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

NEW YORK — The Justice Department on Wednesday sent letters to the governors of New York and three other Democratic-led states, seeking data on whether they violated federal law by ordering public nursing homes to accept recovering COVID-19 patients from hospitals — actions that have been criticized for potentially fueling the spread of the virus.

Andrew Cuomo

New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo, shown in June, removes a mask as he holds a news conference in Tarrytown, N.Y. On Wednesday, the Justice Department sent letters to the governors of New York and three other Democratic-led states, seeking data on whether they violated federal law by ordering public nursing homes to accept recovering COVID-19 patients from hospitals, actions that have been criticized for potentially fueling the spread of the virus. Mark Lennihan/Associated Press

Prosecutors said the fact-finding letters also sent to New Jersey, Pennsylvania and Michigan were aimed at determining whether the orders “may have resulted in the deaths of thousands of elderly nursing home residents.”

“We must ensure they are adequately cared for with dignity and respect and not unnecessarily put at risk,” Assistant Attorney General for Civil Rights Division Eric Dreiband said.

Pennsylvania Gov. Tom Wolf said his office was reviewing the request. Spokespeople for New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo, Michigan Gov. Gretchen Whitmer and New Jersey Gov. Phil Murphy said the fact that all the states are led by Democrats and the timing of the move — in the midst of the Republican National Convention — spoke volumes about the political nature of the inquiry.

“Americans would all be better served if the Trump administration stopped the partisan games and focused on delivering a real plan to defeat COVID-19,” said Whitmer spokesperson Tiffany Brown.

The governors’ actions at the height of the pandemic were designed to ensure hospitals had enough bed space for the most serious COVID cases, but were almost immediately criticized by nursing homes and relatives for potentially putting frail, elderly care home residents at risk.

Read the full story about the action by the DOJ here.

COVID-19 cluster traced to Rhode Island bachelorette party

BOSTON — A cluster of COVID-19 cases in Massachusetts has been traced to a bachelorette party in Rhode Island late last month, health officials in both states said.

Nineteen guests who attended the late July gathering at an undisclosed location were sickened, authorities said. Seventeen were from Massachusetts.

“There was a bachelorette party with roughly 20 people held in late July,” Joseph Wendelken, a spokesman for the Rhode Island Department of Health told The Providence Journal on Wednesday. “The group was mostly from Massachusetts. The Massachusetts Department of Public Health did the contact tracing around the many people from Massachusetts who got sick. Two Rhode Island residents tested positive. We did the contact tracing around these two individuals.”

Ann Scales, a spokeswoman for the Massachusetts Department of Public Health, said earlier the 19 cases were “among a group of individuals who rented a house together in Rhode Island for a wedding event that took place in late July.”

Massachusetts Gov. Charlie Baker referred to the event at a news conference Tuesday as he discussed the importance of face coverings, social distancing and proper hygiene.

“Everyone who went to that wedding except one person tested positive for COVID,” Baker said.

A wedding reception this month in Maine resulted in at least 60 COVID-19 cases, and one death, health officials in Maine have said. Twenty-two of those people attended the reception, while the others are secondary or tertiary cases.

That wedding reception outbreak resulted in outbreaks at a nursing home and a jail, officials said.

Experts baffled as CDC changes advice about testing

NEW YORK  — U.S. health officials have sparked a wave of confusion after posting guidelines that coronavirus testing is not necessary for people who have been in close contact with infected people.

The new guidance was posted earlier this week on the website of a federal agency, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Rahaana Smith

A healthcare worker instructs passengers how to use a nasal swab at a drive-thru COVID-19 testing site at the in Miami in July.

The CDC previously had advised local health departments to test people who have been within 6 feet of an infected person for more than 15 minutes. But on Monday a CDC testing overview page was changed to say that testing is no longer recommended for symptom-less people who were in close contact situations.

There was a caveat, however. Testing may be recommended for those with health problems that make them more likely to suffer severe illness from an infection, or if their doctor or local state officials advise they get tested.

Across the country, public health experts called the change bizarre. They noted that testing contacts of infected people is a core element of public health efforts to keep outbreaks in check, and that a large percentage of infected people — the CDC has said as many as 40% — exhibit no symptoms.

Read the full story.

