The acting White House chief of staff says US media is stoking a coronavirus panic because they hope it will take down President Donald Trump.
“The reason they are paying so much attention to it today is that they think this is going to bring down the president,” Mick Mulvaney said.
Speaking to a group of conservatives on Friday, he added people should ignore the media in order to calm the markets.
Global markets have continued to fall as the virus infects over 50 countries.
“We took extraordinary steps four or five weeks ago,” Mr Mulvaney said, referring to the Trump administration order to close the border to foreign travelers coming from China, where the virus originated. The move was widely covered in the media at the time.
“Why didn’t we hear about it? What was going on four or five weeks ago? Impeachment. And that’s all the press wanted to talk about,” he told a gathering of conservatives outside Washington on Friday.
He said the press was preoccupied by the impeachment of Mr Trump – who was eventually acquitted – because of their belief that “it would bring down the president”.
That same belief in Mr Trump’s demise has fuelled coverage of the disease, Mr Mulvaney said.
The number of Americans infected with with virus stands at 60.
What else did Mr Mulvaney say?
“Is it real? It absolutely is real,” Mr Mulvaney said.
“Are you going to see some schools shut down? Probably. May you see impacts on public transportation? Sure,” he said, adding: “We know how to handle this.
“The flu kills people,” he said playing down the danger. “This is not Ebola. It’s not Sars, it’s not Mers. It’s not a death sentence, it’s not the same as the Ebola crisis.”
His advice for the markets, which have been tanking worldwide over virus fears was to “turn off your televisions for 24 hours”.
There have been 82,000 reported cases of Covid-19 worldwide and 2,800 deaths since the disease emerged late last year. All but 3,664 cases and 57 of the deaths have been reported in China.
How is the US handling the outbreak?
Mr Mulvaney’s comments came as the Trump administration came under scrutiny for its early handling of the crisis.
According to an anonymous whistleblower within the US Department of Health and Human Services (HHS), government workers that were deployed to help a flight of Americans evacuated from Wuhan were “not properly trained or equipped to operate in a public health emergency situation”.
The plane, which was chartered by the state department, arrived in California on 29 January.
The team of more than a dozen HHS workers had face-to-face contact with around 200 evacuees, but were allowed to come and go from the quarantine zone and were not given the same protective equipment as Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) workers who treated evacuees in “full gown, gloves and hazmat attire”.
The complaint was made by a senior worker, according to whistleblower’s lawyer. The lawyer is seeking federal whistleblower protection, arguing that his client has faced retaliation from superiors for reporting the concerns.
In testimony on Thursday, HHS Secretary Alex Azar said he was not “aware of any violation of quarantine or, or isolation protocols”.
Cases are being tracked across the country, with thousands of people in mandatory or voluntary quarantine.
The New York health department has asked 700 people to self-isolate. California’s governor said 8,400 people are being monitored by authorities and 33 have tested positive.