White House Grapples With Virus Plan Before Grilling in Congress

Congress is expected to grill U.S. officials this week on the Chinese coronavirus outbreak that the Trump administration has so far kept from taking hold on American soil, even as the spread of the disease to South Korea, Italy and elsewhere rattles markets.

The White House said late Monday it had asked Congress for $2.5 billion to battle the disease. Half of that money is new, while the rest is being reallocated from other spending, including $535 million from funds to combat the Ebola virus, an official familiar with the proposal said. The total includes $1 billion for development of a vaccine, the official added.

At the same time, a debate is being waged within the administration, according to two people familiar with the discussions, with some officials saying the U.S. response has not been aggressive enough, and others fearing that too many restrictions could harm the economy.

Health and Human Services Secretary Alex Azar will testify three times this week during hearings on the 2021 budget, while two House committees — Energy and Commerce and Foreign Affairs — are holding hearings on the coronavirus outbreak itself. The latter committee will also hear from representatives of the State Department and U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

And American intelligence and health care officials are to provide senators a classified briefing on the outbreak on Tuesday, according to three people familiar with the matter.

Financial markets were battered Monday in the U.S. amid concerns over the disease, which has infected at least 79,000 people worldwide and killed more than 2,600, almost all of them in China, according to the World Health Organization.

Officials advocating a more robust approach say the U.S. should impose further limits on travel; urge companies to encourage their employees to work at home; and take measures to protect workers in jobs involving food, power, water and supply chains, according to the people familiar with the discussions.

The people added that Trump was reluctant to restrict travel between the U.S. and China, and is even more wary of travel curbs involving other countries. His administration, the people said, must strike a balance between safeguarding Americans and not causing a panic that would jeopardize the economy.

In any event, the hearings mark an accounting of the administration’s response so far, and whether a U.S. outbreak can continue to be prevented. The administration has called on China to accept an offer of expanded support.

“We’ve offered our help, so we’re hoping that more people will take advantage of the help of the most well-heeled, best public health system in the world,” White House counselor Kellyanne Conway told reporters on Monday. “Whatever they need, the president has said, ‘We’re here to help you,’ and he’s repeated that person-to-person to China’s president.”

Italian Outbreak

In what appeared to be a particularly worrying development for investors, Italy has reported more than 200 cases and six deaths. U.S. stock benchmarks slid more than 3% on Monday, with the S&P 500 Index falling the most since February 2018.

Trump, who is visiting India, said in a tweet earlier Monday that the virus is “very much under control” in the U.S.

But Senate Democratic Leader Chuck Schumer on Monday night called the administration’s request “too little too late.”

“That President Trump is trying to steal funds dedicated to fight Ebola — which is still considered an epidemic in the Democratic Republic of the Congo — is indicative of his towering incompetence and further proof that he and his administration aren’t taking the coronavirus crisis as seriously as they need to be,” Schumer said in a statement.

Azar Task Force

The Trump administration took several steps to prevent the spread of the illness to the U.S. once the severity of the outbreak became clear. Flights from China were restricted to seven airports; as much as a 14-day quarantine was ordered for citizens returning from the province at the center of the outbreak; entry to the country was denied to some foreigners; and the State Department issued a travel advisory warning Americans not to travel to China.

But those restrictions become less and less effective the further the virus migrates beyond China.

Trump appointed a task force to coordinate the response to the outbreak led by Azar and including National Security Advisor Robert O’Brien.

There are 53 people in the U.S. infected by the novel coronavirus, the CDC said on Monday, including 36 who had been aboard the contaminated Diamond Princess cruise ship in Japan, the site of one of the largest outbreaks outside China.

The Washington Post reported that the president was furious with senior advisers, including Azar, last week over a decision to allow Americans who tested positive for the coronavirus to return to the U.S. from Japan, after he had been assured that infected people would remain in quarantine overseas.

The coronavirus is also starting to affect American military operations overseas. Secretary of Defense Mark Esper told reporters Monday that U.S. and South Korean commanders are looking into “scaling back” command post training over health concerns.

South Korea’s Defense Minister Jeong Kyeong-doo, who met with Esper at the Pentagon, called the situation “quite serious” and said that 13 cases of coronavirus had been confirmed among South Korean armed forces.

More cases are likely to be identified, including in the U.S., the CDC has warned. U.S. agencies have prepared in part by running an information campaign for local governments, clinics and hospitals.

The CDC said earlier this month that it would start using its flu surveillance network to screen for the coronavirus, working under the assumption that it might be circulating in mild form, masquerading as the seasonal influenza. The surveillance screening will start in Los Angeles, San Francisco, Seattle, Chicago and New York, and expanded to other cities.

“This is just the starting point, and we plan to expand to more sites in the coming weeks until we have national surveillance,” Nancy Messonnier, director of the CDC’s National Center for Immunization and Respiratory Diseases, said on Feb. 14.

The CDC has said it’s preparing as if the virus’s spread in the U.S. is inevitable and that border control measures to screen travelers will only slow the outbreak, not stop it.

— With assistance by Anthony Capaccio, and Drew Armstrong

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