By Steve Holland and Alexandra Alper
WASHINGTON (Reuters) – The U.S. government is now recommending Americans wear cloth face-coverings on a voluntary basis to stem the spread of the coronavirus, President Donald Trump said on Friday, although he said he himself would not use one.
In a daily briefing with reporters, Trump stressed that the recommendation should not be seen as replacing social-distancing measures considered key to slowing the outbreak, which has now claimed more lives in New York state than the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks.
“With the masks, it’s going to be really a voluntary thing. You can do it, you don’t have to do it. I’m choosing not to do it, but some people may want to do it and that’s OK,” Trump said.
Asked about the reasoning behind his decision, Trump cited his high-profile meetings. “As I greet presidents, prime ministers, dictators, kings, queens … I don’t see it for myself, I just don’t,” Trump said.
Trump on Friday signed an order directing his administration to stop the export to other countries of N-95 face masks and other personal protective equipment needed in the fight against the coronavirus pandemic.
In a statement, Trump said his order under the Defense Production Act “is another step in our ongoing fight to prevent hoarding, price gouging, and profiteering by preventing the harmful export of critically needed PPE.”
White House trade adviser Peter Navarro told Fox News the measure aims at cracking down on “brokers operating in shady black markets that have been vacuuming up masks and other protective gear here and exporting,” and distributors who make money by sending the equipment abroad instead of filling domestic orders.
CHANGE IN RECOMMENDATIONS
The decision to promote mask use comes as state governors and hospitals clamor for scarce supplies of medical-grade masks for first responders. Experts had questioned the administration’s decision not to urge widespread mask use, in contrast to other countries hit by the virus.
“What has changed in our recommendation? Well, it’s important to know that we now know from recent studies that a significant portion of individuals with coronavirus lack symptoms,” Surgeon General Jerome Adams said, noting that new evidence points to viral transmission via speaking, in addition to coughing and sneezing.
“Even those who eventually become pre-symptomatic, meaning they will develop symptoms in the future, can transmit the virus to others before they show symptoms,” he said.
Trump said the U.S. Centers For Disease Control and Prevention is not recommending the use of medical-grade masks for most people. He said Americans can make cloth masks at home.
The 3M Co said on Friday it would make more N95 respirator masks for the United States to fight the pandemic, but warned of the “humanitarian implications” of limiting supply to other countries as Trump directed.
“The narrative that we aren’t doing everything we can as a company is just not true,” 3M’s chief executive, Mike Roman, told CNBC television in an interview.
“STATES WERE TOTALLY UNPREPARED”
“I’m not at all happy with 3M,” Trump said when asked about the pushback his order had received from Canada and the company. “I heard what he had to say today. I don’t know the gentleman, but we’re not happy with 3M.”
Trump took aim at states as well, saying they should have been better prepared to respond to the pandemic with their own stockpiles of medical supplies, and should not have expected the federal stockpile to meet their needs.
“Many of the states were totally unprepared for this, so we had to go into the federal stockpile,” Trump said. “We’re not an ordering clerk. They have to have for themselves.”
“We have been spending a tremendous amount of time, effort and billions and billions of dollars on making sure that they have what they have,” he added.
Trump himself initially had downplayed the seriousness of the virus and his administration has drawn fire for its slow response.
Health and Human Services Secretary Alex Azar said at the briefing that the government would use part of the $2.3 trillion stimulus law funding to compensate hospitals for caring for uninsured COVID-19 patients.
Asked if the compensation would include treatment of the 11 million immigrants who are in the country illegally, Trump said: “We’ll be talking about that at a different time.” He did not elaborate.
In a statement late on Friday, Trump said he intended to nominate Brian Miller, a special assistant to the president and senior associate counsel in the Office of White House Counsel, to be special inspector general for pandemic Recovery at the Department of the Treasury.
(Reporting by Steve Holland and Alexandra Alper; Additional reporting by Daphne Psaledakis, Mohammed Zargham, Eric Beech and Tim Ahmann; Writing by Alexandra Alper; Editing by Bill Berkrot, Cynthia Osterman and Leslie Adler)