The latest on the coronavirus pandemic. 

WASHINGTON — Federal investigators have found “reasonable grounds” that a government whistleblower was punished for speaking out against widespread use of an unproven drug that President Trump touted as a remedy for COVID-19, his lawyers said Friday.

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Dr. Rick Bright in 2017 Health and Human Services via AP

Dr. Rick Bright headed the Biomedical Advanced Research and Development Authority, a unit of Department of Health and Human Services that focuses on countermeasures to infectious diseases and bioterrorism. He had received a job performance review of outstanding before he was summarily transferred last month, with his agency email cut off without warning.

Investigators with the Office of Special Counsel “made a threshold determination that HHS violated the Whistleblower Protection Act by removing Dr. Bright from his position because he made protected disclosures in the best interest of the American public,” his lawyers Debra Katz and Lisa Banks said in a statement. The OSC is an agency that investigates allegations of egregious personnel practices in government.

The lawyers said investigators are requesting that Bright be temporarily reinstated for 45 days until they can complete their probe. OSC spokesman Zachary Kurz said his agency “cannot comment on or confirm the status of open investigations.”

HHS spokeswoman Caitlin Oakley said in a statement that the department “strongly disagrees with the allegations and characterizations in the complaint” and that the whole issue is a “personnel matter that is currently under review.”

Trump shrugged off the preliminary ruling about Bright’s complaint.

Read the full story on Dr. Rick Bright here.

Trump says ‘no rush’ on more aid as jobless crisis grows

WASHINGTON — President Trump said Friday that he’s in “no rush” to negotiate another financial rescue bill, even as the government reported that more than 20 million Americans lost their jobs last month because of the economic upheaval caused by the coronavirus.

The president’s low-key approach came as the Labor Department reported the highest unemployment rate since the Great Depression and as Democrats prepared to unveil what Senate Democratic leader Chuck Schumer calls a “Rooseveltian-style” aid package to shore up the economy and address the health crisis.

Some congressional conservatives, meanwhile, who set aside long-held opposition to deficits to pass more than $2 trillion in relief so far, have expressed reservations about another massive spending package.

“We’ve kind of paused as far as formal negotiations go,” Larry Kudlow, the director of the National Economic Council, told reporters Friday. He said the administration wanted to let the last round of recovery funding kick in before committing to hundreds of billions or more in additional spending. “Let’s have a look at what the latest round produces, give it a month or so to evaluate that.”

Kudlow added that talks were in a “lull” and that administration officials and legislators would “regroup” in the next several weeks.

Still, White House aides are drawing up a wish-list for a future spending bill, including a payroll tax cut, liability protection for businesses that reopen and potentially billions in infrastructure spending.

Read the full story about the president’s position here.

Store workers become enforcers of social distancing rules

NEW YORK — Sandy Jensen’s customer-service job at a Sam’s Club in Fullerton, California, normally involves checking member ID cards at the door and answering questions. But the coronavirus has turned her into a kind of store sheriff.

Dilon Moore

Dilon Moore disinfects shopping carts and controls the number of customers allowed to shop at one time at a Trader Joe’s supermarket in Omaha, Neb., on Thursday. Store workers across the country are suddenly being asked to enforce the rules that govern shopping during the coronavirus pandemic. Nati Harnik/Associated Press

Now she must confront shoppers who aren’t wearing masks and enforce social distancing measures such as limits on the number of people allowed inside. The efforts sometimes provoke testy customers.

“They are behaving worse now,” Jensen said. “Everybody is on edge. I have hostile members in my face.”

Her frustration is shared by store workers across the country, who are suddenly being asked to enforce the rules that govern shopping during the pandemic, a tension-filled role for which most of them have received little or no training. The burden is sure to become greater as more businesses in nearly a dozen states start to reopen.

Even if a security guard is posted at the store, employees complain they are often left to stand up to defiant shoppers.

“I think that people are pushing back because their freedoms are being controlled,” said Marc Perrone, president of the United Food and Commercial Workers International Union, which represents 1.3 million members including grocery workers. “Members don’t feel comfortable trying to corral the customer. Management will take the customer side.”

