President Donald Trump speaks during a news conference at the...

President Donald Trump speaks during a news conference at the White House on Wednesday. Credit: AP/Manuel Balce Ceneta

WASHINGTON — President Donald Trump on Wednesday tapped Vice President Mike Pence to lead the federal government’s response to the coronavirus, as lawmakers on Capitol Hill rushed to put together an emergency spending package to pump billions of dollars into combating the fast-moving disease.

Trump, faced with bipartisan criticism over his administration's response to the highly contagious respiratory virus, held a White House press briefing where he sought to assure the nation that his cabinet was “very, very ready” to combat the spread of the illness. 

He described the risk to Americans as “very low” amid warnings from top federal health officials about the inevitable spread of the virus in the United States. It has so far infected 81,000 people worldwide, killing nearly 3,000. 

“We’re ready to adapt and we’re ready to do whatever we have to as the disease spreads, if it spreads,” Trump said in a rare briefing in the White House press briefing room.

Federal officials have reported 60 confirmed cases of coronavirus in the United States, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention said late Wednesday.  

The CDC also announced the first case of an American who contracted the disease by an unknown origin, raising further concerns about the virus’ ability to spread. The infected individual from Northern California has not had contact with anyone with the disease, nor have they traveled to any of the 40 countries where the disease is present.

Flanked by members of his coronavirus task force — including Health and Human Services Secretary Alex Azar — Trump pushed back on criticism from lawmakers on both sides of the aisle who have said the administration has moved too slowly in sounding the alarm about the disease and in developing response plans.

President Donald Trump with members of the President's Coronavirus Task...

President Donald Trump with members of the President's Coronavirus Task Force speaks during a news conference in the Brady Press Briefing Room of the White House, Wednesday, Feb. 26, 2020, in Washington. Credit: AP/Evan Vucci

“You don’t want to see panic, because there’s no reason to be panicked," Trump said, his remarks coming in the midst of growing concern on Wall Street about the long-term economic impact of the global outbreak.  

Dr. Anne Schuchat, deputy director of the CDC, warned that officials “do expect more cases.”

But Trump, when asked if he believed it was inevitable that the disease would further spread in the United States as top health officials have warned, said, “I don’t think it’s inevitable”

Trump, who initially sought only $2.5 billion in federal funding to combat the disease, said he was open to receiving more funding from Congress, after lawmakers described his initial request as too low. Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.) has called for $8.5 billion in emergency funds, while other GOP leaders have suggested $4 billion.

“We’re getting far more than what we asked for and the best thing to do is take it. We’ll take it,” Trump said.

The president raised the possibility of travel restrictions as he urged travelers to use their discretion when making overseas travel plans.

When asked about the possibility of citywide quarantines such as those in the epicenter of the disease — Wuhan, China — Trump replied: “We do have plans on a much larger scale should we need.”

Earlier in the day Azar addressed lawmakers on Capitol Hill in a series of hearings, defending the administration’s response as the “smoothest interagency process” he had seen. 

Azar, pressed by lawmakers, could not provide assurances that any future vaccines to combat the disease would remain affordable.

“We would want to ensure that we work to make it affordable, but we can't control that price, because we need the private sector to invest. Price controls won't get us there,” Azar said.

Speaking later at the president’s news briefing, Azar disputed reports that he was being pushed out of overseeing the government’s response, insisting that he would continue to work alongside Pence.

Trump touted Pence’s experience as governor of Indiana, noting that Pence was at the helm when the state experienced its first case of the viral MERS respiratory disease in 2014.

Pence vowed to work with state and local agencies, saying he understood “the vital role of partnerships of state and local governments and health authorities in responding to the potential threat of dangerous infectious diseases.”

Pence’s appointment sparked backlash among some critics of the administration who noted that Indiana’s Scott County experienced its largest increase in HIV cases during Pence’s tenure, an outbreak that public officials at the time blamed on opioid users sharing dirty needles. Under public pressure Pence eventually lifted a ban on sterile needle exchange programs.

Pence did not respond to questions about the Scott County outbreak shouted at the end of Thursday’s briefing.

From new rides at Adventureland to Long Island's best seafood restaurants to must-see summer concerts, here's your inside look at Newsday's summer Fun Book. Credit: Newsday Staff

Elisa DiStefano kick-starts summer with the Fun Book show From new rides at Adventureland to Long Island's best seafood restaurants to must-see summer concerts, here's your inside look at Newsday's summer Fun Book.

From new rides at Adventureland to Long Island's best seafood restaurants to must-see summer concerts, here's your inside look at Newsday's summer Fun Book. Credit: Newsday Staff

Elisa DiStefano kick-starts summer with the Fun Book show From new rides at Adventureland to Long Island's best seafood restaurants to must-see summer concerts, here's your inside look at Newsday's summer Fun Book.

Latest videos

SUBSCRIBE

Unlimited Digital AccessOnly 25¢for 5 months

ACT NOWSALE ENDS SOON | CANCEL ANYTIME