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

FRESNO, Calif. — Rachel Spray is still grieving the loss of her fellow nurse who died after being exposed to the novel coronavirus at Kaiser Permanente Fresno Medical Center in California. Now, as she stands in front of the gleaming glass and concrete hospital, she says she “dreads going in there” and fears she’ll be next.

That’s because like those in many U.S. hospitals, management is rationing supplies, she says, keeping medical-grade masks under lock and key.

White House officials say U.S. hospitals have all the medical supplies needed to battle the deadly virus, but front-line health care workers, hospital officials and even the Food and Drug Administration say shortages persist. Critical shortfalls of medical N95 respirators, commonly referred to as N95 masks, and other protective gear started in March, when the pandemic hit New York. Pressure on the medical supply chain continues today, and in “many ways things have only gotten worse,” the American Medical Association’s president, Dr. Susan Bailey, said in a recent statement.

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A worker handles filter material for face masks in Seattle. A key challenge for N95 mask manufacturers racing to meet spiking demand is scarcity of meltblown textile. Gerardo Villalobos/Outdoor Research via AP

“N95s are still in a shortage,” said Mike Schiller, the American Hospital Association’s senior director for supply chains. “It’s certainly not anywhere near pre-COVID levels.”

Early in the pandemic the White House failed to heed stark warnings, specifically about N95s, from high-level administration officials. The Associated Press has found the administration took months to sign contracts with companies that make the crucial component inside these masks: meltblown textile. Meltblowing is the manufacturing process that turns plastic into the dense mesh that makes N95 masks effective at blocking vanishingly small particles, including viruses.

Even today, manufacturers say the Trump administration hasn’t made the long-term investments they need in order to ramp up to full capacity. Meanwhile, the administration allowed meltblown exports to slip out of the country as the pandemic, and the demand for masks, soared.

Read the full story here.

U.S. will stop screening travelers from some countries for coronavirus

WASHINGTON — The United States plans to end enhanced health screening of travelers from certain countries next week, and those visitors will no longer be funneled through 15 large U.S. airports.

Those requirements were imposed in February to prevent the spread of COVID-19. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention said the government will remove those edicts beginning Monday.

The CDC said the current screening, which includes temperature checks and travelers vouching for their health, “has limited effectiveness” because some infected people show no symptoms. The health agency said instead it will focus on other measures including a stronger response to reports of illness at airports, collecting passenger-contact electronically to avoid long lines, and “potential testing to reduce the risk of travel-related transmission” of the virus.

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A sign for International Arrivals is displayed at the Seattle-Tacoma International Airport in Seattle. Beginning next week, the federal government plans to end the current system of temperature checks and travelers vouching for the health. AP Photo/Ted S. Warren, File

The extra health screening applies to people who have been in China, Iran, most countries in continental Europe, the United Kingdom, Ireland and Brazil. Most people coming from those countries who aren’t U.S. citizens have been barred entry to the country.

The Homeland Security Department did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

A trade group representing the nation’s largest carriers praised the change.

“We continue to support spending scarce screening resources where they can best be utilized,” Airlines for America said in a statement Thursday, “and, given the extremely low number of passengers identified by the CDC as potentially having a health issue, agree that it no longer makes sense to continue screening at these airports.”

Separately, 18 travel and airline groups asked the administration to start pre-flight virus testing as a way to reopen international travel. The groups argue that more screening could allow countries to lift travel restrictions and quarantines that have shut down most travel between the U.S. and Europe.

Senate votes down McConnell-backed coronavirus bill

WASHINGTON – Democrats blocked a GOP coronavirus relief bill in a disputed Senate vote Thursday, leaving the two parties without a clear path to approving new economic stimulus before the November elections.

The vote, 52-47, was short of the 60 votes that would have been needed for the measure to advance. Democrats were united in opposing the legislation; all Republicans voted in favor except Sen. Rand Paul, R-Ky.

For Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., wrangling a majority of the Senate behind the legislation constituted a measure of success after months when Senate Republicans have been divided. But next steps – if any – toward the kind of bipartisan deal that would be needed to pass a bill to provide new benefits to the public were unclear.

Negotiations between congressional Democrats and administration officials collapsed in August and have not restarted. Lawmakers from both major political parties did not close the door to future talks, but they also did not appear ready to relaunch negotiations.

The Senate vote comes amid pleas from Federal Reserve officials and others who have said more fiscal assistance is needed to prevent the economy from sliding further this year. Many of the benefits approved by Congress in the $2 trillion Cares Act in March have run out. Enhanced unemployment benefits expired July 31, and $1,200 stimulus checks largely have been spent. About 29 million Americans received some type of jobless aid last week, new Labor Department data shows, and large parts of the economy remain strained.

