WASHINGTON – The United States declared a state of emergency Friday as many European countries went on a war footing amid mounting deaths as the world mobilized to fight the widening coronavirus pandemic.
At the White House, where President Donald Trump made the emergency decree, drug company executives vowed to work together and with the government to quickly expand the country’s coronavirus testing capabilities, which are far behind those in many countries.
“We will defeat this threat,” Trump told a news conference. “When America is tested, America rises to the occasion.”
While the aggressive spread of the virus in Europe, North America and the Middle East has dashed any hopes for quick containment, dozens of countries have imposed increasingly severe measures over the past couple days – shutting borders, expanding testing, closing school for tens of millions of children and ordering tens of thousands of businesses to close their doors – to try to face down the disease.
The U.S. emergency decree will open up $50 billion for state and local governments to respond to the outbreak, said Trump, who also gave the secretary of health and human services emergency powers to waive federal regulations to give doctors and hospitals “flexibility” in treating patients.
As the United States struggles to slow the spread of the virus, the governors of six states – Florida, Iowa, Louisiana, New York, Rhode Island and Washington – sought National Guard troops.
Trump’s announcement came as tens of millions of students around the world faced weeks without classes, security forces went on standby to guard against large gatherings, and bars, restaurants and offices closed.
While the new coronavirus can be deadly, particularly for the elderly and people with other health problems, for most people it causes only mild or moderate symptoms, such as fever and cough. Some feel no symptoms at all and the vast majority of people recover.
But the spreading pandemic showed that power and influence offer no protection. Among those testing positive were the Canadian prime minister’s wife, a top aide to Iran’s supreme leader, Miami’s mayor, a Brazilian official who met with Trump, and an Australian Cabinet minister who met with the U.S. attorney general and Trump’s daughter, Ivanka.
Pressed by reporters, Trump, who also met with the Brazilian official, said he will “most likely” be tested for the virus “fairly soon,” reversing an earlier White House statement.
Channeling wartime rhetoric and tactics in the face of a microscopic enemy, leaders appealed for solidarity to battle a threat that appeared to expand exponentially. They vowed to protect not just the sick, but those sacrificing their livelihoods and education for the greater good. But new border checks were also on the rise, showing that solidarity had its limits in the face of a fast-moving threat.
In Europe, stocks clawed back some of their losses with promises of financial support from the European Commission, France and Germany, while in the United States, stocks surged after Trump’s announcement. The Dow Jones Industrial Average jumped nearly 2,000 points – its biggest point gain ever.
At the same time, new infections in Italy soared by more than 2,500 and virus-related deaths made their biggest single-day jump there, increasing by 250. In the three weeks since the country identified its first virus cluster, Italy has reached a total of 17,600 confirmed cases, with 1,266 deaths. The government has ordered an unprecedented lockdown, ordering businesses to close and restricting movement.
“Europe has now become the epicenter of the pandemic,” said World Health Organization Director-General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus. “More cases are now being reported every day than were reported in China at the height of its epidemic.”
New infections also rose sharply in Spain, and the government put 60,000 people in four towns on a mandatory lockdown Friday that echoed Italy’s. In Madrid, which is struggling with nearly 2,000 infections, many in nursing homes, the government was pooling intensive care units and considering offers by hotel chains to transform rooms into sick wards.
In just 24 hours, the numbers of confirmed cases spiked ominously in some places: France saw an additional 800 cases to reach more than 3,600 by Friday; Britain went from 590 to 798 and New York state jumped 30%, hitting 421. In Africa, where experts warn that containment is key because of the continent’s already-strained health care systems, six new countries confirmed infections.
Cases topped 1,700 across the United States, where thousands of schools have been closed, concerts and sporting events canceled and even Broadway theaters shut down. Trump has halted his trademark political rallies, following the lead of Democratic rivals Joe Biden and Bernie Sanders.
The spread of the virus in Europe, North America and the Middle East has drawn contrasts with waning outbreaks in the hardest-hit nations in Asia. China, where the virus emerged late last year, still accounts for more than 60% of global infections but reported just eight new cases Friday and seven deaths.
In South Korea, which has had more than 8,000 cases overall, Friday marked the first day that recoveries outnumbered new infections. It reported another 107 cases Saturday.
In the U.S., hospitals were setting up circus-like triage tents, calling doctors out of retirement, guarding their supplies of face masks and making plans to cancel elective and non-emergency surgeries as they brace for an expected onslaught of coronavirus patients in the coming weeks.
Trump, who on Thursday ordered a 30-day travel ban for most foreign visitors coming to the U.S. from continental Europe, dismissed criticism that his administration has faced for the slow rollout of testing in the U.S., saying “I don’t take responsibility at all” for the problem.
The public-private partnership that Trump announced at the White House will include drive-thru testing in some areas – something already being done in South Korea and Germany – and an online portal to screen those seeking to get tested.
Late Friday, U.S. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi announced a deal with the Trump administration for an aid package that would provide free tests, sick pay for workers and bolster food programs. The U.S. House was poised to vote on the deal.
