President Donald Trump declared a federal state of emergency as the COVID-19 pandemic continues to spread throughout the US. The move frees up additional funding that will allow the government to address the effects of the pandemic.
“I am officially declaring a national emergency,” Trump said today. “Two very big words.”
The declaration opens access to $50 billion, Trump said. The federal government is asking states to open emergency operation centers and is directing hospitals to enact their emergency preparedness plans.
Trump claimed that Google is also creating a website that will screen people who think they have symptoms of COVID-19, the disease caused by the novel coronavirus, and direct them to testing locations. According to Google, that is not the case: instead, Verily, a division of Google’s parent company, is creating a trial website for the Bay Area only.
A parade of executives from private companies joined Trump in the press conference to discuss their efforts. Walmart, Walgreens, CVS, and Target CEOs said they will be using their store parking lots as coronavirus testing sites.
In addition, a number of biotech and health care companies are joining the response. Becton Dickinson is ramping up its manufacturing capacity to make sure there are enough collection devices and testing equipment available. Quest Diagnostics, a testing company, said they will be using the Roche test as soon as this weekend. Signify Health, a provider of house calls, will provide its physicians as needed. LabCorp is working with academic medical centers, Quest, hospitals, and other labs to increase testing as much as possible. Executives for all of these companies spoke briefly at the Rose Garden today.
“I trust that people around the country are looking on at this extraordinary public and private partnership to address the issue of testing with particular inspiration,” said Vice President Mike Pence.
Trump also announced that he would be waiving interest on federal student loans.
This federal state of emergency is different from the public health state of emergency that the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) declared at the end of January. That declaration gave HHS more flexibility to assist local and state health departments and modify Medicare and Medicaid requirements, among other powers.
The US response to the pandemic has been significantly slower and less effective than in some other countries because of problems in developing and rolling out tests for the virus. Trump had previously resisted calls to issue an emergency declaration, reportedly concerned that it would go against his assertions that the novel coronavirus outbreak was under control.
Test capacity is gradually increasing. It has been far too difficult for people who suspect they have been infected with the virus to receive a test. “I don’t take any responsibility at all” on testing shortages to date, Trump said in today’s briefing.
US hospitals are also concerned about shortages of equipment, like ventilators, needed to help patients with severe cases of COVID-19 breathe. “We’re in full inventory of all of our assets,” said Deborah Birx, who is coordinating the White House’s novel coronavirus response.
So far, over 136,000 cases of COVID-19 have been reported around the world. Over 5,000 people have died. In the US, over 1,200 cases have been identified, and that number is expected to rise in the coming days. It’s impossible to predict when the outbreak will peak or how long it will last, said Anthony Fauci, director of the National Institutes of Allergy and Infectious Diseases.
Correction March 13th, 6:25PM ET: Google did not build a website, as Trump claimed. After publication, a spokeswoman for Verily, another division of Alphabet, Google’s parent company, clarified that a much smaller trial website will be built for people in the Bay Area.