The latest on the coronavirus pandemic.

WASHINGTON — President Trump and some of his officials are flirting with an outlier theory that the new coronavirus was set loose on the world by a Chinese lab that let it escape. Without the weight of evidence, they’re trying to blame China for sickness and death from COVID-19 in the United States.

“More and more, we’re hearing the story,” Trump says. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo adds: “The mere fact that we don’t know the answers – that China hasn’t shared the answers – I think is very, very telling.”

A scientific consensus is still evolving. But experts overwhelmingly say analysis of the new coronavirus’ genome rules out the possibility that it was engineered by humans, as some conspiracy theories have suggested. Nor is it likely that the virus emerged from a negligent laboratory in China, they say. “I would put it on a list of 1,000 different scenarios,” said Nathan Grubaugh of Yale University, who studies the epidemiology of microbial disease.

Scientists say the the virus arose naturally in bats. They say the leading theory is that infection among humans began at an animal market in Wuhan, China, probably from an animal that got the virus from a bat.

Even so, Pompeo and others are pointing fingers at an institute that is run by the Chinese Academy of Sciences and has done groundbreaking research tracing the likely origins of the SARS virus, finding new bat viruses and discovering how they could jump to people.

Read the full story on the White House statements here.

Thousands complain to OSHA about virus workplace safety concerns

People asked to work during the pandemic have filed thousands of complaints regarding their exposure to the novel coronavirus and a lack of safeguards at their places of employment, according to records obtained under a Freedom of Information request and reviewed by The Washington Post.

The employee complaints offer a snapshot of the fear experienced by the Americans compelled to work while the majority have been urged to stay at home, and they come from an array of workplaces: hospitals, construction companies, grocery stores, pharmacies and shipping companies, among others.

Collectively, the records depict the desperation of the employees as well as their frustrations with employers, who in the view of workers were at best simply unprepared for a pandemic and at worst callously unconcerned with worker safety.

Workers complain about shortages of masks and gloves, a lack of space that would enable them to stand six feet from one another and being forced to work with others who appear sick.

“The call center with over 400 people is unsanitary,” one complaint reads. “Employees have to share desks and people are within 2 feet from each other.”

“Delivery drivers are required to disinfect vehicles using personally bought chemicals, without been trained on the hazards associated with such activities and chemicals,” another complaint reads.

“The company has stressed hand-washing for COVID19 precaution; but 4 different bathrooms were out of hand soap yesterday and hand wipes/sanitizer supplies were lacking,” reads another. “Managers simply say they are on back-order.”

The records include numerous complaints from health-care workers, including those given “plastic ponchos” and masks made out of paper towels. Employees report a lack of hand sanitizer or soap in bathrooms; pharmacists and technicians have been forced to work in close proximity without protective gear.

Citing the Freedom of Information Act, The Post requested all worker complaints regarding the coronavirus filed with the Occupational Safety and Health Administration from January through early April. There were more than 3,000 such complaints filed. The records do not state what actions were taken as a result.

Read more about the OSHA complaints here.

Stocks climb as pandemic winners pull away on Wall Street

NEW YORK — Even in this new stay-at-home, increasingly jobless economy, some businesses are making out as clear winners, and gains for Amazon, health care companies and stocks in other pockets of the market helped prop up Wall Street Thursday.

The S&P 500 rose 0.6 percent after flipping between small gains and losses following a government report that 5.2 million Americans filed for unemployment benefits last week. The report was universally regarded as awful, and it brought the total for the last month to roughly 22 million. But markets had braced for a number that was even more awful, which helped limit losses for stocks.

The day’s move for the S&P 500 was one of its mildest since the coronavirus outbreak began knocking stocks lower two months ago. But it belied some churn underneath, as losers in the index outnumbered winners.

“We know the numbers are not going to be good, but companies can show they’ve taken steps to stop the cash drain or that they’ve positioned themselves well,” said Sal Bruno, chief investment officer at IndexIQ.

Amazon, Dollar General and Walmart all closed at record highs as people stock up on staples. Netflix also reached an all-time high as people spend more time than ever at home, while health care stocks in the S&P 500 rose 2.2 percent for the biggest gain among the 11 sectors that make up the index.

The losers in the coronavirus pandemic, meanwhile, took yet more hits. United Airlines sank 11.5 percent for the one of the worst slides in the S&P 500 after its CEO told employees that demand for travel “is essentially zero and shows no sign of improving in the near term.”

