The latest on the coronavirus pandemic.

WASHINGTON — Several U.S. diplomats living in State Department-provided housing in the Washington area have expressed alarm about the department’s lack of communication concerning a colleague who has contracted the novel coronavirus and lives in their apartment complex, according to emails and interviews obtained by The Washington Post.

Some of the Foreign Service officers and their families have left the building because of the absence of medical guidance, while others have raised concerns about whether the department is taking the problem seriously, given the international nature of their work.

“They were furious that State gave zero guidance after promising it,” said one U.S. official, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss internal State Department matters.

As of Friday, 340 State Department employees had contracted the virus, with 55 cases domestically and 285 abroad, William Walters, the State Department’s Deputy Chief Medical Officer for Operations, told reporters. Four employees have died of the disease.

Read the full story about U.S. diplomats’ concerns here.

U.S. virus deaths reach highest daily tally to date

New coronavirus deaths in the United States surpassed 2,000 on Friday, the highest daily tally to date, The Washington Post reported.

The total confirmed dead from the virus in the U.S. is now 18,545, putting it on the heels of Italy, which at 18,849 has experienced more deaths than any nation.

At least 2,056 people died of complications related to COVID-19 in the 50 states and District of Columbia, up from totals of 1,878, 1,936 and 1,879 the three days prior.

White House points to hopeful signs as deaths keep rising

WASHINGTON — At the end of a week officials had warned would be this generation’s Pearl Harbor, White House officials pointed to hopeful signs Friday that the spread of the coronavirus could be slowing, even as President Trump insisted he would not move to reopen the country until it is safe.

At the same time, Trump said he would be announcing the launch of what he dubbed the “Opening our Country” task force next Tuesday to work toward that goal.

“I want to get it open as soon as possible,” he said at a Good Friday briefing, while adding: “The facts are going to determine what I do.”

With the economy reeling and job losses soaring, Trump has been itching to reopen the country, drawing alarm from health experts who warn that doing so too quickly could spark a deadly resurgence that could undermine current distancing efforts.

But Trump, who had once set Easter Sunday as the date he hoped people in certain parts of the country might begin to return to work and pack church pews, said he would continue to listen to health experts like Drs. Anthony Fauci and Deborah Birx as he considers what he described as the “biggest decision I’ve ever had to make.”

Read the full story on the president’s briefing here.

Apple, Google to harness phones for virus infection tracking

Apple and Google have launched a major joint effort to leverage smartphone technology to contain the COVID-19 pandemic.

New software the companies plan to add to phones would make it easier to use Bluetooth wireless technology to track down people who may have been infected by coronavirus carriers. The idea is to help national or regional governments roll out apps for so-called “contact tracing” that will run on iPhones and Android phones alike.

The technology works by harnessing short-range Bluetooth signals. Using the Apple-Google technology, contact-tracing apps would gather a record of other phones with which they came into close proximity. Such data can be used to alert others who might have been infected by known carriers of the novel coronavirus, although only in cases where the phones’ owners have installed the apps and agreed to share data with public-health authorities.

Software developers have already created such apps in countries including Singapore and China to try to contain the pandemic. In Europe, the Czech Republic says it will release such an app after Easter. Britain, Germany and Italy are also developing their own tracing tools.

Privacy and civil liberties activists have warned that such apps need to be designed so governments cannot abuse them to track their citizens. Apple and Google said in a rare joint announcement that user privacy and security are baked into the design of their plan.

The technology might serve as a stopgap in the absence of widespread testing for the novel coronavirus, which in the U.S. remains limited after production problems and limited federal coordination of the tests’ production and distribution.

Read more about the smartphone tracking plan here.

World virus deaths pass 100,000, with New York hit hard

NEW YORK — The worldwide death toll from the coronavirus surged past 100,000 on Friday as the epidemic in the U.S. cut a widening swath through not just New York City but the entire three-state metropolitan area of 20 million people connected by a tangle of subways, trains and buses.

In the bedroom communities across the Hudson River in New Jersey, to the east on Long Island, and north to Connecticut, officials were recording some of the worst outbreaks in the country, even as public health authorities expressed optimism that the pace of infections appeared to be slowing.

As of Friday, the New York metropolitan area accounted for more than half the nation’s 18,000 or so deaths, with other hot spots in places such as Detroit, Louisiana and Washington, D.C.

“Once it gets into the city, there are so many commuters and travel, it gets everywhere,” said Matt Mazewski, a Columbia University economics student who tried to get away from the epicenter by leaving his apartment near the New York City campus for his parents’ house in Long Valley, New Jersey.

