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Sunday's top headlines about the coronavirus pandemic

 

Last updated 4/13/2020 at 6:25am

Sunday: What you need to know today about the virus outbreak

The Associated Press

Christians the world over celebrate a solitary Easter amid a global virus pandemic. Pope Francis calls for solidarity. At the Vatican, Francis celebrated Mass in a largely empty St. Peter's Basilica.

Italy has its lowest number of new deaths in three weeks.

British Prime Minister Boris Johnson is discharged from a London hospital where he was treated in intensive care for the coronavirus as the U.K. becomes the fourth European country to surpass 10,000 virus-related deaths.

Dr. Anthony Fauci, the top infectious disease expert in the U.S., says the economy in parts of the country could be allowed to reopen as early as next month.

Here are some of AP's top stories Sunday on the world's coronavirus pandemic. Follow APNews.com/VirusOutbreak for updates through the day and APNews.com/UnderstandingtheOutbreak for stories explaining some of its complexities.

THE FIGHT FOR NEW YORK: Listen to AP's coronavirus podcast, "Ground Game: Inside the Outbreak," for an interview with three AP reporters who worked on "24 Hours: The Fight for New York," a multiformat package following 10 New Yorkers as they negotiate life in a city transformed by the virus.

WHAT'S HAPPENING TODAY:

- President Donald Trump's response to the coronavirus may be a case of too little, too late.

- Retailers like Macy's and Gap, which sell nonessential merchandise, are struggling to survive. According to one estimate, 15,000 U.S. stores will close for good.

- Some doctors are thinking that ventilators may not help certain patients hospitalized with the coronavirus.

- Israel approves tight quarantine in parts of Jerusalem to try to stop spread of the coronavirus.

- Deaths from COVID-19 in U.S. nursing homes and long-term care facilities s urpasses 2,700.

- The $2.2 trillion relief package that Congress approved excludes millions of immigrants who do not have legal status in the U.S. but work and pay taxes.

WHAT YOU NEED TO KNOW:

For most people, the coronavirus causes mild or moderate symptoms, such as fever and cough that clear up in two to three weeks. For some, especially older adults and people with existing health problems, it can cause more severe illness, including pneumonia and death. The vast majority of people recover.

Here are the symptoms of the virus compared with the common flu.

One of the best ways to prevent spread of the virus is washing your hands with soap and water. The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommends first washing with warm or cold water and then lathering soap for 20 seconds to get it on the backs of hands, between fingers and under fingernails before rinsing off.

You should wash your phone, too. Here's how.

TRACKING THE VIRUS: Drill down and zoom in at the individual county level, and you can access numbers that will show you the situation where you are, and where loved ones or people you're worried about live.

ONE NUMBER:

70+: The number of companies creating antibody tests for the coronavirus. Health officials worry about the lack of FDA oversight.

From people and firms desperate for aid, one question: When?

JOSH BOAK

AP Economics Writer

BALTIMORE (AP) - It's been two weeks since President Donald Trump signed into law a $2.2 trillion economic rescue package that will distribute money to struggling individuals and businesses. It feels like a lot longer than that to James Stearns of Gulfport, Mississippi.

His job installing vinyl floors was reduced to just one day a week because of the coronavirus outbreak. He's barely sleeping. The April rent on his trailer is past due. Unless the combined $2,400 that he and his wife are to receive from the rescue package arrives soon, they and their two chihuahuas will be homeless.

"I'm fixing to be evicted - I can't pay anything," said Stearns, 52. "I don't even have power right now. Hot as it is, we're sitting here sweating to death."

The administration is in a race against time, trying to provide families and businesses with enough money to survive the devastating economic plunge caused by the pandemic. Neither the White House nor the Treasury Department could say when asked late last week how much of the $2.2 trillion has actually reached needy Americans. Economists have said that the cash infusions will be crucial for sustaining the world's largest economy.