Don’t argue with anti-maskers, CDC tells shop workers

This week the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention issued new guidance to retailers: Don’t argue with customers who refuse to wear masks.

The health agency acknowledged policies that retailers have used to curb the spread of the novel coronavirus: requiring masks to be worn by employees and customers, designating employees to enforce social distancing rules and limiting the number of customers admitted into the stores.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention guidance for retailers who encounter customers who refuse to wear masks. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention

But when that goes awry, the agency advised retailers and their employees to beware of workplace violence in the forms of threats, verbal assault and physical assault.

There is no national mask mandate, but many local and state governments, as well as companies, have issued their own. Mixed messaging and varying business policies have politicized mask use, despite CDC guidance that suggests masks can help prevent the spread of the novel coronavirus.

Cruise lines are already canceling sailings into 2021

Princess Cruises announced Tuesday that it’s canceling sailings in early 2021 “due to limitations with border and port access.” The company also cited the “uncertainty of airline travel” as a reason for the cancellations, which will affect 29 sailings on two ships.

The Carnival-owned cruise line made headlines earlier this year after hundreds of passengers became infected with the novel coronavirus on multiple ships.

The Island Princess and the Pacific Princess ships will not sail as planned until at least April 2021, the company said. The cruises included the World Cruises and Circle South America, with some sailings up to 111 days. American ports on those voyages were Los Angeles and Fort Lauderdale, Fla.

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The Grand Princess cruise ship in Alaska’s Gastineau Channel in in 2018. Associated Press

“We share in the disappointment of this cancellation for guests of our world cruises because it’s a pinnacle cruise vacation experience, booked by some of our most loyal guests,” Princess Cruises president Jan Swartz said in a news release.

Princess’s decision follows an announcement from British cruise line Cunard, which said Tuesday that it is halting some sailings until May. “Cunard has extended its pause in operations to sailings up to March 25, 2021 for Queen Elizabeth, April 18, 2021 for Queen Mary 2 and May 16, 2021 for Queen Victoria,” the company said on its website.

Earlier this month, Miami-headquartered Crystal Cruises said it was canceling into January.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has a no-sail order on cruise ships through Sept. 30, which bars any new passengers from boarding ships in U.S. waters. The cruise industry itself has canceled U.S. cruises past the order’s date, until at least Oct. 31.

COVID-19 lockdowns blocked flu in some places but it still remains a threat

JOHANNESBURG  — Winter is ending in the Southern Hemisphere and country after country — South Africa, Australia, Argentina — had a surprise: Their steps against COVID-19 also apparently blocked the flu.

But there’s no guarantee the Northern Hemisphere will avoid twin epidemics as its own flu season looms while the coronavirus still rages.

“This could be one of the worst seasons we’ve had from a public health perspective with COVID and flu coming together. But it also could be one of the best flu seasons we’ve had,” Dr. Robert Redfield, director of the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, told The Associated Press.

A woman receives a seasonal influenza vaccine in Johannesburg, South Africa in April. Ordinarily, South Africa sees widespread influenza during their winter months. Associated Press/Themba Hadebe

U.S. health officials are pushing Americans to get vaccinated against the flu in record numbers this fall, so hospitals aren’t overwhelmed with a dueling “twindemic.”

It’s also becoming clear that wearing masks, avoiding crowds and keeping your distance are protections that are “not specific for COVID. They’re going to work for any respiratory virus,” Redfield said.

The evidence: Ordinarily, South Africa sees widespread influenza during the Southern Hemisphere’s winter months of May through August. This year, testing tracked by the country’s National Institute of Communicable Diseases is finding almost none — something unprecedented.

School closures, limited public gatherings and calls to wear masks and wash hands have “knocked down the flu,” said Dr. Cheryl Cohen, head of the institute’s respiratory program.

That not only meant lives saved from flu’s annual toll, but it “freed up our hospitals’ capacity to treat COVID-19 patients,” Cohen added.

In Australia, the national health department reported just 36 laboratory-confirmed flu-associated deaths from January to mid-August, compared to more than 480 during the same period last year.

“The most likely and the biggest contributor is social distancing,” said Dr. Robert Booy, an infectious diseases expert at the University of Sydney.

