In Kansas visit, Dr. Birx urges use of masks
7:54 PM CT on 8/15/20
(AP) Trump’s top coronavirus adviser used a visit to Kansas to urge people to wear masks regardless of where they live.
“What’s really important for every Kansan to understand is that this epidemic that we have been seeing this summer is both urban and rural,” Dr. Deborah Birx, coordinator of the White House coronavirus task force said Saturday. “So we are really asking all communities, whether you are urban or rural communities, to really wear a mask inside, outside, every day.”
She also stressed that people should socially distance and not have gatherings while in Kansas City, Kansas, for a meeting with Kansas Gov. Laura Kelly, as well as community and state health officials at KU Medical Center, The Kansas City Star reports.
“You can’t tell who’s infected,” Birx said. “Much of the spread is asymptomatic. I know we all want to believe that our family members cannot be positive. They are.”
Birx said when communities start seeing a rise in positive cases, leaders need to close the bars, restrict indoor dining, decrease social gatherings and ensure there’s a mask mandate.
“We have been doing that across the South and we’ve seen a dramatic decrease in cases where the population has followed those guidelines,” she said.
Arizona nearing 4,500 deaths from coronavirus
4:37 PM CT on 8/15/20
(AP) Arizona reported 933 confirmed coronavirus cases and 69 deaths on Saturday.
That increases the state’s totals to more than 192,000 cases and 4,492 deaths.
The seven-day rolling average of daily new cases decreased from 2,550 to 1,021 per day from July 30 to Aug. 13. The seven-day rolling average of daily deaths decreased from 94 to 54 in the same time period.
The latest COVID-19-related hospitalization numbers posted by the state Department of Health Services were at levels last seen in early June.
The COVID-19-related hospitalizations in Arizona peaked about a month ago following Gov. Doug Ducey’s lifting of stay-home orders in May. Ducey re-imposed some restrictions and allowed local governments to impose mask requirements in late June.
Yale-developed saliva test given FDA approval
2:13 PM CT on 8/15/20
The Food and Drug Administration on Saturday approved a saliva test developed by Yale School of Public Health for rapid detection of COVID-19.
“The SalivaDirect test for rapid detection of SARS-CoV-2 is yet another testing innovation game changer that will reduce the demand for scarce testing resources,” Assistant Secretary for Health and COVID-19 Testing Coordinator Admiral Brett P. Giroir said in a statement.
Yale and the National Basketball Association in June partnered to study the effectiveness of the saliva test.
"This is a huge step forward to make testing more accessible,” said Chantal Vogels, a Yale postdoctoral fellow, who led the laboratory development and validation along with Doug Brackney, an adjunct assistant clinical professor. “This started off as an idea in our lab soon after we found saliva to be a promising sample type of the detection of SARS-CoV-2, and now it has the potential to be used on a large scale to help protect public health. We are delighted to make this contribution to the fight against coronavirus.”
The Yale saliva test is the fifth approved by the FDA, which noted that there's been variation in performance among tests. But Yale's data, the FDA said, met the criteria needed for emergency use authorization.
Texas testing drops as schools reopen, prepare for football
11:52 AM CT on 8/15/20
(AP) Anyone can get a coronavirus test at the CentroMed clinic in San Antonio, but on a recent day, the drive-thru was empty. Finally two masked people in a maroon SUV pulled straight on through with no wait.
With hundreds of deaths reported each day, students returning to class and football teams charging ahead with plans to play, Texas leaders who grappled with testing shortages for much of the pandemic are now facing the opposite problem: not enough takers.
“We’re not having enough people step forward,” Republican Gov. Greg Abbott said.
The number of coronavirus tests being done each day in Texas has dropped by the thousands in August, mirroring nationwide trends that has seen daily testing averages in the U.S. fall nearly 9% since the end of July, according to The COVID Tracking Project. The problem is dwindling demand: Testing centers like CentroMed are no longer inundated by long lines that stretch for blocks, or closing hours early because tests run out.
The dropoff comes as the U.S. has surpassed 5 million confirmed coronavirus cases and is closing in on 170,000 deaths. It threatens to put the U.S. even further behind other countries that have better managed the pandemic, in part, through more aggressive testing.
The trend worries health experts who fear that Texas risks flying blind into the fall if it doesn't increase testing. Texas embarked on one of the fastest reopenings in the U.S. in May but retreated weeks later in the face of massive outbreaks, ultimately leading Abbott to impose a statewide mask order after previously saying he wouldn't.
In recent weeks, things have improved, including a nearly 40% drop in hospitalizations since July's peak. But deaths remain high, and doctors in some parts still say they're still stretched. Texas is averaging more than 210 reported new deaths a day over the past two weeks, according to The COVID Tracking Project. On Friday, it reported 313 deaths. Overall, the state has recorded more than 9,600 fatalities.
In settlement, county to launch $2.8M mask-wearing campaign
9:30 AM CT on 8/15/20
(AP) A Pennsylvania county that has tangled with Gov. Tom Wolf over his pandemic restrictions agreed Friday to spend $2.8 million on a universal masking-wearing campaign.
Lebanon County said it will promote mask-wearing by its residents as part of a legal settlement in which Wolf agreed to release $12.8 million in federal coronavirus relief aid. Wolf had blocked Lebanon from receiving the money after its elected leaders defied his pandemic shutdown orders and sought to reopen the local economy on their own.
Lebanon filed suit last month in an effort to compel Wolf to release the funding.
In a news release announcing the settlement, Wolf said he was “pleased that Lebanon County will launch a campaign to encourage the use of face masks. Mask-wearing is important to reduce the spread of COVID-19 to protect people, schools and businesses.”
Lebanon County Rep. Russ Diamond, a Republican who has stoked opposition to Wolf's pandemic shutdowns — and who has spoken out against the wearing of masks — excoriated the settlement.
“No matter how sweet you think your deal with the devil is, you will eventually end up in hell," Diamond wrote on Facebook. “This is absurd and borders on extortion. I don’t even know how you’d spend $2.8 million to advertise anything in Lebanon County.”
The GOP-controlled Board of Commissioners passed its resolution to unilaterally lift Wolf's pandemic restrictions on May 15, four days after the Democratic governor threatened to block COVID-19 funding to any county that defied him. The number of new infections in Lebanon County subsequently doubled, and Lebanon was the last Pennsylvania county to move from “yellow” to the least-restrictive “green" phase in Wolf's reopening plan.
County commissioners who had previously blasted Wolf's shutdown orders were far more conciliatory in announcing the settlement Friday.
“The commissioners urge all residents of Lebanon County to follow all of the administration's recommended practices to mitigate the impact of COVID-19 in our communities," the statement said.
The county will use the rest of the relief money to reimburse school districts and local governments for virus-related expenses, distribute grants to small businesses and nonprofits, and support economic development and behavioral health programs.
Study hints, can't prove, survivor plasma fights COVID-19
7:49 PM CT on 8/14/20
(AP) Mayo Clinic researchers reported a strong hint that blood plasma from COVID-19 survivors helps other patients recover, but it's not proof and some experts worry if, amid clamor for the treatment, they'll ever get a clear answer.
More than 64,000 patients in the U.S. have been given convalescent plasma, a century-old approach to fend off flu and measles before vaccines. It's a go-to tactic when new diseases come along, and history suggests it works against some, but not all, infections.
There's no solid evidence yet that it fights the coronavirus and, if so, how best to use it. But preliminary data from 35,000 coronavirus patients treated with plasma offers what Mayo lead researcher Dr. Michael Joyner on Friday called "signals of efficacy."
There were fewer deaths among people given plasma within three days of diagnosis, and also among those given plasma containing the highest levels of virus-fighting antibodies, Joyner and colleagues reported.
The problem: This wasn't a formal study. The patients were treated in different ways in hospitals around the country as part of a Food and Drug Administration program designed to speed access to the experimental therapy.
That so-called "expanded access" program tracks what happens to the recipients, but it cannot prove the plasma — and not other care they received — was the real reason for improvement.
Birx: Tracking the coronavirus is a challenge in rural areas
6:24 PM CT on 8/14/20
(AP) Federal officials need to figure out better ways to track the coronavirus in rural, sparsely populated areas where fewer people are getting tested, a top White House coronavirus official said Friday.
Dr. Deborah Birx, the coordinator of the White House's coronavirus task force, said health officials are struggling at times to get a sense of how the virus is spreading outside metro areas.
People in rural areas are often more self-reliant and reluctant to get tested, and in some remote counties, one positive case can lead people to conclude that the virus is more widespread than it actually is, Birx said after meeting with Gov. Pete Ricketts.Her comments echoed Ricketts' remark last week that some Nebraska counties are so remote that even one confirmed case would result in an abnormally high rate of positive cases.
"What this trip has taught us is we really need to create rural indicators, particularly for rural areas with very low populations," Birx said at the Nebraska Capitol. Her Midwestern tour includes stops in Iowa, Missouri, Kansas, Oklahoma and Arkansas.
Birx said Nebraska's virus outlook has improved over the last 10 days after a sharp rise in cases last month that prompted federal officials to put it in a "red zone" of high-risk states.
Nebraska's online tracking portal says 36% of hospital beds and 80% of its ventilators are available in the state.
Minnesota Blues to provide premium rebates due to COVID-19
4:04 PM CT on 8/14/20
Blue Cross and Blue Shield of Minnesota will send $38 million in premium rebates to Medicare members, individual and family plan members, and fully insured businesses as many delay care due to the pandemic.
The insurer will apply one-time credits of 10% to 25% to a monthly bill before the end of the year. Blue Cross also recently completed mailing $31 million of rebate checks to individual and family plan members who had coverage in 2019. Though these checks are usually sent in September, the insurer was able to send the rebates early because of flexibility in federal requirements due to COVID-19.
“We continue to sharpen our focus and look for additional opportunities to be there for our members and employer groups through these dual public health and economic crises,” said Dr. Craig Samitt, president and CEO of Blue Cross and Blue Shield of Minnesota. “While there is no one solution to address the many challenges and uncertainties we now face, Blue Cross will continue to live by our nonprofit mission of helping our communities be strong, safe and healthy.”
McKesson to distribute COVID-19 vaccine
2:27 PM CT on 8/14/20
McKesson Corporation will help distribute COVID-19 vaccines and supplies, HHS said Friday.
The company will ship COVID-19 vaccines to administration sites after the Food and Drug Administration approves one of them. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention will supervise McKesson.
“Today’s announcement puts another building block in place as the nation moves toward a safe and effective COVID-19 vaccine,” said CDC Director Dr. Robert Redfield.
The CDC is taking advantage of a contract it signed with the company in 2016 that included an option for McKesson to dole out vaccines in case of a pandemic, HHS said in a press release.
The move supports the Trump administration’s effort—called Operation Warp Speed—to help develop, make and distribute COVID-19 vaccines, treatments and diagnostics. It’s a partnership between HHS and the Department of Defense.
Indonesia takes part in late-stage China vaccine trial
11:32 AM CT on 8/14/20
(AP) More people in Indonesia rolled up their sleeves Friday to test a potential coronavirus vaccine developed by a Chinese company.
The Indonesian government announced the partnership between state-owned enterprise Bio Farma and the Chinese company Sinovac BioTech in early July. As part of the deal, Indonesia recruited 1,620 volunteers for the trial. The first 20 were injected with the candidate vaccine in Bandung, West Java province, on Tuesday, and more followed suit.
"We hope that this third clinical trial will be completed in six months. We hope that in January we can produce it and at the same time, if the production is ready, vaccinate all people in the country," President Joko Widodo said on Tuesday.
After passing a medical and PCR test to confirm their health, volunteers were given a first dose of the experimental vaccine or a placebo, then a second dose 14 days later.
"I am not worried about the vaccine trial as I have searched the information related to a Sinovac vaccine before," said Rina Mardiana, 44. "I want to join the trial for humanitarian reasons. I hope the pandemic will end soon."