The task of injecting this much cash into the entire country on a scale never before attempted is monumental. And it's urgent: One in 10 U.S. workers lost their jobs in the past three weeks. Half of working households say they've lost income. The economy is expected to shrink at a shocking 30% annual rate in the April-June quarter.

"There is no way we could have been operationally prepared to put this much money into the economy immediately," said Maya MacGuineas, president of the Committee for a Responsible Federal Budget, which has long advocated for fiscal restraint but supported the rescue package.

The $290 billion in checks to individuals is just starting to flow and might go out in meaningful sums beginning Monday, according to comments by Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin and a memo from the IRS. About a third of the $349 billion for preserving small businesses' payrolls has been approved. But the government hasn't said how much money has actually gone to those employers so far.

The major airlines, seeking $25 billion to cover their payroll expenses, are still negotiating with Treasury over the terms. It remains unclear whether the government will proceed with a plan to take ownership stakes in the airlines in exchange for that aid.

Most states are still working to try to distribute the additional $600 a week in unemployment benefits provided in the federal package, on top of state benefits. Overloaded, outdated computer systems are delaying the process in some states. There is also health and disaster spending, aid to state governments, payroll tax credits and $510 billion in loans for large employers for which the guidelines are still unknown.

The roll-out of congressional aid has been notably slow compared with the aggressive steps taken by the Federal Reserve, which quickly slashed its benchmark interest rate to near zero and offered $2 trillion in loans to businesses and state and local governments. The Fed can shore up markets and instill confidence. But families and small businesses depend most on Congress for immediate help.

Larry Kudlow, Trump's top economic adviser, argues that the distribution of rescue money has been moving in a timely manner.

"The extra $600 in the unemployment benefits - that's come online way faster than we originally thought," Kudlow told Fox Business Network.

While a two-week delay to establish the distribution process won't likely much deepen the damage to an already diminished economy, many small businesses will need the aid before a next wave of bills hits, said Richard Prisinzano, director of policy analysis at the University of Pennsylvania's Penn Wharton Budget Model.

"The businesses that are most in danger are the really small firms that only have a month or two of working capital," Prisinzano said.

Bedeviled by technological problems, the Small Business Administration has struggled to manage the $349 billion in forgivable loans for companies with fewer than 500 employees. Some banks have moved slowly, in part because of unclear guidance. The SBA received 381,000 applications for loans totaling $100 billion as of Wednesday afternoon. Most companies, though, are still waiting for their money.

If Ben Walker, CEO of Transcription Outsourcing in Denver, doesn't receive loan money within two weeks, he'll need to cut expenses again after having already slashed nearly $2,000 in monthly costs. He would ask his landlord to defer his rent payment and cancel non-essential services like water delivery.

"Our last resort is cutting a part-time employee, which would save another $2,000 a month but which is the last thing I want to do right now," Walker said.

Large companies are also at risk at a time when no one knows the duration or severity of the downturn - or how fast a recovery might arrive. The airlines, in particular, are bleeding money as air travel has essentially halted. Delta Air Lines estimates its losses at $60 million a day, United Airlines at $100 million a day. They and other carriers have raised new credit. But the major airlines are waiting to hear from Treasury about whether their applications to cover payrolls for six months has been approved.

Leading retailers, too, are reeling, with entire supply chains - clothiers, importers, factories - desperate for aid. Discretionary spending by shoppers is expected to collapse for the first half of the year.

Nordstrom has warned that it doesn't know when it will be able to reopen its physical stores and that prolonged closures could cause it to become financially distressed. Ralph Lauren and Gap Inc. have announced that, for now, they've stopped ordering products for the fall. Other retailers will likely follow.

Any rebound in spending on travel and clothing will likely depend on U.S. consumers having survived the downturn without losing their savings or sinking into debt. That's why the additional unemployment benefits in the federal rescue package are so vital for John Barker and his wife, who are Las Vegas residents and have both been laid off.

