World Health Organization (WHO) officials on Tuesday warned that the United States is emerging as a new epicenter of the global coronavirus pandemic, as U.S. lawmakers struggle to reach a deal on a legislative package intended to offset the pandemic's economic effects.
WHO warns US could become epicenter of global COVID-19 pandemic
The number of reported cases of COVID-19, the disease caused by the new coronavirus, has surged in the United States over the past few days. As of Tuesday morning, state and federal officials had reported 43,499 cases of COVID-19 in the United States, as more Americans are getting tested for the disease. Officials as of Tuesday morning also had reported 537 deaths linked to the new coronavirus in the United States, up from 195 as of Friday morning.
Globally, officials as of Tuesday morning had reported 382,000 cases of COVID-19 globally and 16,890 deaths related to the new coronavirus.
WHO spokesperson Margaret Harris on Tuesday said about 40% of the COVID-19 cases that were newly reported within the previous 24 hours had occurred in the United States. "We are now seeing a very large acceleration in cases in the [United States]. So it does have that potential" to become an epicenter of the pandemic, she said.
Lawmakers struggle to reach deal on economic stimulus package
In light of the new coronavirus' spread throughout the United States, the Trump administration and federal lawmakers so far have enacted two legislative packages aimed at stimulating the country's economy and protecting workers from income and job losses related to the epidemic. The administration and lawmakers currently are working on a third economic stimulus package, but the deal has faced hurdles in the Senate.
Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) on Friday unveiled an updated version of a nearly $2 trillion economic stimulus package that includes some key health care provisions and would provide cash payments to Americans and funding for businesses. Senators had been working toward holding a final vote on the legislative package on Monday. However, the measure thus far has failed to garner enough votes on a procedural motion to proceed with considering the bill.
Democrats in the Senate have voted against moving forward with the bill because of concerns that the measure does not do enough to protect workers who are laid off as a result of the COVID-19 epidemic, does not provide enough money for local and state governments and hospitals, and gives too much power to the Department of Treasury (DOT) over distributing certain funding to businesses.
Trump administration officials, McConnell, and Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.) have been working to reach a compromise deal on the package. Late Monday, DOT Secretary Steven Mnuchin and Schumer separately said they are close to striking an agreement on the legislation, though there still were several issues with the legislation that needed to be resolved. For example, a Democratic aide said Democrats still had concerns about provisions related to student loans and funding for the airline industry and state governments, the Washington Post reports.
"There are still a couple of open issues," Mnuchin said, but he added, "I think we are very hopeful that this can be closed out [Tuesday]."
Separately, Schumer said, "That's the expectation—that we finish it tomorrow and hopefully vote on it tomorrow evening."
In the midst of the Senate negotiations, House Majority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.)—who has been involved in talks on the Senate bill—on Monday unveiled her own version of the economic stimulus package. Pelosi's $2.5 trillion legislative package includes provisions to dole out $1,500 in direct payments to Americans and includes more than $500 billion to fund interest-free loans and grants for small businesses, as well as $200 billion in funding for states. The legislation also includes funding for airlines and other companies, but would require companies that receive the funding to pay workers at least $15 per hour.
Pelosi's bill also would expand unemployment insurance and paid sick leave requirements, and increase funding for schools and food-assistance programs. Further, the bill includes about $150 billion in funding for community hospitals and $80 billion to fund low-interest loans for hospitals. The legislation also calls for waiving COVID-19 treatment costs, implementing certain measures to protect health workers, and allowing hospitals to qualify for tax credits to offset charity care and facility expansions related to treating COVID-19 patients.
Trump says he wants to reopen businesses within weeks
Meanwhile, President Trump on Monday said he wants to reopen U.S. businesses within weeks, saying continued closures eventually could threaten Americans more than the country's COVID-19 epidemic.
Many states and localities have ordered bars and dining establishments to restrict their services to carry-out and delivery and have ordered entertainment, recreational, and retail facilities to close down completely. Several states have ordered all non-essential businesses to close, and more than a dozen states and several localities as of Monday had urged their residents to stay home as much as possible—with some states implementing lockdowns restricting people's ability to leave their homes.
"We can't have the cure be worse than the problem," Trump said, adding, "We have to open our country because that causes problems that, in my opinion, could be far bigger problems." Trump went on to say that, if U.S. businesses stay closed for months, there "probably [would be] more death from that than anything that we're talking about with respect to the virus."
However, Trump's comments conflict with calls from various public health experts that Americans may have to practice drastic social distancing, such as staying home from work and avoiding in-person social gatherings, for months to curb the new coronavirus' spread and avoid overburdening the country's health care system. Public health experts warned that easing social distancing measures too soon could cause the epidemic to resurge and lead to more illness and death, which ultimately could stress the economy for a longer period of time (Colvin et al., Associated Press, 3/24; Smith et al., New York Times, 3/24; Wilson, The Hill, 3/23; Farge et al., Reuters, 3/24; New York Times, 3/24; Mervosh/Lu, New York Times, 3/24; Cowan/Morgan, Reuters, 3/24; Mascaro et al., Associated Press, 3/24; Werner et al., Washington Post, 3/24; Hughes/Duehren, Wall Street Journal, 3/23; Emma/Scholtes, Politico, 3/23).