US president Donald Trump announced new travel restrictions due to the coronavirus outbreak, banning entry to foreign nationals who recently visited Iran, as America recorded its first death from the disease.
Mr Trump unveiled the new steps on Saturday after coming under intense pressure to more aggressively tackle the outbreak, following a severe market sell-off and criticism that he was not taking the coronavirus seriously enough.
The Trump administration is also telling Americans not to travel to regions of South Korea and Italy which have suffered the greatest contagion from the infection, and will introduce health screenings for visitors from those areas. US officials are also considering new restrictions at its southern border with Mexico.
“It’s a tough one but a lot of progress has been made”, Mr Trump told reporters. “Our country is prepared for any circumstance.”
Mr Trump spoke just minutes after officials in Washington state confirmed the first fatality in the US due to the coronavirus outbreak — a woman in her late 50s who had not travelled to affected countries and is considered a case of “community” spread of the disease. Officials in Oregon and California have also confirmed new cases of coronavirus over the past 24 hours, raising fears that the disease was spreading in the US, especially on the West Coast. There are currently 22 patients who contracted coronavirus in the US, in addition to travellers brought back to the US with the disease from China and the Diamond Princess cruise ships.
Mr Trump said he would be discussing efforts to find a vaccine against coronavirus at a meeting with pharmaceutical companies on Monday. Mike Pence, the vice-president, said an agreement had been reached with 3M, the US manufacturer, to provide a constant supply of masks for use by health practitioners.
Amid concerns about the economic impact of the outbreak, Mr Trump urged the Federal Reserve to ease monetary policy, after the US central bank said on Friday it would “act as appropriate” to support the economy. “The Fed has a very important role, especially psychological . . . our Fed should be a leader,” Mr Trump said.
Mr Trump has attracted criticism for labelling the coronavirus a “new hoax” perpetrated by Democrats to damage him politically as he heads into his re-election campaign. On Saturday, he said he was not referring to the disease as a hoax, but to Democratic criticism of his response. “This is very serious”, the president said, but “there is no reason to panic at all”.
Mr Trump also pointed to improvements in tackling the crisis in China, which has suffered the worst outbreak so far. “China seems to be making tremendous progress, their numbers are way down,” Mr Trump said.
After Mr Pence was put in charge of the Trump administration’s efforts to tackle the coronavirus crisis earlier this week, the White House sought to centralise its messaging around the outbreak. This has raised concerns that technical experts would be prevented from offering a realistic picture of the crisis. But Anthony Fauci, a senior US health official standing beside Mr Trump at the press briefing, who cancelled a series of TV appearances to be replaced by Mr Pence on Sunday, said he had “not been muzzled”.