Clinical trial research leader Kusnandi Rusmil told The Associated Press that half the volunteers will be injected by the vaccine and the other half with the placebo. "We will see the comparison ... in seven months," Rusmil said.
Bio Farma currently has a production capability of 100 million vaccine doses. The company is building a new facility, expected to be completed in December, that will increase the capacity to 250 million doses. Use of the vaccine will be prioritized for Indonesia, the world's fourth most populated country, Bio Farma CEO Honesti Basyir said.
Called CoronaVac, the potential vaccine uses an inactivated pathogen, meaning the virus is grown in a lab and then deactivated or killed. In June the company announced that no severe adverse side effects had resulted from the phase 1 and 2 trials conducted in volunteers in China. The company is also planning clinical trials with thousands of volunteers in India, Brazil and Bangladesh.
Texas hospitalizations below 7,000 for first time in weeks
9:48 AM CT on 8/14/20
(AP) Texas reported fewer than 7,000 hospitalized coronavirus patients for the first time in six weeks Thursday, but that encouraging sign was clouded by questions over testing as schools reopen and college football teams push ahead with playing this fall.
Testing has dropped off in Texas, a trend seen across the U.S. as health experts worry that people who are not symptomatic are not bothering to seek tests because of long lines and the prospect of waiting days to get results. Demand has curtailed to the point that in Austin and Dallas, health officials have expanded eligibility for testing, including those who are asymptomatic.
But there remain grim reminders of the toll the virus took on Texas this summer: COVID-19 deaths have risen by more than 30% in August, including 255 new reported deaths Thursday. And hospitals on the hard-hit Texas border remain busy with coronavirus patients, even as doctors statewide are handling thousands of fewer COVID-19 cases than a month ago.
"We do have abundant testing capacity," Abbott told reporters in Lubbock, a region that was a hard hit by the virus in May after outbreaks at nearby meatpacking plants. "We're not having enough people step forward to be tested as we did before."
Numbers from Texas health officials this week, however, offered a hazy picture of how much testing has fallen. On Wednesday, the seven-day infection rate average in Texas hit a record 24%, suggesting that roughly one in every four coronavirus tests in Texas was coming back positive. By Thursday that number dropped to 16%, which state health officials said was the result of clearing a backlog of cases and errors in data reported by a hospital and commercial lab.
Falling testing demand is also a factor, said Lara Anton, a spokeswoman for the Texas Department of State Health Services.
High infection rates threaten to prolong the shuttering of some Texas businesses, particularly bars, which have been closed since June and are likely to remain that way until the positivity rate drops below 10%, which Abbott has made a threshold.
"Based on what we're seeing, we expect that the positivity rate will generally be higher until testing demand increases and the backlog of cases smooth out," she said in an email.
The decreased testing worries health experts even as Texas sees encouraging signs. Angela Clendenin, an epidemiologist at the Texas A&M School of Public Health, said she expects to see spikes as schools and universities begin reopening and cautioned that the impact won't be visible for another week or two.
"We would like to be cautiously optimistic," Clendenin said. "It is always better to spike from a lower case level than where we were a few weeks ago."
Kansas City extends COVID-19 restrictions to mid-January
5:54 PM CT on 8/13/20
(AP) Kansas City will require residents and visitors to wear masks in indoor public places until at least Jan. 16, Mayor Quinton Lucas announced Thursday.
The mayor and Rex Archer, director of the city's health department, said cases of COVID-19 continue to increase in the Kansas City area, and the virus is likely to stay until a vaccine becomes widely available.
The order means people will be required to wear masks in indoor areas where social distancing is not possible. It includes some exceptions, such as people with medical conditions that make it difficult to wear masks. Bars and restaurants will continue to be limited to 50% capacity.
Kansas City has seen increasing numbers of cases this summer, averaging at least 100 confirmed cases nearly every day for weeks.
The state of Missouri also has seen a steady increase in cases, and on Thursday added 1,267 more, bringing the state total to 63,797 since the pandemic began. Missouri reported two new deaths Thursday, raising the total to 1,325.
HHS funds 4M monthly test capacity boost
8:12 PM CT on 8/13/20
HHS will invest $6.5 million to help two commercial labs expand their COVID-19 testing capacity by up to 4 million monthly tests, the agency said Thursday.
Aegis Science Corporation and Sonic Healthcare USA will receive federal money to buy testing equipment from Becker Coulter Life Sciences and Thermo Fisher Scientific to improve their workflows and run more samples.
“Thermo Fisher is the most used (testing) platform throughout the country,” HHS Assistant Secretary for Health Dr. Brett Giroir said during a press call. “I call it the fourth pickup truck of the laboratory system. It may not be sexy; it may not be fancy … but it is a solid machine.”
Thermo Fisher Scientific recently came under fire because a software bug in its testing platform led to an unusual number of false-positive test results. Giroir said that he wasn’t sure if the taxpayer-funded equipment would have updated software during a call with reporters.
Biden calls for nationwide mask mandate
4:11 PM CT on 8/13/20
(AP) Joe Biden is calling for a nationwide protective mask mandate, citing health experts' predictions that it could save 40,000 lives from coronavirus over the next three months.
"Wearing the mask is less about you contracting the virus," Biden said. "It's about preventing other people from getting sick."
The Democratic presidential candidate also responded to those who push back against such mandates.
"This is America. Be a patriot. Protect your fellow citizens. Step up, do the right thing."
"Every single American should be wearing a mask when they're outside for the next three months at a minimum — every governor should mandate mandatory mask wearing," Biden declared.
President Donald Trump on Wednesday said at a press briefing that his administration was sending 125 million reusable masks to school districts across the nation. He urges Americans to wear masks but has opposed the idea of a national requirement and declined to wear one for months. He has worn one on occasion more recently.
On Thursday he again dismissed critics who say he was too slow to react to the pandemic in the U.S., saying on Fox Business Network that "nobody blames me."
"Look, we got hit by the China plague and we're not going to forget it. We got hit by the China plague," he said.
On Wednesday, when the U.S. reported 1,499 new coronavirus deaths, the highest number of COVID-19 deaths in a single day since May, Trump pushed for schools and businesses to continue opening, and called for college football to go on despite several leading leagues' leaders deciding to cancel this year's season.
Biden and running mate California Sen. Kamala Harris spoke briefly Thursday in the same Wilmington hotel ballroom where they held a virtual fundraiser after appearing together as running mates for the first time Wednesday. They were briefed by public health and economic experts on the coronavirus pandemic, which has caused the deaths of more than 166,000 Americans and plunged the global economy into the worst economic recession since World War II.
Epic makes return-to-office voluntary through year-end
2:13 PM CT on 8/13/20
Epic Systems Corp., which until last week had planned to require most of its nearly 10,000 workers to return to in-person work by Sept. 21, will continue to let employees work remotely through the end of 2020, according to an email sent to employees late Aug. 12 and obtained by the Wisconsin State Journal.
Epic employees still have the option to work on campus, but it's no longer a requirement, according to the email sent to employees by Epic CEO Judy Faulkner.
"The coming months will continue to be a critical time for our customers," Faulkner wrote in the email. "We have go-lives being supported virtually from campus and we are embarking on many new development projects. Some of you might need to be on campus to support these activities, and we’ve made our campus one of the safest places to be."
Epic this weekend walked back its initial plan to begin bringing employees back to the office in a phased approach starting Aug. 11 after Public Health Madison & Dane County officials questioned whether the company's plan complied with agency guidance. At the time, Epic said it still hoped to move forward with its plan for in-person work after receiving clarification from the agency.
Epic's new return-to-office plan aligns it with competitors in the electronic health records market. Cerner Corp. and Allscripts Healthcare Solutions have also said they won't require most of their respective workforces to return to the office until at least year-end, if not later.
U.K. begins testing a new app to fight COVID-19 spread
12:04 PM CT on 8/13/20
(AP) Britain started testing a new smartphone app Thursday to help people find out whether they've been close to someone infected with COVID-19 after security concerns torpedoed an earlier effort to use technology to track the disease.
The Department of Health and Social Care said that trials of the app began on the Isle of Wight, with testing in the London borough of Newham scheduled to begin soon. The app, which was developed in conjunction with privacy experts and companies such as Google and Apple, is similar to technology being used in Germany and Ireland.
“It uses the latest security technology and is designed with user privacy in mind, so it tracks the virus, not people," the Health Department said in a statement.
The app uses bluetooth technology to determine when a user's phone has been in close proximity to the phone of someone who has tested positive for the disease. It does not store personal information such as the name, address or birth date of users.
The app is designed to work alongside the National Health Service's existing track and trace program, and authorities believe widespread adoption of the smartphone technology is crucial to helping people return to the lives they lived before the pandemic, including use of public transportation and eating in restaurants.
For Americans waiting on virus aid, no new relief in sight
9:48 AM CT on 8/13/20
(AP) Americans counting on emergency coronavirus aid from Washington may have to wait until fall.
Negotiations over a new virus relief package have all but ended, with the White House and congressional leaders far apart on the size, scope and approach for shoring up households, reopening schools and launching a national strategy to contain the virus.
President Donald Trump's top negotiator, Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin, tried to revive stalled talks Wednesday, but House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and Senate Democratic leader Chuck Schumer dismissed the "overture," saying the Trump administration is still refusing to meet them halfway. Congressional Republicans are largely sitting out the talks.
"The White House is not budging," Pelosi and Schumer said in a joint statement.
With the House and Senate essentially closed, and lawmakers on call to return with 24-hours notice, hopes for a swift compromise have dwindled. Instead, the politics of blame have taken hold, as the parties head into August focused on the presidential nominating conventions and lawmakers' own reelection campaigns.
Trump said the Democrats are "holding the American people hostage."
All indications are talks will not resume in full until Congress resumes in September, despite the mounting death toll, surpassing 161,000 in the U.S., and more than 5 million people infected.
For Americans, that means the end of a $600 weekly unemployment benefit that has expired, as has a federal ban on evictions. Schools hoping for cash from the federal government to help provide safety measures are left empty handed. States and cities staring down red ink with the shattered economy have few options.
Trump's executive actions appeared to provide a temporary reprieve, offering $300 in jobless benefits and some other aid. But it could take weeks for those programs to ramp up, and the help is far slimmer than what Congress was considering. More than 20 million Americans risk evictions, and more are out of work.
Texas surpasses 9,000 virus deaths as testing remains low
8:02 PM CT on 8/12/20
(AP) Texas surpassed 9,000 confirmed coronavirus deaths Wednesday while testing again dropped to the lowest levels since June, and infection rates hit another record.
The state on Wednesday reported 324 additional deaths, bringing the total number of confirmed new deaths added from COVID-19 over the past week alone to more than 1,600.
Some of those deaths occurred in July, when Texas began waiting on death certificates before adding to the total number of fatalities. Officials in regions hard hit this summer by the virus, including Houston and the Rio Grande Valley, say trends are improving after weeks of overcrowded hospitals and alarming rises in new confirmed cases.
Testing demand has also lowered. Dallas County Judge Clay Jenkins said Tuesday that the number of individuals showing up for tests has dropped by 40%, which reflects trends nationwide.
Republican Gov. Greg Abbott has said "surge testing" in hot spots earlier this summer has also seen a decline, falling Tuesday below a rolling seven-day average of 29,000 for the first time since June.
The fewer tests have led to the seven-day positivity rate climbing to more than 24%. The Texas Department of State Health Services did not respond Wednesday to questions about the decrease in testing numbers.
Beaumont hospital reinstates visitor limits after cases rise
6:51 PM CT on 8/12/20
(AP) A Detroit-area hospital said Wednesday it will reinstate visitor restrictions out of an abundance of caution following a rise in coronavirus cases among staff, patients and visitors.
Beaumont Health, Michigan's largest health care system, said the limits will begin Thursday at its Farmington Hills campus. Beaumont has cared for more COVID-19 patients than any other system in the state.
"We are in the process of reminding and educating our patients, visitors and staff about the importance of taking all appropriate precautions to limit the spread of the virus," said spokesman Mark Geary, referring to "multiple" cases.
