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US pumps US$8.3b into coronavirus battle as more states report cases

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A bill signed by President Donald Trump on Friday will provide US$8.3 billion to bolster the country's capacity to test for coronavirus and fund other measures to stem an outbreak that has now killed 15 Americans and hit 22 states, with Pennsylvania, Indiana and Minnesota reporting their first cases.

[WASHINGTON] A bill signed by President Donald Trump on Friday will provide US$8.3 billion to bolster the country's capacity to test for coronavirus and fund other measures to stem an outbreak that has now killed 15 Americans and hit 22 states, with Pennsylvania, Indiana and Minnesota reporting their first cases.

Mr Trump signed the legislation at the end of a week in which the virus began to disrupt daily life for many Americans. As stocks plunge and US companies grapple with the economic fallout, his administration is also weighing tax relief for the cruise, travel and airline industries, according to a source familiar with the plan.

In Seattle, the epicentre of the nation's outbreak, there were school closures and orders to work from home. In Miami and Baltimore, areas less affected by the outbreak, music festivals and sporting events were cancelled or curtailed as a precaution.

More than a third of the new funds will be spent on test kits and research and development into vaccines and treatments. There are currently no approved vaccines or treatments for the respiratory illness, which emerged in China and has spread to more than 90 nations, killing more than 3,400 people and infecting more than 100,000 worldwide.

Six countries reported their first cases on Friday.

"We're doing very well," Mr Trump said after signing the spending bill, which was approved by the Senate on Thursday. "But it's an unforeseen problem... came out of nowhere, but we're taking care of it."

Mr Trump was due to travel later on Friday to the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) in Atlanta.

Americans are sharply divided over the dangers of the new coronavirus, according to a Reuters/Ipsos poll.

Critics of Mr Trump, including Democratic lawmakers, have accused the president of downplaying the significance of the outbreak for political reasons. He has said the risk to Americans is low.

A union representing tens of thousands of US government employees on Friday called on the Trump administration to take the coronavirus seriously for federal workers, especially those working in areas directly impacted by the outbreak.

Washington's King County has been the hardest hit area in the United States with at least a dozen deaths, several of whom were people living at a nursing facility in the Seattle suburb of Kirkland.

The University of Washington announced on Friday that all classes would be held virtually for the rest of the winter term to limit contagion.

Alphabet Inc's Google on Thursday joined Amazon.com Inc, Facebook Inc and Microsoft Corp in recommending employees in the Seattle area work from home, a policy affecting more than 100,000 people.

Apple Inc on Friday asked staff at its Silicon Valley headquarters to work from home if possible as a "precaution". Gap Inc closed its New York headquarters because one employee had tested positive.

In Florida, Miami officials cancelled two music festivals on Friday - Ultra and Calle Ocho - because of potential risk that coronavirus could spread at events that bring large crowds into close proximity.

For similar reasons, the NCAA Division III men's basketball tournament will go ahead at Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore this weekend but without spectators, the university said on Friday.

TESTS ON CRUISE SHIP

Mr Trump said he had spoken to California Governor Gavin Newsom about a cruise ship that was barred from docking in San Francisco after at least 35 people developed flu-like symptoms while on board. The ship has been linked to two confirmed cases of Covid-19, the respiratory illness caused by the virus.

Test results of passengers were due on Friday, according to Mary Ellen Carroll, executive director of San Francisco's Department of Emergency Management. State and local officials airlifted diagnostic kits to the vessel.

The crisis has hit stocks hard. The benchmark S&P 500 closed down 1.7 per cent on Friday, after falling nearly 3 per cent the day before.

As new states report their first cases, others watched their tally grow. Cases in New York jumped to 33 from 22, Governor Andrew Cuomo said on Friday, adding that some 4,000 people in the state were under precautionary quarantine and 44 under mandatory quarantine.

But he also tried to stem any sense of panic by the public. "I think the anxiety and the fear is more of a problem than the virus," Mr Cuomo said.

Health and Human Services Secretary Alex Azar, who was present at Mr Trump's bill signing, said the CDC had already sent tests for 75,000 people to public health labs around the country, amid widespread criticism of not enough tests available for states in need.

Mr Azar said a private contractor was working with the CDC to send kits capable of testing 400,000 people to private hospitals and labs nationwide.

"The production and shipping of tests that we've talked about all week is completely on schedule," Mr Azar said.

Anthony Fauci, the director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, acknowledged issues that slowed distribution of coronavirus tests, but said the overall response was going well.

"There were certainly some missteps in the beginning," he told NBC's Today program. "In the next couple of weeks we should be ratcheted up to get many more out."

REUTERS