My fellow Americans, I am speaking to you from the Oval Office tonight because the world is facing a major health crisis, which according to many experts could be unlike anything experienced in our lifetimes. To be clear: this is not a time to panic. Rather it is a time to mobilize forces in order to reduce the potential harm that the Novel Coronavirus, the cause of the disease now called Covid-19, could do to people living in the United States and throughout the world. In the U.S. we have one of the best health systems in the world; and with proper leadership, planning, and all-out mobilization, we will prevail– but, still, not without challenges to overcome.
Throughout the world some countries are prepared and are taking the correct steps to try to contain the virus and prevent it from spreading. Others are not able to take the necessary steps due to limited resources. For this reason, the response needs to be global and coordinated, and the United States needs to a leader in this international effort.
First, a word on background. Why should we fear the Novel Coronavirus and why are people making such a big deal of it? Afterall, right now—March 9, 2020– there are only about 550 confirmed cases in the U.S, and just over 100,000 in the world. Only 22 people have died in the U.S, and only approximately 3,900 worldwide. This is a tiny fraction of the number of flu cases reported each year, which total over a million in the U.S. and result in 30,000-40,000 deaths in a typical year in our country. So, what is the big deal?
There are several reasons that this is a big deal:
- First, the Novel Coronavirus is spreading very rapidly throughout the world and is highly contagious. Some fear that this is just the beginning of a pandemic, which could affect hundreds of millions of people all over the world and could possibly rank up there with the infamous 1918 “Spanish Flu” pandemic, which took more than 50 million lives before it eventually petered out in 1920. It infected over 500 million people, more than a quarter of the world’s population, which was then only about 1.8 billion. Compare that to our world population today of 7.6 billion. If anything even close to the Spanish Flu pandemic were to occur, we could be looking at almost 2 billion infections worldwide including 92 million in the U.S. The number of deaths could be as high as 1.5 million in the U.S. and 200 million world-wide.
Of course, no one is saying this is going to happen. What experts have been saying, however, is that we are long overdue for a major pandemic. Some are saying this could be the Big One.
But the point is right now we do not know. The prudent thing to do is to hope for the best and to plan for the worst.
- Second, the virus appears that it can be transmitted by people who show no symptoms, which is making it much more difficult to contain.
- Third, while we are continuing to gather information regarding the virulence of this virus, it appears that the fatality rate is significantly higher than that of the typical flu, where about .1% of the affected patients die. The fatality rate associated with Corvid-19 is estimated to be between 1.0% and 2.0%. In other words, while it is still relatively low compared to the Spanish Flu of 1918 or the SARS virus, it is still potentially deadly for some—especially the elderly and those whose immune systems have been compromised. It is serious business.
- Fourth, the world is a very different place from what is was in 1918. The world population is over four times larger, more interconnected, and more people travel, making the spread of the disease potentially much faster and broader.
- And finally, it is already having a profound impact on the global economy. The U.S. stock market is volatile and unstable, and global commerce and productivity are affected, as we are already witnessing. If not addressed aggressively and wisely, the Novel Coronavirus could trigger a world-wide depression.
The news is not all bad, however. We can lick this monster. We have the intelligence and expertise to do so. But we must act now, and we must act aggressively. Every day lost makes it harder to get ahead of it and to stop it in its tracks. Frankly, we have already delayed decisive action too long and have had serious missteps such as not getting the testing kits out in a timely manner or devoting the substantial resources required. The $8 billion recently authorized by Congress is a start but only a start.
In other words, we are starting late, but not too late.
We can do this, but not without an aggressive, quick response similar to what we have done in the past with regard to armed conflicts. This is why I am proposing the most ambitious response that our nation has ever undertaken to address a health crisis. I will need the support of Congress to do this. I will need the support of the American people.
Keep in mind that the first line of defense in containing and treating the symptoms of Covid-19 are the state and local community clinics and healthcare delivery systems, local hospitals, physicians, and health care professionals. The role of the federal government is to get them the resources they need to fight and contain this disease in their communities, to coordinate the effort on the national level, to fund the costs associated with programs designed to contain and treat the disease, and to fund the research to develop a vaccine.
