Donald Trump has welcomed legislation that will help fund paid sick leave, unemployment insurance, free testing and other measures to help Americans affected by the coronavirus pandemic.
“Good teamwork between Republicans and Democrats as the House passes the big coronavirus relief bill,” the president tweeted on Saturday morning.“People really pulled together. Nice to see!”
Trump’s own response to the outbreak remained subject to extensive criticism, however, particularly after a press conference in the White House Rose Garden on Friday.
The president announced a national emergency, paving the way for billions of dollars to be made accessible to federal and state authorities attempting to slow the fast-moving pandemic.
But Trump also announced a new self-diagnosis website created by Google, only for the tech giant to deny the project was on anything like the scale outlined by Trump and his aides; said “I don’t take responsibility at all” when asked why the US lagged behind other countries in testing for coronavirus; and reacted angrily to a question about why a key White House office for pandemic response was closed in 2018.
Trump has also expressed reluctance to take a test for coronavirus himself, despite possible exposure to sufferers including a member of Brazilian president Jair Bolsonaro’s entourage in Florida last weekend.
In a statement on Friday Trump’s physician, Dr Sean Conley, said there was no need to quarantine the president or implement a coronavirus test. Trump’s encounter with Bolsonaro aide Fabio Wajngarten was “low risk”, the doctor said, adding that another Mar-a-Lago guest who has tested positive also interacted with the president.
On Saturday, the Australian home affairs minister, Peter Dutton, said he did not become contagious with Covid-19 until three days until after a trip to Washington during which he met Ivanka Trump and attorney general William Barr. The US president’s daughter entered self-isolation after Dutton’s condition was reported.
According to the federal Centers for Disease Control and Protection (CDC), there are 1,629 cases of coronavirus in the US with 41 deaths, and 46 states and the District of Columbia have reported infections. Other estimates are higher.
Concerns have been expressed that the US does not have enough hospital beds or ventilators to deal with a crisis of the scale predicted. Authorities are therefore attempting to “flatten the curve” of transmission and prevent hospitals becoming overwhelmed, as has happened in Italy.
As many as 20% of coronavirus infections could require patients to receive mechanical ventilation. If estimates of upwards of 1m or more infections in the US prove accurate, there could me more than 200,000 such severe cases.
According to a Johns Hopkins Center for Health Security study based on data from 2010, US acute care hospitals own about 62,000 full-featured mechanical ventilators. The study, published in February, reported an additional 98,000 ventilators that can provide basic function in an emergency.
“The need for ventilation services during a severe pandemic could quickly overwhelm these day-to-day operational capabilities,” Johns Hopkins warned, while “various other factors constrain the capacity of the US healthcare system to provide ventilation therapy.”
The CDC Strategic National Stockpile (SNS) has an estimated 8,900 ventilators that can be shipped within a day or so. At the White House on Friday, Trump said: “We have ordered a large number of respirators just in case. We hope we don’t need them but we have ordered a large number.”
Across the US, authorities have declared emergencies, many closing schools and restricting public gatherings. In New York City the largest public school system in the US remains open, a key source of support for millions. But pressure on Mayor Bill de Blasio is increasing.
Governor Andrew Cuomo announced on Saturday that New York state had recorded its first coronavirus fatality, an 82-year-old woman with pre-existing medical issues. The governor said the state now had 524 confirmed cases, 117 currently hospitalised, and said officials believe thousands have the virus.
On Capitol Hill, the relief bill passed just before 1am, after two days of talks between the treasury secretary, Steven Mnuchin, and the House speaker, Nancy Pelosi. Agreement came after Trump signaled his support for Democrat-drafted measures.
Pelosi thanked Democrats for their patience. Trump and the speaker, who publicly clashed at the State of the Union address in January, never communicated directly on coronavirus relief.
“While we could have passed this bill on our own,” Pelosi wrote, “I believe it was important for us to assure the American people that we can work together to manage this crisis.”
All “no” votes came from Republicans and one lawmaker, former Republican Justin Amash of Michigan, voted “present”. The House minority leader, Kevin McCarthy, took the rare step of praising Democrats.
“Regardless of the partisanship here, at this time in this place, we will come together to put the American public first,” he said.
The legislation now goes to the Senate, where it is expected to pass after the Republican majority leader, Mitch McConnell, canceled a recess.
The relief bill ensures free testing for those who need it while increasing access to benefits including family medical leave, paid sick leave, unemployment insurance, spending on health insurance for the poor and food programmes for children and the elderly.
A sticking point for some Republicans was a requirement for employers to provide 14 days of paid sick leave at “not less” than two-thirds the regular rate if employees fall sick and are quarantined or treated, or if they have to care for a family member. The agreement expands existing paid family medical cover for those affected to 12 weeks.
On Friday, meanwhile, a federal judge blocked a Trump administration attempt to force nearly 700,000 people off food stamps, a key benefit for poor Americans.In her ruling, district court judge Beryl Howell cited the coronavirus outbreak and said the attempted action was capricious, arbitrary and probably unlawful.