WASHINGTON — Gov. Phil Murphy visited the White House on Thursday to thank President Donald Trump for the federal government’s help in responding to the novel coronavirus and make a direct pitch for more help with testing and billions in aid to the state.

Murphy said the federal government helped “in our hour of need,” including ventilators, the Army Corps of Engineers building temporary hospitals to expand capacity and FEMA running testing sites in Bergen and Monmouth counties.

“We were at the edge, and this was life-or-death stuff, and we got them. And we are forever thankful for that,” Murphy said of the ventilators, after Trump noted with some surprise that New Jersey received more of them than any other state.

“A big part of our ability to reopen as fast as we all want to is to rapidly expand testing, and you all literally in the here and now this week are helping us in a big way to at least, I would expect, by the end of May. Thanks to you and your team’s help, we’ll be able to at least double and I hope more than double our testing capabilities,” Murphy said. “And because of that, that will allow us to much more aggressively and responsibly do the reopening that we all need to do.”

The visit to Washington appeared to yield immediate dividends. At an afternoon news conference in Trenton, Murphy announced that the state will receive 550,000 new COVID-19 test kits and 750,000 swabs from the federal government.

"This is a tremendous boost to our overall testing capacity, and I have noted many times already, having a robust testing program is not just a key thing in the here and now but a key principle for our being able to get back on the road to recovery," Murphy said.

Murphy said the federal government also committed to directly ship personal protective equipment to 358 nursing homes in New Jersey, including around 220,000 masks, 19,000 goggles, 200,000 gowns and 1 million gloves.

Nationwide, FEMA will deliver similar 'care packages' of PPE to more than 15,000 nursing homes. The packages will be delivered twice in the next 60 days, each time containing enough equipment to last an estimated seven days.

Murphy indicated in the Oval Office visit that New Jersey could need up to $30 billion in federal assistance and said it’s needed to balance current spending, not rescue the state from structural deficits for things such as pensions and health benefits for retired public workers.

Murphy said his administration has “made a lot of progress on what I would call the legacy issues,” including record pension payments and stabilizing state debt while increasing annual surpluses and making a deposit into the rainy-day fund. He said the state isn’t looking for help with those obligations.

“We’ve got a plan and we’re comfortable with the progress. It’s going to take a while on the legacy stuff,” Murphy said. “The financial assistance we need – and we need a significant amount. This is a big hit, and this is somewhere in New Jersey alone could be $20- to $30 billion. But this is to allow us to keep firefighters, teachers, police, EMS on the payroll serving the communities in their hour of need.

“And that’s something that we feel strongly about,” he said. “We don’t see it as a bailout. We see this as a partnership, doing the right thing in what is the worst health care crisis in the history of our nation, and I want to again thank the president for an extraordinary spirit of partnership across the whole spectrum of our needs, and I want to reiterate that. Thank you.”

Trump said of Murphy that “you can’t have a better representative” and complimented his quick return to work after cancer surgery but was noncommittal about the state aid.

“I will say that’s a tough question because you’re talking about the states and whether you call it a bailout or a lot of money,” Trump said.

Later in the day, Murphy said "that's a huge number" that represents both spending demands and revenue declines expected through June 2021, the end of the next fiscal year. He said his talk with Trump was productive and that he explained the state's current predicament and attempt to fix its finances.

"It was far from a 'heck, no.' It was, 'Let me learn more about what's going on there,'" Murphy said.

Murphy also said he tested negative for the coronavirus. He had earlier declined to be tested because he wasn’t symptomatic but everyone meeting with the president is required to take a test.

“Did they test you today?” Trump asked.

“They did test me,” Murphy said.

“Good. Now I feel better,” Trump said, chuckling.

“Yeah, yeah, yeah,” Murphy said. “I’m negative.”

“You did the five-minute Abbott test,” Trump said.

“I did the quick turnaround,” Murphy agreed.

“It’s so great,” Trump said.

“I feel like a new man,” Murphy said.

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Murphy was joined for the White House visit by state Health Commissioner Judith Persichilli and chief of staff George Helmy.

Trump said he is pleased that the trends in New Jersey seem to be moving in the right direction.

“I’m so happy that you’re opening up parks and things because that’s a big step for New Jersey because they were hit very hard,” Trump said.

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Michael Symons is State House bureau chief for New Jersey 101.5. Contact him at michael.symons@townsquaremedia.com.

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