The Latest on the coronavirus pandemic around the U.S. and the world. 

The Treasury Department has ordered that President Trump’s name be printed on stimulus checks the Internal Revenue Service is rushing to send to tens of millions of Americans, a process that is expected to slow their delivery by several days, senior agency officials said.

The unprecedented decision, finalized late Monday, means that when recipients open the $1,200 paper checks the IRS is scheduled to begin sending to 70 million Americans in coming days, “President Donald J. Trump” will appear on the left side of the payment. It will be the first time a president’s signature appears on an IRS disbursement.

While some people receiving the checks – the centerpiece of the U.S. government’s economic relief package to stave of the effects of the coronavirus pandemic – may not care, or observe, whose name appears on them, the decision is another sign of Trump’s effort to cast his response to the pandemic in political terms.

Trump had privately suggested to Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin, who oversees the IRS, to allow the president to formally sign the checks, according to three administration officials who asked not to be named because they were not authorized to speak publicly.

But the president is not an authorized signer for legal disbursements by the U.S. Treasury. It is standard practice for a civil servant to sign checks issued by the Treasury Department to ensure that government payments are nonpartisan.

Read the full story about the stimulus checks here.

Trump stops funding to World Health Organization

President Trump announced Tuesday that he instructed his administration to stop funding the World Health Organization until a review is completed on what he calls a mismanagement of the pandemic.

The WHO has been criticized for its slow response in the early days of the outbreak in Wuhan, but by Jan. 30, the organization declared a global health emergency, after which the president continued to downplay the outbreak and compare it to the flu.

The hold on funding was expected this week as the Trump administration and conservative allies ramped up their criticism that the United Nations agency catered to China early in the outbreak and jeopardized global health.

Trump’s main criticism of the WHO is that it didn’t support his decision to place travel restrictions on people coming from China. Trump also accused the WHO of not doing more in China to understand and contain the virus and then taking too long to share information about how bad the coronavirus could be.

Trump said, for now, the funding allocated for WHO will be redistributed to other global health organizations.

Read the full story on World Health Organization funding here.

Stimulus checks are arriving, and people are mostly spending them on food

The U.S. government has started sending $1,200 checks to Americans to help ease the financial pain caused by shutting down the economy to fight the deadly coronavirus. By Wednesday, 80 million people are expected to receive a direct deposit in their bank account, Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin said.

The checks are the centerpiece of the U.S. government’s economic relief package, and many Americans have taken to social media to celebrate the arrival of the money by posting photos of the money hitting their bank account. Singles earning up to $75,000 a year receive a payment of $1,200. Married couples earning up to $150,000 a year receive a payment of $2,400. Parents receive an additional $500 for each child under 17.

Early evidence indicates Americans are using the money to buy the basics, including food and gas. Netspend, which processed nearly $1 billion in relief payments by Monday, said its customers are using the government money “for groceries, fast food, pharmacies and gas, as well as withdrawing cash from ATMs.” More than half of the transactions were PIN-based at AMTs or grocery stores, and about a quarter were done online.

Daniel Ruffner received his payment Friday night on his Netspend prepaid debit card. It was a huge relief since he’s out of work. He is a cook at a little restaurant that’s currently closed at a popular upstate New York campsite. He used some of the $1,200 money to buy groceries and pay the heating and internet bills. The rest is going toward rent.

“I’ve just been stocking up on food and paying all of the bills. It’s nice to finally be able to see my bills go to zero,” said Ruffner, who lives in Rochester and takes care of his mother and son.

Some Americans like Camilla Chavez of Delaware say their check is “pending” in their bank account. Chavez banks with a credit union and saw the pending notice on Sunday. Although the government sent the money out Friday, many banks needed three business days to process the checks, which is why millions of Americans will have the money available in their bank account on Wednesday.

About 125 million Americans are expected to receive the one-time payment. The first wave of recipients includes mainly people who filed a 2018 or 2019 tax return and gave the Internal Revenue Service (IRS) their direct deposit information.

The IRS plans to have a “Get My Payment” website running by the end of the week where people can check the status of their payment if they have not received it and input their direction deposit information. Seniors and disabled Americans on Social Security will automatically receive the checks in the coming weeks. Other low-income Americans who do not normally file a tax return need to input their basic information on a new website the IRS set up. It will take time for the IRS to send people checks in the mail who do not have their direct deposit info on file with the government.