Here is what I propose:
- First, to pass legislation which makes it possible to reduce the exposure and risk associated with the coronavirus and to help contain it. The first initiative would be for a period of time to require all workers to receive sick pay. This is important because most hourly and minimum wage workers who miss work for any reason do not get paid for the time they miss. This encourages people living on the edge financially to go to work regardless of how they feel. We do not want any people with the Covid-19 disease working or taking public transportation where they would infect more people. Details will need to be worked out along with time limits, but the point is if you are sick with the disease caused by the Novel Coronavirus, you should stay home or go to the hospital and get the help you need without a big loss of income. The federal government would fund this program.
- Second, and related to this, is removing the barrier related to the costs associated with getting medical attention. In consultation with experts, I am proposing to establish for those who do not have direct access to a physician or a community healthcare professional, a 24-hour hotline, which persons who may be experiencing flu or severe cold-like symptoms can call to determine whether to go to a doctor, hospital or pandemic care center for a test or to remain home. Associated with this effort will be setting up an advanced telemedicine communication system where the patient can obtain advice as to treatment and next steps. This service will be free of charge. In addition, those who are admitted to a hospital or quarantine center who lack insurance will not have to pay. Those having insurance will not be subject to copays or deductibles.
- Third, we need to stabilize the world economy and calm the financial markets with appropriate subsidies to businesses affected by the Novel Coronavirus. A detailed plan for economic recovery will need to be worked out to assure that certain business and business activities are not wiped out and are given the opportunity to recover. This also will be funded by the federal government.
- Fourth, we need to provide the necessary test kits to be able to determine quickly if the person has the disease, and we need to support and assist the medical “first responders” at the local and state level by assuring they have access to best practices and have an opportunity to share and learn from the experiences of others. The federal government will require states and localities to produce “emergency pandemic response plans and budgets” and will assist in providing resources to develop quarantine facilities, temporary hospitals and similar infrastructure to help contain and treat the illness. Funds will also be available to assist in staff recruitment and staff training. The federal government also will help get the word out to all Americans using advertising and social media reminding the American people of your role in fighting this disease by frequent hand washing, avoiding large crowds, temporarily ceasing hand shaking and hugging, avoiding opportunities for exposure, and using your common sense. We will provide detailed guidelines for best practices by families and individuals and update this information on a regular basis.
- Fifth, the United States will work closely with other nations and with the World Health Organization and the United Nations to share information and best practices and to provide resources to help contain the disease in foreign countries as may be appropriate.
- Sixth, the federal government will oversee and coordinate the national effort and keep the public apprised and up to date on the conditions on the ground.
- Seventh, the federal government will issue guidelines for school closures and cancellation of major conferences and events.
- Finally, I will replace those currently in charge of coordinating this effort with seasoned health care experts, epidemiologists and infectious disease specialists. Anthony S Fauci has agreed to be in charge of this effort as the newly created position of “Pandemic Czar.”
The first reaction, of course, by many will be to ask what the cost will be and how we plan to pay for it. These are very good questions and will be worked out with Congress in the weeks ahead. We will also get this information to the American people. Surely there will be give and take in order to get the best bang for our buck.
However, my response to the question of whether we can afford a major anti-pandemic initiative is this: Would these questions be asked if the United States were invaded by a hostile adversary threatening to take over and destroy our country? We would not surrender. We would do what it takes to survive and to win. Experts are telling us that we could very well be faced with a similar choice. We do not have all the information yet, but if this pandemic could turn into anything like the flu pandemic of 1918, the impact on our nation and the world would be catastrophic. We must act now, and we must act decisively. We will proceed prudently and adjust spending as action on the ground warrants, but we must move forward. I am confident that we will and that we will succeed.
Thank you and good evening.
–The President of the United States
** Contributor Steve Marcus provided important help in preparing this presidential address to the American people.