Worldwide, the number of deaths hit another sad milestone, as tallied by Johns Hopkins University, while confirmed infections reached about 1.7 million.

The U.S. is on track any day now to overtake Italy as the country with the highest number of dead, though the true figures on infections and lives lost around the world are believed be much higher because of limited testing, government cover-ups and different counting practices.

Read the full story here.

Labor secretary faces criticism for limiting worker assistance amid unemployment crisis

WASHINGTON — The Labor Department is facing growing criticism over its response to the coronavirus pandemic as the agency plays a central role in ensuring that the tens of millions of workers affected by the crisis get assistance.

The criticism ranges from direct actions that the agency has taken to limit the scope of worker assistance programs to concerns that it has not been aggressive enough about protecting workers from health risks or supporting states scrambling to deliver billions in new aid.

In recent days, Labor Secretary Eugene Scalia, who has expressed concerns about unemployment insurance being too generous, has used his department’s authority over new laws enacted by Congress to limit who qualifies for joblessness assistance and to make it easier for small businesses not to pay family leave benefits. The new rules make it more difficult for gig workers such as Uber and Lyft drivers to get benefits, while making it easier for some companies to avoid paying their workers coronavirus-related sick and family leave.

“The Labor Department chose the narrowest possible definition of who qualifies for pandemic unemployment assistance,” said Andrew Stettner, a senior fellow at the Century Foundation who has spent two decades working on unemployment programs.

At the same time, frustrations have built among career staff at the Labor Department that the agency hasn’t ordered employers to follow safeguards, including the wearing of masks, recommended by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention to protect workers. Two draft guidance documents written by officials at the Occupational Safety and Health Administration, part of the Labor Department, to strengthen protections for health-care workers have also not been advanced, according to two people with knowledge of the regulations granted anonymity to discuss the internal deliberations.

Scalia, a longtime corporate lawyer who is the son of the late Supreme Court justice Antonin Scalia, has emerged as a critical player in the government’s economic response to the pandemic. Nearly 17 million Americans have applied for unemployment insurance since President Donald Trump declared a national emergency on March 13, and states are struggling to get their systems working to deliver $260 billion in new aid approved by Congress.

Democrats and some Republicans argue that the Labor Department needs to be more aggressive about disbursing money and technical assistance to states to shore up the unemployment insurance system. The department has released only half of $1 billion in administrative support for states that Congress approved almost a month ago.

Next week, Americans can give IRS direct deposit info to get stimulus check faster

WASHINGTON — As soon as next week, Americans will be able to provide the Internal Revenue Service with direct deposit information so they can receive their stimulus checks of up to $1,200, Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin told House Democrats in a call Wednesday evening.

Soon after Congress passed the $2 trillion economic stimulus bill last month, the IRS said it was working on an online portal that would allow taxpayers, once verified, to find out the status of their checks and, if necessary, to provide their banking information for direct deposit. Initially, it wasn’t expected to be done until the end of April.

The payouts of up to $1,200 can be deposited directly within days once the IRS receives the needed bank information, Mnuchin has said.

Mnuchin spoke to House Democratic Caucus members in a closed conference call Wednesday. Democrats on the House Ways and Means Committee also said the portal could be available the week of April 13 in a memo obtained by the Los Angeles Times.

The Treasury Department would not confirm the April 13 timeline Thursday.

According to the committee memo, the Treasury Department and the IRS initially estimated there would be 171 million rebate payments made through the economic stimulus bill and 101 million of these payments would have to be paid by paper check unless the IRS received direct deposit information for these payments before a paper check was mailed.

For those who already have direct deposit information on file with the IRS from their 2018 or 2019 return, the payments are expected to begin next week.

Read the full story here.

Access the IRS’s online portal here.

Federal government to release $30 billion for health care system

WASHINGTON — The federal Health and Human Services department says it’s releasing the first $30 billion in grants provided by the stimulus bill to help keep the U.S. health care system operating during the coronavirus outbreak.

Congress provided $100 billion for the health care system in the $2 trillion stimulus bill.

Officials say the relief funds will go to hospitals and doctors through Medicare and will be based on their billings to the program last year. Hospitals are supposed to use some of the money to cover COVID-19 treatment for the uninsured, although an independent study earlier this week suggests it may not be enough.

Italian authorities mobilize to prevent people from traveling for Easter

ROME – Italian authorities are using helicopters, drones and stepped-up police checks to make sure Italians don’t slip out of their homes for the Easter holiday weekend.

Millions of Italians normally head to second homes by the sea, in the mountains or countryside, especially since Monday is an official holiday.