As a sector, financial stocks weighed heaviest on the market with banks continuing their weeklong slide. Worries are high that business-shutdown orders — and the punishing sweep of layoffs they’re causing — will force households and businesses to default on billions of dollars of loans. JPMorgan Chase lost 3.8 percent, and Citigroup slid 5.5 percent.

Read the full story about the stock market today here.

Stay-at-home restrictions extended until May 15 in New York

NEW YORK — New York planned for a long fight against the coronavirus outbreak amid hopeful hospitalization trends.

Gov. Andrew Cuomo extended stay-at-home restrictions Thursday at least through May 15. Cuomo said Thursday that transmission rates still need to be tamed as he prolonged the restrictions that have left most New Yorkers housebound.

New York City is getting ready to use 11,000 empty hotel rooms for coronavirus quarantines. The number of people hospitalized statewide has ticked down to around 17,000, far below initial projections. But there are still close to 2,000 newly diagnosed people coming into hospitals daily, Cuomo said.

New York recorded 606 COVID-19-related deaths Wednesday, the lowest daily number in more than a week.

“This is still continuing at a really tragic, tragic rate,” Cuomo said at a press briefing.

The governor said the requirement for New Yorkers to wear face coverings when people are out and close by other people starting Friday will also help fight the outbreak.

Meanwhile, Mayor Bill de Blasio said the city is grappling with a projected $7.4 billion loss in tax revenue because of the crisis.

Trump readies guidelines for economic recovery

WASHINGTON — President  Trump prepared to unveil national guidelines Thursday on when and how the country starts to recover from the sharp economic pain of the coronavirus pandemic as a bipartisan panel of lawmakers urged him to heed the advice of public health experts.

The new guidelines are aimed at clearing the way for an easing of restrictions in areas with low transmission of the coronavirus, while keeping them in place in harder-hit places. Ultimately, decisions on when to ease up will rest with governors.

The recommendations also will make clear that the return to normalcy will be a far longer process than Trump initially envisioned, with federal officials warning that some social distancing measures may need to remain in place through the end of the year to prevent a new outbreak.

“We’ll be opening some states much sooner than others,” Trump said Wednesday.

Trump held conference calls Thursday with lawmakers he named to a new congressional advisory task force as he aims for a swift rebound. The economic costs were clear in new federal data showing that at least 22 million Americans have been thrown out of work in the last month. But the legislators repeatedly urged the president not to sacrifice public health in an effort to reopen the economy.

“My highest priority on this task force will be to ensure the federal government’s efforts to reopen our economy are bipartisan, data-driven, and based on the expertise of public health professionals,” said Democratic Sen. Mark Warner of Virginia.

Business leaders, too, raised concerns to the president in a round of calls Wednesday, warning that a dramatic increase in testing and wider availability of protective equipment will be necessary before they can safely revive operations.

Read the full story about the expected new guidelines here.

Canada-U.S. border won’t reopen soon to nonessential travel, Trudeau says

TORONTO — Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau said Thursday the border between Canada and the United States isn’t opening any time soon for nonessential travel.

Trudeau said it will still be a “significant amount of time” before Canada can loosen such a restriction.

The U.S. and Canada agreed last month to limit border crossings to essential travel amid the pandemic but that agreement is due to expire April 19.

U.S. President Trump said Wednesday the U.S. and Canada are “doing well” amid the pandemic and said the U.S. Canada border will be among the first borders to open.

“It will be one of the early borders to be released,” Trump said.

Nearly 200,000 people cross that border everyday in normal times. Canada sends 75 percent of its exports to the U.S. and about 18 percent of American exports go to Canada.

Truck drivers and Canadians who live in the U.S. for part of the year and are returning to Canada are among those who are exempted from the current travel ban.

Federal paycheck protection loan program hits its limit

NEW YORK — The government’s paycheck protection loan program for small businesses is on hold. The Small Business Administration said Monday that it reached the $349 billion lending limit for the program. Thousands of small business owners whose loans have not yet been processed must now wait for Congress to approve a Trump administration request for another $250 billion for the program. Lawmakers have been haggling over whether to extend the program as it stands now, or whether to add provisions that among other things would help minority businesses. It’s unclear when they might reach an agreement that would allow loan approvals to continue

Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin and SBA head Jovita Carranza on Wednesday urged Congress to approve more funds. Meanwhile, thousands of businesses are still applying, hoping to get loans when Congress approves an extension of the program.

Read the full story here.

IRS glitches keeping millions from receiving stimulus checks

Many Americans woke up Wednesday expecting to find a payment of $1,200 or more from the U.S. government in their bank account, but instead they realized nothing had arrived yet — or the wrong amount was deposited. Parents of young children complained they did not receive the promised $500 check for their dependent children.

