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Coronavirus: Trump to tackle public health, economy amid COVID-19 whirlwind

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WASHINGTON (AP) — As fears about the coronavirus outbreak roiled financial markets, the nation’s political leaders grappled Monday with a public health and economic maelstrom — as well as concerns for their own safety.

The spread of the virus moved ever closer to U.S. President Donald Trump as close congressional confidants — including one who traveled on Air Force One with him Monday — moved to quarantine themselves after exposure to a person infected with the virus. This, as the White House said it was “conducting business as usual,” and Trump sought to project calm as the epidemic poses one of the greatest tests yet to his administration.

Trump officials argued that they had the matter well in hand, and charged political opponents with rooting for an economic collapse. On Capitol Hill, at least five lawmakers were in self-quarantine as discussions were underway on how to address the virus outbreak and economic volatility and keep the government functioning.

Trump dove into shake hands with supporters Monday morning when arriving to headline a fundraiser in Longwood, Florida, that raised approximately US$4 million for his reelection campaign and the Republican Party. He ignored shouted questions about the plunging stock market as he boarded Air Force One for the flight back to Washington.

In Monday morning tweets, Trump lashed out at the steep market drop and news that large public gatherings were being called off because of the virus.

“At this moment there are 546 confirmed cases of CoronaVirus, with 22 deaths,” Trump tweeted, comparing it to seasonal influenza and the thousands of deaths that causes. “Think about that!”

Scientists at this stage don’t know what the death rate of the new coronavirus actually is and whether it will wind up being about the same as flu or worse.

At the same time, administration officials were insistent that they weren’t trying to dismiss public concerns. “This is a very serious health problem,” Health and Human Services Secretary Alex Azar told Fox News.

At the Pentagon, officials have begun “social distancing” measures. On Monday, Defense Secretary Mark Esper’s regular meeting with senior staff, which normally would be held face-to-face in a single room with 40 to 50 participants, was broken up into three rooms, with video-teleconferencing among the rooms, according to the Pentagon’s chief spokesman, Jonathan Hoffman. He said Esper and the 15 to 20 people in his room, including Gen. Mark Milley, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, sat at least six feet apart, in line with health guidance.

Trump was delegating much of the virus response to Vice President Mike Pence, who convened a video teleconference to give an update on the federal government’s virus response Monday afternoon with the nation’s governors. Pence was also scheduled to lead a meeting of the administration’s task force on Monday before holding a press briefing.

On Capitol Hill, where many lawmakers are older and have frequent constant contact with the public, leaders were fielding questions from members and staff about how the complex will be secured. Leaders have so far shown little willingness to close the Capitol, but meetings were scheduled throughout the day to discuss preparations.

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