Pence’s comments perplexed some public health officials, as physicians already have discretion to order testing. The announcement also raised questions about whether the government can rapidly accelerate the production of testing kits, as well as how much patients will ultimately have to pay for getting tested.
The White House’s scramble to reassure citizens, calm financial markets and catch up with the deepening outbreak came as the deadly virus continued its spread around the nation on Tuesday.
Washington state, where all the deaths so far have occurred, confirmed three additional fatalities, bringing the total to nine. The previously unreported deaths were former residents of the Life Care Center of Kirkland, a nursing home facility that has emerged as the epicenter of the outbreak in the city northeast of Seattle.
Two of the deaths occurred on Feb. 26 and another happened Monday, county health officials said in a news release. One victim was an 80-year-old woman who died at her family home. Another was a 54-year-old man who died at the Harborview Medical Center in Seattle, two days after he was admitted directly from the nursing home, according to the hospital. The third patient, a woman in her 70s, died at the EvergreenHealth Medical Center in Kirkland, officials said.
Meanwhile, North Carolina reported its first coronavirus case Tuesday, bringing the total to 14 states. In a statement, Gov. Roy Cooper (D) identified the person only as someone from Wake County who “traveled to the State of Washington and was exposed at a long-term care facility where there is currently a COVID-19 outbreak.”
Cooper described the North Carolina infection as “an isolated case” and said the person is “doing well” while quarantined at home.
New York disclosed on Tuesday its second confirmed case. Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo (D) described the patient as a man in his 50s from Westchester County, who had no recent history of foreign travel. Cuomo said the man had gone to Lawrence Hospital in Bronxville before being transferred to a hospital in Manhattan.
Health officials in Santa Clara County, Calif., also announced two new confirmed coronavirus cases Tuesday, bringing that county’s total to 11.
As state and local officials grappled with the rising tide of confirmed cases, anger mounted in the nation’s capital over the Trump administration’s response.
Democratic senators confronted Pence and other top officials Tuesday afternoon on Capitol Hill, voicing frustration about whether the government is acting aggressively enough to contain the coronavirus.
Sens. Patty Murray and Maria Cantwell of Washington state led the questioning at the closed-door lunch, demanding to know when more test kits would become available.
“People are calling their doctors, and they’re not being able to get a test,” Cantwell said after the lunch. “So let’s get crisper and clearer about what the process is for people to get testing and when the availability of those tests will be there for them.”
At a congressional hearing, skeptical senators grilled Stephen Hahn, commissioner of the Food and Drug Administration, about whether the supply of tests for the coronavirus will expand as rapidly as he had predicted earlier in the week, when he said 1 million tests would become available within days.
“Tell us why you think by Friday we’ll have 1 million tests [available] when we have only had 3,000,” Sen. Chris Murphy (D-Conn.) said.
Hahn, testifying alongside other senior federal health officials, replied that FDA officials “have been working very hard” to get more tests made and expand the number of labs that can perform them.
Murray expressed particular frustration that more tests had not been available before now.
“I am hearing from people who are sick, want to get tested and don’t know where to go,” Murray said. The few people who have gotten a test, she said, have had to wait a long time to get the results. “This is unacceptable.”
At the White House late Tuesday, administration officials seemed determined to respond to those concerns.
Pence said roughly 2,500 testing kits approved by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention should be distributed by the end of the week, primarily to hospitals in affected areas as well as to others that have requested them. Those kits collectively represent about 1.5 million individual tests.
Seema Verma, the administrator for the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services, said testing for the coronavirus is covered under Medicare, Medicaid and health-care exchanges established under the Affordable Care Act, but it remained unclear how the costs would be handled for the estimated 27 million Americans who are uninsured.
Pence and other health officials urged the public not to purchase medical face masks, saying they are not necessary for the average American and that they should be saved for health-care workers.
Members of a government task force are scheduled to meet separately with airline executives and executives of commercial laboratories on Wednesday.
As the coronavirus caseload grows in the United States, it has also continued its rapid spread around the globe.
More than 90,000 cases have been reported globally across more than 70 countries, including more than 3,100 deaths, according to the World Health Organization.
The World Health Organization’s top official said Tuesday that the disease caused by the new coronavirus has killed about 3.4 percent of those diagnosed with the illness globally — higher than what has previously been estimated.
By comparison, seasonal flu generally kills far fewer than 1 percent of those infected, Director General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus said.
Tedros said containment is still possible — and necessary — to save lives. The biggest impediment to doing so, he said, is “the severe and increasing disruption to the global supply of personal protective equipment — caused by rising demand, hoarding and misuse.” He called on governments and manufacturers to boost production and secure supplies for critically affected and at-risk countries.
President Trump informed local government officials that he had asked drug company executives to do “him a favor” and “speed it up” on developing a coronavirus vaccine. He added, “And they will. They’re working really hard and quick.”
Trump’s comments came Tuesday while addressing the National Association of Counties Legislative Conference. He said his administration is working with Congress to ensure that state and local health departments get the resources they need.
“Six weeks ago, eight weeks ago, you never heard of this. All of a sudden, it’s got the world aflutter,” Trump said. “But it’ll work out.”
Sacchetti reported from Kirkland, Wash. Miriam Berger, Erica Werner, Mike DeBonis, Paul Kane, Lena H. Sun, Amy Goldstein, Michael Brice-Saddler and Mark Berman contributed to this report.