Read the full story about the stimulus checks here.

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The USNS Mercy hospital ship enters the Port of Los Angeles on March 27. The number of COVID-19 cases among crewmembers of the Mercy has risen to seven while it is docked in the Port of Los Angeles to help serve the region’s patients who have not been stricken by the coronavirus. Mark J. Terrill/Associated Press

Navy removes 126 staffers from hospital ship after virus infects 7

LOS ANGELES — The Navy has removed 126 medical staff members from its hospital ship docked off Los Angeles after seven of them tested positive for COVID-19, an official said Tuesday.

The personnel from the USNS Mercy were taken to a nearby base and remain under quarantine. None so far has needed hospitalization, said Lt. Rochelle Rieger of the 3rd Fleet.

It’s unclear where or how the sailors became infected, Rieger said.

The ship left San Diego on March 23 when all were screened before they boarded, Rieger said. It arrived to Los Angeles four days later to provide relief to the city amid the pandemic by accepting patients from hospitals who were not infected with the virus.

None of the more than 1,000 personnel aboard were allowed to leave the ship once it departed San Diego.

“The only people going on and off the ship are the actual patients we’ve been treating so it’s very hard to trace where this came from,” Rieger said.

The first case emerged last week as the ship was preparing to receive elderly patients from skilled nursing facilities in Los Angeles to protect them from being exposed to the virus.

So far the ship, with 1,000 beds, has taken in only 20 patients from hospitals and none has tested positive for the coronavirus or showed any symptoms of the illness, Rieger said. Two medical personnel from the ship who tested positive came in close contact with a small number of the patients but they were wearing full protective gear, including gloves, N95 masks and eye goggles.

The removal of the 126 sailors will not affect the ship’s ability to treat patients, Rieger said.

The Navy is also planning to send some of its staff who have been screened and completed a 14-day self-quarantine period to work at Los Angeles medical facilities at some point but that had not happened yet, Rieger said.

Read more about the outbreak aboard the USNS Mercy here.

Small cities, counties fear losing out on U.S. virus rescue funding 

WASHINGTON — The $2.2 trillion federal rescue package could fail to deliver badly needed financial aid to thousands of smaller cities and counties where a majority of Americans live, according to documents and interviews with local officials.

The coronavirus outbreak has blown holes in the budgets of communities as the costs of battling it skyrocket and critical sources of revenue like sales and income taxes plummet.

The Coronavirus Relief Fund uses a formula based on population to parcel out tens of billions of dollars to the states while allowing cities and counties with more than 500,000 residents to apply directly to the Treasury Department for cash infusions. But localities below that population threshold are in limbo.

Among those affected: New Rochelle, New York, one of the cities hardest hit by the outbreak.

“I cannot understand the logic,” said Noam Bramson, the Democratic mayor of the city of about 80,000 people. “Cities with fewer than 500,000 people have been just as heavily impacted as those with more than 500,000 people. It strikes me as a completely arbitrary cutoff.”

The National League of Cities and the U.S. Conference of Mayors on Tuesday released a survey of more than 2,400 local officials that found 88% of them “anticipate the pandemic will lead to painful reductions in revenue this year” that will likely result in cuts to services, worker furloughs and layoffs. The groups said the outlook is ”particularly acute” for cities, towns and villages under the threshold.

The two advocacy groups and lawmakers have been urging Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin to ensure the relief fund money is fairly distributed. Guidelines for how the relief fund will operate are to be issued by the Treasury Department this week. The department created a web portal through which eligible parties could register to receive the money.

“Because of the lack of specificity in the legislation itself, it really is up for interpretation,” said Irma Esparza Diggs, director of federal advocacy for the National League of Cities. “Everybody’s just kind of holding their breath until Treasury comes out with their guidance.”

Of the nearly 3,100 counties in the United States, 130 have populations of more than 500,000, according to the National Association of Counties. There are 36 cities over the half-million mark, the National League of Cities told President Trump in a letter last week. More than half the population lives in cities, towns and villages of fewer than 50,000 people, the letter noted.

Detained immigrants plead for masks, protection from virus

HOUSTON  — Elsy was on the phone in an immigration detention center when guards showed up with face masks and forms to sign.