No one will be allowed in the rooms of patients with pending or positive tests except for in end-of-life or other extreme circumstance. In cases not related to COVID-19, one person can visit under a number of exceptions if he or she is screened and wears personal protective equipment.
The state on Wednesday reported nine additional coronavirus-related deaths and 517 more confirmed cases. That brought the death toll to 6,539 and the case count to nearly 98,700, including roughly 9,400 probable cases and 266 probable deaths.
New Zealand scrambles to find source of new virus infections
4:46 PM CT on 8/12/20
(AP) Health authorities in New Zealand were scrambling Wednesday to trace the source of a new outbreak of the coronavirus as the nation's largest city went back into lockdown.
Authorities had confirmed four cases of the virus in one Auckland household from an unknown source and were awaiting the test results of four more people they suspect have infections — two work colleagues and two relatives of those in the house.
The cases this week were the first known local transmission of the virus in New Zealand in 102 days.
Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern said more than 200 people with connections to those in the house were contacted Wednesday.
"Our plan of mass testing, rapid contact tracing and, of course, our restrictions to stop the chain of transmission has been in full swing in Auckland today," Ardern said.
Director-General of Health Ashley Bloomfield said one of the people who tested positive works at an Americold food cold-storage facility in Auckland, which was being swabbed to check if it was a possible source of the infections.
"We do know from studies overseas that actually, the virus can survive in some refrigerated environments for quite some time," he said.
Auckland was moved to Alert Level 3 at midday Wednesday, a designation initially set to continue through midnight Friday. That means that non-essential workers are required to stay home, while bars, restaurants and most businesses will be closed.
The rest of the country was moved to Alert Level 2, meaning that mass gatherings are limited to 100 attendees and people are required to socially distance themselves.
Community spread causing COVID spikes in nursing homes
2:31 PM CT on 8/12/20
Nursing home COVID-19 cases increase as community spread climbs, according to a new report by the American Health Care Association and National Center for Assisted Living using CDC data.
Nursing home cases were falling steadily into June but spiked in July as community spread in the U.S. dramatically increased, according to the report.
“With the recent major spikes of COVID cases in many states across the country, we were very concerned this trend would lead to an increase in cases in nursing homes and unfortunately it has,” Mark Parkinson, president and CEO of the American Health Care Association and National Center for Assisted Living, said in a prepared statement. “This is especially troubling since many nursing homes and other long-term care facilities are still unable to acquire the personal protective equipment and testing they need to fully combat this virus.”
HHS to award $2.5 million in CARES Act funding to HIEs
11:52 AM CT on 8/12/20
HHS on Aug. 12 issued a notice of funding opportunity designed to improve data-sharing between health information exchanges and state and local public health agencies.
HHS' Office of the National Coordinator for Health Information Technology will award up funding to up to five HIEs through a program, dubbed the Strengthening the Technical Advancement and Readiness of Public Health Agencies via HIE, or STAR HIE, Program. It's funded with $2.5 million from the Coronavirus Aid, Relief and Economic Security Act.
Selected HIEs will use funding to deploy services that strengthen or increase use of health data-sharing at the state or local levels, particularly to support communities disproportionately affected by the COVID-19 pandemic, according to HHS officials.
Department officials said the funding opportunity's goal is to help communities better prevent, respondent to and recover from COVID-19 and future public health emergencies.
"State and local HIEs play a unique role in their communities by uniting health information from many different sites of service, including providers, hospitals, nursing homes, clinical laboratories and public health departments, making them a natural fit to deliver innovative, local 'last mile' approaches to strengthen our overall public health response," ONC chief Dr. Don Rucker said in a statement.
Applications for the STAR HIE Program are due Sept. 1. HHS plans to award funding Sept. 30.
Worldwide virus cases top 20 million, doubling in six weeks
9:45 AM CT on 8/12/20
(AP) It took six months for the world to reach 10 million confirmed cases of the coronavirus. It took just over six weeks for that number to double.
The worldwide count of known COVID-19 infections climbed past 20 million on Monday, with more than half of them from just three countries: the U.S., India and Brazil, according to the tally kept by Johns Hopkins University.
The average number of new cases per day in the U.S. has declined in recent weeks but is still running high at over 54,000, versus almost 59,000 in India and nearly 44,000 in Brazil.
The severe and sustained crisis in the U.S. — over 5 million cases and 163,000 deaths, easily the highest totals of any country — has dismayed and surprised many around the world, given the nation's vaunted scientific ingenuity and the head start it had over Europe and Asia to prepare.
South Africa, Colombia, Mexico, Peru, Argentina, Russia and the Philippines round out the list of the top 10 countries contributing the most new cases to the global tally since July 22, according to an Associated Press analysis of Johns Hopkins data through Monday.
The real number of people infected by the virus around the world is believed to be much higher — perhaps 10 times higher in the U.S., according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention — given testing limitations and the many mild cases that have gone unreported or unrecognized.
Trump admin, Moderna strike 100M vaccine dose deal
8:18 PM CT on 8/11/20
HHS and the Defense Department have agreed to work with Moderna on manufacturing and delivering 100 million doses of its investigational COVID-19 vaccine candidate.
As part of Operation Warp Speed, Moderna will start manufacturing the vaccine during the clinical trial process, with the hopes of delivering the first approved doses by the end of the year. The Trump administration plans to funnel up to $1.5 billion into COVID-19 vaccine research and production.
Moderna's candidate is currently in a Phase 3 clinical trial that started July 27.
Over 900 in Georgia district quarantine as high school shut
6:24 PM CT on 8/11/20
(AP) A Georgia school district has quarantined more than 900 students and staff members because of possible exposure to the coronavirus since classes resumed last week and will temporarily shut down a hard-hit high school in which a widely shared photo showed dozens of maskless students posing together.
The quarantine figures from the Cherokee County School District include at least 826 students, according to data the district posted online. Located about 30 miles (60 kilometers) north of Atlanta, the district serves more than 42,000 students and began its new school year on Aug. 3.
On Tuesday, Georgia on Tuesday posted its highest single-day death total yet in the pandemic at 137 fatalities, according to the state Department of Public Health. The state is currently averaging reports of more than 60 deaths each day though people may have died earlier.
Of the fatalities reported on Tuesday, Department of Public Health spokesperson Nancy Nydam said 75 occurred in August, 54 in July and eight earlier. More than 4,300 people have died overall in Georgia.
“Given the high number of COVID-19 cases confirmed at the end of July, we are, unfortunately, seeing deaths related to those cases,” Nydam wrote in an email.
The state continues to average more than 3,500 new confirmed cases of coronavirus each day, with more than 222,000 infected so far.
Competition launched to accelerate CT scan use in COVID treatment
4:08 PM CT on 8/11/20
A new competition will award prizes from an $1.8 million purse to research teams that develop the most effective clinical use for CT scans in COVID-19 diagnosis or treatment.
The COVID-19 CT Scan Collaborative will judge entries in two categories: COVID-19 transmission, which will be measured by reduction in virus transmission, and diagnosis, prediction and management of the disease, which is measured by reduction in the number of severe cases.
The collaborative was created by New England Complex Systems Institute, an academic research institution, and the XPRIZE Pandemic Alliance, a not-for-profit that uses competition models to solve challenges related to the COVID-19 outbreak that can be applied to future pandemics.
“CT scans can be a real game-changer in our global battle to end coronavirus,” said Yaneer Bar-Yam, president and founder of the New England Complex Systems Institute. “We need aggressive and bold actions to reduce transmission of COVID-19 to get ahead of the outbreak so that it is stopped.”
Scientists uneasy as Russia approves 1st coronavirus vaccine
2:09 PM CT on 8/11/20
(AP) Russia on Tuesday became the first country to approve a coronavirus vaccine, a move that was met with international skepticism and unease because the shots have only been studied in dozens of people.
President Vladimir Putin announced the Health Ministry's approval and said one of his two adult daughters already was inoculated. He said the vaccine underwent the necessary tests and was shown to provide lasting immunity to the coronavirus, although Russian authorities have offered no proof to back up claims of safety or effectiveness.
"I know it has proven efficient and forms a stable immunity," Putin said. "We must be grateful to those who made that first step very important for our country and the entire world."
However, scientists in Russia and other countries sounded an alarm, saying that rushing to offer the vaccine before final-stage testing could backfire. What's called a Phase 3 trial — which involves tens of thousands of people and can take months — is the only way to prove if an experimental vaccine is safe and really works.
By comparison, vaccines entering final-stage testing in the U.S. require studies of 30,000 people each. Two vaccine candidates already have begun those huge studies, with three more set to get underway by fall.
"Fast-tracked approval will not make Russia the leader in the race, it will just expose consumers of the vaccine to unnecessary danger," said Russia's Association of Clinical Trials Organizations, in urging government officials to postpone approving the vaccine without completed advanced trials.
While Russian officials have said large-scale production of the vaccine wasn't scheduled until September, Deputy Prime Minister Tatyana Golikova said vaccination of doctors could start as early as this month. Officials say they will be closely monitored after the injections. Mass vaccination may begin as early as October.
"We expect tens of thousands of volunteers to be vaccinated within the next months," Kirill Dmitriev, chief executive of the Russian Direct Investment Fund that bankrolled the vaccine, told reporters.
ONC to open funding for HIEs ‘in the coming days’
11:46 AM CT on 8/11/20
HHS’ Office of the National Coordinator for Health Information Technology plans to open a funding opportunity for health information exchanges in the next few days, an agency official said Aug. 11.
“We … understand the value of state and local HIE infrastructures to support communities through the COVID-19 pandemic,” said Avinash Shanbhag, acting executive director in ONC’s office of technology, during remarks at the ONC Tech Forum. “We do have some funding opportunities being announced in the coming days.”
Dr. Donald Rucker, ONC chief and the Trump administration’s top health IT official, had highlighted the role HIEs can play in COVID-19 response during a session earlier in the ONC Tech Forum, a virtual event that took place Aug. 10-11. ONC began hosting its Tech Forum in 2017, but this year marks the first all-virtual event.
Rucker stressed that HIEs collect longitudinal patient data, including not only data from hospitals’ electronic health record systems, but also information from clinical laboratories, social services organizations and other groups related to healthcare.
“Longitudinal data is really very powerful to answer a set of clinical questions that go beyond things like ‘How many tests were done?’ or ‘How many people are in an ICU?’” he said. “The longitudinal data can answer questions like, ‘What’s the time-course from when somebody turns positive to when the test turns negative?’ … ‘What is the rate of reinfection?’ ‘What are associated complications?’”
In the future, Rucker suggested HIEs could also help with reporting requirements for federal or local governments, with public health agencies one day able to pull sets of data that have been aggregated by an HIE, rather than from individual providers.
HHS Secretary Azar blames China for virus spread
9:37 AM CT on 8/11/20
(AP) HHS Secretary Alex Azar has redoubled accusations that China failed to adequately warn of the coronavirus after it was first detected in Wuhan.
Azar says China's ruling Communist Party "had the chance to warn the world and work with the world on battling the virus. But they chose not to, and the costs of that choice mount higher every day."
The Trump administration has repeatedly accused China of withholding information from the U.N. World Health Organization and the international community as the virus began to take hold.
China denies the charge, saying it communicated information as soon as it had it, although records appear to show new cases weren't being tabulated during a key meeting of the provincial legislature.
Since then, the U.S. has announced it will withdraw from the WHO.
Azar says Beijing had been lobbying against an investigation into the origins of the virus along with "reforms desperately needed to make WHO a more effective institution."
Azar, the highest-level U.S. official to visit Taiwan since formal relations between the sides were severed in 1979, praised Taiwan's response to the coronavirus.
Kaiser to spend $63M supporting contact tracing
8:33 PM CT on 8/10/2020
Kaiser Permanente on Monday said it would commit $63 million to support contact tracing in California. The integrated healthcare system will fund a charitable grant to the Public Health Institute, which will create tracing teams in disproportionately affected areas.
