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6 updates on Trump’s coronavirus response

He’s shoring up medical supplies and closing borders.

Nurses screen patients for Covid-19 virus testing at a drive-up location outside Medstar St. Mary’s Hospital in Leonardtown, Maryland, on March 17, 2020.
Win McNamee/Getty Images
Nicole Narea covers politics and society for Vox. She first joined Vox in 2019, and her work has also appeared in Politico, Washington Monthly, and the New Republic.

With Covid-19 cases reported in all 50 states on Wednesday, President Donald Trump announced that the government will require the private sector to produce more medical supplies and the US-Canada border will be closed, among other measures to help contain the virus.

The number of US coronavirus cases climbed to over 7,500 on March 18. Residents of the San Francisco area have been asked to “shelter in place,” and the Senate was poised to vote on a coronavirus relief bill that would, among other provisions, offer paid sick leave to certain American workers.

Trump — who repeatedly downplayed the risk of the virus before an abrupt change in tone Monday — described the current environment as one of wartime, fighting an “invisible enemy.”

“I view it as, in a sense, a wartime president,” he said. “I mean, that’s what we’re fighting. I mean, it’s a very tough situation here.”

But — at a press conference where he announced further restrictions on travelers — he also continually tried to portray the virus as a foreign threat, characterizing it as a “Chinese virus.”

Challenged on whether that was a racist term, Trump answered: “It’s not racist at all, not at all,” he said. “It comes from China. That’s why. It comes from China.”

Trump dismissed concerns that Chinese Americans are being wrongfully targeted as a result of his decision to describe the virus as a “Chinese virus.” But, as Rachel Ramirez wrote for Vox, “There have been innumerable reports of physical and verbal attacks against Asians as well as misinformation and harmful imagery online that play into stereotypes.”

Here are six things the administration promised to do on Wednesday, and how they fit into the unfolding battle against coronavirus in the US:

1) Trump is invoking the Defense Production Act to produce key medical supplies

Trump said that he is invoking the Defense Production Act, a wartime law that would allow the government to harness the private sector to produce medical equipment necessary to combat the spread of coronavirus.

The government will be targeting production of medical masks, including N-95 masks, that can help protect health personnel from contracting the virus, as well as ventilators to help patients with acute symptoms breathe. The government has ordered millions of masks, but the US will need millions more, Trump said.

The US currently has more than 10,000 ventilators, and the Pentagon has offered up some of their own, but the administration anticipates needing thousands more.

“We have tremendous numbers of ventilators, but there’s never been an instance like this where no matter what you have, it’s never enough,” he said. “This is a very unforeseen thing.”

2) The US-Canada border will be closed for nonessential travel

Trump also announced that the US and Canada had mutually decided to close their shared border for nonessential travel for recreation and tourism. Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, whose wife recently tested positive for coronavirus, clarified that trade would continue in order to preserve the two countries’ supply chains for food, fuel, and medicines.

Trudeau had already closed Canada’s borders to noncitizens — except for Americans — on Monday. The US has also imposed restrictions on travelers coming from China and Europe, which experts say aren’t likely to significantly abate the spread of the virus given the current level of community spread within the US. So far, the only countries that have explicitly blocked US travelers are Argentina and Guatemala.

3) The Department of Housing and Urban Development will suspend some foreclosures and evictions

The social distancing and quarantines meant to fight the virus are proving devastating to entire industries, including restaurants and hospitality, and could leave workers in those fields and hourly workers unable to pay their bills.

To alleviate the financial burden on homeowners affected by the virus, Trump said that the federal government is suspending foreclosures and evictions until the end of April.

It wasn’t immediately clear who would be covered by the suspension, though it will reportedly apply only to homeowners with mortgages insured by the Federal Housing Administration, which underwrites affordable home loans issued by private lenders. The Federal Housing Finance Agency separately announced on Wednesday that it would similarly suspend foreclosures and evictions for those with mortgages underwritten by Fannie Mae or Freddie Mac.

4) The US will turn away asylum seekers on the US-Mexico border

Trump said he’s not going to close the US-Mexico border yet, but he will be prohibiting the entry of asylum seekers and those who try to cross without authorization at the southern border, likely later on Wednesday. He said he would invoke a provision in federal immigration law that allows the US to suspend travel from any country that poses “serious danger” of the introduction of “communicable disease.”

To an extent, most asylum seekers were already prevented from entering the US through various policies Trump had enacted, but this would give the administration another tool to turn them away.

Since February 2016, the Trump administration’s policies at the border have forced migrants to wait in Mexico for months at a time. US Customs and Border Protection officials have been limiting the number of asylum seekers they process at ports of entry each day, making migrants wait for their turn in Mexico, where migrant shelters are at capacity.

Even after migrants are processed, they are quickly sent back to Mexico under the Trump administration’s “Remain in Mexico” policy, officially known as the Migrant Protection Protocols (MPP). More than 60,000 migrants have been sent back to await decisions on their US asylum applications.

Trump could now effectively shut the door on asylum seekers entirely on account of the coronavirus pandemic — a move that would likely face legal challenges.

The threat of coronavirus spreading from Mexico currently seems to be relatively low. As of March 18, there were only about 90 reported cases and no deaths reported in Mexico.

Trump’s moves will put asylum seekers in greater danger. Thousands of migrants have been living for months on the US-Mexico border in makeshift encampments, where they rely on volunteers for basic necessities and are targeted by criminal gangs while they wait for a chance to apply for asylum in the US. They have little means to deal with a public health crisis in such conditions, but volunteers have been preparing for the possibility that coronavirus spreads to the camps.

5) Doctors will be allowed to practice across state borders

Medical professionals can now practice across state lines in order to help hospitals in hotspots of transmission to increase their capacity, Trump announced.

A recent analysis by researchers at the Imperial College London found that even strict efforts to delay the spread of the virus — including case isolation, home quarantine, and social distancing — “would still result in an 8-fold higher peak demand on critical care beds over and above the available surge capacity in ... the US.”

The government has already asked Americans to delay elective medical procedures to free up health care resources, including personnel and equipment, and to protect patients from contracting the virus in medical facilities.

Prior to the coronavirus pandemic, the US was already facing an imminent shortage of doctors: The Association of American Medical Colleges estimates that it could reach 46,900 to 121,900 physicians by 2032. Rural areas, where doctors are already in short supply, could be particularly hard hit.

6) The US is sending hospital ships to NYC

Trump said he has sent two hospital ships with capacity for 1,000 patients, including operating rooms, to New York at the request of Gov. Andrew Cuomo. The state has been particularly hard hit by the virus, with 2,382 cases as of March 18. In New York City alone, 1,339 people have tested positive, and a portion of the city of New Rochelle is also under lockdown.

Cuomo had previously ordered the National Guard and building developers to transform existing spaces, including dormitories and former nursing homes, into temporary hospitals in order to add an estimated 9,000 beds to the 53,000 that are already available. Cuomo has also been pressing the Trump administration to order the Army Corps of Engineers and the US military to create temporary hospitals in the state.

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