The latest news on the pandemic from around the U.S. and the world.

JOHANNESBURG — South Africa says it has a backlog of nearly 100,000 unprocessed tests for the coronavirus, a striking example of the painful shortage of testing kits and reagents across Africa as cases steadily rise.

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A woman walks on the promenade in stormy weather at Sea Point in Cape Town, South Africa, on Friday, With dramatically increased community transmissions, Cape Town has become the center of the coronavirus outbreak in South Africa. Nardus Engelbrecht/Associated Press

“This challenge is caused by the limited availability of test kits globally,” the health ministry said in a statement overnight, putting the backlog at 96,480 as of Monday. Priority is given to processing tests from patients admitted to hospitals and health workers, it said.

South Africa has conducted more tests for the virus than any other country in Africa – more than 655,000 – and has the most confirmed cases with 27,403.

One of the latest to die of COVID-19 in South Africa was a National Health Laboratory Services employee. “We understand this tragedy will certainly test you,” the ministry said in a message to her colleagues, adding that the government is committed to providing proper protective gear.

That, too, faces shortages across Africa. More than 3,400 health workers on the continent had been infected as of a week ago, according to the World Health Organization.

The shortages, especially in testing materials, have jolted African authorities into facing uncomfortable truths: Richer countries are elbowing them out in the race to obtain crucial supplies, and the continent relies almost entirely on imports for drugs and other medical items.

Read the full story about the crisis in South Africa here.

Virus ignited in U.S. no earlier than mid-January, CDC study says

NEW YORK — The spark that started the U.S. coronavirus epidemic arrived during a three-week window from mid-January to early February, before the nation halted travel from China, according to the most comprehensive federal study to date of when the virus began spreading.

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A traveler passes a sign recommending social distancing at the nearly empty JetBlue terminal at Logan International Airport in Boston on Friday. Charles Krupa/Associated Press

That means anyone in the U.S. who thought they had the virus in December or early January probably had the flu, public health researchers said.

Some people have claimed that Americans were getting sick from the coronavirus as early as November and that infections were spreading in the U.S. before any case was identified, said Dr. Robert Redfield, the head of the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

“(This) puts data into the discussion. Prior to this we had discussion without a lot of data,” he said.

In the study released Friday, CDC researchers collaborated with health officials in six states as well as genetics researchers and disease modelers in the Seattle area.

They drew on four kinds of data. One was reported illnesses by hospital emergency departments across the country. Another was a look back at about 11,000 respiratory specimens collected in January and February. A third was a genetic analysis of viruses taken from patients in California, Washington and the Northeast. Finally, autopsy findings from California also fit the theory.

Genetic analysis from early cases suggest a single lineage of virus from China began spreading in the United States between Jan. 18 and Feb. 9.

Read the full story on the arrival of the virus in the U.S. here.

South Korea reports 39 new cases of the coronavirus

SEOUL, South Korea — South Korea reported 39 new cases of the coronavirus, most of them in the densely populated Seoul metropolitan area, where officials have found more than a hundred infections linked to warehouse workers.

Figures from South Korea’s Centers for Disease Control and Prevention on Saturday brought national totals to 11,441 cases and 269 deaths. At least 12 of the new cases were linked to international arrivals.

KCDC director Jeong Eun-kyeong said during a virus briefing Friday afternoon that at least 102 infections have been linked to workers at a massive warehouse operated by Coupang, a local e-commerce giant that has seen orders spike during the epidemic.

Gambling tax revenues down nearly 100 percent compared with a year ago

LAS VEGAS — Bleak numbers show the economic impact of Nevada casino and business closures because of the coronavirus pandemic.

With most businesses and all casinos shuttered through April, state regulators reported Friday that monthly gambling tax revenues were down nearly 100 percent compared with a year ago. Tourism officials tallied fewer than 107,000 visitors to Las Vegas during the month, down 97 percent from a year ago.

Democratic Gov. Steve Sisolak this week lifted closure orders on more businesses and said gambling can resume on June 4. McCarran International Airport in Las Vegas reported handling less than 4 percent of the passengers in April than it did in April 2019.

NCAA offers guidance for bringing athletes back to campus

The NCAA released a long and detailed plan Friday to help schools bring back athletes to campus during a pandemic.

