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

Vice President Mike Pence sought Friday to put a positive spin on the surging coronavirus cases in the South and West that set two single-day records this week, saying, “We did slow the spread. We did flatten the curve. We’re in a much better place.”

Pence, in the first White House coronavirus task force briefing in nearly two months, offered no new strategies to combat the rapidly spreading virus, and minimized record daily case counts in several states as “outbreaks in specific counties.” He said the increases were being driven by people under age 35, which he called “very encouraging news” because they are generally less susceptible to severe consequences.

The briefing came a day after state health departments reported a record 39,327 new coronavirus infections and several Republican governors, including Greg Abbott in Texas and Ron DeSantis in Florida, froze reopening plans and imposed new restrictions on bars amid growing signs the virus was spiraling out of control. Florida reported nearly 9,000 8 new cases Friday blowing past its single-day high of 5,511 set on Wednesday.

Pence, who did not wear a mask, dismissed the idea that states reopening prematurely had contributed to recent outbreaks. He stressed that while cases had increased, the death rate had declined.

“This moment in the coronavirus pandemic is different than what we saw two months ago,” he said. “It’s almost inarguable that more testing is generating more cases. The volume of new cases is a reflection of the great success in expanding testing across the country.”

Health authorities, however, project that those younger people, many of whom show no symptoms, will likely spread infections to the more vulnerable and warn of a lag time of about three weeks between when people are first diagnosed, and subsequent hospitalizations and deaths. They also note that while the death count has declined since the first wave of cases, it is slowly inching up as cases increase.

Anthony Fauci, director of the National Institutes of Allergy and Infectious Diseases and a member of the White House task force, and public health experts have said increased testing alone does not explain the recent increases.

Read the full story on the task force here.

As virus grows, some governors rely on misleading hospital data 

Governors in places seeing huge spikes in coronavirus infections often cite statewide data to assure the public they have plenty of hospital capacity to survive the onslaught, even as the states routinely miss the critical benchmarks to guide their pandemic response.

Anthony Fauci, Mike Pence

Dr. Anthony Fauci, right, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, speaks during a briefing with members of the Coronavirus Task Force, including Vice President Mike Pence, left, at the Department of Health and Human Services in Washington on Friday. Susan Walsh/Associated Press

Public health officials and experts say the heavy reliance on statewide hospital data is a misleading and sometimes irresponsible metric to justify keeping a state open or holding back on imposing new limits.

That is because statewide statistics can be deceiving, especially in large states where individual hospitals can be in crisis mode even while the overall capacity numbers look OK.

Thomas LaVeist, dean of the Tulane School of Public Health and Tropical Medicine in New Orleans, said basing pandemic and reopening policy on statewide hospital bed capacity ’’is incredibly irresponsible.”

“To cherry-pick hospital capacity and to use that one metric without the context of number of cases, number of deaths, is shocking,” LaVeist said.

The issue of hospital capacity has gained urgency across the nation this week as Florida, Texas, California, Arizona and other states reported skyrocketing case numbers. Governors have repeatedly invoked hospital capacity in arguing against new business restrictions, though the dynamic began to shift Friday when Texas and Florida clamped down on bars amid an increasingly dire situation with COVID-19.

At the first White House coronavirus briefing nearly two months Friday, Vice President Mike Pence also cited hospitalizations in discussing the outlook for the pandemic.

Two months ago, Pence said 15 percent of patients were being hospitalized. Now it’s about 5 percent. That means the health care system is better positioned to cope with a resurgence in cases, he says.

In Texas, the state health department’s website on Thursday showed 12,951 available beds, 1,320 available ICU beds, and 5,850 available ventilators. What it doesn’t break down is how bleak the situation is in some particular places, including Houston, the nation’s fourth largest city. Hospital beds in Houston are filling so fast that Texas Children’s Hospital is starting to treat adult patients, and 97 percent of ICU beds at Texas Medical Center were in use.

Read the full story about hospitalizations here.

Dow drops after Texas retreats from reopening timeline

U.S. stocks dived Friday as the coronavirus continued to drag on the economy and a flare-up in cases prompted Texas to pull back from its reopening.

The Dow Jones industrial average slid nearly 600 points, nearly 2.2 percent, in early afternoon trading. The Standard & Poor’s 500 dropped 1.7 percent and the tech-heavy Nasdaq fell 1.6 percent.

All 11 sectors of the S&P were in the red, led downward by financials, energy and communication services. Shares of social media favorite Facebook plunged by more than 8 percent on news that packaged goods giant Unilever would suspend advertising on the site, Instagram and Twitter through the end of 2020 due to the “polarized atmosphere” on social media platforms.

Friday’s sell-off came after Texas Gov. Greg Abbott, a Republican, issued an executive order reviving restrictions on bars, restaurants and certain types of outdoor recreation. The move comes a day after the state announced a pause in its reopening plans but said it would not revert to stricter measures in response to a surge in covid-19 infections and hospitalizations.

