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Presidential contenders take aim at Trump’s coronavirus response as the outbreak spreads as quickly as fears

(L-R) Democratic presidential hopefuls Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders, Former Vice President Joe Biden, Indiana Senator Amy Klobuchar and Billionaire activist Tom Steyer arrive on stage for the tenth Democratic primary debate of the 2020 presidential campaign season co-hosted by CBS News and the Congressional Black Caucus Institute at the Gaillard Center in Charleston, South Carolina, on February 25, 2020.

Jim Watson | AFP | Getty Imags

Democratic presidential candidates at Tuesday night’s debate took aim at the Trump administration’s response to the coronavirus outbreak.

Some candidates called for more funding to be allocated to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s effort to prepare for an outbreak in the U.S. Others criticized President Donald Trump’s apparently lax attitude regarding the outbreak, which has now infected more than 81,000 in over 30 countries and killed at least 2,764 people.

The criticism came after the CDC stepped up its call Tuesday for the public to start preparing for a possible pandemic outbreak in the U.S.

“We are asking the American public to work with us to prepare for the expectation that this could be bad,” Dr. Nancy Messonnier, director of the CDC’s National Center for Immunization and Respiratory Diseases, said.

The number of confirmed cases in the U.S. has grown from five on Jan. 30 to 59 as of Wednesday. A majority of those cases came from passengers repatriated from the Diamond Princess cruise ship that was quarantined off the coast of Japan.

Here’s what the four Democratic presidential candidates who addressed the issue at Tuesday night’s debate had to say:

Joe Biden

When asked how he would handle the outbreak, former vice-president Joe Biden took the opportunity to discuss his work in the Obama administration during the 2014 Ebola outbreak. He also pointed out that in President Trump’s 2021 budget request, which was submitted to Congress earlier this month, he proposed cuts to funding for the CDC and NIH.

“I helped set up that office in the presidency, in the president’s office, on diseases that are pandemic diseases. We increased the budget of the CDC. We increased the NIH budget,” he said. “He’s wiped all that out. We did it. We stopped it,” he said about the Ebola outbreak.

The former vice-president added that he would work to get more U.S. experts in China amid the outbreak.

“I would be on the phone with China and making it clear, we are going to need to be in your country, you have to be open, you have to be clear, we have to know what’s going on, we have to be there with you.”

Michael Bloomberg

When asked about his policies to ban trans fat and sugary drinks in New York, former New York Mayor Mike Bloomberg segued to attacking President Donald Trump over his administration’s response to coronavirus.

“The president fired the pandemic specialist in this country two years ago,” he said, “so there’s nobody here to figure out what the hell we should be doing.”

In 2018, Trump fired the majority of the White House global health emergency team.

“He’s defunded Centers for Disease Control, so we don’t have the organization we need,” Bloomberg added. “This is a very serious thing. As you see, the stock market is falling apart and people are very worried and they should be. This is a very serious thing and we don’t have anybody to respond.”

The spread of virus outside of China, and warnings this week from CDC experts, sent markets spiraling on Monday and Tuesday, erasing months of gains.

Amy Klobuchar

When asked whether she would close the border to Americans infected abroad, Senator Amy Klobuchar, D-Minn., piled on the criticism of Trump, going after his lack of leadership and international coordination.

“This president has not invested like he should have in his budget. He tried to cut back on the CDC. He tried to cut back on the international organizations that would coordinate with the rest of the world. He hasn’t yet really addressed the nation on this topic,” she said. “I would do all of that.”

She also directed viewers to go to the CDC website for information on the virus.

“What we have to do is make sure that we have treatment for those Americans and that they are in a quarantine situation,” she said. “We don’t want to expose people, but we want to give them help.”

Bernie Sanders

Senator Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., mocked Trump’s claims that the coronavirus is “


“In the White House today, we have a self-described ‘great genius’ — self-described. And this great genius has told us that this coronavirus is going to end in two months,” Sanders said. “April is the magical date that this great scientist we have in the White House has determined. I wish I was kidding. That is what he said.”

Trump fired back

As Democrats on stage criticized the Trump administration’s response to the outbreak, President Trump took to Twitter to defend his administration’s response:

The Trump administration declared the outbreak a U.S. public health emergency last month, when there were fewer than ten cases in the U.S. The declaration came with orders to deny entry to any foreign nationals who have traveled in China within the two weeks prior to the announcement, aside from the immediate family of U.S. citizens.

The administration also issued a 14-day federal quarantine order to any U.S. citizen returning from Wuhan, the epicenter of the outbreak, Health and Human Services Secretary Alex Azar said. It is the first time the U.S. officials have issued a federal quarantine order since a smallpox outbreak in the 1960s.

President Trump announced Wednesday morning that he will discuss the outbreak during a news conference at 6 p.m. ET with officials from the CDC.

On Monday, Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y., slammed the Trump administration’s $2.5 billion request for additional funding to respond to the outbreak as “too little too late.”

Schumer took to the Senate floor Tuesday to lambast Trump. “The harsh fact of the matter is, the Trump administration has shown towering and dangerous incompetence when it comes to the coronavirus,” Schumer said.

Read CNBC’s live updates to see the latest news on the COVID-19 outbreak.