"The recent increase of cases in California demonstrates the importance of being able to accurately track the virus and respond when and where it begins to surge in order to save lives," Kaiser Chairman and CEO Greg A. Adams said in a statement. "We are committed to helping the state deploy a robust contact-tracing strategy that will help Californians safely regain their livelihoods."
The funding could support up to 500 contact tracers, and could also help quarantined or isolated individuals access child care, food and housing.
California has added $150 million to the contact tracing effort. Philanthropic organizations have donated $18 million of a planned total of $25 million.
"COVID-19 is a public health threat unlike any we have seen before, and combating it requires coordination across our state's public and private health systems," California Gov. Gavin Newsom said in a statement.
Confirmed coronavirus cases reach 20 million
7:45 PM CT on 8/10/2020
(AP) The confirmed number of coronavirus cases in the world has reached 20 million. That’s according to the tally kept by Johns Hopkins University.
Health officials believe the actual number is much higher, given testing limitations and the fact that as many as 40% of all those who are infected have no symptoms.
The U.S., India and Brazil have together accounted for nearly two-thirds of all cases since the world hit 15 million on July 22.
Over 500 people tested for COVID in experimental initiative
4:58 PM CT on 8/10/2020
(AP) More than 500 people in one of the poorest counties in Mississippi were tested for the coronavirus by the state Department of Health over the past week as part of a new experimental initiative to slow the spread of the virus by community transmission.
State Health Officer Dr. Thomas Dobbs said medical professionals went in with the goal to test every resident in Lexington, the Holmes County seat, where 2,000 people live. By identifying those who are asymptomatic, Dobbs said, officials hoped to limit cases of the virus being passed unknowingly from person to person.
“We didn't quite get every resident, but if we got 500, I was going to consider it a success, and we surpassed that," he said Monday.
A total of 561 people were tested in Lexington, 14 of whom weren't previously aware they had been infected with the coronavirus. The majority of those 14 people were asymptomatic.
Holmes County has been hard-hit by the coronavirus pandemic. It’s one of the smallest counties in the state, and it’s seen 900 cases of coronavirus, according to the Department of Health. That’s around 5% of the population.
The Mississippi Department of Health partnered with the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the National Guard and the University of Mississippi Medical Center to provide the tests.
In addition, the state Department of Health released new data on schools Monday: In Mississippi schools, there have been 19 cases among students and 15 among employees across 22 school districts.
The Health Department said Monday that Mississippi, with about 3 million population, has had at least 67,649 reported cases and at least 1,912 deaths from COVID-19 as of Sunday evening. That’s an increase of 476 confirmed cases and 16 deaths from numbers reported the day before, with nine of those deaths occurring between July 13 and Aug. 2 and identified later using death certificates.
The true number of virus infections is thought to be far higher because many people have not been tested and studies suggest people can be infected without feeling sick. For most people, the coronavirus causes mild or moderate symptoms. For some, especially older adults and those with existing health problems, it can cause more severe or fatal illness.
UK lays off 6K contact tracers
3:47 PM CT on 8/10/2020
(AP) The British government is laying off 6,000 coronavirus contact tracers and deploying the rest to work in local teams, in an acknowledgment that the centralized track-and-trace system is not working well enough.
The U.K. has been criticized for failing to keep track of infected people’s contacts early in the pandemic, a factor that contributed to the country’s high death toll of more than 46,500, the most in Europe.
Since May the country has rapidly set up a test-and-trace system to try to contain the outbreak, recruiting thousands of staff in a matter of weeks. But the system, which relies on telephone call centers, has failed to reach more than a quarter of contacts of people who have tested positive for the virus.
Some frustrated local authorities have set up their own contact-tracing networks, which have proved more effective because they know communities better and can go door-to-door if needed.
The national test-and-trace program said Monday it was officially adopting that localized approach. Some 6,000 contact tracers will be laid off this month, and the remaining 12,000 will work with local public health authorities around the country.
The government also abandoned plans to create a contact-tracing phone app, but says it will be reintroduced in some form in the near future.
N.J. reports positive signs in COVID-19 trends
2:31 PM CT on 8/10/2020
(AP) New Jersey's COVID-19 trends are going in the right direction after a rising slightly for about a week, Democratic Gov. Phil Murphy said Monday.
The rate of transmission, which measures how many people one infected person spreads the virus to, fell below 1 to 0.98, down from about 1.5 at the start of last week, Murphy said.
“The decrease in (rate of transmission) is definitely a positive sign, but no one should look at that and think it means that coronavirus is no longer with us, or that you can go ahead and leave your mask and home or join a big crowd waiting to get into a bar with your friends,” Murphy said.
The governor also said there about 250 new positive cases reported since Sunday, putting the total at 185,000.
There were 4 deaths, putting the death toll at 14,025.
Despite the declining transmission rate, Murphy did not announce any new reopenings. The state is in the second of three stages of reopening its economy.
Man accused of claiming drug would lower COVID-19 risk
11:36 AM CT on 8/10/2020
(AP) A Georgia man falsely claimed that a drug his company was selling would lower the risk of becoming infected with COVID-19, federal prosecutors said.
Matthew Ryncarz and his company Fusion Health and Vitality, which operated as Pharm Origins, are accused of saying a misbranded drug called Immune Shot would lower the risk of getting COVID-19 by 50%, according to federal prosecutors in Savannah. The drug “bore false and misleading labeling,” prosecutors said in a news release Monday.
A lawyer for Ryncarz did not immediately respond to an email seeking comment on the charges of selling a misbranded drug.
“Our office is committed to ensuring that businesses do not take advantage of a global health crisis and people’s fears in order to unlawfully make a buck,” U.S. Attorney Bobby Christine said in the release.
Ryncarz created a website through Pharm Origins in March and began selling ImmuneShot for $19 a bottle, particularly targeting people over 50, prosecutors said.
The website included pitches like, “We are offering you the exclusive price of only $19 per bottle because we know that Immune Shot could be the most important formula in the WORLD right now due to the new pandemic.”
Virus cases hit record high as Hawaii renews restrictions
10:22 AM CT on 8/10/2020
(AP) Hawaii health officials reported a record 231 new coronavirus cases on Saturday as state and municipal officials closed beaches and parks on Oahu and restricted other activities.
The statewide total of cases since the start of the pandemic in March has risen to 3,346 and newly confirmed infection cases surpassed 200 for two days in a row. Most of the cases have been in Honolulu and its suburbs.
The death Friday of an Oahu man who was older than 60 was the state's 31st fatality linked to COVID-19, the state Department of Health said.
Hawaii Department of Health Director Bruce Anderson said officials expect the death toll to rise.
“Hospitals throughout Oahu are transferring patients and opening up new specialized COVID units to handle the surge in patients that is expected over the next couple of weeks," Anderson said Saturday.
Closing Oahu's beaches, parks and other high risk activities will help prevent the spread of the virus, but the measures are not enough and residents need to take responsibility in efforts to curb the virus, Anderson said.
Hawaii Gov. David Ige, a Democrat, plans to reinstate a requirement that people traveling between the islands quarantine themselves for 14 days, starting on Tuesday.
Travelers arriving on Oahu from the state's other islands will not need to quarantine, but people arriving in the other counties from different islands will.
Honolulu Mayor Kirk Caldwell said he would close public parks, pools and campgrounds. State parks on Oahu will also close.
Lt. Gov. Josh Green said the number of cases should begin falling as closures and quarantine take effect.
“We’ll likely see cases in the triple digits for another week, then the numbers should begin to drop,” he said. “If we do very well socially distancing, the numbers on Oahu could be back to the 20-30 a day or better by 9/1.”
The number of infections is thought to be far higher because many people have not been tested, and studies suggest people can be infected with the virus without feeling sick.
Georgia school shifting online after infections reported
8:40 PM CT on 8/9/2020
(AP) A Georgia high school plans to start the week with all classes shifting online after nine students and staff tested positive for the coronavirus when the school year opened last week with most students attending in-person.
North Paulding High School made headlines soon after students returned to school Aug. 3 when photos posted on social media showed hallways crowded with students, and many of them not wearing masks. The school's principal notified parents Saturday that six students and three staff members had tested positive for the virus, though it's unknown if any were infected at school.
Now students will take online classes Monday and Tuesday, Paulding County Schools Superintendent Brian Ott said in a letter to parents Sunday. He said those two days will be used to clean and disinfect the school, and parents will learn Tuesday evening if in-person classes can resume later in the week.
“Hopefully we can all agree that the health and safety of our students and staff takes precedence over any other considerations at this time,” Ott said in his letter, which was obtained by Atlanta-area news outlets.
Paulding County schools spokesman Jay Dillon did not immediately return phone and text messages Sunday evening from The Associated Press.
In announcing the nine infections among students and staff, North Paudling High School principal Gabe Carmona wrote that each of them had been in the school building sometime in the prior week. But it was unclear whether the school would quarantine other students and staff who may have been exposed. The Atlanta Journal-Constitution reported it obtained the principal’s letter from the school district.
Meanwhile, school officials in a nearby metro Atlanta county reported 12 students and two staff members across a dozen schools tested positive for the virus during their first week back at school. The Cherokee County school system reported that more than 250 students with potential exposure had been sent home to quarantine for two weeks.
“We have students and staff reporting presumptive, pending and positive COVID-19 tests every day, and this will continue as we operate schools during a pandemic,” Cherokee County Schools Superintendent Brian Hightower wrote in a letter to parents Friday.
NY governor calls Trump benefits executive order 'laughable'
5:28 PM CT on 8/9/2020
(AP) New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo on Sunday dismissed President Donald Trump's executive orders as “laughable" and another chapter in the federal government's botched response to the coronavirus as he praised New Yorkers for mostly good behavior that has reduced the infection rate in his state.
The Democrat was particularly critical of Trump's Saturday announcement that states must pay part of $400 weekly unemployment insurance benefits.
He told a telephone news conference that Trump's plan would likely cost New York state $4 billion.
“The concept of saying to states, you pay 25 percent of the insurance, is just laughable," Cuomo said. “It’s just an impossibility. So none of this is real on the federal side. This is going to have to be resolved."
He said he didn't know if Trump was “genuine in thinking the executive order is a resolution or if this is just a tactic in the negotiation. But this is irreconcilable for the state. And I expect this is just a chapter in the book of Washington COVID mismanagement.”
Meanwhile, Cuomo praised New Yorkers for driving down the rate of infections in the state so low that only .78% of 65,812 tests performed Saturday came back positive.
He said the 131 individuals in intensive care units also represented the lowest number since the early days of the health crisis.
“It's great news," he said.
It was not all good through. Another seven deaths were recorded.
Officials report 8 coronavirus deaths at care facility
2:05 PM CT on 8/9/2020
(AP) Eight more people at a southern West Virginia nursing home have died from coronavirus, state officials announced on Sunday.
The deaths at the the Princeton Health Care Center in Mercer County occurred over the last few weeks, but weren't officially reported due to personnel changes at the Mercer County Health Department, a statement from the West Virginia Department of Health and Human Resources said. Three other deaths were previously reported at the facility.
The statement said the new deaths included four females in their 80s, two females in their 70s, a 91-year-old male and a 76-year-old male.
The state reported 131 additional cases on Sunday, bringing the total number to 7,694. There have been 139 total deaths reported in West Virginia, officials said.
Meanwhile, Cuomo praised New Yorkers for driving down the rate of infections in the state so low that only .78% of 65,812 tests performed Saturday came back positive.
He said the 131 individuals in intensive care units also represented the lowest number since the early days of the health crisis.
“It's great news," he said.
It was not all good through. Another seven deaths were recorded.
U.S. tops 5 million confirmed virus cases, to Europe's alarm
11:58 AM CT on 8/9/2020
(AP) With confirmed coronavirus cases in the U.S. hitting 5 million Sunday, by far the highest of any country, the failure of the most powerful nation in the world to contain the scourge has been met with astonishment and alarm in Europe.
Perhaps nowhere outside the U.S. is America’s bungled virus response viewed with more consternation than in Italy, which was ground zero of Europe's epidemic. Italians were unprepared when the outbreak exploded in February, and the country still has one of the world’s highest official death tolls at 35,000.
