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Trump moves to reassure public on virus response, appointing Pence to lead it

President Trump has faced criticism for his response to the global outbreak of novel coronavirus. On Wednesday, he held a briefing about how the federal government is mobilizing in case the illness spreads widely within the U.S. Yamiche Alcindor and Dr. Thomas Frieden, former director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, join Amna Nawaz to discuss funding and preparation measures.

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  • Amna Nawaz:

    As we mentioned earlier, the president is talking tonight about the outbreak of the coronavirus, known as COVID-19.

    In fact, he's speaking in the Briefing Room right now about what the federal government's doing and how it's preparing in case the outbreak gets worse in the United States.

    Here's some of what he said:

  • President Donald Trump:

    I have just received another briefing from a great group of talented people on the virus that is going around to various parts of the world.

    We have, through some very good early decisions, decisions that were actually ridiculed at the beginning — we closed up our borders to flights coming in from certain areas, areas that were hit by the coronavirus and hit pretty hard.

    And we did it very early. A lot of people thought we shouldn't have done it that early. And we did. And it turned out to be a very good thing.

    And the number one priority from our standpoint is the health and safety of the American people, and that's the way I viewed it when I made that decision.

  • Amna Nawaz:

    The state of preparations has become the source of concern and criticism between parties and among some public health officials.

    As we saw with the president and lawmakers, it's also increasingly a political issue, too.

    For more on all of this, I'm joined here in the studio by our White House correspondent, Yamiche Alcindor, and from New York via Skype by Dr. Thomas Frieden. He's a former director of the CDC, former commissioner of the New York City Health Department, and he is currently president and CEO the nonprofit group Resolve to Save Lives.

    Yamiche, here in the studio, I'd love to get your take on what we just heard from the president.

    He is still talking, of course, but there he was hailing the government's response, saying, we did the right thing early. He was just given a briefing.

    What do we know about how he's been hearing about the coronavirus and how he's been communicating about it so far?

  • Yamiche Alcindor:

    Well, the president is seeking really to calm Americans tonight.

    After the CDC came out last night and said it's not a matter of if, but when the coronavirus gets to the United States, there was a lot of panic. I was on Amazon. There's masks already selling out. So people are feeling very, very scared.

    And the president here is trying to be a calmer in chief. He's trying to say, we are ready. At the briefing just now, he said, our number one priority is health and safety of Americans.

    He has also been saying that he wants $2.5 billion to fight this virus. Democrats today said, actually, we should do $8.5 billion. Instead of getting into a fight, the president said from the Briefing Room, if you're offering that money, we will work with you. We will take that extra money.

    So the president here is really trying to calm a lot of people here. He's gotten some backlash for saying that we're — that the risk is low to Americans, because the CDC is saying, actually, this is could be a pandemic.

    But, that being said, the president is trying, I think, his best here to try to calm people.

  • Amna Nawaz:

    Dr. Frieden, I want to get your take on both what we heard from the president and what Yamiche was just reporting.

    President Trump has been saying, this response so far from the U.S. government has been a success. That's the word he continues to use. Just assess for me what you have seen in terms of this administration's response. Are they doing everything they should be at this point?

  • Thomas Frieden:

    Well, first off, the risk today in the United States is low. That's correct. And the things that have been done by the CDC and others are appropriate.

    But the big picture is very different. A pandemic is inevitable. That has become clear in the last few days. There have been hundreds of people to leave China with the virus who haven't been diagnosed in countries all over.

    We have Iran, Italy, Hong Kong, Korea with lots of cases. And this is going to spread. We are in the calm before the storm. It's going to get worse before it gets better.

    And thinking that we can somehow pull up the drawbridges and not have anyone in this country get it, that's a dangerous delusion.

  • Amna Nawaz:

    So, Dr. Frieden, talk to me about some of these figures you're hearing in terms of what the government's prepared to spend. We know the president asked for that $2.5 billion. Democrats are asking for $8.5 billion.

    Based on what the U.S. has done in the past, is this what we should be spending? Is that appropriate in terms of a response?

  • Thomas Frieden:

    There's a fundamental question. For how long?

    If that's a one-year figure, that's one thing. But, for Ebola, what we found is, it was essential to have a five-year allocation, so we could really address it in a comprehensive way and get to the root of reducing the risk going forward.

    Ebola was $5.4 billion supplemental over five years. This is a much bigger risk than Ebola. I said and others said there was no chance Ebola would spread widely in the U.S. It just wasn't in the cards. And it didn't happen.

    This could definitely spread quite widely in this country. We don't know how far it will spread. We don't know how severe it will be, whether it will be mild, moderate or severe. But a pandemic is coming.

  • Amna Nawaz:

    We know the president has also been communicating about the health and wellness, the recovery of some of those Americans who both contracted it, were confirmed cases back here, and also were moved back to the U.S. after being diagnosed overseas.

    Here's what President Trump had to say about them.

  • President Donald Trump:

    As the disease spreads, if it spreads, as most of you know, the level that we have had in our country is very low. And those people are getting better.