Barker, 65, handled safety issues on oil rigs; his wife worked at a casino. The additional $600 a week in federal unemployment aid for both would be enough to maintain their mortgage and expenses without having to tap savings.

"It definitely makes a difference between me calling all my creditors and telling them I can't pay versus making all my ends meet," Barker said.

Fears of 'Wild West' as COVID-19 blood tests hit the market

MATTHEW PERRONE

AP Health Writer

WASHINGTON (AP) - Blood tests for the coronavirus could play a key role in deciding whether millions of Americans can safely return to work and school. But public health officials warn that the current "Wild West" of unregulated tests is creating confusion that could ultimately slow the path to recovery.

More than 70 companies have signed up to sell so-called antibody tests in recent weeks, according to U.S. regulators. Governments around the world hope that the rapid tests, which typically use a finger-prick of blood on a test strip, could soon ease public restrictions by identifying people who have previously had the virus and have developed some immunity to it.

But key questions remain: How accurate are the tests, how much protection is needed and how long will that protection last.

The blood tests are different from the nasal swab-based tests currently used to diagnose active COVID-19 infections. Instead, the tests look for blood proteins called antibodies, which the body produces days or weeks after fighting an infection. The same approach is used for HIV, hepatitis, Lyme disease, lupus and many other diseases.

Because of the relative simplicity of the technology, the Food and Drug Administration decided to waive initial review of the tests as part of its emergency response to the coronavirus outbreak.

Right now, the tests are most useful for researchers studying how the virus has spread through the U.S. population. The government said Friday it has started testing 10,000 volunteers. The White House has not outlined a broader plan for testing and how the results might be used.

With almost no FDA oversight of the tests, "Right now it's a wild west show out there," said Eric Blank of the Association for Public Health Laboratories. "It really has created a mess that's going to take a while to clean up."

"In the meantime, you've got a lot of companies marketing a lot of stuff and nobody has any idea of how good it is," he said.

Members of Blank's group, which represents state and local lab officials, have urged the FDA to revisit its lax approach toward the tests. That approach essentially allows companies to launch as long as they notify the agency and include disclaimers. Companies are supposed to state that their tests have not been FDA-approved and cannot rule out whether someone is currently infected.

Last week, FDA Commissioner Stephen Hahn said in a statement that the agency will "take appropriate action" against companies making false claims or selling inaccurate tests.

During an interview Sunday on NBC's "Meet the Press," Hahn expressed "concern" that tests being sold "may not be as accurate as we'd like them to be."

"What we don't want are wildly inaccurate tests," he said. "That's going to be much worse, having wildly inaccurate tests than having no test."

Dr. Allison Rakeman of New York City's Public Health Laboratory says some local hospitals are assuming the tests, which are listed on FDA's website, "have been vetted, when they have not."

The danger of faulty testing, Rakeman says, is that people will mistakenly conclude that they are immune or are no longer spreading the virus.

"Then somebody goes home and kisses their 90-year-old grandmother," said Rakeman. "You don't want to give someone a false sense of security."

For most people, the new coronavirus causes mild or moderate symptoms, such as fever and cough that clear up in two to three weeks. For some, especially older adults and people with existing health problems, it can cause more severe illness, including pneumonia, and death.

For many infections, antibody levels above a certain threshold indicate that the person's immune system has successfully fought off the virus and is likely protected from reinfection. For COVID-19, it's not yet clear what level of antibodies render patients immune or how long immunity might last.

Adding to the confusion is the fact that both legitimate companies and fraudulent operators appear to be selling the kits. Distinguishing between the two can be a challenge.

Officials in Laredo, Texas, reported this month that some 2,500 antibody tests set for use at a local drive-thru testing site were likely frauds. City officials had ordered what they were told were "FDA-approved COVID-19 rapid tests," from a local clinic. But when they checked the test's accuracy, it fell well below the range promised, the city said in a statement.

Examples of U.S. companies skirting the rules appear online and in emails sent to hospitals.