Executive actions President Donald Trump took last month to try to substitute for congressional inaction are petering out. A Federal Emergency Management Agency fund Trump tapped to provide additional unemployment insurance benefits is depleting rapidly.

“The needs must be met,” House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., said Thursday. “We need every penny in order to stop this.”

The GOP bill that was defeated Thursday contained new money for small businesses, coronavirus testing and schools, and $300 weekly enhanced unemployment benefits to replace a $600 weekly benefit that expired July 31 for about 30 million jobless workers. The measure included about $650 billion in total spending, but it would repurpose roughly $350 billion in previously approved spending, bringing the tally of new funding to about $300 billion.

The measure did not include a second round of $1,200 stimulus checks for individual Americans, even though that’s something the White House supports. It also excluded any new money for cities and states, a top Democratic priority, as municipal governments face the prospect of mass layoffs because of plunging tax revenue. And it contained some conservative priorities that Democrats dismissed as unacceptable, including liability protections for businesses and a tax credit aimed at helping students attend private schools.

Read the full story here.

DeVos drops rule giving coronavirus aid to private schools after judge rules it was illegal

WASHINGTON – Education Secretary Betsy DeVos quietly has dropped a controversial rule directing states to give private schools a bigger share of federal coronavirus aid than Congress had intended after a federal judge ruled that it violated the law.

The case involved the distribution of about $13.5 billion that Congress included in its $2 trillion Coronavirus Aid, Relief and Economic Security (Cares) Act, passed in March, to mitigate economic damage from the coronavirus pandemic.

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Education Secretary Betsy DeVos pauses as she testifies during a hearing of a House Appropriations Sub-Committee in February. AP Photo/Alex Brandon, File

The Education Department did not respond to a query about the issue. The department did not announce the decision to drop the rule but put it in an update Wednesday about the Cares Act. The department said that the U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia had ordered the rule vacated on Friday, Sept. 4, and that, therefore, the rule “is no longer in effect.”

Lawmakers from both parties said that most of the Cares Act’s K-12 education funding was intended to be distributed to public and private elementary and secondary schools using a formula based on how many poor children they serve that had long been used for distributing federal aid.

But DeVos said she wanted money sent to private schools based on the total number of students in the school, not how many students from low-income families attended. That would have sent hundreds of millions of dollars more to private schools than Congress had intended.

On July 1, a rule from the Education Department took effect that it billed as a compromise, though critics said it was not much better than the original plan. The department said that school districts may distribute Cares Act funding to private schools based on the number of poor students they enroll – but if they do that, they can use the funding only for the benefit of poor students. School districts say that was impossible to implement.

On Friday, federal judge Dabney Friedrich ordered that the rule be vacated because it violated the law. “In enacting the education funding provisions of the CARES Act, Congress spoke with a clear voice,” Friedrich wrote, saying that DeVos did not follow the law when she changed the formula for distributing the funds to private schools.

Friedrich was the third judge who ruled against DeVos on the rule. Two earlier cases were heard in Washington and California, and both judges put a hold on the implementation of the rule in limited areas of the country. Friedrich’s decision covered the entire country and ordered that the rule be vacated.

As students return, COVID-19 deaths of at least 6 teachers renew pandemic fears

Teachers had just returned last month to prepare for the fall semester at John Evans Middle School in Potosi, Mo., when 34-year-old AshLee DeMarinis started to feel ill.

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AshLee DeMarinis, a middle school teacher in eastern Missouri’s Potosi School District, died Sunday after being hospitalized for three weeks with COVID-19. DeMarinis became ill last month before kids returned to class, but had been to her classroom preparing for the school year, her sister said. ( AP) Jennifer Heissenbuttel via Associated PRess

DeMarinis had been worried about returning to work at the rural middle school, where she was starting her 11th year of teaching. She had asthma, which put her at a higher risk for complications from COVID-19 despite her young age.

“She was scared,” her sister, Jennifer Heissenbuttel, told The Washington Post.

Three weeks later, DeMarinis died in the hospital after testing positive for the novel coronavirus and suffering from complications caused by the infection.

DeMarinis is not the only teacher to die amid the pandemic as children return to schools across the United States. Educators in Missouri, Mississippi, South Carolina, Iowa and Oklahoma have died as the fall semester started in their districts.

Read the full story.