But after a strict nationwide, 10-week lockdown, vigilant tracing of new clusters and general acceptance of mask mandates and social distancing, Italy has become a model of virus containment.
“Don’t they care about their health?” a mask-clad Patrizia Antonini asked about people in the United States as she walked with friends along the banks of Lake Bracciano, north of Rome. “They need to take our precautions. ... They need a real lockdown."
Much of the incredulity in Europe stems from the fact that America had the benefit of time, European experience and medical know-how to treat the virus that the continent itself didn’t have when the first COVID-19 patients started filling intensive care units.
Yet, more than four months into a sustained outbreak, the U.S. reached the 5 million mark, according to the running count kept by Johns Hopkins University. Health officials believe the actual number is perhaps 10 times higher, or closer to 50 million, given testing limitations and the fact that as many as 40% of all those who are infected have no symptoms.
With America’s world's-highest death toll of more than 160,000, its politicized resistance to masks and its rising caseload, European nations have barred American tourists and visitors from other countries with growing cases from freely traveling to the bloc.
Azar leads highest-level US delegation to Taiwan in decades
10:05 AM CT on 8/9/20
(AP) HHS Secretary Alex Azar arrived in Taiwan on Sunday in the highest-level visit by an American Cabinet official since the break in formal diplomatic relations between Washington and Taipei in 1979.
Beijing has already protested Azar’s visit as a betrayal of U.S. commitments not to have official contact with the island. China claims Taiwan as its own territory, to be brought under its control by military force if necessary.
Azar is due to meet with the island’s independence-leaning President Tsai Ing-wen along with health officials during a three-day visit aimed at highlighting cooperation in the fight against the coronavirus.
Taiwan’s government-run healthcare system has been credited with keeping the number of coronavirus cases to under 500 with just seven deaths, despite its close proximity to China where the virus originated.
China sees Taiwan as a key irritant in its troubled relationship with Washington, with whom it is also at odds over trade, technology, the South China Sea and China’s response to the virus pandemic.
The U.S. maintains only unofficial ties with Taiwan in deference to Beijing, but is the island’s most important ally and provider of defense equipment.
Azar is the first health secretary to visit Taiwan and the first Cabinet member to visit in six years. In 2014, then-Environmental Protection Agency administrator Gina McCarthy visited Taiwan, sparking protests from Beijing.
Azar’s office said he will hold discussions on COVID-19, global health and Taiwan’s role as a supplier of medical equipment and technology.
Azar’s visit was facilitated by the 2018 passage of the Taiwan Travel Act, which encouraged Washington to send higher-level officials to Taiwan after decades during which such contacts were rare and freighted with safeguards to avoid roiling ties with Beijing.
China has cut contacts with Tsai over her refusal to recognize China's claim to the island and has brought increasing diplomatic, economic and military pressure against her, including by poaching away several of its remaining diplomatic allies and excluding it from international gatherings including the World Health Assembly. That, in turn, has increased already considerable bipartisan sympathy for Taipei in Washington and prompted new measures to strengthen governmental and military ties.
196 doctors in India die of COVID-19
8:35 AM CT on 8/9/20
(AP) The Indian Medical Association says 196 doctors have died of COVID-19 so far and, in an open letter to Prime Minister Narendra Modi, requested adequate care for physicians and their families.
The Health Ministry on Sunday recorded nearly 64,000 new coronavirus cases in the past 24 hours for a total of 2,153,010. At least 628,747 patients are still undergoing treatment.
India also recorded 861 fatalities, driving the death toll to 43,379.
India has been posting an average of around 50,000 new cases a day since mid-June and has the third-highest caseload in the world after the United States and Brazil. It has the fifth-most deaths but its fatality rate of about 2% is far lower than the top two hardest-hit countries.
Even as India has maintained comparatively low mortality rates, the disease has spread widely across the country.
State requires fast reports from employers on COVID-19 cases
7:40 PM CT on 8/8/20
(AP) New Mexico environmental regulators have ordered employers to promptly report coronavirus cases to the state.
An emergency rule issued by the Environmental Department requires employers to report positive COIVD-19 cases to the department within four hours of being notified of the case.The department said the emergency rule will remain in effect for up to 120 days unless a permanent rule is adopted before the end of the 120 days.
"By requiring employers to report positive cases in a timely manner, the state will be able to more rapidly respond to workplaces, providing immediate guidance and support to employers and preventing the spread of COVID-19 beyond the infected employees," the department said.
However, the department said that in more than 280 instances, employers were aware of cases at least three days before the department learned of them, the Las Cruces Sun News reported.
State health officials on Saturday reported 155 additional confirmed COVID-19 cases with six more deaths, increasing New Mexico's case total to 22,115 with 681 deaths.
SC official regrets not voicing concerns with virus response
6:12 PM CT on 8/8/20
(AP) The doctor serving as South Carolina's state epidemiologist said she regrets not speaking out publicly about her concerns as the state reopened close-contact businesses during the coronavirus pandemic.
Dr. Linda Bell said in June emails that Gov. Henry McMaster's staff misled the public to believe she supported the Republican governor's May decision to allow restaurants to resume dine-in service and barbershops and other businesses to reopen, The State reported Saturday.
Bell has served as the public face of the state Department of Health and Environmental Control's effort to stem COVID-19.
In an email to two agency colleagues June 21, Bell said she had tried to avoid any sign of public disagreement with McMaster during news conferences on the virus response, and that the governor's staff had misleadingly framed her silence as support.
As of Saturday, South Carolina had confirmed more than 98,000 coronavirus infections statewide and linked the virus to at least 1,931 deaths.
Trump extends unemployment benefits, defers payroll tax
4:07 PM CT on 8/8/20
(AP) Bypassing Congress, President Donald Trump on Saturday signed executive orders deferring payroll taxes for some Americans and extending unemployment benefits after negotiations on a new coronavirus rescue package collapsed.
Trump said the payroll tax cut would apply to those earning less than $100,000 a year. He said that if he is reelected in November, he would look at the possibility of making the payroll tax permanent.
Extra aid for the unemployed will total $400 a week, a cut from the $600 that just expired. Trump also signed executive orders holding off student loan payments and extending the freeze on evictions.
Sturgis biker rally's lack of social distancing may add to stress on healthcare system
3:17 PM CT on 8/8/20
(AP) The coronavirus may be changing the world, but there aren't many signs of the pandemic at the massive annual motorcycle rally being held this week in western South Dakota.
The scene Saturday at the 80th Sturgis Motorcycle Rally was familiar to veterans of the event, with throngs of maskless bikers packing the streets.
Organizers expected the overall crowd to be smaller, perhaps half the size of a normal year, when some half-million people from across the country roar into a town whose population is around 7,000.
The sheer numbers raise the prospect that this year's rally could spread the COVID-19 virus in a state with no special limits on indoor crowds, no mask mandates, and a governor who is eager to welcome visitors and their money.
Republican Gov. Kristi Noem has taken a largely hands-off approach to the pandemic, avoiding a mask mandate and preaching personal responsibility. She supported holding the rally.
Daily virus cases have been trending upward in South Dakota, but the seven-day average is still only around 84, with fewer than two deaths per day.
Sturgis officials plan to mass test residents to try to detect and halt outbreaks, but the area's largest hospital system is already burdened with the influx of tourists and bikers who inevitably need hospital care during this time.
US reports show racial disparities in kids with COVID-19
1:21 PM CT on 8/8/20
(AP) Racial disparities in the U.S. coronavirus epidemic extend to children, according to two sobering government reports.
One of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reports looked at children with COVID-19 who needed hospitalization. Hispanic children were hospitalized at a rate eight times higher than white kids, and Black children were hospitalized at a rate five times higher, it found.
The second report examined cases of a rare virus-associated syndrome in kids. It found that nearly three-quarters of the children with the syndrome were either Hispanic or Black, well above their representation in the general population.
The coronavirus has exposed racial fractures in the U.S. healthcare system, as Black, Hispanic and Native Americans have been hospitalized and killed by COVID-19 at far higher rates than other groups.
Friday's CDC reports are a "gut punch" reminder that some children are getting seriously ill and dying, said Carrie Henning-Smith, a University of Minnesota researcher who focuses on health disparities.
UK medics protest, seeking pay raise after pandemic struggle
11:14 AM CT on 8/8/20
(AP) Hundreds of healthcare workers rallied in British cities on Saturday, demanding the government acknowledge their hard work during the coronavirus pandemic with a hefty pay increase.
In London, demonstrators -- most wearing masks and observing social distancing -- marched to the gates of Downing Street, home to Prime Minister Boris Johnson, chanting, "Boris Johnson, hear us shout. Pay us properly or get out."
Medics have been hailed as heroes during the pandemic by the government and public. But some say a decade of public spending cuts by Johnson and previous Conservative prime ministers left the state-funded National Health Service struggling to cope.
A placard carried by a protester in Glasgow, Scotland, said "Enough empty praise. (Give us) a fair raise." Another read: "Who saved you, Boris?" Johnson contracted COVID-19 and spent three nights in intensive care at St. Thomas' Hospital in London. He later thanked staff there for saving his life.
Nurses, care assistants and junior doctors are angry that they were left out of plans to give an above-inflation pay raise to almost 1 million public sector workers because they have a different contract with the government. Dave Carr, a critical care nurse at St. Thomas' Hospital, said working through the outbreak was "the hardest thing I've ever done in my life and we're all exhausted."
"We're on our knees, absolutely on our knees. And on top of it they give 900,000 public sector workers a pay rise — and I haven't got a problem with that — but they carve us out," he said. "I'm absolutely fuming. Tired and fuming. We've had enough."
Pandemic helps, then hurts psychiatric boarding crisis in NH
9:19 AM CT on 8/8/20
(AP) The coronavirus pandemic has reversed New Hampshire's recent success in reducing the number of psychiatric patients stuck in emergency rooms, according to state officials and advocates.
The state accomplished a major mental health care milestone in late March when, for the first time in eight years, no one was waiting in a hospital emergency room for an inpatient psychiatric bed.
The waitlist total then remained in single digits for a while, but after steadily increasing in June across all age groups, it reached as high as 50 adults and 17 children one day last month, said Ken Norton, executive director of the state chapter of the National Alliance on Mental Illness.
"We clearly are experiencing mental health issues related to COVID right now," he said. "When there is a crisis, people tend to hold it together for a while, and the impact on the mental health side is felt later. And that later appears to be now."
The number of psychiatric patients waiting in emergency departments for days and sometimes weeks hit an all-time high of 98 in August 2017 but had been decreasing after lawmakers increased funding for mobile crisis teams, designated receiving beds for patients in mental health crises and supported housing. And it fell to zero in large part because of the pandemic. The rush to free up hospital space for COVID-19 patients spurred the state to accelerate its plan to move the children's unit at the state mental hospital to a private facility, which made room for 30 more adult patients.
But as those beds filled up, discharging patients to community-based care became the problem.
"It's not a front-door issue, it's a backdoor issue," said Department of Health and Human Services Commissioner Lori Shibinette. "We can bring people in ... but we can't discharge them out."
Because of the pandemic, many community providers are not in a place where they can stand up new programs, Shibinette said. So the state instead is spending about half of the $5 million it had earmarked for new transitional housing programs to set up 16 beds at the Philbrook Center in Concord, which used to house troubled children and more recently has been used by the state Office of Professional Licensure and Certification.
Trump promises executives orders on COVID relief
11:06 PM CT on 8/7/20
(AP) President Donald Trump said Friday night he was likely to issue more limited executive orders related to COVID, perhaps in the next day or so, if he can’t reach a broad agreement with Congress.
Speaking from his New Jersey golf club Friday evening, Trump said “if Democrats continue to hold this critical relief hostage I will act under my authority as president to get Americans the relief they need.”
Trump said he may issue executive orders on home evictions, student loan debt and allowing states to repurpose COVID relief funding into their unemployment insurance programs. He also said he’ll likely issue an executive order to defer collection of Social Security payroll taxes, an idea that has less support among his Republican allies.