The asylum-seeker from El Salvador and others had resorted to tearing their T-shirts into face coverings after a woman in their unit tested positive for COVID-19. But the guards would not give out the masks until the detainees signed the forms, which said they could not hold the private prison company running the detention center in San Diego liable if they got the coronavirus, according to Elsy and two other detainees, including one who read the form to The Associated Press over the phone.

When they refused Friday, the guards took away the masks, said Elsy, who spoke on condition that her last name be withheld for fear of retribution.

While U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement has started to lower the number of detainees to reduce the risk of people getting sick, those held in immigration jails and their advocates say there’s not enough protective gear, cleaning supplies or space to allow for social distancing. They fear the number of coronavirus cases will sharply rise in the coming weeks as it has in jails and prisons nationwide.

The Otay Mesa Detention Center, where Elsy is held, jumped from one confirmed case last week to 12. There are 72 detainees in 12 states who tested positive and hundreds of others under quarantine.

Detainees in at least four states say they have been denied masks, even as the White House has urged face coverings in public.

While jails and prisons are releasing some non-violent offenders, ICE says it has freed 160 people so far and instructed field offices to review the cases of people over 60 or those with certain medical conditions.

The number of people in ICE detention now totals 33,800, down from about 37,000 a few weeks ago. Though the Trump administration has effectively shut down new asylum claims during the pandemic, it’s still holding people who were apprehended months or years earlier for civil violations, including over 5,800 people who passed government asylum screenings.

Opponents argue that ICE could release thousands of people who aren’t accused of a crime, have cleared asylum screenings or won their cases but are being detained while the government appeals.

Read the full story here.

Tax change in virus package overwhelmingly benefits millionaires, Congressional body finds

More than 80% of the benefits of a tax change tucked into the coronavirus relief package passed by Congress last month will go to those who earn more than $1 million annually, according to a report by a nonpartisan congressional body expected to be released on Tuesday.

The provision, inserted into the law by Senate Republicans, temporarily suspends a limitation on how much owners of businesses formed as “pass-through” entities can deduct in taxes from losses on other business income. The limitation was created as part of the 2017 Republican tax law to offset other tax cuts to firms in that legislation.

Suspending the limitation will cost taxpayers about $90 billion in 2020 alone, part of a set of tax changes that will add close to $170 billion over the next 10 years, according to the Joint Committee on Taxation, the nonpartisan congressional body.

The provision has fueled criticisms by congressional Democrats and some tax experts who have called it a giveaway to the wealthy and real estate investors, who frequently face large losses on their investments. Conservatives have said enacting the limitation was a mistake in the 2017 law and that suspending it gives badly needed liquidity during the economic downturn caused by the coronavirus by reducing their tax obligations.

An analysis by the Joint Committee on Taxation, a nonpartisan congressional entity, found suspending the limit overwhelmingly benefits higher-earners. About 82% of the benefits of the policy go to roughly 43,000 taxpayers who earn more than $1 million annually. Less than 3% of the benefits go to Americans earning less than $100,000 a year, the JCT analysis found. The JCT analysis included the impact of another tax change in the coronavirus legislation that allowing firms to write off 100% rather than 80% of their losses, reversing another change in the 2017 tax law.

“It’s a scandal for Republicans to loot American taxpayers in the midst of an economic and human tragedy,” said Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse, D-R.I., who requested the JCT analysis, in a statement. “Congress should repeal this rotten, un-American giveaway and use the revenue to help workers battling through this crisis.”

Read the full story here.

Leader of Sinn Fein party recovers from virus

LONDON — The leader of Ireland’s left-wing nationalist Sinn Fein party has revealed that she has recovered after suffering from COVID-19.

Mary Lou McDonald is the first woman to lead the party and the first Sinn Fein leader with no direct connection to Ireland’s period of violence known as the Troubles.

McDonald expressed her thanks to medical staff saying, “my thoughts and solidarity are with everyone who is sick at this time.’’ She plans to return to work next week.

McDonald is credited with leading Sinn Fein to an election result of the Irish Republican Army-linked party, taking the largest share of votes in the last election. The left-wing nationalist party beat both Fianna Fail and Fine Gael, the centrist parties that have governed Ireland since it won independence from Britain a century ago.

Putin calls for joint response to outbreak

MOSCOW — Russian President Vladimir Putin is calling for action to shore up the Moscow-led economic alliance of ex-Soviet nations amid the coronavirus pandemic.

