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Congress, White House move swiftly on new virus efforts

WASHINGTON — President Donald Trump was considering a national disaster declaration and new travel advisories while Congress unveiled a coronavirus aid package as Washington raced Wednesday to confront the outbreak that’s moving dramatically across the country and disrupting the daily lives of Americans.

After days of trying to downplay the threat, Trump announced he would be delivering a prime-time Oval Office address to the nation Wednesday at 9 p.m. on the federal response to the coronavirus pandemic.

The swiftly mounting effort to contain the outbreak and financial fallout intensified on a grueling day as the number of confirmed cases of the infection topped 1,000 in the U.S. and the World Health Organization declared that the global crisis is now a pandemic. Communities nationwide canceled public events in the hopes of halting the spread of the infection.

Testifying on Capitol Hill, Dr. Anthony Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, warned that the outbreak in the U.S. is going to get worse.

“I can say we will see more cases, and things will get worse than they are right now,” Fauci told the House Oversight and Reform Committee. Facing questions from lawmakers, Fauci explained, “It is 10 times more lethal than the seasonal flu.” The hearing was abruptly paused as he and other high-level officials rushed back to the White House for meetings.

After days of mixed signals and partisan differences, Washington considered action.

“I am fully prepared to use the full power of the Federal Government to deal with our current challenge of the CoronaVirus!” Trump tweeted before a meeting with bankers in which he assured that “we are going to get the problem solved.”

“Now we’re hitting a patch and we’re going to have to do something with respect to getting rid of this virus as quickly as possible and as safely as possible,” he said.

Among other measures, officials were considering placing a “Level 3 Health Travel Notice” on the entire European Union. Such a notice would recommend that Americans avoid nonessential travel to the region and quarantine themselves for 14 days after returning home.

“As you know, we have another part of the world, Europe, that is in very tough shape, having a hard time right now with the virus,” Trump said during a meeting with bankers to discuss how the financial services industry can help consumers and small businesses affected by the outbreak.

Treasury Secretary Steve Mnuchin noted that Trump’s executive authorities are “quite significant” and said the administration would be quickly rolling out “various proposals” as it works with Congress “on a bipartisan basis to be able to immediately help small and medium-sized businesses as well.”

Yet there was confusion at the White House, even as officials began to come to grips with the enormous gravity of the situation. Vice President Mike Pence met with hospital and health industry leaders in the Roosevelt Room — but reporters who had gathered to observe it were ultimately not invited in.

“The Trump Administration continues its aggressive whole-of-government approach while also leading a whole-of-America strategy to bring public health officials, academia, non-profits, and the private sector together to protect the American people,” the White House said.

House Speaker Nancy Pelosi planned to unveil the economic assistance package, with voting possible as soon as Thursday, on sick pay and other measures to help those self-quarantining or missing work as officials encourage people to limit social interactions to slow the rise of infections.

After lawmakers from both parties rebuffed Trump’s proposed payroll tax break, bipartisan support appeared to be forming for the House’s package, which would focus on more immediate issues — sick pay, unemployment benefits, free tests and other resources for American suddenly hit by the crisis.

“Right now we’re trying to deal with the direct impact of the virus on individual citizens,” House Budget Committee Chairman John Yarmuth, D-Ky., said Wednesday as Democrats met behind closed doors. “So paid family leave, making sure the tests are free to everybody, boosting unemployment insurance and so forth. That’s immediate. That’s tomorrow.”

Mnuchin, whom Trump tapped to negotiate with the Democratic leader, agreed with the need for fast action.

“We urge Congress to pass legislation quickly,” Mnuchin testified on Capitol Hill.

Mnuchin told lawmakers there will be a “large number” of workers who will need to self-quarantine or stay home with family members — comparing the costs to a natural disaster that would require federal aid.

“We think it is appropriate for the government to pick up those costs. This is a little bit like a hurricane, and we need to cover these outside of normal expenses,” Mnuchin said.

To that end, the administration floated several strategies, including the rare idea of declaring national disaster that could potentially unlock funding streams, according to a person unauthorized to discuss the planning and granted anonymity.

A major disaster declaration provides additional authorities for federal agencies, including the military, to assist in responding to an emergency, including medical care, sheltering and distributing goods.

The White House was also considering other measures, including delaying the April 15 federal tax deadline for some taxpayers in a bid to soften the impact of the virus outbreak on the U.S. economy.

And they rolled out new recommendations for the counties most impacted by the virus in Washington state and California, while authorizing Health and Human Services Secretary Alex Azar to take whatever steps necessary to increase the supply of face masks available to doctors and nurses by providing them with masks intended for industrial use.

The GOP leader in the House, Rep. Kevin McCarthy of California, signaled potential Republican support for the funding package being assembled in Congress.

“We need to do something,” McCarthy said. “I think the things that will be put forth will not be as controversial, and I think they could become very bipartisan.”

The president was promoting an economic stimulus package as the financial markets reel. They nosedived at the start of the week, climbed back up and then fell again Wednesday. But lawmakers from both political parties roundly panned Trump’s call for a payroll tax holiday or industry aid as they focus on stopping the virus spread and helping households.

Pelosi’s goal is to pass a more narrowly drawn measure as soon as Thursday, before lawmakers leave town for a previously scheduled weeklong recess, and revisit potential stimulus measures later on, those familiar with the thinking said. They were not authorized to speak publicly and spoke on condition of anonymity.

“We don’t think they should just throw money out of an airplane and hope some of it lands on the people who are affected,” said Senate Democratic leader Chuck Schumer, who proposed additional measures including cash infusions for small businesses and student loan forbearance.

For most people, the new coronavirus causes only mild or moderate symptoms, such as fever and cough. For some, especially older adults and people with existing health problems, it can cause more severe illness, including pneumonia.

The vast majority of people recover from the new virus. According to the World Health Organization, people with mild illness recover in about two weeks, while those with more severe illness may take three to six weeks to recover. In mainland China, where the virus first exploded, more than 80,000 people have been diagnosed, and more than 58,000 have so far recovered.

In Washington, tourists still arrived for springtime visits with crowds at the U.S. Capitol, but lawmakers were instructed by the House’s attending physician to step up their social-distancing practices — avoiding “shaking hands, giving/receiving hugs, taking selfies, etc.”