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Why U.S. officials are escalating their concerns over novel coronavirus

U.S. health officials are expressing a new level of urgency over the possibility that novel coronavirus could spread extensively within the country. The virus appears to have peaked in China, but other global hotspots are emerging. Lisa Desjardins reports and joins Judy Woodruff to discuss President Trump’s proposed budget for fighting the outbreak and how members of Congress responded to it.

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  • Judy Woodruff:

    A new sense of urgency is rising over the risk of China's viral outbreak spreading in the United States.

    Top federal health officials said today that Americans should brace for a possible pandemic. And Wall Street reacted with another big sell-off, despite President Trump's claim that things are under control.

    Meanwhile, the virus appears to have peaked in China, even as other hot spots are emerging, including in Iran, where the deputy health minister appeared ill at a briefing on Monday, and confirmed today that he is infected with the coronavirus himself.

    In all, 16 people have died in Iran.

    Back here in the U.S., much of the attention today focused on new language and fresh concern from the U.S. government about how COVID-19 could spread more widely here, what that might mean for daily life, and whether the Trump administration is asking Congress for enough money to deal with the outbreak.

    Lisa Desjardins joins me now.

    So, hello, Lisa.

  • Lisa Desjardins:

    Hi.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    A lot to unpack here.

    So, the day started out, there was a briefing for U.S. senators and there was a briefing for reporters. You were on that call.

  • Lisa Desjardins:

    Right.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    It all added up to a rising sense of concern about what's going on.

    And then you have, essentially, the Centers for Disease Control saying, it's not whether this virus is going to spread; it's when. So, put it together.

  • Lisa Desjardins:

    It's astounding.

    Those were the exact words we heard from CDC and HHS officials, that now they are ready the say it's not a question of if, but it's a question of when the virus will spread here and how severely it will impact Americans in this country.

    So, what we heard from them today is a call saying a pandemic has not arrived here, but a call for Americans to pay attention and to start preparing as if a pandemic could arrive.

    We don't know where. We don't know which city. Some cities may be harder-hit than others. And we don't know how long it would be.

    But this is a call for community preparation. And we heard this — these astounding sort of preparation advisories from the CDC.

    Look at this. This is something that they're advising all of us to start considering, that we need to raise our own level of hygiene, including kind of washing our spaces, washing our hands, covering our mouths and our noses when we cough and sneeze, but also this, Judy, that they think Americans should now start considering in the long term options if they need to work from home, or options if schools or child care facilities close.

    Why did they change this? Why is this level of concern higher? They say because they're seeing how this is spreading in other countries. It is not spreading here now. But they say that this disease is spreading in a way that they believe make it now not just likely, but almost inevitable that it will come here.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    So this is going to get everybody's attention.

  • Lisa Desjardins:

    That's right.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    But so this is a — this was a briefing by one set of officials.

    Other administration officials somewhat different tone. What's going on?

  • Lisa Desjardins:

    These early-in-the-day briefings kind of raised alarm bells on Capitol Hill and elsewhere.

    Then, later in the day, we had Health and Human Services officials sort of have a sort of more sober tone, say, listen, we just want people to be prepared.

    I want to play a sound bite from that later-in-the-day briefing, and see if you can hear the difference in tone.

  • Anne Schuchat:

    I think, to help Americans frame what to expect, it's helpful to think about a bad flu year. The idea of exactly what that will look like in the United States is hard to say.

    And of course, the images we have been seeing from China from Hubei province are quite different from what we would expect in the U.S. context.

  • Lisa Desjardins:

    Any public health worker knows this is a tricky moment. They don't want anyone to panic. They do want people to prepare.

    But they are raising the alarm level. So, I think that's why you saw these two different tones wanting to make Americans aware of a raised concern, and then dialing it down a little to make sure they don't go too far.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    And make sure that people don't panic, in effect.

  • Lisa Desjardins:

    Yes.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    So, meanwhile, separately from all this, you have now what appears to be a conflict between some members of Congress and the White House, the administration, over how much money is going to be needed to deal with what may come.

  • Lisa Desjardins:

    That's right.

    The president has requested $2.5 billion, essentially, in authorized funds. We're going to talk to the breakdown of that money, because it's important. But he's also saying — he's expressing confidence in where the U.S. is right now, which is different than what many senators felt after they exited their briefing, especially Democratic senators.

    Let's play a sound bite from President Trump in the last day, when he was in India, and then from a Democratic senator about how they see things are going.

  • President Donald Trump:

    It's very simple. And so let's see how it all works out. But I think it's going to work out fine. I hope so. We're working very hard. We're spending a tremendous amount of money also.

  • Sen. Patty Murray, D-Wash.:

    I just have to say, I'm very concerned about this administration's attitude towards this, if a pandemic is coming, and we are disregarding scientific evidence and relying on tweets and an emergency supplemental without details, and we're not stockpiling those things right now that we know we might possibly need for this or for any future pandemic.

    I'm deeply concerned that we are way behind the eight ball on this.

  • Lisa Desjardins:

    Now, of course, the president could have just meant to be reassuring there in his sound bites. But Democrats and others think he's not going far enough.

    Let's talk about the money he's requesting. This is where they say there's a problem. The White House was requesting, as I said, $2.5 billion, but only 1.25 is actually new money. The White House wants to take $500 million from funding that would go to Ebola and trying to prevent an Ebola outbreak.

    And then there's another $500 million that it's not clear where the White House would get that from. They would move that from other health programs, Judy. And members of Congress say, that's not necessary. This is an urgent need. We will give you more money. You should request more money.

    It's not clear why the White House is taking this exact stance. And until the White House sorts out exactly what it wants with Congress, this money is not going to start coming.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    Well, is it clear what the public health sector needs in order to deal with what's coming and what the price tag for that…

  • Lisa Desjardins:

    We're starting to get a picture of the priorities.

    One of the priorities is vaccines and trying to work to a vaccine. But, today, Dr. Anthony Fauci told reporters also that it's going to be a year to a year-and-a-half before a vaccine for the coronavirus is available.

    And, Judy, he also said this astounding thing. He said, and we think the virus will still be here in a year or a year-and-a-half.

    So, this is a long-term situation for the United States. Another big priority, Judy, for those funds is public health workers. That is the front line. And they may — they are the most vulnerable, getting protections for them, and also making sure they have the ability to test in their communities.

    Right now, testing kits for this virus are not in many places in this country, and they all have to go back to the CDC. Soon, they're hoping to expand the testing ability in this country.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    And we have seen, in other outbreaks like this, the folks on the front line in the public health sector are often the ones who become ill themselves.

  • Lisa Desjardins:

    Yes. That's right.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    Lisa Desjardins, thank you very much.

  • Lisa Desjardins:

    You're welcome.

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