Speaking in a conference call Tuesday with leaders of four other nations, which are part of the Eurasian Economic Union, Putin called for a joint response to the outbreak. He says sanitary measures mustn’t result in rupturing economic links and freezing trade between the member nations.

The Eurasian Economic Union includes Russia, Kazakhstan, Belarus, Kyrgyzstan and Armenia. The Russian leader says the grouping has taken coordinated steps to bar the exports of essential medical supplies. He proposed to slash tariffs to encourage trade and take additional steps to help the industries hurt by the pandemic.

Death toll rises to 46 in Bangladesh

DHAKA, Bangladesh — The death toll from coronavirus in Bangladesh rose to 46, with the authorities confirming seven more deaths in the last day.

Officials say another 209 cases of infection have tested positive during the period. Bangladesh confirmed 1,012 cases positive since the first case of infection was reported on March 8 amid haphazard preparation for tackling the spread of the virus.

Nasima Sultana, an additional director general of the Health Services department, says the government was still expanding testing facilities.

Experts say community transmission has taken place in the South Asian nation of 160 million people. About 10 million Bangladeshis live abroad for work. In February and March, thousands of people returned from Italy, but they didn’t follow safety guidelines.

Bangladesh remains under a nationwide lockdown until April 25.

Drug makers team up to work on vaccine

London — Two of the world’s biggest drug companies — Sanofi Pasteur and GSK — are combining forces to hopefully speed development of a vaccine for COVID-19.

The pharmaceutical giants say the experimental shot would be based on Sanofi’s flu vaccine and combine a booster from GSK that could help stretch doses of the vaccine further.

GSK CEO Emma Walmsley says they believe by combining the two companies’ scientific expertise and technology, they could accelerate efforts to develop an effective COVID-19 vaccine.

There are dozens of efforts already under way elsewhere. Most experts predict it will take at least 12 to 18 months for a new vaccine to be produced.

Sanofi and GSK aim to start early clinical trials later this year and hope regulatory approval might be possible later next year.

Germany will continue to ramp up testing

BERLIN — The head of Germany’s disease control center says the country will keep ramping up its coronavirus testing.

According to the government, German labs can currently conduct at least 100,000 tests per day — almost twice as many as are actually carried out.

Lothar Wieler, of the Robert Koch Institute, says there are plans to start regular testing of staff in care homes that will require higher test capacities.

He also says the first reliable tests for SARS-CoV-2 antibodies are beginning to appear on the market and more are being evaluated.

Wieler cautioned it’s still unclear whether antibodies detected by these so-called ELISA tests indicate immunity or just that someone has survived an infection.

Some Italian stores re-open with strict distancing requirements

ROME — In Italy, bookstores, stationary stores and shops selling baby clothes and supplies were allowed to open nationwide on Tuesday, provided they could maintain the same social-distancing and sanitary measures required in supermarkets.

But there was no coherency to the openings, with some regional governors and individual shop owners still deciding to keep their doors shut for now.

Hard-hit Lombardy and Piemonte kept their bookshops and stationary shops closed, while central Lazio postponed any opening for another week to allow stores to put in place sanitary measures to protect both staff and shoppers alike. Veneto was allowing them to open two days a week under a gradual loosening that the governor termed “lockdown light.”

Another segment of workers allowed back on the job Tuesday were forestry workers, to clear dead trees ahead of the warming weather that brings with it forest fire season.

While the list of commercial activities allowed to reopen seemed random, officials offered the explanation that students needed to restock up on school supplies, new parents needed to outfit their growing babies. And Italian Culture Minister Dario Franceschini argued that books were an “essential good” for Italians cooped up at home.

“The same distancing and security measures as supermarkets will be required, but they’ll reopen,” Franceschini tweeted. “It’s not a symbolic gesture, but the recognition that even books are an essential good.”

Spain’s death toll now tops 18,000

MADRID — Spain’s recorded coronavirus death toll is now over 18,000 after 567 more people succumbed to COVID-19 in the past 24 hours, a number slightly higher than Monday’s but below most daily increases in the past two weeks.

Confirmed infections are now roughly 172,500 after Spain’s Health Ministry reported 3,045 new positive cases on Tuesday, a 1.8% day-to-day increase.