Across America, where millions of children depend on school lunches as their main meals, schools were cobbling together ways to keep kids fed, from distributing grand-and-go meal sacks to cafeterias that remained open even as classrooms closed.
In Italy, the town of Codogno, which had all but shut down hours after recording the country’s first locally spread coronavirus infection, showed that changing habits do make a difference. New infections have slowed drastically there compared to the rest of Italy, where draconian measures came far later.
“More than a sigh of relief, there was some concern over the risk that all of the sacrifices were in vain,” said Mayor Francesco Passerini.
New travel restrictions sprang up practically by the hour on Friday: Switzerland, Sri Lanka, Portugal, the Czech Republic – all started barring entry to Europeans considered at risk. Ukraine announced it would halt all passenger air traffic, Poland said anyone entering the country will be put under a 14-day quarantine, while the Czech Republic and Slovakia have stopped almost all movement in and out of their countries. The European Union urged member countries to put health screening procedures in place at their borders.
Canada and Denmark joined the U.S. in advising citizens to avoid trips abroad, and Americans in Europe caught increasingly rare trans-Atlantic flights back home.
Sullivan reported from Minneapolis. Associated Press writers Lori Hinnant in Paris; Carley Petesch in Dakar; Kim Tong-hyung and Hyung-jin Kim in Seoul, South Korea; Jan Olsen in Copenhagen, Denmark; Cuneyt Dil in Elk Grove, California and Lisa Mascaro, Jill Colvin and Zeke Miller in Washington contributed.
The Associated Press receives support for health and science coverage from the Howard Hughes Medical Institute’s Department of Science Education. The AP is solely responsible for all content.
Editor’s note: Check back for details in this developing story.
The first presumptive case of the coronavirus, known as COVID-19, has been reported in Washington County, according to Diana Irey Vaughan, chairman of the Washington County Commissioners.
The patient, a Washington County resident, went to a physician’s office after experiencing flu-like symptoms, the commissioner said Friday afternoon.
She does not know which hospital the patient was admitted to, but both Washington and Mon Valley hospitals said early Friday evening that they had no presumptive or confirmed cases at their hospitals.
Earlier Friday, Allegheny and Fayette counties declared states of emergency.
The Washington County Board of Commissioners has not yet declared a state of emergency, and county offices remain open. However, Irey Vaughan asked residents to postpone visits to county offices if they are not urgent.
The county is considering temporarily closing senior citizens centers.
“I think, above all, we need to tell (Washington County residents) not to panic,” said Irey Vaughan.
Commissioners and the Public Safety Department are advising people to continue to take precautions including washing hands frequently, maintaining six feet distance from others, avoiding large gatherings, and staying home if they are sick.
Irey Vaughan said she did not have any additional information about the patient.
Meanwhile, Pennsylvania reported progress Friday in the ability to test those with symptoms of coronavirus in efforts to slow the spread of the contagious illness.
Some hospitals now have the ability to test for the virus in-house as the number of cases climbed to 41 Friday, all but one of which were in southeastern Pennsylvania, state Health Department Secretary Rachel L. Levine said.
“The capacity to test has come a long way in two weeks. We’ve relaxed some of the criteria,” Levine said during an afternoon briefing on the pandemic.
Levine urged those with symptoms of the virus – a cough, temperature above 100 degrees and shortness of breath – to call their primary care physician. Those without a physician should call a hospital emergency room to give its workers time to prepare for their arrival.
She said a physician can order a test at a commercial laboratory without going through the state. All medical insurances will pay the cost of the test, she said.
There also was no backlog of tests in Pennsylvania, Levine said.
“This is really a rapidly changing situation,” she said.
More than 300 people in Pennsylvania had been tested for the virus by early Friday afternoon. The number of tests that proved negative stood at 140. There were 130 tests either on their way to a lab or being processed at a lab, Levine said.
At this point, the state health department has confirmed 35 presumptive positive cases and six positive cases.
She continued to recommend frequent hand washing as a way to slow the spread of coronavirus.
“Please stay calm,” Levine said.
Normally, there would have been a line to get into the fish fry at Our Lady of the Miraculous Medal Church.
But there was no line at the Chartiers Township church around lunchtime Friday, a day after the Catholic Diocese of Pittsburgh recommended that parishes limit their fish fries to take-out as part of an effort to limit the spread of the coronavirus.
However, Miraculous Medal is not limiting how people choose to enjoy their meals.
“As a committee, we thought what was best was to emphasize the takeout. We actually have a lot more takeout orders and phone-in orders than we ever have at this point in a day, but we didn’t want to let people come and not have a seat,” said Greg Starcevic, a member of the church’s fish fry committee.
While the social hall was sparse, some chose to eat in despite the diocesan recommendation.
Lou Muth, a West Middletown resident who works in construction, ate with a group of coworkers who are not concerned about the coronavirus.
“It’s all hysteria,” Muth said.
Starcevic said that though people are allowed to eat at the social hall, the volunteers are taking extra caution with their hygiene and food preparation in order to keep everyone safe.