Store tensions recently resulted in violence in at least two states. A Michigan security officer was fatally shot last week after telling a customer to wear a mask at a Family Dollar store. Two McDonald’s employees in Oklahoma City were shot Wednesday by a customer who was angry that the restaurant’s dining area was closed, police said.

Read the full story about store workers here.

Pence’s spokeswoman tests positive for coronavirus

WASHINGTON — Vice President Mike Pence’s press secretary has the coronavirus, the White House said Friday, making her the second person who works at the White House complex known to test positive for the virus this week.

President Trump, who publicly identified the affected Pence aide, said he was “not worried” about the virus spreading in the White House. Nonetheless, officials said they were stepping up safety protocols for the complex.

Pence spokeswoman Katie Miller, who tested positive Friday, had been in recent contact with Pence but not with the president. She is married to Stephen Miller, a top Trump adviser. The White House had no immediate comment on whether Stephen Miller had been tested or if he was still working out of the White House.

Katie Miller had tested negative Thursday, a day before her positive result.

“This is why the whole concept of tests aren’t necessarily great,” Trump said. “The tests are perfect but something can happen between a test where it’s good and then something happens.”

The positive test for the senior Pence aide came one day after White House officials confirmed that a member of the military serving as one of Trump’s valets had tested positive for COVID-19.

Read the full story about the White House here.

Canadian provinces allow locked-down households to ‘bubble’ or pair up

Pearl Martin was driving when she heard the news.

The Canadian province of Newfoundland and Labrador would be tepidly easing coronavirus controls. After weeks being told to avoid physical contact with those outside their household bubbles, residents from one household would now be able to mingle with those in another.

Malik and Liam Frenette play lacrosse with their bubble family as their parents cheer them on in Dieppe, Canada. Karen Stentaford/The Washington Post

Martin, a retired teacher in Clarenville, Newfoundland, bubbled over. She thought immediately of her daughter, Michelle, and 4-year-old granddaughter, Penelope. She hadn’t been able to hug the little girl since mid-March.

But as she cruised along, a new thought burst her bubble.

“On no,” Martin realized. “I have a son as well. I can’t pick.”

While jurisdictions around the world begin to relax their coronavirus restrictions, a handful are pioneering a novel — and potentially fraught — approach: The double bubble.

There are rules — and they’re not for the commitment phobic. Each household may join with only one other household. Both sides must agree — for better, for worse — to a mutually exclusive relationship. The decision applies to all members of both households. And it’s final.

Which is creating no shortage of thorny dilemmas and potential for hurt feelings. How do you pick between your kids, or your in-laws? What if your dimwitted brother won’t stop calling to bubble up? What if your preferred household is taken?

What if it says it’s not ready for a relationship right now, but wants you to know you’ll make another household really happy one day?

The arrangement isn’t unique to Newfoundland and Labrador. New Brunswick has also introduced it. So has the English Channel island of Guernsey.

The potential for uncomfortable conversation and inter-household tension knows no borders.

Read the full story.

New England starts to reopen even as virus concerns persist

OLD ORCHARD BEACH — Much of New England is slowly emerging from a six-week lockdown, with greenhouses, golf courses and barber shops rolling out the welcome mat for customers eager to return to some sense of normalcy.

But the partial reopening in Maine, New Hampshire, Vermont and soon Rhode Island comes amid concerns about adequate testing and contact tracing, as well as hundreds of new cases each day. Many business owners also worry whether the reopening, especially in places like Maine, will come too late to salvage the summer tourism season.

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Willow Roach works on a putting green at the Pirate Cove miniature golf course in Old Orchard Beach. The tourist attraction is planning to open at the end of the month. Associated Press/Robert F. Bukaty

“Everyone has been cooped up, frustrated with wearing masks,” said Dave Gravino, owner of Iggy’s Doughboys and Chowder House, who hopes to open soon to outdoor diners in Rhode Island. “I feel we’re turning a corner. But I think it’s going to be a slow process.”

Many businesses are cheering the news. But a Harvard University epidemiologist sounded a pessimistic tone this week, pointing to a lack of disease surveillance and protections for the most vulnerable.

