By Elaine Owen, Editor
President Donald Trump declared a national emergency Friday (March 13) to help combat the coronavirus pandemic, freeing up billions of dollars to fund the response and help states, small businesses and individuals while allowing for a broader federal role in coordination.
The emergency declaration allows agencies to waive rules and allow greater flexibility, especially in health care. Trump said the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services will be able to temporarily drop requirements to allow for telehealth consultations and let health care providers work in states where they may not have licenses, hospitals adjust where patients can be treated, and rehabilitation centers accept patients without a minimum hospital stay beforehand.
“To unleash the full power of the federal government I am officially declaring a national emergency, two very big words,” Trump said Friday at a Rose Garden news conference. “The action I am taking will open access to up to $50 billion of money — a very large amount — for states and territories.”
The decision marked a reversal from the previous day. When asked Thursday about declaring a national emergency, the president demurred and suggested that “It may be some of the more minor things at this point.”
Senate Democrats urged Trump to declare an emergency in a letter Wednesday because responding to the pandemic response has already taxed state and local health authorities. They said an emergency declaration would make available some of the $42.6 billion in the Federal Emergency Management Agency’s Disaster Relief Fund for medical supplies, testing and immunization, when a vaccine is ready.
They also pointed to a precedent when President Bill Clinton’s 2000 emergency declaration helped pay for mosquito abatement in New York and New Jersey during a West Nile Virus crisis. President Barack Obama declared an emergency in 2009 during the H1N1 flu pandemic to temporarily ease some federal health insurance rules. That declaration relied on a different statute, the National Emergencies Act, which allows for broad presidential powers.
Around half of U.S. states have already declared their own emergencies, according to a CNN tally. Such measures suspend an array of requirements from transportation limits to quorum thresholds for public health bodies. They can make it easier for out-of-state medical professionals to practice.
Organizations representing hospitals, doctors and nurses had also called for a presidential emergency declaration.
“A presidential emergency or disaster declaration [allows for Section 1135 waivers of certain government health program] requirements so that hospitals, physicians, and other health care providers may share resources in a coordinated effort to care for their community,” the American Hospital Association, American Medical Association and American Nurses Association said in a joint letter Thursday.
The New York Times editorial board had also called for a declaration Thursday.
The Small Business Administration announced Thursday it would offer economic injury disaster loans, but a presidential declaration could simplify the process for small businesses seeking loans up to $2 million.
Trump signed an emergency declaration rather than a major disaster declaration, which requires an assessment of significant physical damage and is common for hurricanes and wildfires. Just this month, the president has signed four major disaster declarations after storms and tornadoes in Tennessee, Wisconsin and Mississippi and fires in Oklahoma.
While both types of declarations are authorized by the Stafford Act, a major disaster declaration allows for broader assistance “such as disaster unemployment assistance and crisis counseling, and other recovery programs, such as community disaster loans,” according to the nonpartisan Congressional Research Service.
The federal government already had started providing some assistance under a Jan. 31 public health emergency declaration from the secretary of Health and Human Services. For example, as of Wednesday, the Strategic National Stockpile of medications and supplies had sent 135 tons of cargo to support the quarantine of Americans returning from affected areas and to share personal protective equipment where needed.