WASHINGTON: President Donald Trump declared a national emergency on Friday (Mar 13) in what critics say was a long-delayed admission of the gravity of the coronavirus crisis paralyzing the United States and said he was likely to get tested for infection himself.
Speaking at a hastily organised press conference in the White House's Rose Garden, Trump said he would "unleash the full power of the federal government" against the spreading illness.
A national emergency frees up to US$40 billion in federal funds to help local authorities. It also gives Trump another shot at restoring public confidence in his handling of coronavirus, which he has persistently downplayed.
The press conference came after a widely panned national address by Trump on Wednesday, in which he not only failed to calm growing nerves but delivered serious factual errors.
A massive stock market sell-off followed, whereas Friday's performance saw the Dow Jones rising sharply.
Flanked by top health officials and the heads of big medical companies, Trump bragged about the US response, but also went further than he had before in conceding the size of the threat.
"The next eight weeks are critical," he said. "We can learn and we will turn a corner on this virus."
The Rose Garden event came as Congress and the White House again failed to agree on measures to ease the financial pain caused by the pandemic's disruption to the economy. A deal had been expected on Friday.
Trump blamed opposition Democrats for the impasse, which dashes hopes of reassuring Americans facing possible severe health costs and job turmoil resulting from the sudden slowdown in economic activity.
Trump surprised reporters by reversing his insistence on not needing to be tested for coronavirus, or even going into self-quarantine, following his contact with numerous politicians who since took the precautionary measure.
Last weekend, Trump hosted Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro, who said Friday he tested negative for the virus after it emerged that his press secretary had tested positive.
Trump had also met with the press secretary during dinner at his golf resort in Florida.
TRUMP TO GET TESTED
Trump once again told the press conference "I don't have any of the symptoms" and "we don't want people without symptoms to go and do the test."
But later, he claimed "I didn't say I wasn't going to be tested."
He would "most likely" be tested "fairly soon," he said.
Trump also faced a barrage of questions over what critics say has been a chaotic public health response, particularly regarding meagre testing capacities.
US authorities have come under fire for lagging behind in deploying test kits, which leading health experts have said allowed the virus to spread beyond the country's ability to detect it.
The Trump administration announced earlier Friday it was providing almost US$1.3 million in funding to two labs to develop tests that return results in about one hour - DiaSorin Molecular of California and QIAGEN of Maryland.
The US Food and Drug Administration has already given emergency approval to Swiss pharmaceutical giant Roche for a new and much faster coronavirus test.
As a result of the Roche approval, Trump said half a million additional tests were expected to be available "early next week," with details on test locations to be announced Sunday night.
He said he hoped another 1.4 million tests could be available next week, and five million within a month.