The coronavirus is blamed for about 24 million infections and more than 810,000 deaths globally in just the first eight months of this year. A normal flu year could have the world’s hospitals dealing with several million more severe illnesses on top of the COVID-19 crush.

Back in February and March, as the worldwide spread of the new virus was just being recognized, many countries throughout the Southern Hemisphere girded for a double whammy. Even as they locked down to fight the coronavirus, they made a huge push for more last-minute flu vaccinations.

“We gave many more flu vaccinations, like four times more,” said Jaco Havenga, a pharmacist who works at Mays Chemist, a pharmacy in a Johannesburg suburb.

Some countries’ lockdowns were more effective than others at stemming spread of the coronavirus. So why would flu have dropped even if COVID-19 still was on the rise?

“Clearly the vigilance required to be successful against COVID is really high,” said CDC’s Redfield. “This virus is one of the most infectious viruses that we’ve seen.”

That’s in part because 40% of people with COVID-19 show no symptoms yet can spread infection, he said.

Flu hasn’t disappeared, cautions a World Health Organization report earlier this month. While “globally, influenza activity was reported at lower levels than expected for this time of year,” it found sporadic cases are being reported.

Utah high school students push back against parents’ anti-mask protests

Appeals by students appear to have largely derailed an anti-mask initiative in Utah that was planned for this week, the Deseret News reported.

Social media posts had called for parents in Washington County to send their children to school without a mask on Monday, arguing that if enough people joined in, the district would be unable to enforce the rules and send maskless students home.

But over the weekend, students in the conservative community turned to social media to speak out against the plans, according to the Deseret News. They urged parents to cooperate with Utah’s statewide mask mandate for public schools to prevent further disruptions of classes.

Those efforts appear to have been largely successful: Only six students out of roughly 35,000 in the district were sent home for not wearing masks on Monday, according to the paper.

Students had pushed back against parents’ anti-mask activism for days, the Deseret News reported.

On Friday, hundreds of parents in the county had demonstrated against the mask mandate for public schools, according to the paper. But later that day, senior athletes at Enterprise High School gathered on the football field before a game and delivered a message urging community members to do their part and wear masks.

“We want to have a senior year. We want to have homecoming and prom and graduation,” cheerleader Dallee Cobb said.

“I personally hate wearing this stupid thing, but you can bet I’m doing whatever I can to be able to be here with my teammates and doing the things that I love,” she said.

 

French prime minister says rising infections are ‘nothing to panic about’

PARIS — France’s prime minister is urging his compatriots to wear masks more but insists that rising infections across the country are “nothing to panic about” and that it’s time for people to get back to work and school and “cultivating themselves.”

France is now reporting more than 25 positive tests per 100,000 people, up from five a month ago, and neighboring countries are requiring quarantines for visitors from parts or all of France. There has also been a small but steady uptick in virus patients in intensive care, though the situation is far from the crisis levels French hospitals faced in March and April.

Despite the rising infections, Prime Minister Jean Castex insisted on France-Inter radio Wednesday that France needs to return to work and school and avoid “falling into an economic and social crisis that would be much more dangerous than the health crisis.”

He urged a careful return to cultural venues, too, pledging 2 billion euros for the French culture industry to help it survive a plunge in revenues for museums, cinemas and other sites. The money will be part of a 100 billion economic recovery package to be unveiled next week.

Spain lowers age for mandatory mask wearing in schools

MADRID — Faced with a surge of coronavirus infections, the Spanish government will seek to lower from 12 to 6 years old the age for mandatory mask wearing in schools.

In an interview Wednesday with Spain’s Cadena SER radio, Education Minister Isabel Celaá also said that parents who need to stay at home to take care of an infected child will receive compensation or paid medical leave.

Officials at the central and regional level in charge of education and health are meeting on Thursday to negotiate revised measures ahead of the school year opening over the next three weeks.

Chinese city resumes large-scale testing for virus

BEIJING — The city of Urumqi in China’s northwest resumed large-scale virus testing of residents Wednesday to stop a coronavirus outbreak, the government announced.

The Xinjiang region has recorded 826 confirmed virus cases from mid-July through Tuesday in the outbreak, the government reported. It says 124 still were hospitalized.

The announcement says testing would cover “key communities” but gave no indication how many people would be involved.


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