U.S. Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin has instructed the Internal Revenue Service to get payments out as fast as possible to help offset the pain of losing jobs and shutting down businesses, but numerous glitches — affecting filers who used tax preparers, parents of dependent children and people with 2019 tax returns still to be processed — are delaying payments and causing confusion.

Several million people who filed their taxes via H&R Block, TurboTax and other popular services were unable to get their payments because the IRS did not have their direct deposit information on file, according to the Treasury, companies and experts.

The IRS launched a “Get My Payment” site Wednesday for people to track the status of their payment and enter direct deposit information, but many who used it said they received a message saying “Payment Status Not Available,” a frustration that left them without answers.

Some parents told The Washington Post that they received a $1,200 payment for a single head of household or a $2,400 check for a married couple but that the IRS left out the $500-per-child-under-17 payments.

IRS and Treasury officials acknowledged they are aware of these issues and are working to fix them. A Treasury spokeswoman noted that the IRS processed nearly 80 million payments in less than three weeks. That’s just over half the 150 million payments expected to go out under the Economic Impact Payment program.

Read the full story here.

Facebook will alert people who have interacted with coronavirus misinformation

Facebook said Thursday it will begin alerting users if they have interacted with harmful misinformation about the coronavirus that the company has removed, part of a series of new, aggressive steps to combat what health authorities have described as a global “infodemic.”

The messages – which will appear in users’ News Feeds – will direct people to official, credible information from the World Health Organization in an attempt to ensure dangerous myths about the disease, its origins and how it is treated don’t continue to proliferate, either on the social-networking site or in the real world.

“We want to connect people who may have interacted with harmful misinformation about the virus with the truth from authoritative sources in case they see or hear these claims again off of Facebook,” Guy Rosen, the company’s vice president for integrity, said in a blog post. He said the warnings would appear for those who have “liked, reacted or commented” on such content.

Facebook also revealed Thursday new data illustrating the scale of its efforts so far to remove dangerous posts, photos and videos about the pandemic from its services. The company said it displayed fact-checking labels on 40 million posts, based on 4,000 articles that its third-party reviewers had rated as false just last month.

Read the full story here.

Amazon’s Jeff Bezos wants to test all employees for COVID-19

Amazon.com Chief Executive Officer Jeff Bezos said the online retail giant is developing covid-19 testing capabilities as a first step toward a system of regular checks on its employees globally.

In an annual letter to shareholders, the billionaire founder outlined other steps the e-commerce giant has taken to curb the coronavirus, from shutting down non-essential services like Amazon Books to overhauling processes at Whole Foods. The next step was regular testing for all staff — including those who showed no symptoms, he said. On Thursday, Bezos said his company had assembled a team comprising scientists, managers and software engineers to build internal testing capacity, and hoped to build its first testing lab soon.

“Regular testing on a global scale, across all industries, would both help keep people safe and help get the economy back up and running. For this to work, we as a society would need vastly more testing capacity than is currently available,” Bezos said in the letter, which offers a rare window into the thinking of the world’s richest man and his plans for the company he founded. Bezos in recent years has rarely done media interviews or commented publicly on events.

Amazon is working to keep its e-commerce operations running as the coronavirus pandemic sickens employees and disrupts supply chains. Amid criticism that Amazon wasn’t doing enough to protect workers in warehouses and on delivery routes, Bezos in March wrote to employees, thanking them for their work and predicting the outbreak “will get worse before it gets better.” He subsequently donned a mask and toured a company warehouse near Dallas, where he posed for selfies with workers.

NFL discusses playing in empty stadiums

The field and stands at Bank of America stadium are empty as a storm moves through the area before an NFL football game between the Carolina Panthers and the Dallas Cowboys in Charlotte, N.C., Sunday, Sept. 9, 2018. (AP Photo/Mike McCarn) AP

While still publicly committed to kicking off its 2020 season in September to packed stadiums, the NFL has been contemplating contingencies that include a potentially shortened schedule, holding games in empty or partially filled stadiums, and moving or rescheduling games if necessary, three people familiar with the league’s planning said Wednesday.

That revelation came on the same day the notion of the cautious return of professional sports gained a significant scientific endorsement — to go along with the more emphatic one already coming from the White House. And it underscored how the nation’s sports leagues, including the NFL, can still see only the outline of a path forward as the novel coronavirus pandemic continues, with nobody ready to say when or how games can resume.

China refutes allegations about origin of virus

BEIJING — China is refuting allegations that the coronavirus pandemic may have originated in a laboratory near the city of Wuhan where contagious samples were being stored.