    Or we think that, in almost all cases, they're better or getting — we have a total of 15. We took in some from Japan. You heard about that, because they're American citizens and they're in quarantine. And they're getting better too.

    But we felt we had an obligation to do that.

  • Amna Nawaz:

    Yamiche, we have been hearing from the president things are getting better, the patients are getting better.

    That stands in contrast to what some public health officials are saying.

  • Yamiche Alcindor:

    That's true.

    The president has been getting backlash. People are thinking that he's trying to downplay this for his own political benefit. He just now said that Vice President Pence is going to be the czar, the coronavirus czar, putting him now in charge of this.

    But the president also said that this is going to get better in April, that, once it gets warm, things are going to get better. Now, that's usually true, experts say, when it comes to flu. But the coronavirus is different.

    This is a disease that people are still learning about. So, in some ways, the president is getting a lot of backlash for making claims that aren't exactly accurate at this point. And he's also, some people think, really trying to just make it seem as though maybe Democrats and other people who are his political opponents are trying to create some sort of hysteria to scare people, and to also make him look bad.

    So the president has been someone who has looked at his own political benefit, even in times of crisis, as presidents some — often do in these in these cases.

  • Amna Nawaz:

    Well, Dr. Frieden, let's talk about that little bit of news that Yamiche just brought us, the appointment of a czar.

    We know the president was reluctant to do that. He pulled together a task force from various agencies, including HHS and DHS. Does that — is that right now the appropriate response? And, also, can you tell us, specifically, at that federal level, what concrete steps should they be taking right now that you don't believe they are?

  • Thomas Frieden:

    The first and foremost thing is to get the supplemental through Congress at a high enough level that we can protect America.

    That means supporting state and local health departments. That means working with hospitals. That means investing in a vaccine, even though we aren't sure it will work.

    And, crucially, that means reducing the risks around the world. It costs about $1 per person per year to upgrade those early warning systems and rapid response systems in countries all around the world that will help tamp down this pandemic and protect us from future pandemics.

    But that's a lot of money. That's billions of dollars over multiple years. And a supplemental is the best chance to get a running start on that and keep Americans safer.

  • Amna Nawaz:

    Dr. Frieden, you said it's going to get worse before it gets better. I think that will worry a lot of people.

    When you talk about what that will look like here in the United States, what can you tell us in terms of schools or hospitals and in communities? What should people be ready for? And what can they be doing right now to get ready?

  • Thomas Frieden:

    Well, first and foremost, we have to admit there's a lot we don't know about this virus.

    It just burst onto our awareness two months ago, and we're learning more every day, sometimes every hour.

    But what we know is that it's spreading widely. We know that many people have left China with the infection and not been diagnosed elsewhere. We're going to see more countries affected. We're going to see more clusters.

    It's spreading quite readily in some health care facilities. It's spreading quite readily in some communities, churches. So, we will see a lot of it.

    What we're not sure of is how severe is going to be. The initial reports of a new pathogen are often — say it's really deadly, because you're seeing the most severely ill people. But as we learn more, we may find it's not so deadly.

    When the 2009 flu pandemic hit, initially, from Mexico, it looked to be very deadly. And soon, we found it was quite dangerous for younger people, but overall it wasn't a terribly bad virus. It was a new one, but not a particularly bad one.

    So we don't know if this is going to be a mild, moderate or a severe pandemic, but it will be a pandemic. That means, for most people, there's certain simple things you can do. Wash your hands often. Cover your cough. When you — cover your mouth when you cough or sneeze.

    Be sure to not get others sick if you're sick. That means staying home if you're sick. You may want to be careful and have a few months of medicine if you have diabetes or high blood pressure, not in a panic buying way, but in a sensible way, so that if there are supply chain interruptions, you would be ready.

    And think about what you do if schools had to close. We don't know that that would be necessary. It may or may not be. In different communities, there may be different approaches, but that's a possibility.

    So it's worth thinking about and planning about what you would do in your life to be ready.

  • Amna Nawaz:

    Yamiche, this has moved from the if to the when phase now.

    What is the confidence level like? People will be looking to the president for leadership on this. Are they confident that they will be able to handle this?

  • Yamiche Alcindor:

    The president and Vice President Pence just now are saying that they're confident in this. They're saying that Vice President Pence, because he was a leader in Indiana, that that's a good health system.

    He's been praising President Trump from the podium, saying that he's doing a good job. Secretary Azar, who's in charge of Health and Human Services, he is also saying that people are basically ready for this, and that there's only a few cases, maybe one case, in the last couple weeks here.

    But it's still very, very early. So, they're still trying to figure out kind of how many cases there are. It's still — people are still trying to figure out what's going on here.

    But the president is trying to at least look confident and trying to reassure people that they are ready for this and that, when this hits the United States, that they're going to have all the resources ready. And it seems as though we're seeing bipartisan support, bipartisan working together.

    So the leaders in this country seem to think that this is a moment for people not to be arguing, but to be focusing on how to do this.

  • Amna Nawaz:

    And that is good news, indeed, a lot we don't know right now.

    Yamiche Alcindor, our White House correspondent, thanks to you. And to Thomas Frieden over in New York, thanks for being with us.

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