- The Washington Times - Tuesday, March 3, 2020

Congress sped toward approval of a $7 billion-plus package to fight the COVID-19 coronavirus Tuesday as lawmakers demanded an aggressive response to an outbreak that has killed at least nine in the U.S. and more than 3,000 globally, while the Federal Reserve delivered an emergency rate cut to shield the economy.

Key appropriators are working out details but said the bill would range from $7 billion to $8 billion and pass before the end of the week.

“I told members it was doubtful we would leave unless we pass the coronavirus supplemental,” said House Majority Leader Steny H. Hoyer, Maryland Democrat.

That sense of urgency grew with the death toll in Washington state, the only place in the U.S. to report fatalities. King County officials reported three more deaths Tuesday, including a pair who died last week, before testing caught up with the local crisis that came into view over the weekend.

Congressional lawmakers said the funding package will boost the pursuit of a vaccine, deliver protective gear to health care workers, and support state and local governments responding to the disease known as COVID-19.

Likewise, Mr. Trump assured leaders of local governments that Washington is speeding all necessary aid to communities.

SEE ALSO: Donald Trump donates quarterly salary to combat coronavirus

“We are working with Congress very closely to pass supplemental legislation that ensures state and county health departments get everything they need,” Mr. Trump said at the annual National Association of Counties conference. “I asked for $2.5 billion, and it looks like they’re going to give us $8.5 billion. I don’t think that’s ever happened to me before.”

The White House also said Mr. Trump is donating his quarterly salary to the Department of Health and Human Services to help fight the outbreak of the disease.

Across town, the Federal Reserve delivered an emergency half-percentage-point rate cut to help the economy as the crisis unfolds.

Federal Reserve Chair Jerome Powell said the central bank members “do recognize the rate cut will not reduce the rate of infection. It won’t fix the broken supply chain.”

“But we do believe our action will provide a meaningful boost to the economy,” he said.

Stocks soared briefly after the announcement but then fell into negative territory in volatile trading. By closing, the Dow Jones Industrial Average had fallen 786 points, or nearly 3%.

SEE ALSO: Fed cuts interest rate in response to coronavirus, but stocks fall

Mr. Trump, who had urged the Fed to take action, said the rate cut wasn’t big enough.

“The rate is too high,” Mr. Trump told reporters. “It should be eased down so we’re competitive. We have the greatest country in the world, we have the strongest country in the world, it’s our dollar that the world relies on. We should have the low rate. But we have a Fed that doesn’t agree with that. I disagree with them.”

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has tracked more than 100 infections in 13 states, though 48 cases are for patients who were repatriated from China and Japan.

Vice President Mike Pence said the administration is issuing guidance that makes it clear that any American can be tested for COVID-19.

“No restrictions, subject to doctors’ orders,” Mr. Pence said.

Democrats scolded the administration Tuesday, saying the U.S. is behind other countries in testing capacity because of stringent rules and stutter steps in getting kits into the right hands. They accused the president of downplaying the situation or treating negative news as a partisan attack on his performance.

“The Democrats and Republicans in the House and Senate are the adults in the room,” said Senate Minority Leader Charles E. Schumer, New York Democrat.

CDC Principal Deputy Director Anne Schuchat said all public health labs in states should be able to test for the virus by the end of the week. Food and Drug Administration Commissioner Stephen Hahn said a boost in private-sector production will make 2,500 kits available. Each kit can run about 500 tests.

Sen. Patty Murray, Washington Democrat, said the increase can’t come soon enough during a “frightening time” in her state.

“The administration has had months to prepare for this, and it’s unacceptable that people in my state and nationwide can’t even get an answer as to whether or not they are infected,” she said.

Washington state has reported eight deaths in King County and one in Snohomish County.

The King County Public Health Department on Tuesday said the two patients who died last week were residents of the LifeCare nursing facility in Kirkland, which is tied to most of the deaths in the state.

A man in his 50s was brought to Harborview Medical Center on Feb. 24 and died two days later. Also that Wednesday, a woman in her 80s died at her family home.

Acting Homeland Security Secretary Chad F. Wolf said he closed an agency office in King County after an employee visited LifeCare and became ill. The facility had not become a focal point of the outbreak at the time of the visit.

The worker stayed home after feeling ill and reported the illness to supervisors. Mr. Wolf ordered a 14-day closure “out of an abundance of caution.”

North Carolina, meanwhile, tied its first reported case of COVID-19 back to the LifeCare facility. A Wake County resident who visited the facility tested positive for the virus and is recovering in isolation at home.

LifeCare on Monday said it is monitoring its residents and staff for elevated temperatures, coughs or shortness of breath.

“Any resident displaying these symptoms is placed in isolation. Associates are screened prior to beginning work and upon leaving,” Executive Director Ellie Basham said.

Seema Verma, administrator of the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services, said her agency will direct all of its state inspection personnel to focus on prevention of infectious diseases.

The agency also is dispatching investigators to affected facilities in Washington state to determine whether they followed federal regulations.

Sen. Bill Cassidy, a Louisiana Republican who has a medical degree, would like disease trackers to use Google location tools to follow the contacts of known cases at the Washington facility or elsewhere. He said it’s not enough to call people and ask where they have been.

“That’s so 1950s,” he told The Washington Times.

Mr. Cassidy said a warrant is needed to access the data but it’s important to be aggressive with nine people already dead.

He said Congress should expand access to “telehealth” so doctors can monitor patients at home because more illnesses are likely to cause a run on doctors’ offices and hospitals.

If people are crowding Costco for supplies, “imagine if people get the sniffles. We’ll have a hundred people deep at a community hospital,” he said.

The coronavirus was discovered in China in December. It causes an illness that is mild in most people but can cause respiratory distress, organ failure and death, especially in older people or those with preexisting medical conditions.

Dr. Anthony Fauci, director for infectious disease at the National Institutes of Health, said the mean age of those affected by the disease is 50 and very few people younger than 15 have become sick.

The virus has infected nearly 93,000 people around the globe and killed more than 3,000.

China has reported about 80,000 cases, mainly at the outbreak’s epicenter in Wuhan and the surrounding Hubei province.

Hot spots outside China are South Korea with more than 5,000 cases, Italy with over 2,500 and Iran with at least 2,300 cases.

Japanese authorities hinted they may postpone the Summer Games in Tokyo if the epidemic persists. They said the contract requires them to hold the event sometime in 2020.

“It’s a very sad thing if that would happen because the venue’s incredible,” Mr. Trump said. “They’ve spent billions of dollars. But I’ll leave that up to Japan.”

The White House has banned foreign nationals who have visited China or Iran within the past 14 days from entering the U.S., and officials in South Korea and Italy have begun screening all passengers on direct flights to the U.S.

The White House ordered federal agencies to review their travel plans and adhere to State Department advisories on places to avoid because of the outbreak.

Mr. Trump said he is being “very stringent” and may issue further restrictions, though he doesn’t plan to limit travel within the country.

“We’re not looking at that at all,” Mr. Trump said. “There is only one hot spot.”

Health and Human Services Secretary Alex Azar said the threat from coronavirus to any individual in the U.S. remains low.

“As we’ve said,” he added, “that could change rapidly.”

• Dave Boyer can be reached at dboyer@washingtontimes.com.

• Tom Howell Jr. can be reached at thowell@washingtontimes.com.

• Gabriella Muñoz can be reached at gmunoz@washingtontimes.com.

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