The figures defy the common fear that a backlog of unreported infections over the Easter holidays could have reverted the recent trend of the slowdown in the spread of the epidemic.

The real situation could be different because Spain has not begun widespread testing and because the government itself acknowledges that coronavirus-related fatalities are not being efficiently recorded.

A study by Spain’s main epidemiology institute on the excess mortality compared to the average in over a decade shows that there were some 1,500 more “unexpected” deaths between March 17 and April 11 than those officially attributed to the coronavirus.

Germany’s disease control urges information exchange

BERLIN — The head of the Robert Koch Institute, Germany’s disease control center, said exchange of information between countries and institutions is key to combating the coronavirus outbreak.

Lothar Wieler said Tuesday that his organization is in constant contact with others to share best practices, including which measures are effective in preventing the virus from spreading, how to test for infection, which vaccine studies to fund and how to protect vulnerable populations.

Wieler said he personally had phone conversations over the Easter weekend with British government officials and the mayor of Ukraine’s capital Kyiv, formerly known as Kiev.

Germany has been more successful than many other nations in tackling the pandemic, with far fewer deaths than most large European countries despite having a bigger population.

According to figures compiled by Johns Hopkins University, Germany had just over 130,000 confirmed cases of COVID-19 and 3,193 deaths.

Wieler said “confidence-building measures” such as taking in patients from other countries were also important. Germany is treating dozens of severely ill patients from Italy, France and the Netherlands, which all have higher mortality rates.

Indonesia declares outbreak a national disaster

JAKARTA, Indonesia — Indonesia’s president Joko Widodo has declared the new coronavirus outbreak in the world’s fourth most populous country a “non-natural national disaster” in a Presidential Decree which is opening its door for international cooperation and humanitarian assistance.

The decree was issued as the government reported 60 new deaths on Tuesday, the biggest daily fatalities yet, taking the country’s virus death toll to 459, the highest in Asia after China. There have been 282 new cases to bring the total to 4,839 positive tests.

Efforts to mitigate the outbreak are to be led by the COVID-19 National Task Force with the cooperation of regional administrations, ministries and national agencies, according to the decree. Governors, mayors and district chiefs as the leaders of the COVID-19 task force in their respective regions, will have broader authority.

Some regions with a high number of infections have enforced stricter social restrictions, following the country’s capital Jakarta, which has become the epicenter of the outbreak, recording 2,335 cases with 241 deaths.

Australia hammers WHO support for re-opening wet markets

CANBERRA, Australia — Australia’s prime minister has described as “unfathomable” the World Health Organization’s support for the reopening of wet markets in the Chinese city at the epicenter of the coronavirus pandemic.

The United Nations agency is supporting the reopening stalls at wet markets in China’s central city of Wuhan as it lifts a monthslong lockdown against COVID-19.

Asked about WHO’s position, Prime Minister Scott Morrison told Nine Network television on Tuesday: “I think that’s unfathomable, frankly.

“We need to protect the world against potential sources of outbreaks of these types of viruses. It’s happened too many times. I’m totally puzzled by this decision,” Morrison said.

Australian Health Minister Greg Hunt said he was unsettled by China’s reopening of the wet markets.

“There is a very real likelihood that this disease arose from a wet market in Wuhan — it’s clear that these are dangerous vectors,” Hunt told Australian Broadcasting Corp.

WHO said in a statement wet markets should not be allowed to sell illegal wildlife for food and authorities should enforce food safety and hygiene regulations.

“COVID-19 has reminded us of the need to ensure that our food markets are well managed and regulated and provide an environment where people can safely trade and buy safe food products being it live, raw or processed,” the statement said.

“Wet markets and other food markets do not need to be closed down,” WHO added.

Figures show hundreds more have died in Britain than reported

LONDON — New figures show that hundreds more people with COVID-19 have died in Britain than have been recorded in the government’s daily tally.

The Office for National Statistics says 5,979 deaths that occurred in England up to April 3 involved COVID-19, 15% more than the 5,186 deaths announced by the National Health Service for the same period.

The daily total released by the U.K. government only includes people who died in hospitals. The higher figure includes deaths in all settings including nursing homes, and cases where coronavirus was suspected but not tested for.

The U.K. statistics office says that so far just under 10% of deaths involving COVID-19 occurred outside hospitals.

Read the rest of this story here.

 


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