White House Chief of Staff Mark Meadows said, “This is not a perfect answer — we’ll be the first ones to say that — but it is all that we can do, and all the president can do within the confines of his executive power.”
Vegas tourism down 71% in June, showing cost of coronavirus
7:32 PM CT on 8/7/20
(AP) Tourism officials marked another index of the economic effect of the coronavirus pandemic on Friday, reporting that about 1 million people visited the Las Vegas area during June — down 70.5% from the same month a year ago.
A monthly economic report from the Las Vegas Convention and Visitors Authority noted that casinos were closed for 78 days before reopening four days into the month. It said that with large gatherings banned to prevent the spread of COVID-19, convention attendance was zero.
Some Las Vegas resorts remain closed, and the report put occupancy of the more than 95,000 rooms available after properties were allowed to open June 4 at only about 41%.
State health officials reported 976 new confirmed cases of COVID-19 statewide and 20 more deaths, bringing the Nevada total to at least 920 since the pandemic began.
The Southern Nevada Health District reports 770 deaths, or 83.6% of the state total, have been in the Las Vegas area.
For most people, the virus causes mild or moderate symptoms for up to three weeks. Older adults and people with existing health problems can face severe illness and death. The vast majority recover.
Azar to visit Taiwan, a COVID-19 success story
5:47 PM CT on 8/7/20
(AP) HHS Secretary Alex Azar said Friday he wants to learn about Taiwan's “incredibly effective” response to the cornavirus even though the island did things that the U.S. has fumbled, such as having a unified strategy and citizens willing to war masks.
Azar leads a U.S. delegation departing this weekend for a three-day visit to Taiwan, where they will meet with President Tsai Ing-wen and health system leaders, and Azar will give a speech to public health graduates. The trip is a geopolitical chess move in the Trump administration's contentious relationship with China, which considers Taiwan part of its national territory and has already registered its displeasure.
“The message of this trip is about Taiwan,” Azar said in an interview, deflecting a question about China. “It's about public health, it's about our partnership with Taiwan, but also the model that Taiwan offers to the world community of a transparent and open health care system. It is a model others can learn from.”
He called Taiwan's coronavirus response “incredibly effective” and said he's willing to “learn from them about their responses.”
It's not too late, says a leading expert on Taiwan's health care system, Princeton University's Tsung-Mei Cheng.
“It will be good if our health chief can learn from Taiwan, how exactly they did it,” said Cheng. “It's really a treasure trove of very useful information as to how you could effectively control and contain the spread of the virus.”
Taiwan had direct experience with an earlier respiratory virus known as SARS, so it did not take the new coronavirus lightly. A government-run health care system—broadly similar to what Sen. Bernie Sanders advocates—allowed public health authorities to mobilize resources to track and contain cases. Citizens were willing to follow public health advice.
As a result Taiwan has had fewer than 500 confirmed cases of COVID-19, despite its close proximity to China, where the virus originated. Florida, which has roughly the same number of residents as Taiwan, has had more than 500,000 cases and is struggling to contain this summer's surge.
Taiwan “set the policy right and they had the infrastructure and the leadership,” said Cheng. “I cannot emphasize enough the importance of leadership.”
In the U.S., President Donald Trump minimized the potential impact of the coronavirus at the outset, and has continued to do so from time to time. The federal government deferred to the states on key issues such as testing, even as public health experts and Democrats in Congress have called for a national plan.
Azar, while praising Taiwan, said the U.S. is dealing with “very different” circumstances.
“They are an island with 23 million people that also experienced SARS quite directly,”he said. The U.S. is one of the world's largest land mass countries, he added, with a federal system that gives states great leeway, and traditions of individual liberty.
Like other administration officials, Azar says Trump acted quickly to try to contain the virus by imposing restrictions on travel from China, and he points to the government's drive to facilitate development and eventual distribution vaccines as direct evidence of the U.S. president's commitment.
Ill. governor’s rule would fine business that violate mask order
4:57 PM CT on 8/7/20
(AP) Gov. J.B. Pritzker announced Friday that public health officials may issue fines to Illinois businesses where employees or patrons aren't wearing face coverings to slow the spread of the coronavirus.
Pritzker said the emergency rules he filed focus on "scofflaw" businesses who flout the requirement since May 1 that people in public who are unable to keep 6 feet away from others must wear masks. Enforcement begins with warnings and can result in fines of $75 to $2,500.
Since a reduction in infections in June prompted Pritzker to re-open businesses and allow for larger groups — up to 50 — to gather, the highly contagious and sometimes-fatal virus has been on a summerlong rebound.
"It's clear that there is still an even greater need to get people to wear masks, especially to protect frontline workers, whether they're (associates) at the front of the store asking you to put on your mask, whether they're (rescue workers) responding to 911 calls to save those in distress," Pritzker said.
Enforcement begins with a warning letter that the business is not complying with social restrictions. A second warning could mean reducing the number of patrons in an establishment to meet maximum crowd guidelines. A third violation could mean a fine. But Pritzker says it's preferable to current law, in which the lone enforcement mechanism for violations is license revocation.
Rob Karr, president and CEO of the Illinois Retail Merchants' Association, called the initiative "a slap in the face" to retailers who have sacrificed so much during this pandemic" while it's reckless individual behavior that fuels it.
"If the goal is to put public health above politics, the administration will amend the rule to focus enforcement efforts on individuals who are not complying instead of punishing and attempting to demonize innocent businesses," Karr said.
The Democrat's announcement in Chicago came the same day that Illinois reported 2,084 new cases of COVID-19, the illness caused by the highly contagious and sometimes-fatal coronavirus. It's the first time since May 24 that the number has topped 2,000.
India surpasses 2 million cases as health volunteers strike
3:31 PM CT on 8/7/20
(AP) As India hit another grim milestone in the coronavirus pandemic on Friday, crossing 2 million confirmed cases and more than 41,000 deaths, community health volunteers went on strike complaining they were ill-equipped to respond to the wave of infection in rural areas.
Even as India has maintained comparatively low mortality rates, the disease has spread widely across the country, with the burden shifting in recent weeks from cities with robust health systems to rural areas, where resources are scarce or nonexistent.
The Health Ministry reported 62,538 cases in the past 24 hours, raising the nation's confirmed total to 2,027,074. It said 886 more people had died, for a total of 41,585.
But the ministry said that recoveries were growing. India has the third-highest caseload in the world after the United States and Brazil. It has the fifth-most deaths but its fatality rate of about 2% is far lower than the top two hardest-hit countries. The rate in the U.S. is 3.3%, and in Brazil 3.4%, Johns Hopkins University figures show.
The caseload in the country of 1.3 billion has quickly expanded since the government began lifting a monthslong lockdown hoping to jump-start a moribund economy. India is projecting an economic contraction in 2020.
Around 900,000 members of an all-female community health force began a two-day strike on Friday, protesting that they were being roped in to help with contact tracing, personal hygiene drives and in quarantine centers, but weren't given personal protective equipment or additional pay, according to organizer A.R. Sindhu.
The health workers, known as Accredited Social Health Activists, or ASHA, which means 'hope' in several Indian languages, have been deployed in each village on behalf of the Health Ministry. Their work ranges from escorting children to immunization clinics to counseling women on childbirth.
But while their regular work hasn't reduced, they are increasingly being involved by state governments in the fight against the pandemic, said Sindhu.
"But ASHA workers don't have masks or PPEs or even sanitizers," she said.
She added that although the work has increased and become more dangerous, their salaries remain static at roughly 2,000 rupees ($27) per month And the families of at least a dozen women who she said died from the virus didn't receive compensation from India's federal insurance for front-line healthcare workers because their deaths were not recorded as COVID-19 deaths.
Last-ditch virus aid talks; Trump team heads back to Capitol
2:02 PM CT on 8/7/20
(AP) Democratic leaders launched a last-ditch effort to revive collapsing Washington talks on vital COVID-19 rescue money, summoning Trump administration negotiators to the Capitol on Friday in hopes of generating progress.
Both sides said the future of the negotiations was uncertain after a combative meeting on Thursday. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi said she was meeting with Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin and White House Chief of Staff Mark Meadows Friday afternoon. President Donald Trump says he is considering executive orders to address evictions and unemployment insurance, but they appear unlikely to have much impact.
A breakdown in the talks would put at risk more than $100 billion to help reopen schools, a fresh round of $1,200 direct payments to most people and hundreds of billions of dollars for state and local governments to help them avoid furloughing workers and cutting services as tax revenues shrivel.
Pelosi, D-Calif., and Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y., emerged from Thursday's meeting to give a pessimistic update about the chances for an agreement.
"We're very far apart. It's most unfortunate," Pelosi said then. In a news conference Friday she said she offered a major concession to Republicans.
"We'll go down $1 trillion, you go up $1 trillion," Pelosi said. She said that her latest offer is in the $2.7 trillion neighborhood; a series of GOP offers issued privately has brought the White House offer into the $1.5 trillion range.
Both sides have adopted a hard line in the talks, though the Trump team has been more open in disclosing a handful of its proposed compromises. Republicans were late to agree to the talks and have become frustrated by the inflexible tactics of Pelosi and Schumer, who have been exuding confidence in a political and legislative landscape that appeared tilted in their favor.
The Democratic pair say the federal coronavirus aid package needs to be huge to meet the moment: a surge in cases and deaths, double-digit joblessness and the threat of poverty for millions of the newly unemployed.
Senate Republicans have been split, with roughly half of McConnell's rank and file opposed to another rescue bill at all. Four prior coronavirus response bills totaling almost $3 trillion have passed on bipartisan votes despite intense wrangling, but conservatives recoiled at the prospect of another Pelosi-brokered agreement with a whopping deficit-financed cost.
The White House is also promising that Trump will attempt to use executive orders to address elements of the congressional package involving evictions and jobless benefits. But there's no evidence that the strategy would have much impact or be anything close to what's necessary, and Pelosi appeared unimpressed at a morning news conference.
"I don't think they know what they're talking about," Pelosi said dismissively Thursday.
Russia's race for virus vaccine raises concerns in the West
11:29 AM CT on 8/7/20
(AP) Russia boasts that it's about to become the first country to approve a COVID-19 vaccine, with mass vaccinations planned as early as October using shots that are yet to complete clinical trials—and scientists worldwide are sounding the alarm that the headlong rush could backfire.
Moscow sees a Sputnik-like propaganda victory, recalling the Soviet Union's launch of the world's first satellite in 1957. But the experimental COVID-19 shots began first-in-human testing on a few dozen people less than two months ago, and there's no published scientific evidence yet backing Russia's late entry to the global vaccine race, much less explaining why it should be considered a front-runner.
"I'm worried that Russia is cutting corners so that the vaccine that will come out may be not just ineffective, but also unsafe," said Lawrence Gostin, a global public health law expert at Georgetown University. "It doesn't work that way. ... Trials come first. That's really important."
According to Kirill Dmitriev, head of Russia's Direct Investment Fund that bankrolled the effort, a vaccine developed by the Gamaleya research institute in Moscow may be approved in days, before scientists complete what's called a Phase 3 study. That final-stage study, usually involving tens of thousands of people, is the only way to prove if an experimental vaccine is safe and really works.
Health Minister Mikhail Murashko said members of "risk groups," such as medical workers, may be offered the vaccine this month. He didn't clarify whether they would be part of the Phase 3 study that is said to be completed after the vaccine receives "conditional approval."
Deputy Prime Minister Tatyana Golikova promised to start "industrial production" in September, and Murashko said mass vaccination may begin as early as October.
Dr. Anthony Fauci, the top U.S. infectious disease specialist, questioned the fast-track approach last week. "I do hope that the Chinese and the Russians are actually testing a vaccine before they are administering the vaccine to anyone, because claims of having a vaccine ready to distribute before you do testing I think is problematic at best," he said.
