Lawmakers Race to Respond to Outbreak as US Cases, Death Toll Rise

N.Y. is creating a "containment area" around a community in New Rochelle in an attempt to limit the spread of one of the nation's worst coronavirus clusters

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Speaker Nancy Pelosi said Tuesday that House Democrats will stay at work this week as "captains of the ship" confronting the coronavirus outbreak as President Donald Trump came to Capitol Hill to confer with Senate Republicans about his proposed payroll tax relief.

The Trump administration and lawmakers are racing to respond to the epidemic and the related financial storm in what appears to be a mounting political and policy standoff over the best approach.

The virus has infected more than 1,000 people in the U.S. and killed at least 30. New Jersey reported its first death Tuesday.

Democrats are preparing a package of aid that includes unemployment insurance and sick pay for working families struggling to keep paychecks coming as the outbreak disrupts workplaces. A vote could come as soon as this week or push to mid-March.

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CDC Director Dr. Robert Redfield, M.D., testified in front of the House Appropriations Subcommittee on Labor, Health and Human Services, Education, and Related Agencies to discuss the response to the coronavirus in the United States.

The president also met with health insurers, seeking their cooperation in ensuring affordable medical care in the public-health emergency.

Vice President Mike Pence said CEOs of major health insurance companies such as UnitedHealth, Anthem, and Humana, along with the leaders of industry trade groups like the Blue Cross Blue Shield Association, agreed that coronavirus tests would be covered at no cost to patients, and to cover telemedicine related to the outbreak. The companies pledged no surprise billing in connection with coronavirus.

"We want the American people to know that they are covered through private insurance, they are covered through Medicare, Medicaid, and there will be no surprise billing," Pence said.

Vice President Mike Pence told reporters on Monday that he has not been tested for the coronavirus and is unsure if President Donald Trump has been tested despite their exposure to an infected person at CPAC last week.

Gov. Andrew Cuomo announced Tuesday that schools, houses of worship and large gathering places will be shuttered for two weeks in a "containment area" centered in suburban New Rochelle as New York tries to stop the spread of what appears to be the nation's biggest cluster of cases of the coronavirus.

The state will send National Guard troops to help clean surfaces and deliver food in the area, a 1-mile-radius (1.6 km) around a point near a synagogue connected to some existing cases, Cuomo said.

In California, the cruise ship Grand Princess, which had been forced to idle off the coast, docked at the port of Oakland, but only a few hundred of some 3,500 passengers and crew had gotten off by early Tuesday. All of the departing passengers face 14-day quarantines since the ship had at least 21 confirmed cases.

Seven weeks after the first case of COVID-19 was confirmed in the U.S., the spread of the virus that causes the disease has done widespread damage to critical economic sectors in the country. Airlines are cutting capacity, people are working from home, major public events that raise millions of dollars for local communities have been canceled, including this year’s St. Patrick’s Day parade in Boston.

More than 20 people have died in the United States from the coronavirus, with over 500 people diagnosed with the virus. The outbreak has impacted daily aspects of American life, from the plunging stock markets to members of Congress self quarantining.

A growing number of U.S. colleges have also canceled in-person classes and moved lessons online.

Meanwhile, lawmakers were given new instructions on how to protect themselves at the Capitol, with the House's attending physician asking them to stop shaking hands or touching people during greetings — he recommended the split-fingers Star Trek greeting instead.

Crowds are the norm in the Capitol and handshakes are coin of the realm there, even between political foes. But about a half dozen lawmakers have placed themselves in quarantine after being exposed to someone who had the virus, and the norm has been upended.

During House Democrats’ closed session, one lawmaker, Rep. Raul Ruiz, D-Ca., who is a doctor, noted that the average age in Congress is 57, some lawmakers have underlying health conditions and their work requires them to fly back and forth between home and the capital.

Still, Pelosi implored lawmakers to keep working to strengthen the country’s defenses. Rather than picking up their own coffee and snacks for the breakfast meeting, lawmakers were served by staff from the buffet and warned off touching the serving utensils.