“I can’t point to any place in the U.S. that I would feel good about saying I think now is the time for that place to open up,” said Dr. Michael Mina, professor of immunology and infectious diseases, pointing to fears of a second, more destructive wave of illnesses.

The other concern is a resurgence in cases as the summer tourism season arrives and scores of residents from corona hotspots like Massachusetts and New York City head northward to vacation homes and rented cabins.

During the Spanish Flu of 1918, the dangerous virus took several months longer to reach rural areas in Maine. But when it did, it struck with a vengeance, said Dr. Dora Anne Mills, an executive at MaineHealth and the state’s former top health officer.

Maine’s northernmost and easternmost counties ended up with the highest death rates in the state, she said.

Airlines step up pressure for government-run temperature checks

JetBlue is the latest airline to urge government officials to add temperature screenings for air travelers.

Joanna Geraghty, JetBlue’s president and chief operating officer, said in an interview with CNN Friday that while temperature checks might not be effective for asymptomatic people, they could still alert authorities to someone who should not be flying.

“Our perspective is there needs to be a global industry solution for this,” she said. “Different standards for different airlines is going to be challenging for the traveling public. If you show up in an airport and one airline does temperature checks one way and another does it another way, that’s just hard for consumers. Our recommendation is for the government to step in and handle that service.”

Her comments echoed those of Southwest Airlines CEO Gary Kelly, who told CBS News this week that he was urging the Transportation Security Administration to start checking temperatures as part of a checkpoint screening process. Frontier Airlines, which became the first U.S. airline to announce its own temperature scans on Thursday, also urged government authorities to take over the job.

Geraghty said she expected to see more developments around health requirements and flying soon.

“I think a lot will be changing in the next few weeks around what the industry is going to do and, more importantly, what that nationwide standard should be and whether the government will be stepping in and setting some of those nationwide requirements,” she said.

A TSA statement late Thursday said the agency had not made any decisions about airport health screenings.

“Ongoing discussions with our [Department of Homeland Security] and interagency colleagues, as well as our airport and airline partners, will enable the agency to make informed decisions with regard to the health and safety of the aviation environment,” the statement said. “The safety and security of the traveling public and our employees will always be our top priority.”

Trump is now downplaying coronavirus testing. Deborah Birx just did the opposite.

One day after President Trump complained that the amount of coronavirus testing that is happening nationwide makes the United States “look bad,” Deborah Birx, the White House coronavirus response coordinator, said such efforts are essential and should be stepped up.

Birx’s comments came Thursday evening in an answer to a pointed question from CNN anchor Anderson Cooper, who wanted to know whether she agreed with Trump’s take on testing. While Birx did not answer directly when asked whether testing looks bad, she wholeheartedly endorsed the need for it.

“I’ve been very encouraged about two parts of the testing,” Birx said during a CNN town hall. “One, the dramatic increase in the number of tests we’re doing per week. We hope this week to get close or over 8 million; we’re going up.”

Jobless rate soared to 14.7% in April as U.S. shed 20.5 million jobs

The U.S. unemployment rate jumped to 14.7 percent in April, the highest level since the Great Depression, as most businesses shut down or severely curtailed operations to fight the deadly coronavirus.

Over 20 million people lost their jobs in April, the Labor Department said Friday, wiping out a decade of job gains in a single month. The staggering losses are more than double what the nation experienced during the 2007-09 crisis, which used to be described as the harshest economic situation most people ever confronted. Now that has been quickly dwarfed by the fallout from the global pandemic.

President Trump and numerous state and local leaders decided to put the economy in a deep freeze in an effort to minimize exposure to the virus. This led businesses to suddenly shed millions of workers at a rapid rate never seen before. Analysts warn it could take many years to return to the 3.5 percent unemployment rate the nation experienced in February.

The sudden economic contraction has forced millions of Americans to turn to food banks and seek government aid for the first time or stop paying rent and other bills. As they go without paychecks for weeks, some have also lost health insurance and even put their homes up for sale.

Read the full story.

