The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention said the U.S. should prepare for the spread of a new coronavirus even as President Trump downplayed the domestic risk Tuesday, sparking suspicion on Capitol Hill and sending Wall Street into a tailspin for a second day.
Of the total 57 U.S. cases, 14 were discovered on American soil. Only two people were infected in the U.S., and the virus was spread by spouses who had traveled. Yet the CDC said it is time for workers, parents and schools to steel themselves for local transmission as cases surge in South Korea, Iran and Italy.
“Ultimately, we expect we will see community spread in this country. It’s not so much a question of ‘if’ this will happen anymore but rather more a question of ‘when’ this will happen and how many people in this country will have severe illness,” said Dr. Nancy Messonnier, a top CDC official.
She said the public must be prepared to mitigate the spread of the virus and that strategies may differ in each community.
The CDC put Americans on notice even as Mr. Trump said the situation is under control and that patients in the U.S. seem to be recovering from the disease the virus causes, COVID-19.
“I think that whole situation will start working out,” he said during a press conference in India.
Investors aren’t so sure. Wall Street had a major sell-off for the second straight day as cases surged to nearly 1,000 in South Korea, 100 in Iran and more than 300 in Italy, suggesting the pathogen has a foothold on various continents.
The Dow Jones Industrial Average lost nearly 900 points, or 3.15% of its value. The S&P 500 and Nasdaq composite index each fell about 3%.
Mr. Trump has a lot riding on the response to the virus. He faces reelection this year, and the economy and booming stock market are key selling points of his campaign.
Members of Congress on Tuesday expressed a mix of comfort and unease with Mr. Trump’s plan to spend $2.5 billion — including $1 billion in new funding — to pursue a vaccine, develop therapeutics and stockpile protective equipment.
Sen. Mitt Romney, Utah Republican, said the U.S. is “substantially underinvesting” in the problem, and Democrats said the request is too low and fails to make up for budget cuts.
Other Republicans said the request looked about right but warned the administration that it had better be sure.
“We want to help the administration, and we want to help you do your job. But if you lowball something like this, you’ll pay for it later,” Sen. Richard C. Shelby, Alabama Republican, told Health and Human Services Secretary Alex Azar.
The CDC said U.S.-based cases include 12 travelers from the epicenter in Wuhan, China, and two of their spouses who were exposed in the U.S. A trio of Americans repatriated from Wuhan and 40 former passengers of the Diamond Princess cruise ship docked in Japan accounted for “imported cases,” for 57 total.
Mr. Azar said it does not plan to lift its travel restrictions on people entering from China despite a decline in new cases at the source of the outbreak in Hubei province, which still accounts for the vast share of cases since the outbreak began in December.
CDC officials said they don’t expect transmission in the U.S. to be nearly as bad as the outbreak unfolding in China, where more than 2,000 people have died, but they want to instill good practices now.
They said people should be covering their mouths when coughing and washing their hands. Americans should also be prepared for school closures and other “social distancing” measures if things worsen. Employees must consider whether they can telework, or if they can arrange child care if day-care centers close.
Dr. Messonnier, who directs the CDC’s National Center for Immunization and Respiratory Diseases, said she told her children to be ready for disruptions, even if it is unclear what they might look like.
“We are asking the American public to work with us to prepare in the expectation that this could be bad,” she said. “I continue to hope that, in the end, we’ll look back and feel like we are overprepared. But that is a better place to be in than underprepared.”
Anne Schuchat, principal deputy CDC director, said those comments were “an educational moment” intended to frame what “might happen” in American communities.
“She wasn’t telling you anything that you needed to do now,” Dr. Anthony Fauci, director of infectious diseases research at the National Institutes of Health, told reporters seeking clarification. “If you need to mitigate, these are the kind of things you might want to think of.”
Mr. Azar struck a balance before Congress. He said Mr. Trump’s tough measures have limited cases but warned about potential flare-ups in the U.S.
“We cannot hermetically seal off the United States to a virus,” Mr. Azar told the Senate Appropriations Committee.
Yet investors are seeing a drag on the global economy from the virus. It brought the most populous country, China, to a standstill and is hitting close to Italy’s economic engine in Milan.
The Middle East is also a worry because of ongoing strife and its weak health care systems. Iran said nearly 100 people have contracted the virus, including Deputy Health Minister Iraj Harirchi, who guided the response. It was not clear how he was infected, though he was mopping his brow during a press conference Monday.
South Korea reported nearly 1,000 infections and its 11th death. Most of the cases are centered on the southeastern city of Daegu and the surrounding province, though the capital city of Seoul has reported cases.
The CDC told travelers to avoid nonessential travel to South Korea, prompting U.S. airlines to waive cancellation fees for trips to Seoul.
Defense Secretary Mark Esper said Tuesday that the U.S. and South Korea might scale back joint military exercises because of fears about the virus’ spread on the Korean peninsula.
Neighboring Japan is set to kick off the Summer Olympic Games on July 24 in Tokyo, and the outbreak has raised concerns about the host city. Japan has reported 170 cases, other than the Diamond Princess cruise ship that was docked in Yokohama, and recorded over 600 infections.
Dick Pound, a senior member of the International Olympics Committee, said Tuesday that the deadline for deciding whether to develop a contingency plan for the Summer Games is about three months out.
“As far as we all know, you’re going to be in Tokyo,” he told The Associated Press. “All indications are at this stage that it will be business as usual. So keep focused on your sport and be sure that the IOC is not going to send you into a pandemic situation.”
Congress, meanwhile, continued to digest Mr. Trump’s plan to repurpose $500 million from the Ebola fight to the new battle. The White House also plans to tap funding from other sources, prompting an outcry from Democrats who say Mr. Trump is weakening agencies without backfilling funding.
“It’s absurd to me you’re proposing cuts at the same time you’re proposing a supplemental on the same topic,” Sen. Brian Schatz, Hawaii Democrat, told Mr. Azar.
Other Democrats said the request was simply inadequate and cited President Obama’s plea for more than $6 billion to combat Ebola during his second term.
Mr. Trump chafed at the complaints and said Democrats, including Senate Minority Leader Charles E. Schumer, will never be satisfied.
“If I gave more, he would say it should be less,” Mr. Trump said.
Republican senators who attended a closed-door briefing said Mr. Trump’s request isn’t the final word on the response to the virus.
“If it is not enough, we’ll appropriate some more. We have to have a balance here. Ten days ago, we had 14 cases in the United States, and today we have 14,” said Sen. Lamar Alexander, Tennessee Republican and chairman of the Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee, referring to cases that didn’t involve repatriation.
Other senators complained that they were getting conflicting information.
Sen. John Kennedy, Louisiana Republican, exploded at acting Homeland Security Secretary Chad Wolf after he was unable to detail projections for the virus’ trajectory in the U.S.
“You’re supposed to keep us safe, and the American people deserve some straight answers on the coronavirus. And we’re not getting them,” Mr. Kennedy said.
Mr. Wolf said he is taking cues from HHS.
Later Tuesday, Mr. Kennedy told Mr. Azar that Mr. Wolf seemed to believe a vaccine could be developed within a month and a half. The HHS secretary said that time frame is impossible and it would take up to a year.
“Maybe you ought to talk to the secretary of Homeland Security,” the senator said, “before he spreads that too far.”
Stephen Dinan contributed to this report.
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