With stock markets falling again on Friday amid fears of a worldwide coronavirus pandemic, Federal Reserve President Jerome H. Powell tried to calm panic among investors, insisting that “the fundamentals of the economy of the United States remain strong, “while the White House trotted several officials who minimized the risk to Americans.
But the optimistic message was again undermined by severe warnings from government scientists and new concerns about what critics called the administration’s slow approach to testing the new coronavirus strain, also known as COVID-19.
The apparent lack of preparations has drastically limited the number of Americans who have been evaluated, which fuels concerns that the rapidly spreading disease may be much more widespread than is known.
As of Thursday night, only 459 coronavirus tests had been administered nationwide, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. The health agency has confirmed 62 cases in the US. UU., Including 45 in people who returned from coronavirus hot spots in Asia through flights chartered by the State Department.
More than half of the confirmed cases are in California. Health officials in Santa Clara County reported on Friday a second patient who had not traveled to Asia and appeared to have contracted the virus from somewhere in the community.
The first community transmission of this type was confirmed this week in Solano County, outside Sacramento, and the patient remains at UC Davis Medical Center. The two cases significantly increase the possibility of a broader outbreak in the state.
Nationally, it is almost certain that the number of infections will increase, according to an editorial published Friday in the New England Journal of Medicine by Dr. Robert Redfield, director of the CDC; Dr. Anthony Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases; and Dr. H. Clifford Lane, deputy director of the Institute of Infectious Diseases.
“We should be prepared for Covid-19 to establish itself worldwide, including in the United States,” they wrote.
Dr. Nancy Messonnier, director of immunization and respiratory diseases at the CDC, emphasized that the agency was aggressively tracking contacts of Americans sick with the virus, including the patient from Solano County.
At a conference call with journalists, Messonnier also promised that coronavirus test kits will be distributed nationwide after weeks of delays caused by failures discovered in existing tests.
“We have been testing aggressively,” he said, adding that “the immediate risk to the American public remains low.”
Messonnier had warned this week that it was inevitable that more Americans would contract the virus, enraging the White House.
The limited evidence has provoked intense criticism of the administration by public health experts and legislators. Changing criteria on who should be tested have also forced medical centers across the country to fight to adapt their protocols.
“It’s still quite difficult for us,” said Dr. Erica Shenoy, associate head of infection control at Massachusetts General Hospital in Boston, one of the 10 federally designated regional treatment centers for Ebola and other infectious diseases.
On Friday, Representative Doris Matsui (D-Sacramento) sent a letter to federal health authorities urging them to expand and accelerate coronavirus tests, citing an apparent delay in the Solano County patient test.
The virus has affected more than 84,000 people worldwide and caused about 3,000 deaths.
In a rare statement, the president of the Federal Reserve intervened in the middle of the afternoon after the stock market, which had collapsed during the last week, seemed headed for another loss that turned his stomach.
“The coronavirus poses evolving risks to economic activity,” Powell said. “The Federal Reserve is closely monitoring developments and their implications for the economic landscape. We will use our tools and act as appropriate to support the economy. “
The Dow Jones industrial average recovered after Powell’s statement, but still ended the wild day of trading 357 points, crowning the worst week on Wall Street since the financial crisis in 2008.
After the markets closed, the president delivered his own optimistic assessment, attributing to his border policies the limitation of the spread of the virus in the United States and again suggesting that he could extend travel restrictions beyond China, the epicenter of the outbreak .
On Friday, the State Department issued a travel notice for Italy, warning Americans about non-essential trips to the country, which has been struggling with a coronavirus outbreak.
Despite Powell’s suggestion that the Fed could intervene, Trump complained that other countries were already acting to stimulate their economies and “our Fed sits there, it doesn’t do what they are supposed to do.”
Fed officials this week seemed baffled by the sudden liquidation and said the current monetary policy was in a good place, suggesting that they will not cut interest rates in the short term.
But as losses increased, many on Wall Street have asked policy makers to intervene.
When the stock plummeted early Friday, Larry Kudlow, Trump’s chief economic advisor, left his office to speak with White House reporters. “Given what we know in fact, it seems to me that the market has gone too far,” he said.
The main interest rate of the Federal Reserve is already low, around 1.6%, and analysts say that even if officials cut it by a quarter or a half point, it is not likely to be more than a temporary balm.
The Fed could announce an emergency cut at any time or choose to wait until its next scheduled policy meeting in mid-March.
“A cut in the Fed’s interest rate won’t cure sick people, it won’t make consumers worry about getting sick to go to restaurants or the movies, and it won’t solve the disruption in global supply chains,” Greg said. McBride Chief financial analyst at Bankrate.com. “However, it will please the markets, and that is often the reason why the Fed needs. The only question is whether they can wait until the March 18 meeting or if they do it beforehand. ”
Early Friday, Mick Mulvaney, the White House interim chief of staff, tried to blame the media for the health crisis.
“The reason you pay so much attention today is because they think this will be what knocks the president down,” he said at the Conservative Political Action Conference outside Washington. “That’s what all this is about”.
“What I could do today to calm the markets is to tell people to turn off their televisions for 24 hours,” he said.
Mulvaney tried to minimize the death rate, somewhere close to 2%, much less than other infectious diseases that have created fright.
“Is that serious? It is absolutely. No doubt about it. But it is not a death sentence. It is not the same as the Ebola crisis, “he said.
“Are you going to see some closed schools? Probably. Can you see impacts on public transport? Insurance. But we do this. We know how to handle this. ”