U.S. President Donald Trump has declared a national emergency, clearing the way for more federal aid to stream to states and cities to combat the coronavirus pandemic.
"We will defeat this threat,” Trump said Friday afternoon during a nationally televised news conference from the White House Rose Garden.
Trump, who has declared five previous national emergencies, had come under increasing pressure, especially from opposition Democrats, in recent days to take such action as governors and mayors across the United States declared states of emergency, ordering the cancellation of public gatherings and closures of schools.
The action by the president will free up tens of billions of dollars in funding in the Disaster Relief Fund. It allows a state to request the federal government pay for 75% of costs for such expenses as emergency workers, medical supplies, and tests and vaccinations to respond to the virus, which some epidemiologists warn could soon overwhelm the country’s health care system.
"States are to set up emergency operation centers immediately, and all hospitals are to activate their emergency operation plans," Trump said.
He also announced purchasing large quantities of oil for the national strategic petroleum reserve.
"We're going to fill it right up to the top," he said.
Trump also said he is ordering that interest payments on federal student loans be waived until further notice.
Early Saturday, the House passed the Families First Coronavirus Response Act with a vote of 363 - 40.
The bill includes two weeks of paid sick leave for those affected, improved unemployment insurance and a bolstered lunch program for schoolchildren, among other elements intended to lessen the economic impact of COVID-19 on American families.
President Trump said in a post on Twitter that he supports the bill.
The Republican controlled Senate will take up the bill next week, and Trump's support means the measure is likely to be approved.
Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell said in a statement early Saturday the American people "deserve swift assistance with the economic fallout from the virus." McConnell added that he had canceled the Senate's state work period next week, allowing the lawmakers to work on the legislation, and that he believed "the vast majority of Senators in both parties will agree" that swift action is needed to "secure relief for American workers, families, and small businesses."
Cases of the coronavirus have now been reported in 49 of the 50 U.S. states. Only West Virginia has not reported any cases.
Only about 1% of the more than 145,000 cases of the COVID-19 disease are in the United States, but public health officials are bracing for a much larger number of patients. Some officials say the number may actually be much larger because of limited testing conducted, so far, for the coronavirus infection.
The largest U.S. cluster of deaths from the coronavirus is in the state of Washington, where 37 deaths have been reported so far.
In a nationally televised addressed Wednesday night, Trump restricted travel for 30 days, effective Friday at midnight, from most European countries with the notable exception of Britain.
He confirmed that the federal government is partnering with the private sector to set up drive-through testing sites for the coronavirus amid frustration expressed by people who suspect they may be infected but cannot get tested.
The plan was discussed Friday during a meeting between White House officials and executives of the retail, pharmaceutical and technology sectors.
The spread of the virus has unsettled global markets, with U.S. prices for securities dropping more than 20% on average from recent highs amid negative investor sentiment.
The Dow Jones Industrial Average surged late Friday, finishing with a gain of nearly 2,000 points or 9.4% to end the week, recovering most of Thursday's losses.
"These short-term sacrifices will produce long-term gains," Trump said Friday, acknowledging the spread of the coronavirus "could get worse. The next eight weeks are critical."
During the Rose Garden news conference, with Vice President Mike Pence and members of the White House’s coronavirus task force at the podium, Trump was asked repeatedly about him coming in close contact at his resort at Mar-a-Lago last weekend with a Brazilian official now known to have COVID-19.
The president initially responded, "I don't have any of the symptoms" and thus there is no need for him to be tested.
Later, when asked again about the encounter, Trump stated: “I didn't say I wasn't going to be tested” and that he “most likely” would have the nasal swab done “fairly soon.”
On Monday, the leaders of the Group of Seven leading industrialized countries are to hold a video conference to discuss the pandemic.
"We will coordinate research efforts on a vaccine and treatments, and work on an economic and financial response,” French President Emmanuel Macron announced via Twitter.
The epicenter of the pandemic, which originated in China, is now Europe, World Health Organization Director Dr. Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus said.