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Trump declares virus emergency; Pelosi announces aid deal

WASHINGTON — President Donald Trump on Friday declared the coronavirus pandemic a national emergency to free up money and resources to fight the outbreak, and then threw his support behind an aid package from Congress that is on track to provide direct relief to Americans.

From the Rose Garden, Trump said, “I am officially declaring a national emergency,” unleashing as much as $50 billion for state and local governments to respond to the crisis.

Trump also announced a range of executive actions, including a new public-private partnership to expand coronavirus testing capabilities with drive-through locations, as Washington tries to subdue the new virus whose spread is roiling markets, shuttering institutions and disrupting the lives of everyday Americans.

But he denied any responsibility for delays in making testing available as his administration has come under criticism for being too slow to respond.

Trump said, “I don’t take responsibility at all” for the slow rollout of testing.

As the House prepared to vote late Friday night, Pelosi trumpeted the hard-fought package that will provide free testing, sick pay for workers, enhanced unemployment benefits and bolstered food programs.

“We did what we said we were going to do: Put families first,” said Pelosi, flanked by Democratic lawmakers, including many freshmen.

Trump’s tweet of approval instilled fresh energy in the package, all but ensuring that wary Republicans would join with a robust vote.

“I fully support H.R. 6201: Families First CoronaVirus Response Act,” Trump wrote.

“I encourage all Republicans and Democrats to come together and VOTE YES!” He added, “Look forward to signing the final Bill, ASAP!”

The crush of late-day activity capped a tumultuous week in Washington as the fast-moving virus left ordinary Americans suddenly navigating self-quarantines, school closures and a changed way of life.

The White House was under enormous pressure, dealing with the crisis on multiple fronts as it encroached ever closer on the president.

Trump has been known to flout public health advice — eagerly shaking hands during the more than hour-long afternoon event — but acknowledged he “most likely” will be tested now after having been in contact with several officials who have tested positive for the virus. “Fairly soon,” he said.

Still, Trump said officials don’t want people taking the test unless they have certain symptoms. “We don’t want people without symptoms to go and do that test,” Trump said, adding, “It’s totally unnecessary.”

Additionally, Trump took a number of other actions to bolster energy markets, ease the financial burden for Americans with student loans and give medical professionals additional “flexibility” in treating patients during the public health crisis.

“Through a very collective action and shared sacrifice, national determination, we will overcome the threat of the virus,” Trump said.

Central to the aid package from Congress, which builds on an emergency $8.3 billion measure approved last week, is the free testing, sick pay and family leave provisions.

Providing sick pay for workers is a crucial element of federal efforts to stop the rapid spread of the infection. Officials warn that the nation’s healthcare system could quickly become overwhelmed with gravely sick patients, as suddenly happened in Italy, one of the countries hardest hit by the virus.

The ability to ensure paychecks will keep flowing — for people self-quarantining or caring for others — can help assure Americans they will not fall into financial hardship. There is also three months of paid family and medical leave. Small and mid-sized employers will be reimbursed through tax credits.

Pelosi negotiated the deal with Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin in days of around-the-clock negotiations with cross-town phone calls, even as Trump was speaking at the White House.

Hopes for swift passage stalled as talks dragged and Trump dismissed it during as “not doing enough.” Republicans were reluctant to come on board without his backing, according to a person unauthorized to discuss the talks and granted anonymity.

Ahead of Trump’s new conference, Pelosi delivered her own statement from the speaker’s balcony at the Capitol, imploring Trump’s party to “put families first” by backing the effort to provide Americans with relief.

Voting in the Senate is not yet set, with senators out of town for the weekend, scheduled to return Monday.

Both Pelosi and Mnuchin promised a third coronavirus package will follow soon, with more aggressive steps to boost the U.S. economy, which economists fear has already slipped into recession.

The financial markets closed on an upswing after one of the worst nosedives since the 1987 downturn.

For most people, the new coronavirus causes only mild or moderate symptoms, such as fever and cough. For some, especially older adults and people with existing health problems, it can cause more severe illness, including pneumonia.

The vast majority of people recover. According to the World Health Organization, people with mild illness recover in about two weeks, while those with more severe illness may take three to six weeks to be over it.

Trump said he was gratified that Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro tested negative for the virus, after the pair sat next to each other for an extended period of time last weekend at Trump’s Mar-a-Lago club. A senior aide to Bolsonaro tested positive.

Trump’s daugher, Ivanka Trump, worked from home Friday after meeting with Australian Home Affairs Minister Peter Dutton, now in isolation at a hospital after testing positive for the coronavirus. White House spokesman Judd Deere said she was evaluated by the White House Medical Unit.

Attorney General William Barr, who also met with the Australian official, was staying home Friday, though he “felt great and wasn’t showing any symptoms,” according to his spokeswoman Kerri Kupec.

Several lawmakers, including some close to Trump, have also been exposed to people who tested positive for the virus, and are self-isolating.

Among them are Republican Sens. Lindsey Graham and Rick Scott, who were at Trump’s club on the weekend. Graham announced Friday that he also met with the Australian official who has now tested positive. And GOP Sen. Ted Cruz of Texas, who had previously isolated himself after a potential exposure at a conservative conference in Washington, said Friday he met with a Spanish official and is now self-quarantining.

Hospitals welcomed Trump’s emergency declaration, which they and lawmakers in Congress had been requesting. It allows the Health and Human Services Department to temporarily waive certain federal rules that can make it harder for hospitals and other health care facilities to respond to an emergency.

