US moves to prop up economy, gird for swell of coronavirus patients

New York City ambulance
New York City ambulance

Can Pac Swire / Flickr cc

The Trump administration announced at a briefing today that it is asking Congress for another $850 billion to blunt the economic effects of the coronavirus pandemic, which has been confirmed in more than 5,000 Americans and killed 100.

The number of confirmed COVID-19 cases in the United States has topped 5,000 in 49 states, Washington DC, and three territories, according to the New York Times coronavirus map. CNN reports tallying 100 deaths.

Movement restrictions have tightened dramatically here and abroad as officials race to respond to the novel virus, and a grim report from London foretells of 2.2 million US deaths if drastic action isn't taken.

Across the country, local officials are gearing up for several weeks of rising cases and strained hospitals. New York Governor Andrew Cuomo said that COVID-19 may take 45 days to peak, according to the New York Times. At the White House briefing with the government's coronavirus task force, Anthony Fauci, MD, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, said that a 45-day peak "is not unreasonable," but predicted that "we're going to see a hump instead of a peak."

It could be some time, he said, before we know if the mitigation measures being taken are working. "It could be 7 weeks or longer before we know that it's having an effect," he said, adding that "we should be doing what we're doing now."

Officials to flood economy with cash

In today's briefing, officials announced a slew of actions to bolster the fragile economy over the coming months.

Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin said that the economic stimulus package he is pitching to Republican senators includes sending "business interruption" checks to many Americans within the next 2 weeks rather than doling it out via a payroll tax holiday, as President Trump had initially suggested. "We want to make sure that Americans have money in their pockets quickly," he said.

In addition to infusing the economy with cash, the package would direct $50 billion to help revive the airline industry. White House officials also said they want to provide payments and loan guarantees to help small businesses weather the crisis. The package would augment a $100 billion-plus package the House had passed to offer paid sick leave, unemployment insurance, and other benefits to workers.

Trump said that officials have discussed incentives to encourage businesses to bring their supply chains back to the United States.

Mnuchin announced that the Internal Revenue Service (IRS) would defer 2019 tax payments for 3 months, a move that he said would result in $300 billion of liquidity. "If you owe a payment to the IRS, you can defer up to a million as an individual and 10 million as corporations interest free and penalty free for 90 days," he said.

Responding to recession rumors, Trump admitted it is possible but said that he expects the economy to come "roaring back" very quickly. "It's going to pop," he said. "One day we'll be standing up here and we're going to be saying 'we won'."

Medicare to cover virtual doctor visits

Trump also announced that Medicare would immediately broaden coverage of telehealth services for seniors to encourage them to stay home, reducing the chance of disease transmission and reserving hospital capacity for those who need it. The administration will also not enforce HIPAA penalties, allowing doctors to use their own phones, laptops, or tablets to see patients virtually.

Seniors can call their doctor or 1-800-MEDICARE (1-800-633-4227) to find out how to access the services. Seema Verma, administrator of the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services (CMS), asked family members to help older relatives who don't have the technology or don't know how to use it. "If it's your mom, you may need to go over to her house to help her do this," she said.

Verma also said that CMS is urging states to expand telehealth services for low-income people in their Medicaid programs.

Testing scales up; states empowered to act

Trump also said that the US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) will now allow states to authorize labs to develop their own coronavirus tests. This means that labs won't have to get emergency authorization to do so, clearing red tape and potentially enabling them to more quickly address the nation's dire shortage.

Coronavirus task force member Admiral Brett Giroir said that testing for the virus has ramped up dramatically to total nearly 60,000 tests conducted, 8,200 of them yesterday. He added that drive-through labs are popping up all over the country. "We expect that over the next few days to be setting up 47 of these in approximately 12 states," he said.

Vice President Mike Pence said that, even as more tests become available, the best advice for citizens is to follow the coronavirus guidance outlined yesterday in Trump's 15-day plan to slow the spread of the disease. "The testing is happening all over the country, but all of our health experts wanted me to say that you don't need testing to tell you what you should do," he said.

Plans to boost hospital capacity, protect health workers

Meanwhile, healthcare systems around the country are working around the clock to reserve enough units and beds for the coming influx of patients.

As of this morning, New York was reporting more than 1,500 positive cases, up from 950 yesterday, and 12 deaths. Cuomo said the number of cases will likely outstrip hospital capacity in 45 days, the New York Times reported.

As many as 37,000 intensive care unit beds may be needed, when the state currently has only 3,000 such beds, 80% of which are already occupied, Cuomo said in the same article.

Deborah Birx, MD, White House task response coordinator, asked that people scheduled for elective surgeries cancel them as hospitals anticipate a surge in demand, and said thatdoing so would also lessen the chance of getting sick in a chaotic environment. "You don't want to be in a hospital right now," she said.

The White House may call on the Federal Emergency Management Agency for support and may ask the Department of Defense and the Army Corp. of Engineers to build new coronavirus-specific field hospitals or retrofit existing ones, Vice President Pence said.

To help address the shortage of personal protective equipment for healthcare workers, Pence asked construction companies to donate their respirators to hospitals. "We would urge construction companies to donate their inventory of n95 masks to your local hospitals and forego making additional orders," he said.

US cases continue to mount

More than half of US cases are in hotspot states New York, Washington, and California. New York has confirmed 1,374 cases and 12 deaths, Washington has confirmed 787 cases and 48 deaths, and California has reported 583 cases and 10 deaths, according to the New York Times coronavirus map.

In New Jersey, case numbers rose to 267 from 178 yesterday. Connecticut's case count reached 41, up from 26 on Sunday. Illinois reported its first death today. The only state not reporting a single case is West Virginia.

Schools, businesses, bars, fitness centers, movie theaters, and restaurants have been shuttered in many cities across the country. In North Carolina, the Outer Banks will begin restricting tourists and visitors, the Washington Post reports.

Ohio called off its presidential primary before polls opened today, and the Kentucky Derby has been postponed to September 5, according to USA Today.

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