In this Oct. 6, 2018, photo, West Virginia players high-five fans after defeating Kansas 38-22 in an NCAA college football game in Morgantown, W. Va. The NCAA released a long and detailed plan Friday to help schools bring back athletes to campus during a pandemic. Craig Hudson/Associated Press

While schools will need to have testing and surveillance plans in place, the guidance does not recommend testing all athletes upon arrival for COVID-19.

“There’s not a universal, easy fit guidance like that,” said Dr. Brian Hainline, the chief medical officer for the NCAA. “Even when we speak with epidemiologist who are doing mathematical modeling and so forth, we just aren’t there yet.”

The Resocialization of Collegiate Sports: Action Plan Considerations was announced as schools across the country prepare for the return of football players as early as next week. Hainline said the latest guidance was a more granular follow-up to the three-phase recommendations handed down May 1.

The NCAA’s Division I Council voted last week to lift a moratorium on athletic activities starting Monday. That cleared the way for voluntary workouts and training to begin at team facilities.

Schools have already started putting plans in place to test athletes, coaches and staff for coronavirus and implement social distancing. The NCAA says its plan is offered as guidance, consistent with federal and local public health guidelines.

The college football season is scheduled to start around Labor Day weekend, with a few games being played the Saturday before the holiday weekend. There is to be a full slate of games from Sept. 3-7.

Trump to cut World Health Organization ties over virus response

WASHINGTON — President Trump said Friday that the U.S. will be terminating its relationship with the World Health Organization, saying it had failed to adequately respond to the coronavirus because China has “total control” over the global organization.

He said Chinese officials “ignored” their reporting obligations to the WHO and pressured the WHO to mislead the world when the virus was first discovered.

He noted that the U.S. contributes about $450 million to the world body while China provides about $40 million.

The U.S. is the largest source of financial support to the WHO and its exit is expected to significantly weaken the organization. Trump said the U.S. would be “redirecting” the money to “other worldwide and deserving urgent global public health needs,” without providing specifics.

The Trump administration also may soon expel thousands of Chinese graduate students enrolled at U.S. universities and impose other sanctions against Chinese officials in the latest signs of tensions between Washington and Beijing that are raging over trade, the coronavirus pandemic, human rights and the status of Hong Kong.

Administration officials said Trump is considering a months-old proposal to revoke the visas of students affiliated with educational institutions in China linked to the People’s Liberation Army or Chinese intelligence.

Trump is also weighing targeted travel and financial sanctions against Chinese officials for actions in Hong Kong, according to the officials, who were not authorized to discuss the matter publicly and spoke on condition of anonymity.

Read the full story about Trump and the WHO here.

Virus could lead revenue-starved states to approve sports, online betting 

ATLANTIC CITY, N.J. — The coronavirus pandemic could lead to a quicker expansion of sports betting and internet gambling in the U.S. as states deal with huge budget deficits and look for new tax revenue wherever they can find it.

Most major sports remain shut down due to the virus, but European soccer and Asian baseball have begun play, NASCAR is racing again and PGA Tour golf restarts in two weeks. Major U.S. sports leagues including the NBA and NHL are making plans for resuming their seasons.

The virus “will accelerate the expansion of sports betting and online casinos in the next 12 to 24 months,” said Chris Krafcik, a managing director with Eilers & Krejcik Gaming, which tracks sports and internet betting legislation in the U.S. “Both activities provide states, whose economies have been massively disrupted by the outbreak, the opportunity to capture new revenue immediately in the form of upfront license fees, and over time through taxes.”

Sports betting is not a golden goose for states seeking new tax revenue. An Associated Press analysis last year found that taxes on sports betting would generate just a fraction of 1 percent of most states’ budgets if they met their estimates — and many states fell far short of those projections.

But with many state budgets now resembling smoking craters in the ground as tax revenue disappears in a largely idled economy, even a small revenue boost is better than none.

So far, 18 U.S. states plus the District of Columbia offer sports betting, and four offer internet gambling, which can include online casino games, slots and poker.

In addition, Virginia and Tennessee have approved sports betting but have yet to launch. North Carolina allows two tribal casinos to offer it, and is considering a bill to allow it statewide. Washington state allows sports betting at tribal casinos once regulations are in place, and Oklahoma allowed two tribes to do so, pending approval from federal authorities.

