US declares emergency; world steps up fight against virus
WASHINGTON — The Associated Press
A man walks through the empty hall of Terminal II at the airport in Munich, Germany, on March 13, 2020. (AP Photo)
The United States declared a state of emergency on March 13 as many European countries went on a war footing amid mounting deaths as the world mobilized to fight the widening coronavirus pandemic.
At the White House, where President Donald Trump made the emergency decree, drug company executives vowed to work together and with the government to quickly expand the country’s coronavirus testing capabilities, which are far behind those in many countries.
“We will defeat this threat,” Trump told a news conference. “When America is tested, America rises to the occasion.”
While the aggressive spread of the virus in Europe, North America and the Middle East has dashed any hopes for quick containment, dozens of countries have imposed increasingly severe measures over the past couple days — shutting borders, expanding testing, closing school for tens of millions of children and ordering tens of thousands of businesses to close their doors — to try to face down the disease.
The U.S. emergency decree will open up $50 billion for state and local governments to respond to the outbreak, said Trump, who also gave the secretary of health and human services emergency powers to waive federal regulations to give doctors and hospitals “flexibility” in treating patients.
As the U.S. struggles to slow the spread of the virus, the governors of six states — Florida, Iowa, Louisiana, New York, Rhode Island and Washington – sought National Guard troops.
Trump’s announcement came as tens of millions of students around the world faced weeks without classes, security forces went on standby to guard against large gatherings, and bars, restaurants and offices closed.
While the new coronavirus can be deadly, particularly for the elderly and people with other health problems, for most people it causes only mild or moderate symptoms, such as fever and cough. Some feel no symptoms at all and the vast majority of people recover.
But the spreading pandemic showed that power and influence offer no protection. Among those testing positive were the Canadian prime minister’s wife, a top aide to Iran’s supreme leader, Miami’s mayor, a Brazilian official who met with Trump, and an Australian Cabinet minister who met with the U.S. attorney general and Trump’s daughter, Ivanka.
Pressed by reporters, Trump, who also met with the Brazilian official, said he will “most likely” be tested for the virus “fairly soon,” reversing an earlier White House statement.
Channeling wartime rhetoric and tactics in the face of a microscopic enemy, leaders appealed for solidarity to battle a threat that appeared to expand exponentially. They vowed to protect not just the sick, but those sacrificing their livelihoods and education for the greater good. But new border checks were also on the rise, showing that solidarity had its limits in the face of a fast-moving threat.
In Europe, stocks clawed back some of their losses with promises of financial support from the European Commission, France and Germany, while in the U.S., stocks surged after Trump’s announcement. The Dow Jones Industrial Average jumped nearly 2,000 points — its biggest point gain ever.
At the same time, new infections in Italy soared by more than 2,500 and virus-related deaths made their biggest single-day jump there, increasing by 250. In the three weeks since the country identified its first virus cluster, Italy has reached a total of 17,600 confirmed cases, with 1,266 deaths. The government has ordered an unprecedented lockdown, ordering businesses to close and restricting movement.
“Europe has now become the epicenter of the pandemic,” said World Health Organization Director-General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus. “More cases are now being reported every day than were reported in China at the height of its epidemic.”
New infections also rose sharply in Spain, and the government put 60,000 people in four towns on a mandatory lockdown on March 13 that echoed Italy’s. In Madrid, which is struggling with nearly 2,000 infections, many in nursing homes, the government was pooling intensive care units and considering offers by hotel chains to transform rooms into sick wards.
In just 24 hours, the numbers of confirmed cases spiked ominously in some places: France saw an additional 800 cases to reach more than 3,600 by on March 13; Britain went from 590 to 798 and New York state jumped 30 percent, hitting 421. In Africa, where experts warn that containment is key because of the continent’s already-strained health care systems, six new countries confirmed infections.
Cases topped 1,700 across the U.S., where thousands of schools have been closed, concerts and sporting events canceled and even Broadway theaters shut down. Trump has halted his trademark political rallies, following the lead of Democratic rivals Joe Biden and Bernie Sanders.
The spread of the virus in Europe, North America and the Middle East has drawn contrasts with waning outbreaks in the hardest-hit nations in Asia. China, where the virus emerged late last year, still accounts for more than 60% of global infections but reported just eight new cases on March 13 and seven deaths.
In South Korea, which has had more than 8,000 cases overall, on March 13 marked the first day that recoveries outnumbered new infections. It reported another 107 cases Saturday.
In the U.S., hospitals were setting up circus-like triage tents, calling doctors out of retirement, guarding their supplies of face masks and making plans to cancel elective and non-emergency surgeries as they brace for an expected onslaught of coronavirus patients in the coming weeks.
Trump, who on on March 12 ordered a 30-day travel ban for most foreign visitors coming to the U.S. from continental Europe, dismissed criticism that his administration has faced for the slow rollout of testing in the U.S., saying “I don’t take responsibility at all” for the problem.
The public-private partnership that Trump announced at the White House will include drive-thru testing in some areas — something already being done in South Korea and Germany — and an online portal to screen those seeking to get tested.
Late on March 13, U.S. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi announced a deal with the Trump administration for an aid package that would provide free tests, sick pay for workers and bolster food programs. The U.S. House was poised to vote on the deal.
Across America, where millions of children depend on school lunches as their main meals, schools were cobbling together ways to keep kids fed, from distributing grand-and-go meal sacks to cafeterias that remained open even as classrooms closed.
In Italy, the town of Codogno, which had all but shut down hours after recording the country’s first locally spread coronavirus infection, showed that changing habits do make a difference. New infections have slowed drastically there compared to the rest of Italy, where draconian measures came far later.
“More than a sigh of relief, there was some concern over the risk that all of the sacrifices were in vain,” said Mayor Francesco Passerini.
New travel restrictions sprang up practically by the hour on March 13: Switzerland, Sri Lanka, Portugal, the Czech Republic — all started barring entry to Europeans considered at risk. Ukraine announced it would halt all passenger air traffic, Poland said anyone entering the country will be put under a 14-day quarantine, while the Czech Republic and Slovakia have stopped almost all movement in and out of their countries. The European Union urged member countries to put health screening procedures in place at their borders.
Canada and Denmark joined the U.S. in advising citizens to avoid trips abroad, and Americans in Europe caught increasingly rare trans-Atlantic flights back home.