U.S. moves to prop up economy, gird for swell of coronavirus patients

March 18, 2020

The Trump administration announced at a briefing on March 17, 2020 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 total number of cases reported as of March 16, 2020, by the Johns Hopkins Coronavirus Resource Center is 203,529 worldwide, with 6,496 cases reported in the U.S.

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 announced a number 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.

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'."

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.

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.

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 that doing 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.

CIDRAP has the story.

More COVID-19 coverage HERE.