Publicly, the president tried to show he had taken command and assured that Americans were safe.
“The risk to the American people remains very low,” he said. “We have the greatest experts really in the world.”
But behind the scenes, officials have prepared for scenarios in which the virus could spread out of control — especially in densely populated and poor areas abroad. It’s not known exactly how many people are affected in Iran, but an unofficial report published by Canadian researchers was circulated among some officials inside the White House that predicted as many as 18,000 cases — a number seen as within the realm of possibility.
The National Security Council held a table-top exercise last week in which officials went through potential scenarios and mapped out needs in the case of any spike in cases.
An administration official also said the White House was considering measures that included travel restrictions for South Korea and Italy. The CDC already raised its travel advisory for South Korea to the highest level, recommending that travelers avoid all nonessential travel, but Italy still remains at the level below.
Trump on Wednesday took credit for an early decision to ban certain travelers from China shortly after the virus outbreak began.
“A lot of people thought we shouldn’t have done it that early,” he said.
Senior administration officials have stressed in recent days that the president’s decision early on to shut down flights between the U.S. and China gave the administration much-needed time to ramp up vaccine development, explore potential treatments and examine possible disruptions to supply chains for U.S. companies.
“Unfortunately what we are seeing is a political effort by the Left and some in the media to distract and disturb the American people with fearful rhetoric and palace intrigue,” White House spokesman Judd Deere said in a statement. “The virus remains low-risk domestically because of the containment actions taken by this Administration since the first of the year.“
“The global situation is serious and changing hourly, which is exactly why Secretary Azar continues to lead a whole-of-government response in partnership with state and local leaders that includes the best experts on infectious diseases,” Deere said. “It’s also exactly why the White House is requesting from Congress $2.5 billion in funding to accelerate vaccine development and further support preparedness and response efforts. The President is receiving regular updates, and is prepared to take additional action to protect the American people.”
White House aides have long wanted the public message on the coronavirus to delve into the public health concerns rather than the potential economic damage. But behind the scenes, aides have been running models of the possible impact on both the U.S. and global economies. The U.S. stock market took major tumbles Monday and Tuesday after the coronavirus spread to both Italy and Iran, then swung between gains and losses throughout Wednesday.
New analysis released by Moody’s Analytics chief economist Mark Zandi estimated the odds of the coronavirus turning into a pandemic were now at 40 percent — a development that Zandi said would result in a recession in the U.S. for the first half of 2020.