WASHINGTON — The head of the IRS, on the defensive over millions of Americans in danger of missing coronavirus relief payments, said Wednesday the agency is reaching out to low-income and homeless people, military personnel and veterans and those with limited English to notify them they may be eligible for the aid.

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Internal Revenue Service Commissioner Charles Rettig told Congress on Wednesday that his agency has delivered about 170 million payments totaling over $270 billion, mostly by direct deposit but also in paper checks or prepaid debit cards, to Americans since March. Tasos Katopodis/Pool via Associated Press

People who don’t normally file tax returns are among those being targeted, Internal Revenue Service Commissioner Charles Rettig told a hearing by a House oversight panel.

A congressional watchdog found that millions could miss the payments of up to $1,200 per individual because of incomplete government records. Nearly 9 million individuals who are eligible for the so-called economic impact payments hadn’t yet received them, the Government Accountability Office recently estimated.

“People can’t afford to just wait. They need that assistance now,” said Democratic Rep. Gerald Connolly of Virginia, who heads the House Oversight Committee’s government operations panel.

A day after cutting off talks with Democratic leaders in Congress over a new COVID-19 relief package, President Trump pressed Wednesday for passage of fresh $1,200 relief checks, among a few other items.

The universal payments were mandated in late March as part of Congress’ unprecedented $2.6 trillion in aid to cushion the blow from the staggering recession and economic shutdowns set off by the global pandemic. Since then, Rettig testified, the IRS has delivered about 170 million payments totaling over $270 billion, mostly by direct deposit but also in paper checks or prepaid debit cards.

“Although the IRS has sent out the vast majority of these payments, it continues its extensive outreach efforts into the historically underserved communities of our nation,” he told the hearing.

All adults earning up to $75,000 in adjusted gross income annually are entitled to $1,200 ($2,400 for married couples filing jointly) — with those amounts steadily declining for those earning more and phasing out entirely for people earning over $99,000. There are payments of up to $500 for each qualifying child.

Lawmakers on the panel decried the diminished funding for the IRS, now further strained by the pandemic. Delayed income tax refunds, hampered audit and enforcement efforts, and a revenue drain for the Treasury are the results, they said. Technology lapses in an outdated agency system forced the shutdown of call centers and Taxpayer Assistance Centers in this year’s filing season.

Wisconsin activates field hospital as COVID-19 keeps surging

MADISON, Wis. — Wisconsin health officials announced Wednesday that a field hospital will open next week at the state fairgrounds near Milwaukee as a surge in COVID-19 cases threatens to overwhelm hospitals.

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Wisconsin Gov. Tony Evers announced Wednesday that they’ve opened a field hospital at the state fairgrounds near Milwaukee as a surge in COVID-19 cases threatens to overwhelm hospitals. Morry Gash/Associated Press

Wisconsin has become a hot spot for the disease over the last month, ranking third nationwide this week in new cases per capita over the last two weeks. Health experts have attributed the spike to the reopening of colleges and K-12 schools as well as general fatigue over wearing masks and socially distancing.

State Department of Health Services Secretary Andrea Palm told reporters during a video conference that the facility will open on Oct. 14.

“We hoped this day wouldn’t come, but unfortunately, Wisconsin is in a much different, more dire place today and our healthcare systems are beginning to become overwhelmed by the surge of COVID-19 cases,” Democratic Gov. Tony Evers said in a statement. “This alternative care facility will take some of the pressure off our healthcare facilities while expanding the continuum of care for folks who have COVID-19.”

The move also came as a state judge was considering a lawsuit seeking to strike down Evers’ mandate that masks be worn in enclosed public spaces. The governor on Tuesday issued new restrictions on the size of indoor public gatherings through Nov. 6.

Only 16 percent of the state’s 11,452 hospital beds were available as of Tuesday afternoon, according to the DHS. The number of hospitalized COVID-19 patients had grown to 853, it’s highest during the pandemic according to the COVID Tracking Project, with 216 in intensive care.

Results of COVID-19 tests on an additional 262 in-patients in Wisconsin were pending. The southeastern region of the state had 250 COVID-19 patients, the most of any of the state’s seven hospital regions.

Nationwide, about 30,000 coronavirus patients are hospitalized, the COVID Tracking Project reported.

Patriots cancel practices after Stephon Gilmore tests positive for virus

FOXBOROUGH, Mass. — The New England Patriots canceled practices for Wednesday and Thursday amid reports that a third player has tested positive for the coronavirus.

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New England Patriots cornerback Stephon Gilmore, left, talks with Kansas City Chiefs quarterback Patrick Mahomes after an NFL football game on Monday in Kansas City. Gilmore has since tested positive for COVID-19. Charlie Riedel/Associated Press

NFL Network and Sports Illustrated reported that reigning NFL Defensive Player of the Year Stephon Gilmore tested positive for the virus on Wednesday and was added to the team’s reserve/COVID-19 list. The Patriots did not give a reason for the cancellations and didn’t immediately respond when asked if it was in response to a third positive test.