The outbreak has also flared up in Arizona. Maricopa County, which includes Phoenix, is recording as many as 2,000 cases a day, “eclipsing the New York City boroughs even on their worst days,” warned a Wednesday brief by disease trackers at Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia, which observed, “Arizona has lost control of the epidemic.”

South Carolina, Florida, Idaho and Guam also have reported big case spikes in the past week. At least 122,000 Americans have died of covid-19, the disease caused by the coronavirus, and more than 2.4 million cases have been confirmed.

The decline in stocks comes amid a mixed economic package and political upheaval following last month’s death of George Floyd, an unarmed black man who died in police custody in Minneapolis. Unemployment is stubbornly high, but consumer spending and orders for durable goods – both key indicators – show signs of a rebound. The Commerce Department on Friday also said personal incomes declined less than feared.

Florida bans bar alcohol consumption as new virus cases near 9,000 in a single day

FORT LAUDERDALE, Fla. — Florida banned alcohol consumption at its bars Friday after its daily confirmed coronavirus cases neared 9,000, a new record that is almost double the previous mark set just two days ago.

The Florida agency that governs bars announced the ban on Twitter just minutes after the Department of Health reported 8,942 new confirmed cases, topping the previous record of 5,500 set Wednesday.

State officials have attributed much of the new outbreak to young adults flocking to bars after they reopened in most of the state about a month ago, with many of them ignoring social distancing restrictions aimed at lowering the virus’s spread.

More than 24,000 new cases have been reported since Saturday, more than a fifth of the 111,724 cases confirmed since March 1. The department had not updated its death total, which still stood at 3,327.

The seven-day average for positive tests dropped slightly to 13.4%, down 1 percentage point from Thursday but still triple the rate of 3.8% of June 1.

Florida’s record-setting week for newly confirmed coronavirus cases got even worse with almost 9,000 reported Friday, nearly double the just-set mark and five times more than where the state record stood two weeks ago.

More than 24,000 cases have been reported since Saturday, more than a fifth of the 111,724 cases confirmed since March 1. The department had not updated its death total, which still stood at 3,327.

The seven-day average for positive tests dropped slightly to 13.4%, down 1 percentage point from Thursday but still triple the rate of 3.8% of June 1. The seven-day average for hospitalizations is also creeping up, hitting 172 on Thursday, about 70% higher than it was June 1.

Read the full story about Florida and Texas restrictions here.

Texas orders bars closed, restaurant dining scaled back as virus cases surge

AUSTIN, Texas — Republican Gov. Greg Abbott shut down bars in Texas again on Friday and scaled back restaurant dining, the most dramatic reversals yet as confirmed coronavirus cases surge.

Abbott also ordered rafting and tubing outfitters on Texas’ popular rivers to close and said outdoor gatherings of 100 people or more must be approved by local governments. The abrupt actions reflect how Texas is now scrambling to contain an outbreak less than two months after an aggressive reopening that was one of the fastest in the U.S.

“At this time, it is clear that the rise in cases is largely driven by certain types of activities, including Texans congregating in bars,” Abbott said. “The actions in this executive order are essential to our mission to swiftly contain this virus and protect public health.”

He did not say when bars might reopen again.

Texas Medical Center

A healthcare professional walks through the Texas Medical Center on Thursday in Houston. The leaders of several Houston hospitals said they were opening new beds to accommodate an expected influx of patients with COVID-19, as coronavirus cases surge in the city and across the South. David J. Phillip/Associated Press

Texas has reported more than 17,000 confirmed new cases in the last three days with a record high positive tests of 5,996 on Thursday. The day’s tally of 4,739 hospitalizations was also a record. The state’s rolling infection rate hit nearly 12%, a level not seen since the state was in a broad lockdown in mid-April.

Until this week, Abbott had maintained that worsening trends in June were a matter of concern but not alarm. But he quickly struck a newly urgent tone, urging people to stay home while warning that a “massive outbreak” is sweeping through Texas.

The figures include a doubling of the infection rate to more than 10% — a mark Abbott said in May would be a “red flag” in his reopening plan, which at the time he said was backed by the White House.

Under the newest rollbacks, restaurant dining rooms must scale back to half capacity starting Monday. The shuttering of rafting and tubing businesses comes after people consistently packed waterways since the state reopened in May, and ahead of the Fourth of July holiday weekend that typically sees big turnouts.

Abbott is not the only governor backpedaling following a swift reopening. Arizona Gov. Doug Ducey, also a Republican, is also telling residents to stay home and on Thursday declaring the state “on pause” as hospitals accelerate toward capacity.