Trump administration pushed use of remdesivir, but unequal rollout angers doctors

The rollout of the first and only treatment for COVID-19 is being criticized by doctors across the country as confusing, unfair and marred by incomplete medical information, just a week after its manufacturer, Gilead Sciences, and the Trump administration raised hopes by announcing that the drug shortened hospital stays of some patients.

Demand for remdesivir exploded after the Food and Drug Administration, citing the results, made an emergency use authorization for the experimental drug. The Trump administration has maintained control of distribution of the drug, which is in limited supply.

Doctors in several hospitals, including some that have seen surges in people with COVID-19, the disease caused by the novel coronavirus, say they cannot get access to remdesivir for their patients – and that they don’t understand the process for obtaining the drug. In Boston, Massachusetts General Hospital said it is in line to receive the drug, but two other large teaching hospitals have been denied supplies without explanation, doctors said.

“The thing that is upsetting is the process at the federal level. There’s no transparency. We don’t know who made the decision, or how it has been done. The process is just a staggering injustice,” Benjamin Linas, an infectious-disease doctor at Boston Medical Center, which treats large numbers of African-American and Hispanic patients on Medicaid, said in an interview.

Linas noted in a tweet this week that the hospital has the second highest coronavirus case count in Boston: “Today, the family of a dying patient asked me why we do not have [remdesivir]. What am I supposed to say?”

The White House, the president’s coronavirus task force, the Office of the Assistant Secretary for Preparedness and Response (ASPR) – which is coordinating distribution of the drug – and the Department of Health and Human Services, ASPR’s parent agency,did not respond to questions about the physicians’ complaints Thursday.

ASPR has retained the large drug distribution company AmerisourceBergen to deliver the drug around the country. The company said it is taking direction from the government about where to distribute remdesivir, and in what quantities.

Read the full story.

South Korea could push back school reopening if virus cases rise

SEOUL, South Korea — South Korea’s top infectious disease expert says the country could possibly push back plans to reopen schools if coronavirus infections surge again over the weekend after a weeks-long decline.

Jeong Eun-kyeong, director of the Korea Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, made the comments on Friday while addressing fears of a broader spread of COVID-19 in the densely populated Seoul metropolitan area after health workers detected more than a dozen infections linked to nightclubs.

A slowing caseload in previous weeks had allowed officials to relax social distancing guidelines and schedule a reopening of schools, starting with high school seniors on May 13.

“At this moment, it’s too early to say whether we need to postpone the opening of schools, but we will monitor the spread of the virus and review information from our epidemiological investigations throughout today and tomorrow before determining the risks and discussing the matter with related ministries,” she said during a virus briefing.

The government issued an administrative order advising nightclubs, hostess bars and similar entertainment venues around the country to close for a month after officials detected at least 15 infections linked to a 29-year-old patient, who visited three clubs in Seoul’s Itaewon district on Saturday before testing positive on Wednesday.

Jeong said the patient did not wear masks inside the clubs and that the number of infections will likely rise as health workers are still tracing and testing his contacts.

China, South Korea report more cases of coronavirus

SEOUL, South Korea — China and South Korea both reported more coronavirus infections Friday after reopening economies damaged by devastating outbreaks. Around the globe, governments are opting to accept the risks of easing pandemic-fighting restrictions that left huge numbers of people without income or safety nets.

In the U.S., some governors are disregarding or creatively interpreting White House guidelines in easing their states’ lockdowns and letting businesses reopen. An Associated Press analysis found 17 states appeared to have not met one of the key benchmarks set by the White House for loosening up — a 14-day downward trajectory in new cases or positive test rates.

South Korea’s 13 fresh cases reported Friday were its first increase higher than 10 in five days. A dozen were linked to a 29-year-old who visited three nightclubs in Seoul last weekend.

“A drop of ink in clear water spreads swiftly,” Vice Health Minister Kim Gang-lip said, urging vigilance to guard hard-won gains. “Anyone can become that drop of ink that spreads COVID-19.”

In China, where the new coronavirus first emerged, authorities reported 17 new cases, including 16 people that tested positive but were not showing symptoms. No new deaths have been reported for more than three weeks, and 260 people remain hospitalized for COVID-19 treatment.

 


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