NEW YORK/WASHINGTON, (Reuters) – The United States warned Americans not to travel abroad because of the coronavirus pandemic and recommended that citizens outside the country come home immediately, as health authorities on Thursday scrambled to step up testing for the disease.
The fast-spreading respiratory illness has shattered most patterns of American life: shuttering schools and businesses, prompting millions to work from home, forcing many out of jobs and severely curtailing travel.
“If you choose to travel internationally, your travel plans may be severely disrupted, and you may be forced to remain outside of the United States for an indefinite timeframe,” the U.S. State Department said.
New York State tested more than 7,500 patients overnight and ordered three-quarters of state employees to work from home, while the governor of neighboring New Jersey warned that he expected the number of cases in the state to spiral into the thousands.
A new drive-through testing site is due to open on Friday at a community college in New Jersey’s Bergen County with the capacity to collect 2,500 specimens per week, significantly ramping up the state’s ability to test its residents.
New Jersey health commissioner Judy Persichilli said she expected the number of cases to “rise exponentially” in step with wider testing, and said officials may not be able ultimately to reduce the number of people who become infected.
The goal, she said, was to spread the cases out “so that fewer people need to seek treatment at any given time,” lightening the load on hospitals and healthcare workers and giving the system more time to respond.
More than 13,000 people across the United States have been diagnosed with the illness called COVID-19 and more than 180 have died, with the largest numbers so far in Washington state and New York.
GRAPHIC: The novel coronavirus in the U.S. – here
The U.S. Senate was aiming to unveil details of a $1 trillion-plus coronavirus bill on Thursday intended to help the U.S. economy weather the impacts of the growing outbreak. President Donald Trump has been eagerly calling for that package.
It would be Congress’ third emergency coronavirus bill following a $105 billion-plus plan covering free coronavirus testing, paid sick leave and expanded safety-net spending, and an $8.3 billion measure to combat the spread of the highly contagious pathogen and develop vaccines.
There are currently no approved treatments or vaccines for COVID-19, but several options are being tested.
Trump spoke with several state governors by phone from the headquarters of the Federal Emergency Management Agency.
He said the government would be helping out the U.S. auto industry “a little bit” and might consider a relief package for the hospitality industry, which has been hammered by the outbreak.
The plunging stock market and surging death toll has caused Trump to sharply change his tone on the disease this week, demanding urgent action after spending weeks downplaying the risks.
Maryland Governor Larry Hogan, the Republican chairman of the National Governors Association, said governors were demanding action.
“We need all levels of government working together to get through this crisis,” he said. Top of the governors’ list is a request for 50% of any new emergency funding to go directly to the states. They also want increased supply of test kits, ventilators and other medical kit.
Texas on Thursday declared a public health disaster, ordering residents to avoid gatherings of greater than 10 people while Alabama closed its beaches along the Gulf of Mexico.
Some 500 flights were canceled after an air-traffic controller who worked at Las Vegas International Airport was presumed to have COVID-19, prompting the Federal Aviation Administration to order the control tower shut.
With the United States slow to roll out mass testing for the virus that has infected more than 244,000 people worldwide, officials fear the number of known cases of the respiratory illness that can lead to pneumonia lags far behind reality.
With more than 10,000 deaths globally so far, the fast-spreading epidemic has stunned the world and drawn comparisons with traumatic periods such as World War Two, the 2008 financial crisis and the 1918 Spanish flu pandemic.
The number of Americans filing for unemployment benefits surged by the most since 2012 to a 2-1/2-year high last week, as companies in the services sectors laid off workers with businesses shutting down due to the pandemic.
One sector where employees were busy – and unable to work from the safety of home – was the nation’s 3 million janitors, housekeepers and maids, who are on the front line of the war against the virus, often working overnight and weekends to deep clean offices, airports and hotels.
“Everyone is scared,” said Ali, who works for ABM, a maintenance and cleaning firm that employs more than 140,000 people. “We just keep going, let’s do what we can.”
Additional reporting by Lawrence Hurley and Jeff Mason in Washington, Laila Kearney in New York and Rich McKay in Atlanta; Writing by James Oliphant; Editing by Scott Malone, Daniel Wallis and Pritha Sarkar