Louisiana, Massachusetts and Ohio are realistic candidates to legalize sports betting this year, Krafcik said.

Read the full story on sports betting here.

Canada’s virus hot zone is even deadlier than Chicago’s or LA’s

The city’s death rate has been staggering: higher than those of almost every U.S. state, higher than in greater Chicago, Los Angeles or Toronto.

The place is Montreal, the business and cultural center of Quebec, where the coronavirus pandemic has struck the elderly with unusual savagery. The struggle to contain the outbreak has forced the provincial government to resort to desperate measures.

Montreal’s virus toll — the city accounts for more than half of Canada’s deaths from COVID-19 — is a story of lack of preparation, early mistakes and a bit of bad luck. It has also exposed gaps in how Canada cares for its older citizens, despite a government-funded health care system that is sometimes praised by U.S. progressives as a model.

The city’s elder-care homes are so short of workers that Premier Francois Legault brought in Canadian troops and pleaded for volunteers to assist. That has left it up to people like Nicolas St-Onge to help quell an outbreak that has killed more than 3,800 people in greater Montreal, with dozens more still dying every day.

St-Onge, 25, usually works as a pharmacist. Lately he’s been spending his days feeding, washing and grooming residents of facilities in the suburbs. He isn’t trained for it. His first day involved changing a patient wearing seven layers of diapers.

“It’s a 100% exit out of my comfort zone,” he said in an interview. “But it’s the most gratifying thing I’ve done in my life — we can see our impact on the ground immediately.”

Thursday was typical. The province announced 74 new COVID-19 deaths in the previous day; 70 lived in homes for seniors. Since the pandemic started, four in five fatalities have been residents of retirement and long-term care homes.

Some 90% of Quebec’s virus deaths have occurred in the Montreal region, where almost half of the province’s population lives. Montreal has recorded 762 deaths per million people, nearly three times the rate of Toronto and 50% higher than the greater Chicago area, according to the Montreal Metropolitan Community.

One factor in Quebec’s plight was an ill-timed school break in the first week of March, when international borders were still open. By the middle of March, when many Canadian provinces and U.S. states began lockdown measures, infected travelers returning from the U.S., France or the Caribbean had already been back in Quebec for days.

Read the full story here.

With no notice, White House removes church choir warning from CDC reopening guidance

WASHINGTON – The Trump administration with no advance notice removed warnings contained in guidance for the reopening of houses of worship that singing in choirs can spread the coronavirus.

Last Friday, the administration released pandemic guidance for faith communities after weeks of debate flared between the White House and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Those guidelines posted on the CDC website included recommendations that religious communities “consider suspending or at least decreasing use of choir/musical ensembles and congregant singing, chanting, or reciting during services or other programming, if appropriate within the faith tradition.”

It added: “The act of singing may contribute to transmission of Covid-19, possibly through emission of aerosols.”

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This April 12, 2020, file photo shows choir member Gregory Bloch, standing a distance from his three colleagues, rehearsing before a live streamed Easter service at Saint Mark’s Episcopal Cathedral, in Seattle. Congregational singing is considered essential for many churches. But, in the midst of the coronavirus, religious leaders have received jarring predictions from scientists well-versed in virology as well as vocal practices. AP Photo/Elaine Thompson, File

By Saturday, that version was replaced by updated guidance that no longer includes any reference to choirs or congregant singing and the risk for spreading virus. The altered guidance also deleted a reference to “shared cups” among items, including hymnals and worship rugs, that should not be shared. The updated guidelines also added language that said the guidance “is not intended to infringe on rights protected by the First Amendment.”

Two White House officials said the first version posted by the CDC was not approved by the White House. Once West Wing officials saw it, they asked the CDC to post a different cleared document without the choir references and other parts.

The officials, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to talk about policy discussions, said there have long been concerns within the White House that there were too many restrictions on choirs. A CDC official who spoke on the condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to speak about the guideline change also said the updated Saturday guidance was approved by the White House.

Earlier this month, the CDC issued a report warning about “superspreader” events where the coronavirus might be “highly transmissible in certain settings, including group singing events.” That report described a choir practice in Washington state in March at which one person ended up infecting 52 other people, including two who died.