With remote classes for millions of school children suspended for the long weekend, police on Thursday stopped some 300,000 motorists or pedestrians nationwide to demand proof they can be on highways or local streets.

The interior ministry say 10,000 summonses were issued on Thursday. In Lombardy, the northern region with the most cases of COVID-19 and deaths in Italy, Deputy Gov. Fabrizio Sala, says traffic had nudged up since the same time a week ago. That means tens of thousands of more people were on the move.

U.S. international aid groups sending help home

In Santa Barbara, forklifts chug through the warehouse of Direct Relief, hustling pallets of much-needed medical supplies into waiting FedEx trucks. Normally those gloves, masks and medicines would go to desperately poor clinics in Haiti or Sudan, but now they’re racing off to Stanford Hospital in Palo Alto, California and the Robert Wood Johnson Hospitals in New Jersey.

Direct Relief is just one of several U.S. charities that traditionally operate in countries stricken by war and natural disaster that are now sending humanitarian aid to some of the wealthiest communities in America to help manage the coronavirus pandemic.

“We are responding to the greatest unmet needs,” said Direct Relief CEO Thomas Tighe.

He is organizing flights of supplies directly from the group’s own manufacturers in China to the Santa Barbara warehouse, and also coordinating shipments from other producers around the world. After spending two decades providing relief to disaster zones, Tighe exudes a calm in the midst of this emergency.

The medical charity Doctors Without Borders spent months fighting coronavirus around the world and is now trying to save lives just down the street from their New York offices. The group is supporting soup kitchens, setting up hand-washing stations, and training local officials how to prevent the spread of infection. Samaritan’s Purse International erected a 14-tent field hospital with an ICU in Central Park.

That international aid groups are supporting the U.S. healthcare system shows how dire the need is domestically, and how inadequate the federal response has been.

“We now see nonprofits that traditionally help weak governments coming in to substitute for our national government,” said Evelyn Brodkin, political scientist and professor emerita at the University of Chicago. “We’re lucky they’re here. But it tells you something about the abdication of the federal role in this crisis.”

U.S. blunders related to testing have hindered efforts to contain the virus’ spread, and the government was late to respond to critical shortages as imports of medical supplies plummeted.

“Clearly, we have been caught flat-footed,” said Dr. Ashish Jha, director of Harvard University’s Global Health Institute. “The fact that resources from these organizations are coming to the U.S. is, on one hand, helpful to Americans, but pathetic in terms of what it says about American responsiveness.”

President Donald Trump, by contrast, has said the administration has done a “really good job” responding to the outbreak.

CDC extends no-sail order for cruise ships until pandemic is declared over

MIAMI — Citing continued COVID-19 infections and deaths on cruise ships, federal health authorities are halting cruise operations in U.S. waters until the COVID-19 pandemic is over and requiring the industry to implement a plan to immediately mitigate outbreaks on ships.

In a new “no-sail” order issued late Thursday, the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention said the industry has not done a sufficient job to stop the spread of COVID-19 on its ships and is relying too much on U.S. resources to treat ill passengers and crew.

The “no-sail” order will remain in effect for at least 100 days or until the Department of Health and Human Services lifts its COVID-19 public health emergency declaration.

The industry must submit its plan to tackle ongoing outbreaks to the CDC and U.S. Coast Guard and implement it by April 16.

“As operators of non-U.S. flagged vessels sailing in international waters, it is imperative that the cruise line industry and cruise lines themselves take responsibility for the care of their crew and do not further tax limited U.S. resources during a public health emergency,” the order said.

Although no passengers have boarded cruise ships since the industry halted operations on March 13, there are still around 100 ships off the U.S. coasts with nearly 80,000 crew onboard waiting for the pandemic to pass to resume cruising.

Six cruise ships are still at sea with passengers on board, trying to find a place to dock, and four ships that have passengers on them are in ports still trying to disembark people, according to Cruise Line International Association, the industry’s lobbying group.

Thursday’s CDC order requires cruise companies to explain how they will sanitize ships, report the number of COVID-19 cases daily, test for COVID-19, staff ships with enough doctors and equipment to prevent the need to transfer people to land hospitals, privately transport critically ill people and repatriate non-essential workers.

The CDC also asks the cruise companies to use their own ships to assist ones that have outbreaks by treating some as “hospital ships” for the infected, “quarantine ships” for the exposed, and “residential ships” for workers treating the sick.

Read the full story.

The virus will decide when to reopen the country, Fauci says

Ultimately, when the United States returns to some semblance of normalcy, it will not be up to the president or a board of governors, but an unelected band of genetic material that is barely alive.