The director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, Dr. Anthony Fauci, explains social distancing and how it can help slow the spread of coronavirus in elderly and immunocompromised patients.

Trump's top economic advisers accompanied him to Capitol Hill to brief Senate Republicans on his plan to ask Congress to pass payroll tax relief and other quick measures. On Monday, the president told reporters he is seeking “very substantial relief” to the payroll tax. Trump also said he was seeking help for hourly-wage workers to ensure they’re “not going to miss a paycheck” and “don’t get penalized for something that’s not their fault.”

But so far, the president's approach, based on tax breaks, is receiving a cool response from Democrats as well as Republicans from his own party who say it's too soon to consider fresh spending from Capitol Hill.

Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell opened the chamber saying only that Republicans “look forward to discussing” the ideas “so we can all consider the best ways to move forward.” Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin and adviser Larry Kudlow are expected at the weekly GOP lunch.

The Senate Democratic leader, Chuck Schumer, said the virus outbreak demands a “health care” solution. Democrats are proposing affordable testing, more unemployment benefits and paid leave for working families affected by the virus.

“The administration seems to believe that the answer to any problem is another tax cut,” Schumer said. "The best way to ensure economic security for the American people is to deal directly with the coronavirus itself.

As the number of coronavirus cases rise, so do concerns from travelers.

It was not immediately clear how Trump was aiming to provide assistance to employees weighing whether to stay home because of illness — a crucial aim of public health officials seeking to curtail the spread of the virus.

One mechanism, backed by the Trump-allied National Association of Manufacturers, involves a proposed tax credit for employers who pay employees who are quarantined.

Trump stepped forward with the contours of an initiative Monday after markets dropped sharply and as the outbreak spread. markets recovered from some of the losses Tuesday, reacting positively to the prospects for an economic boost from Washington.

Several Trump confidants have disclosed they are isolating themselves after potential exposure to the virus; one lawmaker traveled with the president from Florida on Air Force One on Monday; another was his just-tapped new chief of staff.

The Securities and Exchange Commission, which monitors financial markets, encouraged employees at its Washington headquarters to work from home after an employee there had respiratory symptoms and was referred for coronavirus testing.

And Defense Secretary Mark Esper postponed a trip to India, Pakistan and Uzbekistan that was to begin Monday, citing the coronavirus crisis, Pentagon press secretary Alyssa Farah said Tuesday. She said he would remain in the U.S to help manage the Pentagon response.

At the Capitol, Democratic lawmakers were told by the House chief administrative officer behind closed doors that the office could support up to 10,000 staff members teleworking if need be. Laptop orders were being expedited and cyber-security measures reviewed.

Trump returned to Washington on Monday accompanied by Florida Rep. Matt Gaetz, who later went into a voluntary quarantine. He was one of several GOP lawmakers who were exposed to a person at last month's Conservative Political Action Conference who tested positive for the virus. His office said he was “mid-flight” on Air Force One when CPAC informed his staff that he had been in contact with the attendee who had the virus.

Once the plane landed, Gaetz was immediately tested.

Pence, who also spoke at CPAC, said he has not been tested for the virus. White House press secretary Stephanie Grisham said Trump has not been tested because he has not had “prolonged close contacts” with any patients and “does not have any symptoms.”

The White House has been convening meetings with an array of travel and healthcare industry representatives, and was set to host Wall Street executives at the White House on Wednesday to discuss the economic fallout of the epidemic.

Vast numbers of visitors come to the Hill, especially at this time of year when advocacy groups arrange “fly-in” trips to lobby and speak to lawmakers, and school groups descend for tours.

In one manifestation of lawmaking in the age of the coronavirus, Rep. Richard Neal, D-Mass., approached a Republican colleague on the House floor Monday for a routine congratulatory handshake after the chamber approved a bill expanding a visa program. "Shake or bump?" Neal asked Rep. Kelly Armstrong, R-N.D.

The two men bumped elbows.

Associated Press writers Lauran Neergaard, Andy Taylor, Kevin Freking, Jill Colvin, Bob Burns, Lisa Mascaro and Mary Clare Jalonick contributed to this report.

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