White House to discuss coronavirus battle plan as stock markets plunge

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – U.S. President Donald Trump will meet with Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin and other economic officials on Monday to weigh possible actions to stem the fallout from a widening coronavirus outbreak, an administration official told Reuters.

Traders work on the floor of the New York Stock Exchange (NYSE) in New York, U.S., March 9, 2020. REUTERS/Bryan R Smith

The Trump administration, which has played down the threat posed by the outbreak, is weighing a number of potential policy steps, including paid sick leave, the official said on condition of anonymity.

The number of confirmed U.S. cases of coronavirus was at 566, including 22 deaths, according to state public health authorities and a running national tally kept by the Johns Hopkins University.

About three-fourths of the 50 U.S. states have reported infections of the respiratory illness COVID-19 that can lead to pneumonia.

U.S. stock markets, which have sold off in the past two weeks on fears the coronavirus outbreak would push the global economy into a recession, plummeted at the open of trading on Monday, triggering a trading halt on the New York Stock Exchange. Major U.S. indexes were down more than 4% in late-morning trading.

Asked about the latest stock market plunge, U.S. Health secretary Alex Azar told reporters the federal government was working aggressively on the crisis. “We’re taking COVID-19 incredibly seriously,” he said.

Trump, often points to the stock market as a gauge of his economic record, criticized news media organizations’ coverage of the outbreak in a tweet and accused Democrats of hyping the situation “far beyond what the facts would warrant.”

The Republican president did not have any coronavirus-related events on his schedule heading into Monday.

DISRUPTIONS

The coronavirus outbreak, which originated in China late last year, has spread to at least 105 countries and territories. More than 110,000 people have been infected and about 3,800 have died. Italy, which has the second-highest death toll, has sealed off much of its wealthy industrial north in an effort to contain the outbreak.

As the flu-like illness spreads, daily life in United States has been increasingly disrupted, with concerts and conferences canceled and universities telling students to stay home and take classes online.

Anthony Fauci, head of infectious diseases at the U.S. National Institutes of Health, told CNN the outbreak was evolving and the United States was in a “fog of war” similar to the early days of the HIV and bird flu epidemics.

Fauci and other health officials say older Americans, especially those with chronic medical concerns, probably should avoid big social gatherings, cruise ships and airline flights, given the rapid spread of coronavirus.

Warnings from Fauci and others about the need for greater “social distancing” – the practice of minimizing unnecessary contact in public settings – came amid disclosure of a high-profile example of the risks now inherent in large gatherings.

Senator Ted Cruz and U.S. Representative Paul Gosar announced over the weekend that they would self-quarantine after coming in contact at a conservative political conference with an attendee who later tested positive for the virus.

Trump and Vice President Mike Pence, who is heading the administration’s response to the crisis, also attended the conference. The White House said there is no indication they came into contact with the infected attendee.

White House spokeswoman Stephanie Grisham told Fox News she was confident Trump would not get sick. The president “is quite a handwasher. He uses hand sanitizer. He’s not concerned about this at all.”

As recently as Saturday, Trump said he would continue to hold political rallies, which sometimes draw up to 20,000 people. The leading Democrats competing to challenge him in the Nov. 3 presidential election, Senator Bernie Sanders and former Vice President Joe Biden, have not canceled any campaign events so far.

CRUISE SHIP CRISIS

The hardest-hit place in the United States has been a nursing home in the Seattle suburb of Kirkland, and Washington state is considering mandatory measures such as banning large gatherings but not necessarily imposing massive quarantines.

The Life Care Center nursing facility has accounted for 13 of 18 confirmed coronavirus-related deaths in Washington state.

In California, officials are moving ahead with a plan to offload 2,400 passengers aboard the Grand Princess cruise ship, which was barred from returning to San Francisco last week due to a coronavirus outbreak on board.

Most of the passengers will go to quarantine centers at four military bases across the country, with those requiring immediate medical attention going to hospitals. The crew of 1,100 will be quarantined and treated aboard the ship, unless they are in need of acute care off the vessel.

The ship was ordered to remain at sea last week after a group of passengers and crew developed flu-like symptoms, and health officials learned some passengers from an earlier cruise aboard the same vessel had later contracted coronavirus. One has died.

California has more than 100 confirmed cases.

The number of people who have tested positive across New York state increased to 142, up from 105 a day earlier, Governor Andrew Cuomo said on Monday.

Slideshow (3 Images)

Most of the cases are in Westchester county, where a Manhattan lawyer believed to be at the center of the outbreak there resides, Cuomo told a news conference.

Rick Cotton, executive director of the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey which controls airports and other major travel hubs, has tested positive for the coronavirus and will be quarantined and working from home, Cuomo added.

Reporting by Steve Holland, Susan Heavey and Lisa Lambert in Washington and Nathan Layne in New York; Writing by Paul Simao; Editing by Jonathan Oatis and Bill Berkrot

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