Ohio governor tests negative after positive test before Trump visit
9:26 AM CT on 8/7/20
(AP) Ohio Gov. Mike DeWine tested negative for COVID-19 on Thursday after testing positive earlier in the day before he was to meet with President Donald Trump, according to a statement from his office.
His wife, Fran DeWine, also tested negative, as did staff members. They underwent a different type of test in Columbus; one considered to be more accurate than the rapid-result test which showed DeWine to be positive for COVID-19 just ahead of a planned meeting with Trump in Cleveland.
The conflicting results underscore the problems with both kinds of tests and are bound to spur more questions about them. Many people in the U.S. can't get lab results on the more accurate version for weeks, rather than the few hours it took the governor to find out.
The governor and first lady plan to undergo another test Saturday, according to the statement.
DeWine, an early advocate among Republicans of wearing masks and other pandemic precautions, said he took a test arranged by the White House in Cleveland as part of standard protocol before he was to meet Trump at an airport. He had planned to join the president on a visit to the Whirlpool Corp. plant in northwest Ohio.
Instead, he received the news he tested positive, called his wife, and returned to central Ohio where he took the other test that showed him to be negative.
The positive result from the first test was "a big surprise to our family," DeWine said at a late afternoon news conference broadcast from his porch on his farm in Cedarville in southwestern Ohio, where he planned to quarantine for 14 days.p;
Dewine, 73, said he didn't know how he would have contracted the coronavirus and that he's already been spending much of his time at his farm, keeping his distance from family members and staff.
DeWine said he feels fine with no symptoms. His only health concern is asthma he's had since he was a teenager, for which he uses an inhaler daily.
US rescinds global 'do not travel' coronavirus warning
8:16 PM CT on 8/6/20
(AP) The Trump administration on Thursday rescinded its warnings to Americans against all international travel because of the coronavirus pandemic, saying conditions no longer warrant a blanket worldwide alert.
The State Department lifted its level-four health advisory for the entire world in order to return to country-specific warnings. That move came shortly after the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention revised its COVID-19 travel advisory information. The CDC lifted “do not travel” warnings for about 20 locations but advised staying away from the vast majority of the world.
“With health and safety conditions improving in some countries and potentially deteriorating in others, the department is returning to our previous system of country-specific levels of travel advice in order to give travelers detailed and actionable information to make informed travel decisions," the State Department said in a statement.
“This will also provide U.S. citizens more detailed information about the current status in each country,” it said. “We continue to recommend U.S. citizens exercise caution when traveling abroad due to the unpredictable nature of the pandemic.”
The State Department invoked the blanket warning against all international travel on March 19 as the pandemic spread. The revised country-specific travel advice is available at https://travel.state.gov. However, Americans still face travel restrictions across the world because of the uncontrolled spread of the coronavirus in the country.
Earlier Thursday, the CDC revised its travel guidance, saying the changes were driven by how the virus was spreading in different places and how well the public health and health care systems were functioning in dealing with new cases.
Seven places, including Thailand, Fiji and New Zealand, are in a low-risk group, according to the CDC, although officials there advised that certain people, such as older adults and those with certain underlying medical conditions, talk to their doctors before making the trip. For more than a dozen other locations, it had no precautions. Taiwan, Greenland, and Laos are on that list.
But the CDC continues to advise against nonessential travel to more than 200 other international locations.
Gov. Cooper: Trump's coronavirus strategy 'nonexistent'
6:09 PM CT on 8/6/20
(AP) North Carolina Gov. Roy Cooper said Thursday that President Donald Trump’s administration still lacks a sufficient strategy to tackle the coronavirus pandemic, sharpening his criticism of the president as the Democratic governor seeks reelection in the key battleground state.
“I like the fact that he did provide some help for hurricane recovery in North Carolina. I do like the push for a vaccine. But most of the federal strategy that we’ve had during this pandemic has been nonexistent,” Cooper said during a wide-ranging interview with The Associated Press.
Cooper has largely refrained thus far from direct attacks on Trump as he manages the politically divided state’s pandemic response heading into the November election. Cooper faces the state’s Republican lieutenant governor, who has been endorsed by the president.
“I don’t mind talking about President Trump," Cooper said. "I oppose him when I disagree with him. I will support his actions when they help North Carolina. I always put North Carolina first.”
The governor reiterated his support for former Vice President Joe Biden, though he wouldn't say whether he voted for Biden in the state's March 3 primary. “That’s my business. I support him, but the ballot is private," he said.
Cooper, who has consistently led gubernatorial opponent Lt. Gov. Dan Forest in public opinion polls, chastised the Republican for flouting public health guidance at campaign events.
“My opponent, Dan Forest, is going around holding in-person receptions without a mask, without social distancing and he’s talking about saying that he’s shaking as many hands as he possibly can,” Cooper said. “That’s the kind of thing we need to stop.”
A tweet posted last weekend by state GOP Chairman Michael Whatley showed Forest at a Mount Airy restaurant without a mask standing close to maskless voters and volunteers. Forest's campaign posted a photo on Facebook on July 14 showing the lieutenant governor speaking to dozens of maskless supporters in Iredell County.
Forest declined an AP interview request, and his campaign dismissed concerns about safety at his events and concerns about erroneous claims the lieutenant governor made last month to the Hendersonville Times-News that scientific studies have shown that "masks do not work with viruses.”
N. Korea's escalating virus response raises fear of outbreak
4:20 PM CT on 8/6/20
(AP) North Korea is quarantining thousands of people and shipping food and other aid to a southern city locked down over coronavirus worries, officials said, as the country's response to a suspected case reinforces doubt about its longstanding claim to be virus-free.
But amid the outside skepticism and a stream of North Korean propaganda glorifying its virus efforts, an exchange between the country and the United Nations is providing new clarity — and actual numbers — about what might be happening in North Korea, which has closed its borders and cut travel — never a free-flowing stream — by outsider monitors and journalists.
In late July, North Korea said it had imposed its "maximum emergency system" to guard against the virus spreading after finding a person with COVID-19 symptoms in Kaesong city, near the border with rival South Korea.
State media reported that leader Kim Jong Un then ordered a total lockdown of Kaesong, and said the suspected case was a North Korean who had earlier fled to South Korea before slipping back into Kaesong last month.
North Korea's public admission of its first potential case and the emergency steps it took prompted immediate outside speculation that it may be worried about a big outbreak after months of steadfastly claiming it had no cases. Foreign experts are highly skeptical of North Korea's assertion of no cases, in large part because of its long, porous border with China, where the virus emerged, and its history of hiding past disease outbreaks.
In a report to the World Health Organization, North Korea said it has quarantined 64 first contacts of the suspected Keasong case and 3,571 secondary contacts in state-run facilities for a period of 40 days, according to Dr. Edwin Salvador, WHO representative to North Korea.
Salvador said in an email to The Associated Press that North Korea also informed WHO of the suspected first case, saying the person was tested for COVID-19 but the results were inconclusive. Salvador said WHO has requested that North Korea share more information about the person.
Salvador said all of North Korea's borders remain closed, group gatherings are banned, masks are required in public, and all educational institutions, including preschools, are on an extended summer break. Since the end of December, North Korea has quarantined and released 25,905 people, 382 of them foreigners, Salvador said.
Many outside observers are all but certain the virus has already entered North Korea because it closed its border with China, its biggest trading partner, weeks after the world's first known virus cases were recorded in China in December. Monitoring groups in Seoul have steadfastly reported about North Korean virus cases and deaths.
A major coronavirus outbreak may cause a humanitarian disaster because of North Korea's broken public healthcare system and lack of medical supplies.
But it's unclear how serious North Korea's current situation is.
"Though a really extensive local outbreak might not have occurred yet, it's likely that a considerable number of people has been infected," said analyst Hong Min at Seoul's Korea Institute for National Unification. "Even though North Korea locks itself down, there should be suspected cases there and authorities must aggressively diagnose them. But North Korea has never been transparent about whether it has such a capacity and the will to do so."
U.K. says 50 million face masks it bought might not be safe
2:11 PM CT on 8/6/20
(AP) The British government says it won't be using 50 million face masks it bought during a scramble to secure protective equipment for medics during the coronavirus outbreak because of concerns they might not be safe.
The admission sparked calls from opposition parties for an urgent inquiry into the way contracts for essential supplies were handed out.
The masks were part of a 252-million-pound ($332 million) contract the government signed with investment firm Ayanda Capital in April. Papers filed in a court case reveal that the masks won't be distributed because they have ear loops rather than head loops and may not fit tightly enough.
The papers, published Thursday, are part of a lawsuit against the Conservative government by campaigning groups the Good Law Project and EveryDoctor. They want the courts to review contracts signed by the government for personal protective equipment, which they say were not properly scrutinized.
The groups estimate the 50 million rejected masks cost about 150 million pounds (about $197 million), though the government has not confirmed the amount and it is unclear whether the full 252 million pounds (about $332 million) agreed to in the deal was ever paid.
Ohio Gov. Mike DeWine tests positive ahead of Trump visit
11:55 AM CT on 8/6/20
(AP) Ohio Gov. Mike DeWine tested positive Thursday for the coronavirus just ahead of a planned meeting with President Donald Trump.
The Republican governor's office said Thursday that he took the test as part of standard protocol before meeting Trump at an airport in Cleveland. He had planned to join the president on a visit to the Whirlpool Corp. plant in northwest Ohio.
His office said the 73-year-old DeWine had no symptoms, but was returning to Columbus. His office said he and his wife, Fran DeWine, will both be tested there. DeWine then plans to quarantine at his home in Cedarville for 14 days.
Lt. Gov. Jon Husted tested negative. DeWine, a longtime elected official in Ohio, is in his first term as governor.
Facebook, citing virus misinformation, deletes Trump post
9:41 AM CT on 8/6/20
(AP) Facebook has deleted a post by President Donald Trump for violating its policy against spreading misinformation about the coronavirus.
The post in question featured a link to a Fox News video in which Trump says children are "virtually immune" to the virus.
Facebook said Wednesday that the "video includes false claims that a group of people is immune from COVID-19 which is a violation of our policies around harmful COVID misinformation."
A few hours later, Twitter temporarily blocked the Trump campaign from tweeting from its account, until it removed a post with the same video. Trump's account retweeted the video. The company said in a statement late Wednesday that the tweet violated its rules against COVID misinformation. When a tweet breaks its rules, Twitter asks users to remove the tweet in questions and bans them from posting anything else until they do.
Twitter has generally been quicker than Facebook in recent months to label posts from the president that violate its policies against misinformation and abuse.
This is not the first time that Facebook has removed a post from Trump, Facebook said, but it's the first time it has done so because it was spreading misinformation about the coronavirus. The company has also labeled his posts.
Several studies suggest, but don't prove, that children are less likely to become infected than adults and more likely to have only mild symptoms. But this is not the same as being "virtually immune" to the virus.
A CDC study involving 2,500 children published in April found that about 1 in 5 infected children were hospitalized versus 1 in 3 adults; three children died. The study lacks complete data on all the cases, but it also suggests that many infected children have no symptoms, which could allow them to spread the virus to others.
Virus testing in the US is dropping, even as deaths mount
8:06 PM CT on 8/5/20
(AP) U.S. testing for the coronavirus is dropping even as infections remain high and the death toll rises by more than 1,000 a day, a worrisome trend that officials attribute largely to Americans getting discouraged over having to wait hours to get a test and days or weeks to learn the results.
An Associated Press analysis found that the number of tests per day slid 3.6% over the past two weeks to 750,000, with the count falling in 22 states. That includes places like Alabama, Mississippi, Missouri and Iowa where the percentage of positive tests is high and continuing to climb, an indicator that the virus is still spreading uncontrolled.
Amid the crisis, some health experts are calling for the introduction of a different type of test that would yield results in a matter of minutes and would be cheap and simple enough for millions of Americans to test themselves — but would also be less accurate.
"There's a sense of desperation that we need to do something else," said Dr. Ashish Jha, director of Harvard's Global Health Institute.
