Donald Trump attempted to blunt growing criticism of the stalled federal response to the coronavirus crisis on Sunday night, promising that more help was on the way for states suffering a critical shortage of medical equipment, hospital beds and testing facilities.
As the death toll from Covid-19 in the US rose to 417, with more than 33,000 cases reported nationwide, increasing numbers of state and city leaders fired off warnings to the White House that a tipping point was near.
Warnings were particularly strong from New York, where cases have risen sharply past 15,000 and now account for around half of those in the US.
Bill de Blasio, the mayor of New York city, said earlier in the day hospital supplies including ventilators, masks and surgical gloves would be exhausted within 10 days, while Andrew Cuomo, the governor of New York state, warned that up to 80% of his state’s population of almost 20 million was at risk of contracting the virus.
“It feels like we’re on our own,” de Blasio said on CNN. “We have seen next to nothing from the federal government at this point.”
Trump’s response came at an evening press conference at the White House, during which he acknowledged “a back-up” in some states and reeled off numbers and lists of equipment he said had been ordered for the three worst-hit states, New York, Washington and California, and others.
He also said the US government would be funding “100%” of the costs of national guard deployment to assist in the supply chain, said he had approved major disaster declarations for New York and Washington states and that the army corps of engineers would be available for the construction of field hospitals providing thousands of new beds.
“Whatever the states can get, they should be getting,” the president said.
“There’s sort of a back up for the states, and some of the states are doing really well and some don’t do as well. The ones that don’t do as well need more help. But these are three states that really do need help because they are hit really hard.”
Cuomo had urged the president to invoke the powers of the Defense Production Act for the government to assume the acquisition and distribution of medical supplies and prevent states having to compete with each other for essential equipment. He said masks that would usually cost 85 cents were costing his state, where more than 15,000 have the virus and 117 have died, about $7 apiece.
But Trump insisted that private companies stepping up to manufacture much-needed equipment was the way to go. “Doing it the way we’re doing it is much better,” he said. “We have the threat of doing it if we need it but we have millions of masks being done, ventilators, respirators, we have a lot of good things happening right now.
“Companies are calling us, General Motors spoke to us about doing ventilators. If I call companies and say, ‘you build us ventilators,’ they don’t even know what a ventilator is.”
Trump also suggested that hospitals could sterilize facemasks so they could be reused.
Dems block rescue bill over lack of worker aid
Meanwhile, in the US Senate, Democrats blocked legislation that would have pumped $1tn into the US economy, claiming the Republican-crafted bill favored corporate interests over hospitals, healthcare workers, cities and states. Earlier, the treasury secretary, Steven Mnuchin, was touting the stimulus that would have put $3,000 into the hands of most American families.
The failure forces the two parties back to the negotiating table on Monday. Nancy Pelosi, the House speaker, said Democrats might craft their own legislation proposals. “We’re going to work with everybody to see if we can get something done,” Trump said. “We have to help the American worker.”
A number of US senators were weighing up a decision to self-quarantine after news emerged that Kentucky Republican Rand Paul had tested positive for Covid-19. Paul, 57, was swimming at the Senate gym on Sunday morning, according to CNN, and had taken lunch with several colleagues in recent days, although his office insisted he was asymptomatic.
“All the senators are going to seek medical advice as to what action we should take to make sure that we don’t in any way spread the virus ourselves,” the Utah senator Mitt Romney told reporters. “We have to determine whether any of us should self-quarantine as a result of being in the same room.”
Soon after Romney spoke, he and Utah senator Mike Lee both entered voluntary quarantine. Trump, a fierce critic of Romney since the former presidential candidate was the only Republican to vote for impeachment in his recent senate trial, expressed sarcastic sympathy. “Gee, that’s too bad,” he said.
Earlier in the press conference, Trump had attempted to strike a reassuring tone that critics have pointed out was absent from prior press conferences.
“For those worried and afraid, please know that as long as I am your president you can feel confident that you have a leader who will always fight for you and I will not stop until we win,” he said.
Trump also praised Cuomo, and said that four new field hospitals providing 1,000 beds, a hospital ship soon to arrive in New York and increasing urgency on sending medical supplies were in response to the governor’s call for help.
“Time matters, minutes count and this is literally a matter of life and death,” Cuomo said at his own Sunday press conference.
Also on Sunday, Ohio and Louisiana joined states such as Illinois, New York and California in issuing stay-at-home orders for residents, coming into effect Monday evening. All non-essential businesses will close, although grocery stores and gas stations are among those permitted to remain open.
Earlier this week, the Hawaii governor, David Ige, instituted a mandatory 14-day self-quarantine for anyone traveling to the state. Violating the order is now a misdemeanor punishable by a $5,000 fine or imprisonment of up to a year.
There is also doubt whether the summer Olympic Games in Tokyo will take place. Leaders of the International Olympic Committee say they will decide in the next four weeks whether to press ahead with the event currently scheduled to begin 24 July.