US President Donald Trump has declared a national emergency to help handle the growing outbreak of coronavirus.
The declaration – “two very big words”, according to Trump – allows the federal government to tap up to $50bn (£40bn) in emergency relief funds.
The move loosens regulations on the provision of healthcare and could speed up testing – the slow pace of which has been criticised widely.
There are 1,701 confirmed cases of Covid-19 in the US, and 40 deaths.
Several US states have taken measures to stem the infections rate, including banning large gatherings, sporting events and closing schools.
The virus originated in China last December, but Europe is now the “epicentre” of the global pandemic, the head of the World Health Organization said on Friday, as several European countries reported steep rises in infections and deaths.
Italy has recorded its highest daily toll yet – 250 over the past 24 hours, taking the total to 1,266, with 17,660 infections in the country.
Trump’s administration has come under recent scrutiny over its failure to provide Americans with widespread coronavirus testing.
The decision on the state of emergency was announced by Mr Trump in a live address from the White House Rose Garden.
The “next eight weeks are critical,” Mr Trump said.
Amongst the measures envisaged as part of the emergency response are:
- The US Health Secretary Alex Azar and health officials can waive certain laws and license requirements, giving more flexibility to healthcare providers
- Hospitals have been asked to activate their emergency preparedness plans
- Up to 500,000 additional coronavirus tests will be available by early next week, though authorities are not recommending tests without clear need; private labs and vaccine developers will be able to provide five million coronavirus tests within the month, though authorities are not recommending tests for those without symptoms
- Interest on all student loans is to be waived until further notice as a measure to ease the burden for students as universities and colleges across the country shut their doors
Democrats in Congress and heavily-affected states had been urging Mr Trump to issue the order, which will also allow more people to qualify for government health insurance.
Later on Friday, US House of Representatives Speaker Nancy Pelosi announced she had reached a deal with the White House on a package to assist people affected by the outbreak.
It includes two weeks of paid sick leave and up to three months of paid family and medical leave, free virus testing for those without insurance and food aid. (Courtesy BBC)