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With novel coronavirus deaths rising, health officials face grilling on Capitol Hill

As states discover increasing numbers of new novel coronavirus cases, public health officials are scrambling to respond -- while also facing questions from a Senate panel on Tuesday about why the U.S. has been so slow to roll out effective tests for the virus. COVID-19 is responsible for nine deaths so far, all of them in Washington state. William Brangham reports.

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  • Judy Woodruff:

    The coronavirus outbreak has claimed more American lives and more American wealth. The death toll reached nine today, with more than 100 diagnosed cases nationwide.

    And as economic damage spread, Federal Reserve Chair Jerome Powell announced that the Central Bank is cutting a key interest rate by half-a-point.

  • Jerome Powell:

    The virus and measures being taken to contain it will surely weigh on economic activity both here and abroad for quite some time.

    Of course, the ultimate solutions to this challenge will come from others, particularly health professionals. We can and will do our part, however, to keep the U.S. economy strong as we meet this challenge.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    The Fed's emergency move failed to reassure Wall Street. Instead, the market mired itself in doubts about whether the rate cut will help, and stocks gave up much of Monday's record rally.

    The Dow Jones industrial average lost nearly 786 points to close at 25917. The Nasdaq fell 268 points, and the S&P 500 dropped 86.

    All of this came amid mounting questions about whether federal agencies are ready and nimble enough to confront the outbreak.

    William Brangham has that part of the story.

  • William Brangham:

    Concern is mounting across the U.S. today, as the novel coronavirus, known as COVID-19, emerges in a growing number of states.

    Top U.S. health officials took center stage before a Senate panel in Washington today to face a barrage of criticism and to defend their response.

    Democratic Senator Patty Murray represents Washington state, where the first American deaths were reported.

  • Sen. Patty Murray, D-Wash.:

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

  • William Brangham:

    The head of the Food and Drug Administration, Dr. Stephen Hahn, said more testing kits will be made available later this week.

  • Stephen Hahn:

    Our expectation in talking to the company that's scaling this up is that we should have the capacity by the end of the week to have kits available to the laboratories to perform about a million tests.

  • William Brangham:

    But other officials later walked back that number, saying the number of tests might be much lower.

    Republican Senator Mitt Romney voiced concern about the lack of protective equipment for health workers.

  • Sen. Mitt Romney, R-Utah:

    What percentage of what we would need for our medical professionals is in the strategic national stockpile?

  • Dr. Robert Kadlec:

    Right now, if it were to be a severe event, we would need 3.5 billion N95 respirators. We have about 35 million.

  • Sen. Mitt Romney:

    So, about 10 percent.

    It strikes me that we should have substantially more than 10 percent, what would be needed for a substantial pandemic that. We should have that in stock. I can't believe that we, Congress — I'm not blaming the administration. This is Congress and appropriating. And it's prior administrations as well.

  • William Brangham:

    Congress is working to pass an emergency spending measure of potentially up to $8.5 billion to help bolster the U.S. response.

    Overseas, the virus continues to spread through more communities. Italy, the epicenter of Europe's outbreak, now has the highest number of virus-related deaths outside China, 79. Iran's death toll also rose today to at least 77 people.

    Meanwhile, in South Korea, drive-through testing centers were set up across Seoul to minimize as much human contact as possible. The country reported its largest daily increase in official cases, more than 850 new infections.

    Elsewhere in the capital, troops fanned out to spray streets and alleys with disinfectant.

    President Trump today said he'd consider cutting off travel from other nations with large outbreaks.

  • President Donald Trump:

    We're watching Italy very closely, South Korea very closely, even Japan very closely. And we will make the right determination at the right time. We have cut it off, as you know, with numerous other countries.

  • William Brangham:

    In China, where the virus originated, the number of new cases today fell to 125 people. China's ambassador to the U.N. celebrated that news in New York.

  • Zhang Jun:

    China's fight against the coronavirus is indeed making huge progress.

  • William Brangham:

    Thousands of patients in China have recovered and have been released from the hospital.

    For the "PBS NewsHour," I'm William Brangham.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    And we will take a look at the toll of coronavirus in Iran later in the program.

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