Promotional emails sent to hospitals and reviewed by The Associated Press failed to include required disclaimers. Some kits sold on websites promote themselves as "FDA-approved" for home testing. The agency has not yet approved any COVID-19 home test. The blood tests have to processed by a lab.

"If you see them on the internet, do not buy them until we can give you a test that's reliable for all Americans," said Dr. Deborah Birx, coordinator of the White House coronavirus task force, at a recent briefing.

20/20 BioResponse is one of dozens of U.S. companies selling the tests to hospitals, clinics and doctor's offices. The Rockville, Maryland-based company imports the tests from a Chinese manufacturer but CEO Jonathan Cohen says his company independently confirmed its performance in 60 U.S. patients. He estimates the company has shipped 10,000 tests and has had to limit orders due to demand.

He said antibody tests are not a "panacea but they're not garbage either."

Cohen called them "a tool in the toolbox that will have some value along with other tests."

The company's test is registered on the FDA website and includes all the required disclaimers.

To date, the FDA has only authorized one COVID-19 antibody test from North Carolina diagnostics company Cellex. The agency used its emergency powers, meaning a formal review is still needed.

The White House has also tried to temper expectations for the tests, while still promising that millions will soon be available.

Dr. Brett Giroir, the federal health official overseeing U.S. testing, told reporters a week ago that the FDA and other agencies are working to confirm the accuracy of the antibody tests.

"We're going to be very careful to make sure that when we tell you you're likely immune from the disease ... the test really said that," Giroir said.

Nursing home deaths soar past 3,300 in alarming surge

BERNARD CONDON and RANDY HERSCHAFT

Associated Press

NEW YORK (AP) - More than 3,300 deaths nationwide have been linked to coronavirus outbreaks in nursing homes and long-term care facilities, an alarming rise in just the past two weeks, according to the latest count by The Associated Press.

Because the federal government has not been releasing a count of its own, the AP has kept its own running tally based on media reports and state health departments. The latest count of at least 3,321 deaths is up from about 450 deaths just 10 days ago.

But the true toll among the 1 million mostly frail and elderly people who live in such facilities is likely much higher, experts say, because most state counts don't include those who died without ever being tested for COVID-19.

Outbreaks in just the past few weeks have included one at a nursing home in suburban Richmond that has killed 40 and infected more than 100, another at nursing home in central Indiana that has killed 24 and infected 16, and one at a veteran's home in Holyoke, Mass., that has killed 37, infected 76 and prompted a federal investigation. This comes weeks after an outbreak at a nursing home in the Seattle suburb of Kirkland that has so far claimed 43 lives.

And those are just the outbreaks we know about. Most states provide only total numbers of nursing home deaths and don't give details of specific outbreaks. Notable among them is the nation's leader, New York, which accounts for 1,880 nursing home deaths out of about 96,000 total residents but has so far declined to detail specific outbreaks, citing privacy concerns.

Experts say nursing home deaths may keep climbing because of chronic staffing shortages that have been made worse by the coronavirus crisis, a shortage of protective supplies and a continued lack of available testing.

And the deaths have skyrocketed despite steps taken by the federal government in mid-March to bar visitors, cease all group activities, and require that every worker be screened for fever or respiratory symptoms at every shift.

But an AP report earlier this month found that infections were continuing to find their way into nursing homes because such screenings didn't catch people who were infected but asymptomatic. Several large outbreaks were blamed on such spreaders, including infected health workers who worked at several different nursing home facilities.

This past week, the federal Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services that regulates nursing homes issued recommendations urging nursing homes to use separate staffing teams for residents, and to designate separate facilities within nursing homes to keep COVID-19 positive residents away from those who have tested negative.

Dr. Deborah Birx, who leads the White House coronavirus response, suggested this past week that as more COVID-19 tests become available, nursing homes should be a top priority.

"We need to really ensure that nursing homes have sentinel surveillance. And what do I mean by that? That we're actively testing in nursing homes, both the residents and the workers, at all times," Birx said.

 

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