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US ramps up preparations for coronavirus as conferences, flights cancelled
[WASHINGTON] The United States will start screening travelers for coronavirus and ramp up production of masks and test kits as the government scrambles to reassure Americans while the disease spreads and businesses cancel conferences and flights.
Trump administration officials on Sunday tried to calm market panic that the coronavirus could cause a global recession, saying the public had over-reacted and that stocks would bounce back due to the underlying strength of the US economy.
The first American died from the novel coronavirus, a man in his 50s with underlying conditions in Washington state, officials said Saturday. They still do not know how he contracted the disease. The state on Sunday confirmed two other cases and locked down a long-term care facility where a resident and a worker also tested positive for coronavirus and 50 residents and staff are showing symptoms.
About 70 cases have been reported in the US, with most on the West Coast but new cases in the Chicago area and Rhode Island.
Stock markets plunged last week, with an index of global stocks setting its largest weekly fall since the 2008 financial crisis, and more than US$5 trillion wiped off the value of stocks worldwide.
A key energy conference in Houston that brings together oil ministers and energy firms was cancelled on Sunday with the organisers of CERAWeek noting border health checks are becoming more restrictive and companies have begun barring non-essential travel to protect workers. A world economy conference with Pope Francis due to take place in Italy later this month was also cancelled.
President Donald Trump said on Sunday that travelers to the United States from countries at high risk of coronavirus would be screened before boarding and upon arrival, without specifying which countries.
Delta Air Lines on Sunday said it is suspending until May flights to Milan in northern Italy where most of that country's coronavirus cases have been reported. Flights will continue to Rome. American Airlines Group announced a similar move late on Saturday.
The US has 75,000 test kits for coronavirus and will expand that number "radically" in coming weeks, US Health and Human Services Secretary Alex Azar told ABC's "This Week" on Sunday.
Vice-President Mike Pence said the government had contracted 3M Co to produce an extra 35 million respiratory masks a month. He urged Americans not to buy the masks, which he said were only needed by healthcare workers. Honeywell International is the other major US mask producer.
He also told Fox News that clinical trials of a Covid-19 vaccine would start in six weeks but that a vaccine will likely not be available this season.
Democrats, who will challenge Mr Trump for the presidency in the Nov 3 election, have criticised his administration for downplaying the crisis and not preparing for the disease to spread in the US.
Mr ence, whom Mr Trump appointed last week to run the White House's coronavirus response, said Americans should brace for more cases, but that the "vast majority" of those who contracted the disease would recover.
"Other than in areas where there are individuals that have been infected with the coronavirus, people need to understand that for the average American, the risk does remain low. We're ready," Mr Pence told NBC's "Meet the Press" programme.
The United States has imposed limits on travellers who have visited Iran and recommended against travel to hard-hit areas of Italy and South Korea.
Mr Trump said on Saturday that the US was also considering shutting the country's southern border with Mexico to control the spread of the virus, adding: "We hope we won't have to do that."
Mexico has reported four coronavirus cases. Its foreign ministry said on Saturday that both governments are in "close and effective communication, especially the health authorities".