to this report.

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