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Trump Administration Defends Coronavirus Response, Rejects Appointing Czar to Oversee Outbreak— 3rd Update

By Stephanie Armour and Andrew Restuccia 

WASHINGTON -- The Trump administration defended its coronavirus response and rejected the idea of appointing a czar to oversee the effort to stop the outbreak from spreading, while Democratic and Republican lawmakers looked to boost emergency funding beyond President Trump's $2.5 billion spending plan.

The fast-moving developments came a day after a top health official warned businesses, schools and communities to brace themselves and plan for potential outbreaks. U.S. stocks bounced back Wednesday after dropping sharply in previous days amid concerns about the coronavirus's economic impact.

Health and Human Services Secretary Alex Azar currently leads a federal coronavirus task force, but some Republicans, including Sens. Rick Scott of Florida and Mitt Romney of Utah, have joined Democrats in calling for a coronavirus czar to oversee operations. Administration officials have privately discussed appointing a czar to oversee the response, according to two people familiar with the conversations.

But White House officials said Wednesday that Mr. Trump has no plans to name such a czar. Mr. Trump took "decisive action by creating the Coronavirus Virus Task Force a month ago and is pleased with the leadership of @SecAzar to protect the public health," tweeted White House spokesman Judd Deere.

On Wednesday, Mr. Azar also disagreed with the need for a czar, saying at a House hearing that his agency is designated as the lead under a national response plan. He called the decision to name an Ebola czar during the Obama administration an "oddity." In his testimony, Mr. Azar said operations were running smoothly.

Mr. Trump, who returned from a trip to India Wednesday morning, again defended his administration's response, accusing Democrats and the media of exaggerating the threat.

The president, in a series of tweets, also said he would hold a news conference at 6 p.m. ET at the White House to discuss the virus alongside representatives of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Mr. Trump said media outlets were "doing everything possible to make the Caronavirus look as bad as possible, including panicking markets, if possible."

The discussions about appointing a czar reflect discontent in some corners of the administration about Mr. Azar from before the coronavirus outbreak. Mr. Azar has at times butted heads with other senior administration officials.

Planning for the coronavirus has been hampered by haphazard communications with the federal government, according to people familiar with the planning. Some state leaders also say the lack of a coronavirus czar to head operations has Trump administration agency heads and advisers clashing over who is in charge.

"I'm not satisfied with the response from the federal government," Sen. Brian Schatz (D., Hawaii) said in a recent radio interview. "There has been a total lack of communication, especially between our federal officials and state officials."

On Wednesday, a CDC official warned that the agency expects a sustained transmission of the virus. "It's not so much a question of if this will happen any more, but rather more a question of exactly when," said Nancy Messonnier, director of the CDC's National Center for Immunization and Respiratory Diseases.

On Capitol Hill, negotiations on funding a response to the disease began, with staff from both chambers and parties meeting Wednesday. The Trump administration's proposal to spend at least $2.5 billion on combatting coronavirus -- with $1.25 billion in new funds and at least $1.25 billion in repurposed funds -- has disappointed members of both parties.

"This is shameful, it puts forth a proposal now that is meager, anemic," House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D., Calif.) said of the administration's plan Wednesday.

"We will work on it, but it will be higher than what they've got," Senate Appropriations Chairman Richard Shelby (R., Ala.) said, referring to the Trump proposal. "We will make sure that we've got the resources without any doubt."

Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer (D., N.Y.) proposed his own $8.5 billion emergency spending package on Wednesday.

In the U.S., 14 locally diagnosed cases have been confirmed, with an additional 40 from the outbreak on the Diamond Princess cruise ship in Asia and three among Americans who returned from China aboard U.S.-chartered flights.

More than 2,700 people have died globally as a result of the virus, which is said to have originated in China and has spread to Iran, Italy, South Korea and other countries. A 23-year-old American soldier stationed in South Korea became the first U.S. service member to contract the virus.

In congressional testimony Wednesday, Mr. Azar stressed the low number of diagnosed cases. Problems with coronavirus tests have postponed broader surveillance. Authorities have tested about 400 people in the U.S. for the virus.

"The immediate risk to the American public remains low, but there is now community transmission in a number of countries outside Asia that is deeply concerning," Mr. Azar said at a House Appropriations subcommittee hearing, adding that "we expect to see more cases here."

Mr. Azar said money from the emergency funding request would be used for a fund at the CDC to reimburse state and local agencies. There are 20 pharmaceutical products where the entire product is made in China or an active ingredient sold in China, where businesses have been hit hard by the outbreak, but Mr. Azar said officials aren't aware of any shortages.

Already, the administration has transferred about $140 million from the Department of Health and Human Services toward fighting the virus, including $60 million from the National Institutes of Health and $40 million from that helps low-income Americans with energy bills.

--Andrew Duehren contributed to this article.

Write to Stephanie Armour at stephanie.armour@wsj.com and Andrew Restuccia at Andrew.Restuccia@wsj.com

(END) Dow Jones Newswires

February 26, 2020 13:34 ET (18:34 GMT)

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