“We have had several volunteers that said, ‘You know, I don’t feel good today. I’m not coming in,’ or they might be a little bit on the older side, 65-plus, that don’t want to get into a position where they’re kind of compromised,” Starcevic said.
Though Miraculous Medal’s takeout orders “significantly” increased over last week, according to Starcevic, such was not the case at Immaculate Conception Church in Washington.
Jamie Cook, who runs the church’s fish fry, expressed concern over how the pandemic is going to affect their sales, saying they had about half the takeout orders they normally would during lunchtime.
“This is a huge fundraiser for our church,” Cook said.
“I think it’s going to affect our evening business a lot,” she later added.
Cook lamented confusion over whether the diocese was asking churches to move to takeout on Friday, or to begin next week. She said she fielded phone calls from people who believed the fish fry would be closed altogether.
According to Cook, they will move to takeout only next week.
“That’s subject to change. We don’t know what’s happening next week. We don’t know what’s happening tomorrow,” Cook said, noting the evolving nature of the coronavirus crisis could close the fish fry.
For Friday, Immaculate Conception was allowing people to eat in their social hall. However, other than volunteers and delivery drivers, it was mostly empty during lunch.
Immaculate Conception’s delivery drivers also said takeout orders were down, and that anxiety over coronavirus has changed how businesses interact with them when they make a delivery.
“They’re meeting us outside rather than letting us come inside,” said Steve Hunter.
Starcevic said that while Miraculous Medal’s fish fry committee has discussed how takeout only could affect business, their focus is on keeping people healthy.
“We’re only controlling what we can, and the rest is up to the good Lord and individual decisions that people make about what they want to do,” Starcevic said.
Gov. Tom Wolf on Friday ordered all Pennsylvania schools from K-12 closed for 10 business days, starting Monday, March 16.
The order, which affects more than 1.7 million schoolchildren, was made after the confirmed cases of coronavirus (COVID-19) grew to 41 in the state.
Wolf said in a statement his administration had been working with school districts and state and local officials to gather input before making a decision.
At the end of the 10-day period, Wolf will evaluate the decision to determine whether the closure will be extended.
No instruction will take place during the school closure period.
On Thursday, Wolf ordered that schools in Montgomery County, considered the epicenter of the COVID-19 outbreak in Pennsylvania, close, starting Friday.
He also requested Pennsylvanians begin social distancing, discouraged people from attending recreational activities, and directed the cancellation of events with more than 200 people.
School superintendents across the state participated in a webinar Friday with the Pennsylvania Department of Education, where they grew frustrated at what several called a lack of information to help them make a decision about closing their schools, and inflexibility about meeting the 180-day mandatory school year.
During the conference call, superintendents were told they would get no relief for the 180 days of instruction, and that each school district would have to make its own decision about school closure.
Said state Rep. Pam Snyder, D-Greene/Fayette/Washington, who was contacted by superintendents in her district, “This is beyond irresponsible, because they need that vital information and guidance to make the best decision for their schools.”
PDE and the governor’s office said later Friday that they will waive the mandated 180-day school year.
School districts throughout Washington and Greene counties have canceled sporting events, musicals, concerts, and other events.
Dr. James Konrad, superintendent of Washington School District, said the school closure is unprecedented, but necessary.
“This is an extremely difficult situation to navigate through. We have to err on the side of caution and what is in the safety and welfare of our students, staff and community,” said Konrad. “This is something completely unprecedented, something we haven’t had to deal with in all my years in education. It requires a coordinated effort from the governor, the secretary of education, and state and local health departments to make sure we are all on the same page, and we are now.”
Kathy Vash, a parent with three children in the California Area School District, was pleased the schools were closed amid the novel coronavirus pandemic that has caused governors of five states – including West Virginia, Ohio and Maryland – and the District of Columbia to close their doors.
“I absolutely think they should close schools, not because I’m concerned about my kids’ safety – I’m not fearful that this is especially dangerous to kids – but I think it’s imperative to fight the spread to people who can’t fight it off,” said Vash. “I think people go on the assumption that it’s not near them, but there’s so little testing being done, you need to assume it’s in your community.”
Additionally, the Catholic Diocese of Pittsburgh closed four schools Friday after students and adults, following guidelines from the Centers from Disease Control, placed themselves in self-quarantine. Later, the diocese closed all schools from March 16 to 30.
Meanwhile, Waynesburg University announced Friday that beginning Monday, all in-person classes are suspended, with classes resuming with distance and remote modes of instruction beginning March 23. Graduate classes and other classes already online will continue without interruption.
Students are being given until March 20 to decide whether they will remain on campus or vacate. Dormitories and dining facilities will remain open for those who choose to stay.
The changes will remain in effect for the remainder of the semester.
Also Friday, Wolf announced all libraries would close for routine, in-person public library services from March 14 through Sunday, March 29, in alignment with school closures.
The only exception that could apply is if a public library is working in cooperation with local emergency management officials to provide essential services needed for the community.