The American Medical Association said the emergency declaration would help ensure America’s health care system has sufficient resources to properly respond to the ongoing outbreak.

Dr. Anthony Fauci, infectious disease chief at the National Institutes of Health, said more tests would be available over the next week, but warned, “We still have a long way to go.”

State to expand criteria for who is tested for coronavirus, Tulsa County health official says

The state plans to expand the criteria it uses to determine which individuals should be tested for COVID-19, Tulsa Health Department Director Bruce Dart said Friday.

The expanded criteria would put the state’s testing standards in line with those used by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

“Before, all we really looked at was, were you in one of these Level 3 countries, or were you exposed to a known COVID case? That was really the main criteria,” Dart said. “We know the symptoms are the same as influenza, but we weren’t really paying as close attention to people with coughs, … fever. Now we are paying closer attention to that just in case there are symptoms they are not aware of.”

Dart said the expanded criteria include:

• Hospitalized patients who have signs/symptoms compatible with COVID-19.

• Symptomatic individuals such as older adults and those with chronic health conditions.

• Anyone who within 14 days of symptom onset had close contact with a suspected or lab-confirmed COVID-19 patient.

• Any person who has a travel history from affected geographic areas including international and domestic locations within 14 days of the onset of symptoms.

Dart added that two private labs in the state, LabCorp and RML, now have testing capabilities.

“Testing is not available onsite at Tulsa Health Department,” Dart said. “If you are concerned about your risk of exposure, contact your health provider.”

Jamie Dukes, spokeswoman for the state Health Department, confirmed that the updated criteria would be issued later Friday.

Dart made his remarks at a press conference at the Tulsa Health Department office. He was joined by city and county officials, including Police Chief Wendell Franklin, Fire Chief Ray Driskell, Mayor G.T. Bynum, County Commissioner Karen Keith and Sheriff Vic Regalado.

Bynum said the city has no plans to cancel public events at its facilities but that he would reassess the situation should there be “community spread” of the virus.

There have been four COVID-19 cases in the state, one confirmed and three presumed.

Dukes said the state Health Department has conducted approximately 150 tests and has 500 test kits on hand.

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Owasso man among servicemen who died in Iraq attack Wednesday

Military officials identified an Owasso man as one of the two American servicemen who died during an enemy engagement at Camp Taji in Iraq.

Air Force Staff Sgt. Marshal D. Roberts, 28, of Owasso, died Wednesday when his unit was engaged by indirect enemy fire at the camp, according to a U.S. Department of Defense news release.

Roberts was assigned to the 219th Engineering Installation Squadron, Oklahoma Air National Guard.

Army Specialist Juan Miguel Mendez Covarrubias, 27, of California, also died during the engagement.

Roberts and Covarrubias were supporting Operation Inherent Resolve at the camp, located about 17 miles north of Baghdad, when the engagement occurred, according to the Department of Defense.

Roberts enlisted in May 2014. He was the first Oklahoma Guardsman killed in action and the 20th Oklahoma Guardsman who has died while deployed overseas since Sept. 11, 2001, according to an Oklahoma Air National Guard news release.

Gov. Kevin Stitt said Oklahomans across the state mourn Roberts’ death.

“Today serves as a reminder of the many brave men and women who put their lives on the line every day to defend our state and country,” Stitt said. “Our prayers are with Staff Sgt. Roberts’ friends and family during this time, and the state is prepared to offer any support possible.”

U.S. and Iraqi officials suspect Iranian-back militia groups fired about 18 rockets Wednesday at Camp Taji, The Associated Press reported. Roberts, Covarrubias and U.K. service member Lance Cpl. Brodie Gillon, 26, died in the attack. Two Iraqi Security Forces members died, also. Fourteen others were wounded, according to U.S. and British officials.

U.S.-led forces conducted defensive strikes Thursday against Kataib Hezbollah facilities in Iraq, targeting weapon storage facilities. Those strikes, according to U.S. officials, “significantly degrade their ability to conduct future attacks.”

U.S. Sen. Jim Inhofe described Roberts as an American hero. Inhofe said he is praying for Roberts’ wife and his family.

“It is a somber reminder that the enemy Sgt. Roberts fought against is real and seeks to harm our nation and people,” Inhofe said. “I am humbled he made the ultimate sacrifice to protect us back here at home.”

The squadron Roberts was on deploys worldwide to establish communications systems and maintain their functionality. Roberts deployed in late 2019. The operation Roberts served, Operation Inherent Resolve, is the name of the U.S. military’s intervention against the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria, commonly known as ISIL or ISIS.

About 100 members of the Oklahoma National Guard left Tulsa in October 2019 for a year-long deployment in Iraq and Kuwait to support that operation.

“Wednesday’s news is a painful reminder that our sons and daughters, husbands and wives, friends and neighbors are still fighting every day to protect us across the world,” U.S. Sen. James Lankford said in a statement. “To lose a member of our military is never easy; to lose a neighbor is even harder.”

Rep. Kevin Hern said in a statement that he was heartbroken to learn of Roberts’ death. He said Roberts and his family are in his prayers.

“Staff Sergeant Marshal Roberts is remembered a hero and patriot, a man who chose to fight for the freedoms that we hold dear, who willingly walked into the path of danger so that Americans at home were safe,” Hern said. “We can never repay that debt.”

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