Patriots coach Bill Belichick’s scheduled session with reporters was also pushed back until Thursday.

Starting quarterback Cam Newton missed New England’s loss at Kansas City on Monday night after a positive COVID-19 test and was added to the reserve list Saturday. Practice squad player Bill Murray joined him on the list Tuesday.

Newton’s positive test prompted the NFL to postpone New England’s game with the Chiefs by a day.

Newton tweeted a picture of himself Wednesday morning wearing a mask, along with the caption: “WEAR YOUR MASK. KEEP YOUR DISTANCE.”

For now the Patriots are still scheduled to host the Denver Broncos on Sunday.

Patriots players had the day off Tuesday, meaning that Friday could be their only practice this week if the game proceeds as planned. Players and coaches will conduct meetings remotely Thursday.

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Vermont fruit orchard reports coronavirus outbreak among migrant workers

A Vermont fruit orchard has reported a coronavirus outbreak among migrant workers, with 27 men reporting positive tests as of Wednesday.

Champlain Orchards in Addison County has been closed “until further notice,” according to the orchard’s website, after most of its seasonal staff, all of whom are Jamaican migrants, tested positive for the coronavirus. The 250-acre orchard produces apples, pears, plums, cherries, peaches, nectarines, apricots and berries that are distributed across Vermont, Massachusetts and New York.

Champlain Orchards employs 35 full-time staffers and 40 seasonal workers, all of whom had been tested as recently as Tuesday morning. The orchard said in a news release that the workers who tested positive are under isolation in a labor house — most of them are asymptomatic and “voluntarily choosing” to still work on harvesting the fruit crop. One man was hospitalized but has since been released.

“We are working closely with several organizations to ensure that these men can receive proper medical care without fear of financial consequences,” the orchard said in the release.

Vermont Health Commissioner Mark Levine said at a Monday news briefing that the state’s health department first received a report of a positive coronavirus case at the orchard last week and conducted contact tracing. Since February, Vermont has reported at least 1,827 infections and nine deaths.

“At this time, the outbreak is contained to the farm, and I want to emphasize there is no known risk to the public,” Levine said. “It is also safe to eat apples and other products that are grown or produced by the orchards.”

The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has said that the risk of infection from eating or handling produce is very low, but farms and orchards across the United States have struggled to contain the coronavirus among migrant workers.

In the U.S., states – not science – decide what counts as a coronavirus outbreak

In Michigan, two coronavirus infections in the same workplace constitutes an outbreak. In New York City, public school buildings must close when two people in two different classrooms catch the virus. But Iowa will not announce coronavirus outbreaks at many businesses unless 10 percent of employees are actively infected, and even 10 percent of students becoming ill may not be enough to close a school.

The nation’s patchwork pandemic response has led to wide disparities in data reporting, and even in definitions for basic medical concepts. In the absence of federal standards, states have adopted divergent and sometimes scientifically questionable approaches to disease control, which experts say have allowed the virus to spread.

“If I get things under control but my neighbor is using different criteria and allows more disease, then I’m still in trouble,” said epidemiologist Cyrus Shahpar, chief science officer for coronavirus response at the nonprofit Resolve to Save Lives. “We’re never going to get past this unless we get on the same page.”

Setting safety standards and tracking cases in school systems should be a federal responsibility, said Randi Weingarten, president of the 1.7 million-member American Federation of Teachers. Without guidance from the CDC, she argued, reopening policies are being set according to state officials’ political preferences. The governors of all four states that have ordered schools to reopen are Republicans. Of the nine jurisdictions with state-ordered closures, all but West Virginia have Democratic governors.

The lack of CDC guidance has also put the onus of developing a pandemic response on local health departments, most of which have far less expertise than the federal agency.

Jennifer Rombalksi, public health director for La Crosse, Wis., said her staff members spent the first few months of the pandemic developing their own guidelines for nursing homes, tools for business and dashboards for reporting coronavirus data.

“In a time like COVID-19,” she said, “for us to be all working on creating guidance materials at the same time when it should just be so much more coordinated has been really frustrating.”

Even in California, where three confirmed coronavirus infections in a workplace count as an outbreak, this information doesn’t always become public.

Eli Lilly seeks authorization of drug to prevent severe cases of COVID-10

Pharmaceutical giant Eli Lilly & Co. is seeking emergency-use authorization to provide its antibody drug to high-risk patients with mild or moderate cases of COVID-19 in the United States.

The Eli Lilly antibody drug is aimed at treating patients who are not yet hospitalized, to help prevent severe cases of the disease. It is the same class of medicine as the experimental treatment that was given to President Trump. Trump was treated with an experimental drug made by Regeneron Pharmaceuticals, which is also in discussions with regulators to see if its data merits an emergency-use authorization that could make it available outside a clinical trial.