Read the full story here.

Debate in Congress over $600 in jobless aid heats up as claims rise

WASHINGTON  — A debate in Congress over whether to extend $600 a week in federally provided benefits to the unemployed looks sure to intensify with the number of people receiving the aid now topping 30 million — one in five workers.

The money, included in a government relief package enacted in March, is set to expire July 31. Yet with the unemployment rate widely expected to still be in the mid-teens by then, members of both parties will face pressure to compromise on some form of renewed benefits for the jobless.

Democrats have proposed keeping the $600-a-week payments through January in a $3 trillion relief package that the House approved this month along party lines. Senate Republicans oppose that measure. They have expressed concern that the federal payments — which come on top of whatever unemployment aid a state provides — would discourage laid-off people from returning to jobs that pay less than their combined state and federal unemployment aid now does.

So far there are no formal negotiations on another relief package. But analysts say the need to address the fate of the $600 weekly benefits could force a resolution of the issue this summer.

Sen. Rob Portman, R-Ohio, and Rep. Kevin Brady, R-Texas, are promoting a plan that would provide $450 a week for laid-off workers who return to their jobs, as a “back to work” bonus. This payment would also expire by July 31, though.

Larry Kudlow, the top White House economic adviser, said earlier this week that the proposal is “something we’re looking at very carefully.”

Separately, Rep. Don Beyer, D-Va., vice chair of the Joint Economic Committee, has proposed reducing the $600 benefit to $300 in stages by the end of the year. This plan, Beyer suggested in an interview, would sharply reduce the number of people who are receiving more money from jobless aid than they would from working.

Read the full story here.

Russia sees 232 virus deaths in a single day, highest spike ever

MOSCOW — Russia has reported the highest daily spike in coronavirus deaths once again on Friday, with health officials registering 232 deaths in the last 24 hours, which bought the country’s total to 4,374.

Russia’s comparatively low mortality rate continues to raise questions among experts both in Russia and in the West, with some suggesting that the country’s government may be underreporting virus-related deaths for political reasons. Russian officials vehemently deny the allegations and attribute the low numbers to the effectiveness of the measures taken to curb the spread of the outbreak.

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In this photo taken on March 23, 2020 , Russian President Vladimir Putin, left, and the hospital’s chief Denis Protsenko, right, walk in to the hospital for coronavirus patients in Kommunarka settlement, outside Moscow. Alexei Druzhinin, Sputnik, Kremlin Pool Photo via AP, File

Russia’s coronavirus caseload has exceeded 387,000 on Friday, with health officials reporting over 8,500 new infections.

Earlier this month President Vladimir Putin announced lifting some lockdown restrictions, saying that Russia was able to “slow down the epidemic” and it was time for gradual reopening. The vast majority of the country’s regions have been on lockdown since March 30.

Tokyo rescinds shutdown orders on theaters, gyms, retailers

TOKYO — Tokyo will remove shutdown requests on more businesses from June when theaters, cinemas, fitness gyms and retailers in the Japanese capital can reopen after a coronavirus state of emergency ended this week.

Governor Yuriko Koike said Tokyo is now ready to move to Step 2 of a three-phase roadmap designed to gradually reopen businesses in the city.

Prime Minister Shinzo Abe declared an end to a seven-week emergency Monday, saying the infections have subsided enough to resume social and economic activity under a “new normal” requiring physical distancing and other disease prevention measures.

Tokyo reported 22 new cases Friday, triggering concerns of an underlying risk and a possible second wave of infections. Koike said infections are not accelerating and hospitals now have space.

Libraries, museums and schools, considered to be lowest risk, reopened in Tokyo this week. Under Step 2, theaters, cinemas, fitness gyms, cram schools and retailers can resume businesses. Night clubs, karaoke and live music houses, which are considered more prone to infections, will be last and their safety guidelines are still being worked out.

Even though its emergency measures only involved requests for social distancing and some business closures, Japan so far has about 16,700 cases and 870 deaths, significantly fewer than many other countries.

South Africa has backlog of 100,000 unprocessed virus tests 

JOHANNESBURG — South Africa says it has a backlog of nearly 100,000 unprocessed tests for the new coronavirus.

