(Adds Pence quotes, details on economic package, background)
WASHINGTON, March 12 (Reuters) - U.S. Vice President Mike Pence on Thursday defended the Trump administration's new restrictions on travel from European nations, saying the epicenter of the coronavirus pandemic has shifted from Asia to Europe.
In a round of television interviews, Pence said thousands more cases of the COVID-19 respiratory illness were expected in the United States, and that clamping down on European travelers was just part of the U.S. government's strategy to fight the outbreak.
"We know there will be more infections in the days ahead. We're trying to hold that number down as much as possible," Pence told NBC's "Today" program, adding that he left the estimate of potential U.S. cases to federal health experts.
The European Union on Thursday criticized U.S. President Donald Trump's decision to impose a 30-day ban on travel from Europe, saying it was not consulted before he announced it in a Wednesday night address to the nation.
"We've recognized ... that the epicenter of the coronavirus has shifted from China and South Korea to Europe," Pence told CNN in an interview, adding that Trump made the decision to impose the travel ban "on the spot" after a briefing from health experts in the Oval Office.
The move sent European airline stocks plunging, further raising fears of the pandemic's impact on the global economy. U.S. stock index futures sank Thursday morning following the news of the ban.
Democrats in the U.S. House of Representatives, who have been in negotiations with the White House over a relief package to help people directly impacted by the virus and to shore up the U.S. economy, formally introduced a bill on Thursday morning.
Republicans, however, balked at the plan and called for a delay in considering the proposed legislation, which is expected to come up for a vote in the Democratic-controlled House on Thursday.
Pence also said officials are seeking to ramp up testing in all 50 U.S. states and pointed to efforts by commercial laboratories including Laboratory Corporation of America Holdings (LabCorp) and Quest Diagnostics Inc, but gave no other details.
Health experts have said a shortage of diagnostic test kits has made it difficult to gauge the full scale of outbreaks in the United States and curtail transmission of the virus.
More than 1,300 U.S. cases of coronavirus have been confirmed and 33 people have died, according to a Johns Hopkins University tally. The hardest-hit U.S. states, such as New York and Washington state, have struggled to quickly expand testing capacity to make such screening widely available.
(Additional reporting Lisa Lambert Editing by Chizu Nomiyama and Paul Simao)