“The virus kind of decides whether or not it’s going to be appropriate to open,” Anthony S. Fauci said Friday on CNN when asked whether President Trump’s desire to restart the country and the economy by May 1 is feasible.

It is an old war saying — the enemy gets a vote — that has driven the nation’s top infectious-diseases expert to deliver tempered recommendations and projections based on the behavior of the coronavirus, which is braided with how well Americans practice physical distancing and isolation.

Good Friday ceremony to be held at Notre Dame

PARIS — Although still damaged and scarred by fire, Notre Dame Cathedral is — if only for an instant — coming back to life as a center for prayer in a Paris locked down against the coronavirus.

Just days before the first anniversary of the April 15, 2019, inferno that ravaged the beloved Paris landmark, the French capital’s archbishop is leading Good Friday celebrations unlike any others that have gone before inside the centuries-old jewel of Gothic architecture.

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A masked man walks next to Notre Dame Cathedral, in Paris, on March 18. Associated Press/Francois Mori

 

Archbishop Michel Aupetit will venerate a crown of thorns that survived the flames that brought down the cathedral’s roof and spire and horrified Parisians and believers across the world.

There will be prayers, readings and music during the Friday morning ceremony but no crowd. With the cathedral closed to the public, only a tiny handful of people are taking part. But the proceedings are to be broadcast live.

UK official accused of flouting travel rules

LONDON — A senior British official is being accused of flouting the government’s advice against all but essential travel outside the home.

U.K. media have reported that Housing Secretary Robert Jenrick traveled from London to his house in central England, then made another 40-mile (60-kilometer) journey to visit his parents.

Opposition Labour Party lawmaker Nick Thomas-Symonds said “it’s very important for public confidence that Robert Jenrick explains himself and why exactly that journey was necessary.”

Jenrick said he went to his parents’ house to deliver “essentials — including medicines” to his parents, who are self-isolating. Delivering medicines to vulnerable people is permitted under the U.K. lockdown rules.

Scotland’s Chief Medical Officer Catherine Calderwood was forced to resign earlier this week after traveling to her second home, in violation of her own rules.

Authorities are imploring people not to travel to see relatives or visit second homes over the Easter holiday weekend as Britain sees the number of deaths from COVID-19 continue to rise.

Turkey sends masks to Britain

ANKARA, Turkey — Turkey is sending a planeload of surgical masks, N95 masks and hazmat suits to Britain to help the country battle the coronavirus outbreak.

State-run Anadolu Agency said a military cargo plane carrying the medical supplies took off from an air base near the capital Ankara on Friday.

A second plane carrying more equipment would depart on Saturday, the agency reported.

There was no information on the quantity of the supplies sent.

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Serbian officials unload personal protection equipment donated by Turkey to help the country combat the coronavirus outbreak, in Belgrade, Serbia, on Wednesday. Turkish Defence Ministry via Associated Press

In the past weeks, Turkey has similarly donated medical supplies to Italy, Spain as well as five countries in the Balkans.

The items were sent in boxes displaying the words of 13th century Sufi Poet Jalaluddin Rumi: “There is hope after despair and many suns after darkness.”

Full or partial lockdowns in 20 African countries

ACCRA, Ghana — Some African nations are trying to ease the pain of coronavirus lockdowns even as they extend them.

In Ghana, President Nana Akufo-Addo says the lockdowns in the greater Accra and Ashanti regions have been extended for a week, but he pledges that the government will fully absorb the cost of electricity bills for the “poorest of the poor” and 50% of the cost for all other consumers.

In South Africa, which has announced a two-week lockdown extension, President Cyril Ramaphosa says he and his Cabinet will take a one-third salary cut for the next three months, with the money going to a fund to help vulnerable countrymen.

Full or partial lockdowns in Africa have affected more than 20 countries, severely hurting the livelihoods of millions of informal workers and others.

Malaysia looks to staged reopening of industries

KUALA LUMPUR, Malaysia — Malaysia will extend its lockdown for another two weeks but let selected industries reopen in stages.

Nonessential businesses and schools have been shuttered for a month until April 14 but Prime Minister Muhyiddin Yassin announced Friday the restricted movement order will be extended until April 28. Even though the country has reported a reduction in cases in recent days, he said it was premature to lift the control measures as “the war on COVID-19 is not yet over.”

Malaysia reported 118 new infections on Friday, bringing its total to 4,346, the highest in Southeast Asia.

Muhyiddin said selected economic sectors can reopen in phases but must follow strict hygiene guidelines and movement restrictions.

He warned the lockdown could stretch up to a few months for the government to be entirely sure that the chain of transmission has been broken.


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