UK’s ‘Moonshot’ mass virus test plan met with skepticism

LONDON  — Health experts on Thursday expressed strong skepticism about the British government’s ambitious plans to carry out millions of coronavirus tests daily in a bid to help people resume normal lives in the absence of a vaccine.

Prime Minister Boris Johnson said Wednesday he wanted to roll out much simpler, faster mass testing “in the near future” to identify people who don’t have the virus so that they can “behave in a more normal way in the knowledge they can’t infect anyone else.” Johnson said people with such negative “passports” could then attend events at places like theaters, and he said he was “hopeful” that the plan will be widespread by springtime.

Johnson made the comments as he announced strict new measures to try to curb a sharp recent rise in COVID-19 cases across Britain. From Monday, social gatherings of more than six people will be banned in England — both indoors and outdoors — and Johnson hinted that such restrictions will potentially remain in place until or through Christmas.

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Boris Johnson announced Wednesday that the legal limit on social gatherings is set to be reduced from 30 people to six. as the British government seeks to curb the rise in coronavirus cases. Stefan Rousseau/Pool via Associated Press

Health professionals were quick to question the mass testing claims, with one expert calling the strategy — known as “Operation Moonshot” — “fundamentally flawed.”

“It is being based on technology that does not, as yet, exist,” said Dr. David Strain, clinical lecturer at the University of Exeter. Johnson’s suggestion of new tests that can give rapid results like a pregnancy test is “unlikely if not impossible” by the spring, he said, and the technology is far from reliable.

“Existing technology has been demonstrated to miss up to one-third of people who have COVID-19 in early disease. After a second test 48 hours later, we still miss over a quarter of people,” he said.

Officials say Britain currently have the capacity to process about 370,000 tests a day, and aim to ramp this up to 500,000 daily by the end of October. Government data show that about 176,000 tests are actually processed each day.

British media have cited cases of people struggling to book tests — with some being told to travel to the opposite end of the country to get tested.

Like many other European countries, Britain needs to act fast to contain a renewed spread of coronavirus as the winter flu season looms. The number of daily laboratory-confirmed positive cases in the U.K. hit nearly 3,000 on Sunday.

The U.K. has Europe’s worst death toll from the virus, with nearly 41,600 deaths within 28 days of testing positive. The actual toll is believed to be far higher as the government tally doesn’t include those who died without having been tested

British epidemiologist warns of virus ‘uptick’

LONDON — The epidemiologist whose modeling heavily influenced the British government to impose a lockdown in March has warned that fresh restrictions may have to be re-imposed in coming weeks to deal with a rise in new coronavirus cases.

Neil Ferguson from Imperial College London said he was “encouraged” that the government is banning social gatherings of more than six people from Monday, noting that “one of the mistakes” in the early days of the pandemic this year was an overly “cautious” approach.

Still, he told BBC radio that “all the analysis” suggested there would be an “uptick in deaths in the coming weeks, so now is the time to respond.”

The U.K. has seen Europe’s deadliest virus outbreak, with around 41,600 deaths.

Ferguson added that if the transmission rates don’t fall markedly so the epidemic starts shrinking again, then “we may need to clamp down in other areas.”

France extends virus-related unemployment benefits

PARIS — France is extending temporary virus-related unemployment benefits until next summer, amid prolonged economic fallout from lockdown.

Labor Minister Elisabeth Borne said Thursday on BFM television that the government will continue paying up to 84% of salaries for workers at struggling companies. She said the idea is “so that companies can keep jobs and skills” while they restructure or retrain people.

France’s government has already spent tens of billions of euros on this temporary unemployment system since the country’s strict lockdown in spring to try to avoid mass joblessness.

Most companies have resumed activity but the economy is still struggling, and the government announced a 100 billion euro ($118 billion) stimulus plan last week.

France’s virus infections have been rising again in recent weeks, following summer holidays and then a return to work and school en masse. The Marseille region is a new hotspot, with doctors warning that intensive care units dedicated to COVID-19 patients are filling fast.

L.A. bans, then rescinds ban on trick-or-treating

LOS ANGELES — Los Angeles Country health officials have walked back some Halloween rules just a day after issuing orders that would have restricted trick-or-treating and other Halloween traditions because of the coronavirus pandemic.

The county Department of Health initially said Tuesday that trick-or-treating, haunted houses and Halloween parades would be banned because those activities make it difficult to maintain social distancing.

The new guidelines issued Wednesday stop short of prohibiting kids from going door to door to collect candy. Officials, however, are encouraging online parties, meals at outdoor restaurants, Halloween-themed art installations at outdoor museums and decorating homes and yards.


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