House Republican leader ties national spike in coronavirus cases to protests of racial injustice

House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.) suggested Friday that nationwide protests against racial injustice were largely responsible for the spike in coronavirus cases that have led to record-setting numbers of new cases in recent days, despite a lack of evidence supporting such a connection.

Kevin McCarthy, Nancy Pelosi, Kweisi Mfume, Tiffany McMillan

House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy of Calif. at a Capitol Hill news conference in May. Associated Press/Manuel Balce Ceneta

McCarthy, the highest-ranking Republican in the House, was asked during an appearance on Fox News if he was concerned about spikes in states such as Texas, Florida, Arizona and his home state of California — and whether that could have an impact on President Trump’s reelection prospects.

“I have a real concern,” McCarthy said. “Remember, we’re coming after where we saw those thousands of young people and others coming out to protest. It was a concern that they were close to one another. Now we’re seeing the outcome from that.”

While health experts cautioned that such mass gatherings could accelerate the spread of the virus, there has been scant evidence that the uptick in cases is closely correlated with states with the largest protests. In fact, one study by the National Bureau of Economic Research found no evidence that the first weeks of protests following the death of George Floyd “reignited COVID-19 case growth.”

During the interview, McCarthy cited an overhead video he had seen of a large gathering of protesters in Los Angeles.

“As more people gather together, they’re not wearing a mask, not washing their hands, not keeping social distance,” he said. “When I watched that drone video of Los Angeles, where it went for a mile, people shoulder to shoulder, you knew there was going to see a spike, and now we’re seeing the outcome of that.”

Trump administration eyes new testing strategy for coronavirus, Fauci says

The Trump administration is weighing a new testing strategy as coronavirus cases mount: testing groups of people together.

Anthony Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, told me in an interview last night that health officials are having “intense discussions” about what’s known as “pool testing.” The idea is that by testing samples from many people all together, officials could test more people with fewer resources. And those who are infected could be more quickly found and isolated.

Pool testing would allow officials to cast a much broader net to find cases faster.

It would represent a dramatic shift from how coronavirus testing is currently being carried out in the United States – but one that may be sorely needed as virus hot spots worsen and new ones appear.

“Something’s not working,” Fauci said of the current approach. “I mean, you can do all the diagramming you want, but something is not working.”

Pool testing works this way: Samples from, say, 20 people are combined into a single pool. One coronavirus test is used on the entire pool. If the test comes back negative, researchers know they can move on to another pool of samples. If it comes back positive, only then would each individual be tested.

“What you need to do is find the penetration of infected people in your society,” Fauci said. “And the only way you know that is by casting a broad net.”

Criteria for who can get a test still varies among states, depending on their resources and testing capacity. But if group testing would allow more people to get tested, there could be a better chance of finding the asymptomatic people who may be quietly spreading the disease.

White House task force plans first news briefing in nearly two months as virus surges

With record-breaking numbers of new cases sweeping the United States, the White House coronavirus task force is scheduled Friday to hold its first news briefing in nearly two months.

This one, however, will not be held at the White House, and it does not appear that President Trump, who was a fixture in the briefing room in the early days of the crisis, will be present.

Friday’s briefing is scheduled for 12:30 p.m. at the Department of Health and Human Services, with Vice President Pence, the leader of the task force, presiding.

Trump’s daily schedule released by the White House makes no mention of plans to attend. The president is scheduled to receive an intelligence briefing at 11:45 a.m. and has no plans to leave the White House until later in the afternoon, when he will head to his golf club in Bedminster, N.J., for the weekend.

That trip has drawn scrutiny because Trump does not plan to abide by a new travel advisory in New Jersey and nearby states that are telling anyone coming from places hit hard by the coronavirus to self-quarantine for 14 days.

Trump traveled earlier this week to Arizona, among the states designated as hot spots by the governors of Connecticut, New Jersey and New York when they announced their quarantine period Wednesday.

“Anyone traveling in support of the president this weekend will be closely monitored for symptoms and tested for COVID and therefore pose little to no risk to the local populations,” White House spokesman Judd Deere said in a statement.

World Bank provides cash aid for poor Jordanians

AMMAN, Jordan — The World Bank says it will provide $374 million in cash support to 270,000 poor families in Jordan, including many who lost income due to the coronavirus pandemic and lockdown.

The bank announced the aid on Friday, saying it was co-financed by the U.K.’s international development agency.

Jordan took strict measures to contain its outbreak, including a 24-hour curfew that was in effect for several days in March. It has reported more than 1,000 cases but only nine fatalities.

The lockdown came at an enormous cost. The country’s vital tourism industry has been at a standstill since March, and many businesses that were forced to close three months ago have only been allowed to reopen in the last few weeks.

Jordan is a close Western ally that has long been seen as an island of stability in a turbulent region. It hosts hundreds of thousands of refugees from the conflict in neighboring Syria.

