Seeking to reassure the American public, US President Donald Trump on Saturday said that there was “no reason to panic” as COVID-19 claimed its first victim inside the US.
The White House also announced new restrictions on international travel to prevent its spread.
Trump, speaking only moments after the death in Washington state was announced, took a more measured approach a day after he complained that the virus threat was being overblown and that his political enemies were perpetuating a “hoax.”
“This is very serious stuff,” he said, but still insisted the criticism of his administration’s handling of the virus outbreak was a hoax.
Trump appeared at a hastily called news conference in the White House briefing room with US Vice President Mike Pence and top public health officials to announce that the US was banning travel to Iran and urging Americans not to travel to regions of Italy and South Korea where the virus has been prevalent.
He said 22 people in the US had been stricken by the disease, of whom one had died and four were deemed “very ill.”
Additional cases were “likely,” he added.
Trump said he was considering additional restrictions, including closing the US border with Mexico in response to the virus’ spread, but later added: “This is not a border that seems to be much of a problem right now.”
“We’re thinking about all borders,” he said.
Travel to Iran was already quite limited, although some families are allowed to travel there on a visa.
Trump described the Washington fatality as someone having a high medical risk before contracting the virus.
US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention Director Robert Redfield said there was “no evidence of link to travel” abroad in the case of the person who died.
The US has about 60 confirmed cases. Trump’s tally appeared to exclude cases of Americans repatriated from China or evacuated from the Diamond Princess cruise ship.
The Washington case was the first death in US, but not first American to die: A 60-year-old US citizen died in Wuhan, China, early last month.
Trump said healthy Americans should be able to recover if they contract the virus, as he tried to reassure Americans and global markets spooked by the virus threat.
He encouraged Americans not to alter their daily routines, saying that the country is “super prepared” for a wider outbreak, adding: “There’s no reason to panic at all.”
He added he was not altering his own routine either.
“You’re talking about 22 people right now in this whole very vast country. I think we’ll be in very good shape,” Trump said.
The US president also said he would be meeting with pharmaceutical companies at the White House today to discuss efforts to develop a vaccine to counter the virus.
Trump spoke a day after he had denounced criticism of his response to the threat as a “hoax” cooked up by his political enemies.
Speaking at a rally in South Carolina, he accused Democrats of “politicizing” the virus threat and boasted about preventive steps he has ordered in an attempt to keep the virus that originated in China from spreading across the US.
Those steps include barring entry by most foreign nationals who had recently visited China.
“They tried the impeachment hoax... This is their new hoax,” Trump said of Democratic denunciations of his administration’s virus response.
Trump on Saturday said that he was not trying to minimize the threat of the virus.
“Again, the hoax was used in respect to Democrats and what they were saying,” he said.
Some Democrats have said Trump should have acted sooner to bolster the US response to the virus.
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