Foreign Ministry spokesman Zhao Lijian cited the head of the World Health Organization and other unidentified medical experts as saying there was no evidence that transmission began from the lab and there was “no scientific basis” for such claims.

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A farewell ceremony is held for the last group of medical workers who came from outside Wuhan to help the city during the coronavirus outbreak . Associated Press/Ng Han Guan

“We always believe that this is a scientific issue and requires the professional assessment of scientists and medical experts,” Zhao told reporters at a daily briefing on Thursday.

“Only with reasonable response can the international community win this fight,” Zhao said. “China will continue to work together with other countries to help and support each other.”

China has also strongly denied claims it delayed reporting on the virus outbreak in Wuhan late last year and underreported case numbers, worsening the impact on the U.S. and other countries. The virus is widely believed to have originated with bats and have passed via another animal species to humans at a wildlife and seafood market in Wuhan, although a firm determination has yet to be made.

Allegations about a leak of the virus from the lab have been made in the U.S. media without direct evidence, and President Donald Trump has vowed to suspend funding for the World Health Organization, partly because of what he claims is its pro-China bias.

Britain set to extend lockdown

LONDON — The British government is set to extend a nationwide lockdown for several more weeks, as health officials say the coronavirus outbreak in the country is peaking.

Authorities are expected to announce an extension of restrictions on movement and business activity after a meeting Thursday of the government’s crisis committee, COBRA.

Health Secretary Matt Hancock said “it is too early to make a change” to the lockdown introduced on March 23 in an attempt to slow the spread of the virus.

But as other European countries cautiously ease their measures, U.K. authorities face pressure to explain when and how the country will reopen.

As of Wednesday, 12,868 people had died in U.K. hospitals after testing positive for coronavirus. The figure does not include deaths in nursing homes and other settings.

Chief Medical Officer Chris Whitty said the U.K. is “probably reaching the peak overall” but that officials are “not yet at the point where we can say confidently and safely this is now past the peak.”

Abe considers expanding Japan’s state of emergency

TOKYO — Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe is considering expanding an ongoing state of emergency to all of Japan from just Tokyo and other urban areas as the virus continued to spread.

He convened a meeting Thursday to get approval from experts — a step he needs to clear before issuing a declaration. An approval is expected later in the day.

In his opening remarks at the experts meeting, Economy Minister Yasutoshi Nishimura said the ongoing partial state of emergency cannot effectively slow the infections because people move in and out of the designated areas.

Abe’s April 7 state of declaration only covers Tokyo and six other prefectures deemed at highest risks of infection explosion. He initially issued a stay home request only to the people in those areas, though later expanded it to the rest of the country.

Additional measures, including nonessential business closures, are in place only in Tokyo and six other prefectures. In Japan, those measures do not carry penalties.

Abe’s coronavirus measures have been criticized for being too slow and too lax. Several local leaders have asked Abe to include their prefectures as part of the emergency, others have launched their own.

Turkish mafia boss freed

ISTANBUL — A mafia boss has been set free as Turkish prisons continue releasing inmates to ease overcrowding in prisons amid the coronavirus pandemic. The new amnesty law will free some 90,000 prisoners but keep government critics behind bars due to Turkey’s broad terror laws.

Ultranationalist Alaattin Cakici, imprisoned for 16 years, was released from an Ankara prison early Thursday, according to tweets by his lawyer. Private DHA and IHA news agencies filmed his convoy leaving the prison. Among his convictions are instigating murder, money laundering and leading an illegal criminal group.

Cakici is close to nationalist politician Devlet Bahceli, who is allied with the Turkish government.

Dozens of journalists, activists, opposition politicians and others will remain incarcerated because many of them have been imprisoned on terror-related charges. Opposition parties and rights groups have criticized the new law, which was published on the Official Gazette Wednesday.

99-year-old with a walker walks his garden, raises $14 million

LONDON — A 99-year-old military veteran has completed his quest to walk 100 laps of his garden to raise funds for the National Health Service.

Capt. Tom Moore raised some 12 million pounds ($14 million) to support health care workers during the coronavirus pandemic.

As he reached his goal, he shuffled through a guard of honor from the 1st Battalion of the Yorkshire Regiment and said he was glad to be “surrounded by the right sort of people.”

Moore, who uses a walker, sought to walk 100 laps in his 25-meter (82-foot) garden before he turned 100 on April 30. But his simple act captivated the nation in a time of crisis.

Celebrities, fellow veterans, health workers and many other Britons have rallied behind Moore after the World War II veteran appeared on national television.

 


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