Sweden objects to being put on WHO list of  countries with health systems threatened by virus

STOCKHOLM — Sweden’s chief epidemiologist Anders Tegnell has lashed out at the World Health Organization, calling it “a total mistake” to put his nation on a list of countries where “accelerated transmission” could overwhelm health systems.

Tegnell told Swedish radio on Friday: “This is unfortunately a total misjudgment of the Swedish data.”

A report by the WHO’s Europe office on Thursday named 11 countries, including Sweden, Armenia, Albania, Kazakhstan and Ukraine. Sweden has seen a steep rise in the number of COVID19 cases but this has been attributed to an increase in testing.

Tegnell said: “We can point at all other parameters we measure, i.e. how many serious cases we have, they are decreasing. The number of admissions into intensive care is at a very low level and even deaths are starting to decline.”

Sweden has repeatedly defended its strategy by explaining it defers little to other countries despite having never imposed a lockdown. Large gatherings are banned but restaurants and schools for young children have stayed open. The government urged social distancing, and Swedes have largely complied.

Most of Tokyo’s cases now are people in their 20s and 30s

TOKYO — Tokyo has confirmed 54 new cases of the coronavirus, with the number staying at its highest since early May.

Japan lifted a seven-week pandemic state emergency in late May, and social and business activity has since largely resumed.

Tokyo Gov. Yuriko Koike said although the new daily cases remain high, but capital is not facing a second wave of infections. She said the rate of infection was not increasing rapidly as in late March, and that Tokyo’s hospitals and health system are able to cope.

Koike said experts are now working to compile a new “caution scale” that better fits social and economic activities in the ongoing phase of living with the virus.

Most of the latest cases are people in their 20s and 30s. Koike said many recent cases are linked to workplaces and nightclubs and transmitted to family members.

Tokyo has had 5,997 cases and 325 deaths, about one-third of the national total.

German meatpacking company will perform daily virus tests

BERLIN — A German meat company says it plans to perform daily coronavirus tests on all 5,000 workers involved in the production process amid concerns about a series of outbreaks at slaughterhouses in the country.

Westfleisch, one of Germany’s biggest meat processing companies, said Friday that it is already conducting weekly tests on the workers but from next week wants to perform them daily.

Westfleisch suffered a COVID-19 outbreak involving hundreds of workers at its plant in the western town of Coesfeld in May, but that has since passed.

Rival firm Toennies Group is at the center of an outbreak in the nearby region of Guetersloh that has led to a partial lockdown as authorities try to prevent the spread of the virus to the wider community.

Westfleisch executive Steen Soennichsen said the tests would be examined by external labs and results would be available within hours, allowing the company to act swiftly if there are any new cases.

Arizona nightclub charged in alleged failure to enforce social distancing

PHOENIX — An Arizona nightclub faces a misdemeanor charge for alleged failure to enforce its own social distancing polices as the number of COVID-19 cases continued rising.

Scottsdale police announced the case against the nightclub Riot House, saying officers saw both customers and employees “not practicing physical distancing, not wearing face coverings and not complying with their plan.”

It appears to be the first such case against an Arizona business during the pandemic for alleged failure to follow its own social distancing rules.

The state Department of Health Services reported 3,056 additional COVID-19 cases Thursday, the fourth day in a week in which the state had daily increases over 3,000.

Republican Gov. Doug Ducey, who lifted stay-home restrictions in May, cautioned that the expectation is that the numbers will be worse in the next couple of weeks.

Surge of cases follows reopening in Utah

SALT LAKE CITY — Utah reported its second-highest daily number of new COVID-19 cases Thursday as the state deals with a troubling surge that started after state leaders allowed businesses to reopen.

The 590 new cases are behind only the 643 on Saturday, state health department figures show. The state has averaged 503 confirmed cases per day over the last week, more than double the 200-per-day rate the state’s epidemiologist recommended the state should be at by July 1 to avoid having to consider a total shutdown of the economy.

Gov. Gary Herbert, a Republican, has said he will not shut down the economy but has agreed to wait at least two weeks before loosening any more restrictions.

Michigan governor allows pro sports, but without fan attendance

LANSING, Mich. — Gov. Gretchen Whitmer on Thursday allowed for the return of pro sports in Michigan as long as fans aren’t in attendance.

The move followed Major League Baseball’s decision this week to set a 60-game schedule to start July 23 or July 24 in empty ballparks. The governor said pro teams can resume operations notwithstanding capacity limits and restrictions on gatherings and events to curb the coronavirus.

Games must be played without a live audience for the “time being.” Only staff of the facility and media can attend.

Whitmer’s order does not address college sports.

There were 33.7 new confirmed cases of the novel coronavirus per 100,000 people in Michigan over the past two weeks. That’s the eight-lowest rate in the U.S. More than 6,100 deaths have been recorded and nearly 69,000 people have been infected.

 


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