The company has not published data yet, but it announced the results of a combination therapy of two monoclonal antibodies and a single monoclonal antibody alone. According to the company, the drugs reduced the amount of virus in people’s noses, decreased symptoms and prevented visits to emergency rooms or hospitals, although there were small numbers of those follow-up medical visits for both patients who received the drug and those who got a placebo.

Any treatment to prevent moderate or mild disease from becoming worse could be transformative in the pandemic, but these medicines will be in short supply, creating difficult questions about how to prioritize the drug.

There were more than 300,000 cases of COVID-19 in the last week in the United States. Eli Lilly has projected having 100,000 doses available in October, and as many as 1 million doses by the end of the year.

Cuomo issues restrictions in parts of New York

ALBANY, N.Y. — New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo says there will be restrictions in certain coronavirus hotspots in the state, including shutdowns of businesses, houses of worship and schools.

The rules will take effect no later than Friday in parts of Brooklyn and Queens, sections of Orange and Rockland counties north of the city, and an area within Binghamton near the Pennsylvania border.

The planned restrictions include school and nonessential business shutdowns in some areas. Others would see limits on gatherings and in restaurants.

Agudath Israel of America, an Orthodox Jewish umbrella organization, criticized what it said was a “surprise” measure and the 10-person limit in red zones, saying religious practices were being targeted. Cuomo says it’s “about protecting people and saving lives.”

In New York City, about 11,600 people have tested positive since Sept. 1, compared with less than 7,400 in August. In early April, 5,000 to 6,000 people or more tested positive each day when there was less testing.

The city has been averaging around four deaths from COVID-19 per day since Sept. 1, compared with nearly 550 daily in April.

Australian officials say vaccine rollout no sooner than mid-2021

CANBERRA, Australia — Australian officials consider a rollout of a coronavirus vaccine no sooner than mid-2021.

Treasurer Josh Frydenberg says the Treasury and Health Departments have developed economic modelling based on an assumption that a vaccine would be widely available in Australia toward the end of next year.

More than 170 potential vaccines are in development. A June survey of 28 mostly U.S. and Canadian vaccine experts published in the Journal of General Internal Medicine found most were pessimistic a vaccine would be available before mid-2021, but thought September or October was achievable.

If trials prove successful, the University of Oxford/AstraZeneca and the University of Queensland/CSL will provide more than 84.8 million vaccine doses for the Australian population, almost entirely manufactured in Melbourne.

The government has committed to make any vaccine available for free to Australia’s population of 26 million.

Czech Republic reports record high infections

PRAGUE — Coronavirus infections in the Czech Republic have hit a record high, surpassing 4,000 cases in one day for the first time.

The Health Ministry said 4,457 people tested positive on Tuesday, almost 700 more than the previous record on Friday.

Most infected still have no or mild symptoms but the recent steep day-to-day increase is followed by an increase of people hospitalized and those who have died.

Of the total of 90,022 cases in the Czech Republic, 1,387 needed hospital treatment on Monday, according to government figures, with 326 in serious condition. That was up from 825 hospitalized at the beginning of last week with 187 in intensive care. Of the 794 people who have died of COVID-19 in the country, 169 were since Sept 28.

The government has declared a state of emergency and is strictly limiting public gatherings indoors and outdoors, limiting opening hours and number of people in bars and restaurants and closing some schools.

Warehouse issues may curb testing in UK

LONDON — Pharma giant Roche says problems at a U.K. warehouse are delaying shipments of testing products to clinics and hospitals, triggering concerns the issue may curb COVID-19 testing at a time when infection rates are rising around Britain.

Roche informed doctors about the problem at distribution center in Sussex in a letter that advised customers to “prioritize essential services only.” Britain’s National Health Service needs the materials to conduct blood tests and screening for diseases like diabetes and cancer.

Roche issued a statement saying, “we are prioritizing the dispatch of Covid-19 PCR and antibody tests and doing everything we can to ensure there is no impact on the supply of these to the NHS.”

Life returns to normal in New Zealand as virus ‘squashed’

WELLINGTON, New Zealand — New Zealand has again eliminated COVID-19 in the community as life is about to return normal in its largest city, Auckland.

From midnight Wednesday, limits on public gatherings and activities in the city will be lifted, though social distancing is advised.

The Ministry of Health said the last six active cases associated with a minor outbreak in Auckland have recovered, an announcement that Health Minister Chris Hipkins described as a big milestone.

“New Zealanders have once again through their collective actions squashed the virus,” Hipkins said.

New Zealand went 102 days without a case of community transmission before the Auckland outbreak, which concluded with 186 cases between Aug. 11 and Sept. 25.

Three new cases were reported Wednesday in people quarantined after traveling overseas, bringing the number of cases in managed isolation or quarantine facilities to 37.

 


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