Widespread testing is considered essential to managing the outbreak as the U.S. approaches a mammoth 5 million confirmed infections and more than 157,000 deaths out of over 700,000 worldwide.
Demand for coronavirus testing remains high in S.C.
6:12 PM CT on 8/5/20
(AP) In South Carolina, hospitals and the state health department say demand for coronavirus testing remains high even as testing numbers have dipped in the last two weeks.
In some cases, people may be deterred by the long wait times at certain testing sites. Others forego the tests when their health insurance won’t cover them, says Dr. Patrick Cawley, CEO of the Medical University of South Carolina in Charleston.
Cawley told a state legislative committee Tuesday insurance companies typically don’t pay for tests for asymptomatic patients. It’s one of the biggest barriers to people getting tested in the state, Cawley says.
Health officials announced 1,168 new confirmed cases and 52 confirmed deaths Tuesday. The state has reported 93,604 confirmed cases and 1,774 deaths since the start of the pandemic..
HHS OIG: Labs can offer free antibody tests to encourage plasma donation
4:30 PM CT on 8/5/20
Clinical labs can offer free COVID-19 antibody testing to patients undergoing other medical tests without running afoul of federal anti-kickback rules, HHS’ Office of Inspector General said Tuesday.
Blood plasma may be used to develop experimental convalescent plasma therapies for COVID-19. Many clinical labs want to provide their patients with free antibody testing to encourage them to donate their COVID-19 blood plasma.
Free lab tests could trigger anti-fraud laws because insurers like Medicare usually pay for medical testing. Regulators might worry that beneficiaries or providers would use a specific lab to get free antibody testing, even if other labs offer better value to insurers or taxpayers.
But OIG said free antibody tests don’t pose a significant fraud risk if labs don’t pay patients or providers to do the testing, don’t bill for it and only offer it to people receiving other medically necessary tests.
“We believe the proposed arrangement offers the possibility of substantial public health benefits,” OIG said in a Q&A.
Janssen to deliver 100 million doses of potential COVID vaccine to federal government
2:10 PM CT on 8/5/20
On Wednesday, Johnson & Johnson-owned Janssen Pharmaceutical Companies agreed to deliver 100 million doses of its COVID-19 vaccine candidate to the federal government if the Food and Drug Administration green lights it.
HHS and the Department of Defense pitched in more than $1 billion to guarantee access to the experimental vaccine. Under the agreement, the drugmaker will start manufacturing vaccine doses in the U.S. to make sure they’re ready-to-go if the FDA approves the vaccine or grants it emergency use authorization. The federal government can buy another 200 million doses of the vaccine candidate, according to a separate agreement.
Johnson & Johnson is “evaluating one- and two-dose regimens,” the company said in a press release.
Virginia first state to try pandemic app from Apple, Google
11:42 AM CT on 8/5/20
(AP) Virginia has rolled out a smartphone app to automatically notify people if they might have been exposed to the coronavirus, becoming the first U.S. state to use new pandemic technology created by Apple and Google.
The COVIDWISE app was available on the tech giants' app stores Wednesday ahead of an expected announcement from Democratic Gov. Ralph Northam.
"We're using every possible approach to fight this virus and keep Virginians healthy," Northam said in a statement provided to AP that encouraged all Virginians to download the app. "The COVIDWISE app is completely anonymous, protects personal privacy, and gives you an additional tool to protect yourself and your community."
It comes nearly four months after Apple and Google said they were partnering on creating app-building software for public health agencies trying to contain the spread of the pandemic. Canada and a number of European countries have already rolled out apps using the tech companies' framework.
It relies on Bluetooth wireless technology to detect when someone who downloaded the app has spent time near another app user who later tests positive for the virus.
Those who download Virginia's app get a message that it is "100% voluntary" and doesn't use location-tracking technology such as GPS or collect personal information that can be used to identify someone.
"Your device will share anonymous tokens via Bluetooth with other COVIDWISE users," the app says. "If another user you've been nearby tests positive for COVID-19 within a 14-day period, your app will notify you."
It also says those who test positive can anonymously notify others to help stop the disease's spread.
Information on Virginia's public health department website says the app measures close contact as within 6 feet of someone for at least 15 minutes, using guidelines from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
Progress slow as urgency grows on virus relief legislation
9:41 AM CT on 8/5/20
(AP) Frustrated Senate Republicans re-upped their complaints that Democratic negotiators are taking too hard a line in talks on a sweeping coronavirus relief bill, but an afternoon negotiating session brought at least modest concessions from both sides, even as an agreement appears far off.
Top Democrats emerged from a 90-minute meeting Tuesday with Trump administration officials to declare more progress. The Trump team agreed with that assessment and highlighted its offer to extend a moratorium on evictions from federally subsidized housing through the end of the year.
"We really went down, issue by issue by issue slogging through this. They made some concessions which we appreciated. We made some concessions that they appreciated," said Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y. "We're still far away on a lot of the important issues but we're continuing to go back."
White House chief of staff Mark Meadows said Tuesday's session was "probably the most productive meeting we've had to date." Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin said the two sides set a goal of reaching an agreement by the end of the week to permit a vote next week.
Another glimmer of hope emerged as a key Senate Republican telegraphed that the party may yield to Democrats on an increase in the food stamp benefit as part of the huge rescue measure, which promises to far exceed a $1 trillion target set by the GOP.
Senate Agriculture Committee Chair Pat Roberts, R-Kan., said Tuesday that "you can make an argument that we need some kind of an increase" in food stamps and that he's raised the topic with Majority Leader Mitch McConnell. He added that an agreement on that issue could lead to further overall progress on the legislation, which remains stalled despite days of Capitol negotiations.
The food stamp issue — left out of earlier relief bills — is a top priority for Pelosi, among other powerful Democrats, who have passed a 15% increase in the food stamp benefit as part of their $3.5 trillion coronavirus relief bill.
The overall talks are grinding ahead slowly, though urgency is growing among Senate Republicans, several of whom face tough election races and are eager to deliver a bill before heading home to campaign this month.
Sen. John Cornyn, R-Texas, said Monday that the chamber should not go on recess without passing the huge relief measure, and Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., offered a jobless benefit proposal that's more generous than a pending GOP alternative. Both are facing closer-than-hoped reelection bids in states that should be easy holds for Republicans.
Multiple obstacles remain, including an impasse on extending the $600-per-week pandemic jobless benefit aid to the renters facing eviction. The benefit has helped sustain consumer demand over recent months as the coronavirus has wrought havoc. Pelosi wants to extend it through January at a $400 billion-plus cost, while Republicans are proposing an immediate cut to $200 and then replacing the benefit with a cumbersome system that would attempt to provide 70% of a worker's "replacement wage."
They are also pressing for funding for the Postal Service. Schumer and Pelosi summoned Postmaster General Louis DeJoy to the Capitol on Wednesday to discuss the agency's worsening performance and need for emergency funding.
Design experts petition WHO to issue guidance for indoor air quality
8:12 PM CT on 8/4/20
Close to 700 building design experts from 51 countries want the World Health Organization to promote best practices for improving indoor air quality and reduce the potential spread of the novel coronavirus.
The online petition references a July 9 WHO briefing which noted the potential airborne threat of transmission: “Airborne transmission of SARS-CoV-2 can occur during medical procedures that generate aerosols. WHO, together with the scientific community, has been actively discussing and evaluating whether SARS-CoV-2 may also spread through aerosols in the absence of aerosol generating procedures, particularly in indoor settings with poor ventilation.”
During an interview earlier this week with JAMA, Dr. Anthony Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, said he thinks “there certainly is a degree of aerosolization. But I’m going to take a step back and make sure that we learn the facts before we start talking about it.”
The petition urges the WHO to work with building experts to develop a set of best practices for health officials.
“This makes clear the universal belief that our buildings play a crucial role in this fight. Each of us, along with many of the organizations we represent, stand ready to advance science-based solutions to help save lives around the globe,” Joyce Lee, president, IndigoJLD Green + Health, said in a statement.
CMS giving insurers flexibility to offer premium reductions
6:17 PM CT on 8/4/20
CMS said it would give health insurers leeway to offer temporary premium reductions for people with 2020 coverage in the Affordable Care Act individual and small group markets
Under the policy, which will be in effect until the end of the year, insurers can reduce premiums for one or more months. Normally, insurers are prohibited from changing premiums after the start of the benefit year, CMS said.A number of insurers have already provided plan members with premium “credits” or discounts in the past few months, since members have not been able to access healthcare services during the pandemic like they normally would.
Health insurers currently hold excess premium revenue because rates were set without anticipating the steep drop off in elective procedures and routine care.
COVID-19 measures could disrupt rare polio-like disease
4:36 PM CT on 8/4/20
(AP) Health experts once thought 2020 might be the worst year yet for a rare paralyzing disease that has been hitting U.S. children for the past decade.
But they now say the coronavirus pandemic could disrupt the pattern for the mysterious illnesses, which spike every other year starting in late summer.
Scientists say it's possible that mask wearing, school closures and other measures designed to stop the spread of the coronavirus may also hamper spread of the virus suspected of causing the paralyzing disease.
Dr. David Kimberlin, a researcher at the University of Alabama at Birmingham, called it "the million-dollar question."
"We just simply don't know right now," said Kimberlin, who is co-leader of a national study to gather specimens from children who develop the paralyzing condition.
The pandemic is dominating public health work right now, but officials are trying to draw attention to the polio-like condition they call acute flaccid myelitis, or AFM. The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention on Tuesday made a public call for parents and doctors to watch for it, and act.
Hundreds of U.S. children have developed AFM since 2014. Most had a cold-like illness and fever, seemed to get over it, then descended into paralysis. In some cases it started small — for example, a thumb that suddenly wouldn't move. Some children went on to lose the ability to eat or breathe.
It's been difficult to come up with definitive proof, but experts believe the main culprit is an enterovirus called EV-D68. Enteroviruses are a large family of viruses. Some, such as polio, can damage the central nervous system, while many others cause mild symptoms or none at all. Another enterovirus, called EV-A71, has also been linked to some cases.
Doctors think extremely rare cases of AFM have popped up since at least 2008. But it became a national concern in 2014, when a wave of EV-D68 infections was followed by a burst of at least 120 AFM cases.
What followed was an even-year, odd-year pattern: U.S. cases dropped to 22 in 2015, then jumped to 153 in 2016. They fell again in 2017 and hit 238 in 2018. There were 46 cases last year.
This year, as of the end of June, 16 cases have been reported, at least one of them fatal. Typically, most cases happen in August through November.
Md. county pledges probe into health worker's coronavirus death
2:09 PM CT on 8/4/20
(AP and KHN) Officials in a Maryland county say they "will spare no time or expense" investigating the circumstances surrounding the death of a veteran public health worker who died of COVID-19 after relatives and coworkers believe she contracted the virus on the job.
The probe follows a story by Kaiser Health News and The Associated Press two weeks ago focusing on the worker, Chantee Mack, a 44-year-old disease intervention specialist at the Prince George's County Health Department who union officials said was among at least 20 department employees infected by the coronavirus.
Mack, who worked in the sexually transmitted diseases program, faced health challenges and was twice denied permission to work from home in March, when the coronavirus was first appearing in Maryland. She was among 100 staffers deemed essential during the pandemic out of the more than 500 employees at the health department.
An internal union document obtained by KHN detailed a conference call by department managers in which Diane Young, an associate director, said all family health services workers were essential. Only those 65 or older, those with an "altered" immune system or those with small children would be eligible to work from home, and decisions would be made case by case.
Mack's supervisors supported her requests to work from home, but the department's upper management rejected them, according to union documents.
Some employees told KHN that the department also didn't provide face masks and other protective gear to employees who worked in the office and with the public in the early days of the pandemic. They even held a staff meeting at which people sat close together.
Mack was exposed to a pregnant employee who later became the first in the program to be diagnosed with COVID-19. Mack was tested for the coronavirus in early April, was hospitalized around mid-month and stayed on a ventilator for four weeks. She died May 11.
Another employee spent time on a ventilator, suffered strokes and is learning to walk again.