A health ministry statement overnight puts the backlog as of Monday at 96,480. The ministry says “this challenge is caused by the limited availability of test kits globally.” It says priority is being given to processing tests from patients admitted to hospitals and health workers.

South Africa has conducted more tests for the virus than any other country in Africa — more than 655,000 — and has more confirmed cases than any other country on the continent with 27,403. The ministry says one of the latest people to die in South Africa was an employee with the National Health Laboratory Services.

“We understand this tragedy will certainly test you,” the ministry said in a message to her colleagues, adding that the government is committed to providing proper protective gear that also faces shortages.

Muslims in Indonesia return to mosques for Friday prayers

JAKARTA, Indonesia — Muslims in some parts of Indonesia attended Friday prayers as mosques closed by the coronavirus for weeks were allowed to start reopening in the world’s most populous Muslim nation.

The guidelines for worship facilities released by religious affairs minister Fachrul Razi on Friday change many traditions in mosques. Worshippers usually pray shoulder to shoulder, and they huddle, hug and shake hands once the prayer ends, with cheek-to-cheek kisses common.

Muslims in the Jakarta satellite city of Bekasi were expected during Friday’s prayers to stay at least 1 meter (yard) apart from one another without shaking hands and would hear shorter sermons. No children were allowed to join the prayers, and police and soldiers were there to ensure health protocols such as social distancing and wearing a mask were observed.

Similar scenes were seen in another satellite city of Bogor, and Makassar, one of Indonesia’s big cities on Sulawesi island.

President Joko Widodo said his administration wants Indonesia to remain productive economically but also safe from the virus. He said any measures to start the so-called “new normal” would be based on epidemiological data.

The government has been deploying 340,000 security forces gradually to enforce the health rules as the country prepares to reopen its economy.

Indonesia had recorded more than 24,500 COVID-19 cases as of Thursday with nearly 1,500 deaths, the most fatalities in Southeast Asia.

New Zealand reports it has only a single person with the virus, no new cases in a week

WELLINGTON, New Zealand — New Zealand reported just a single person in the entire nation of 5 million people is known to still have the coronavirus after no new cases have been detected for the past week.

In total, 1,504 people were found to have contracted the virus. Of those, 1,481 have recovered and 22 died. About 275,000 people have been tested.

India will end lockdown amid spike of more than 7,000 new cases in a day

NEW DELHI — India has registered another single-day high of 7,466 coronavirus cases, surpassing China both in terms of confirmed cases and deaths from COVID-19.

The Health Ministry on Friday put the total number of cases in India at 165,799, with 4,706 deaths. China has reported 4,634 deaths among 82,995 cases.

The spike in infections in India comes at a time when the two-month-old lockdown across the country is set to end on Sunday. Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s government is expected to issue a new set of guidelines this weekend, possibly extending the lockdown in the worst-hit areas as it promotes economic activity.

UN chief appeals for help for war-torn Yemen

UNITED NATIONS — The U.N. humanitarian chief is urgently appealing for $2.4 billion to help millions in war-torn Yemen cope with the conflict and COVID-19, saying programs are already being cut and the situation is “alarming.”

Mark Lowcock told a briefing Thursday that the U.N. has only received $516.6 million of the $3.4 billion it needs until the end of the year, amounting to just over 15%.

The United Nations and Saudi Arabia are co-hosting a virtual pledging conference for Yemen on Tuesday seeking $2.4 billion, including $80 million to respond to the pandemic.

Lowcock and the heads of 10 U.N. agencies and several U.N. officials and humanitarian organizations issued a joint statement Thursday saying “COVID-19 is spreading rapidly across the country already experiencing the world’s largest humanitarian crisis” as a result of the war, and expressing increasing alarm about the worsening situation.

“Tragically, we do not have enough money to continue this work,” they said. “Of 41 major U.N. programs in Yemen, more than 30 will close in the next few weeks if we cannot secure additional funds.”

“This means many more people will die,” they warned.

The 17 signatories said they have the skills, staff and capacity to meet the difficult challenges of delivering aid in Yemen, but no money. And time is running out.

“We ask donors to pledge generously and pay pledges promptly,” they said.

 


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