The latest on the coronavirus pandemic.

UNITED NATIONS — The U.N. chief on Thursday warned the largest gathering of world leaders since the coronavirus pandemic began that it will cause “unimaginable devastation and suffering around the world,” with historic levels of hunger and famine and up to 1.6 billion people unable to earn a living unless action is taken now.

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Women carrying their children line up for vegetables from Jan Hofmeyer community services April 30 in Johannesburg, South Africa. The country is struggling to balance its fight against the coronavirus with its dire need to resume economic activity. Associated Press/Jerome Delay

Secretary-General Antonio Guterres also told the high-level meeting on measures to help low- and middle-income countries cope with fallout from the crisis that it could lead to “a loss of $8.5 trillion in global output — the sharpest contraction since the Great Depression of the 1930s.”

He called for immediate collective action in six critical areas: enhancing global financial liquidity; providing debt relief; engaging private creditors; promoting external finance; plugging leaks in tax evasion, money laundering and corruption; and adopting a recovery that tackles inequalities, injustices and climate change.

Nearly 50 world leaders spoke by video at the event along with economic experts, including the heads of the International Monetary Fund and the World Bank. But there were noticeable absences, among them the leaders of the world’s two largest economies — the United States and China, which are engaged in escalating tensions over the pandemic and other issues, and Russia.

China’s U.N. Mission said it didn’t participate “due to a scheduling conflict” and submitted a written statement. The U.S. Mission did not respond to requests for a reason why it did not speak. Guterres told reporters later that neither country could participate at a high level, but “there is a commitment from both the United States and China to be involved in this process which we very much welcome.”

Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, a co-host of the event, said the U.N. wanted to bring dozens of global leaders and finance experts together because “we need to think outside the box” in dealing with the pandemic.

Read the full story about the threat of famine here.

Face masks 79% effective in slowing COVID-19 spread at home, study finds

Wearing face masks at home can prevent pre-symptomatic transmission of the new coronavirus in households, according to a new study published in the British Medical Journal.

The findings, based on interviews with Chinese families carried out by doctors and academics in Australia, China and the United States, suggest that “precautionary (non-pharmaceutical interventions), such as mask use, disinfection and social distancing in households can prevent COVID-19 transmission during the pandemic.”

The authors, including from the Beijing Centre for Disease Control, contend that the research shows wearing masks at home to be “79% effective at curbing transmission before symptoms emerged in the first person infected.”

Four-hundred and sixty members of 124 Beijing families that had at least one confirmed case of the virus were interviewed about domestic prevention measures used before and after the onset of symptoms in a first household member to test positive.

Forty-one of the 124 families saw at least one other case of COVID-19 after a first infection. The authors warned that the practice of mask-wearing “wasn’t protective once symptoms had developed.”

Curbing family spread of the virus is crucial to wider containment, the authors believe — describing “household transmission in the pre-symptomatic or early symptomatic period” as “a driver of epidemic growth.”

“Any measure aimed at reducing this can flatten the curve,” they reported.

Read the full story on the study here.

Democrats charge OSHA isn’t protecting front-line workers

WASHINGTON — As U.S. coronavirus deaths top 100,000, Democrats are slamming the Trump administration for failing to protect front-line workers, including those at meatpacking plants and health care facilities where outbreaks of the disease are spiking.

At a House hearing Thursday, Democrats charged that the Occupational Safety and Health Administration has been “largely invisible” during the pandemic and has not found ways to combat it, such as by issuing an emergency temporary standard for worker protection.

“Deep into this pandemic, OSHA has still not developed any enforceable standards for employers to follow that can protect workers from the airborne transmission of the novel coronavirus,” said Rep. Alma Adams, D-N.C., chairwoman of a House subcommittee on workforce protections. OSHA’s existing enforcement tools, including standards that address respirators and personal protective equipment, are “inadequate and unused,” Adams said.

Instead of an emergency standard, the agency has relied on voluntary guidance that recommends companies erect physical barriers, enforce social distancing and install more hand-sanitizing stations, among other steps. But the guidance is not mandatory.

Adams and other lawmakers called that inadequate, citing a spike in COVID-19 cases at meatpacking plants, prisons, nursing homes and other workplaces deemed essential during the pandemic. More than 80,000 cases of COVID-19 have been reported among health care workers, meatpacking employees and prison staff, including at least 372 deaths, Adams said.

Those numbers are likely an underestimation because of a lack of data on COVID-19 infections in the workplace, Adams and other lawmakers said. An OSHA official said Thursday the agency is not tracking the number of COVID-19 infections contracted in the workplace.

Read the full story on Democrats’ criticism of OSHA here.

Washington state recovers $300 million in fraudulent unemployment claims

OLYMPIA, Wash. — Washington has recovered $300 million paid to criminals who used stolen personal information to file fraudulent unemployment benefit claims amid the COVID-19 crisis, state officials said Thursday.

Employment Security Department Commissioner Suzi LeVine said that she could not yet reveal the precise amount that was paid in fraudulent claims, but said that the initial recovery — including $50 million set to be returned Thursday — was a result of the state’s collaboration with federal law enforcement and financial institutions across the country.

“This is a national attack by sophisticated criminals and isn’t just happening to Washington state,” LeVine said.

LeVine first detailed the scope of the fraud last week, saying that the information of tens of thousands of people in the state was used to fraudulently pay hundreds of millions of dollars in unemployment benefits.

Much of it apparently went to a West African fraud ring using identities stolen in prior data breaches, such as the massive 2017 Equifax breach. Washington is one of several states where attacks have been detected, including Maine, New Mexico, Michigan and Montana, according to California cyber security firm Agari, which has monitored the Nigerian fraud group, dubbed Scattered Canary.

The fraudsters had money sent to prepaid debit cards associated with bank accounts, from which they have it transferred internationally or quickly exchanged for bitcoin or gift cards, according to Patrick Peterson, chief executive of Agari.

LeVine said that the state is recovering additional money from some of the victims of the identity theft who contacted officials after they received debit cards with unemployment benefits they didn’t apply for because the the impostor forgot to change the address on the account.

VA says it will stop almost all use of unproven drug on veterans 

WASHINGTON — Veterans Affairs Secretary Robert Wilkie said Thursday that his department has all but stopped use of an unproven malaria drug on veterans with COVID-19.

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Veterans Affairs Secretary Robert Wilkie speaks during a House subcommittee hearing on Capitol Hill in Washington on Thursday about the Department of Veterans Affairs’ response to COVID-19. Andrew Harnik/Associated Press

At a House hearing, he defended initial use of hydroxychloroquine on coronavirus patients as justified “to give them hope,” given few treatment options at the time. But Wilkie said that government-run VA hospitals have “ratcheted it down” — to just three prescriptions in the last week — as studies pointed to possible dangers and other possible treatments were brought online. “I expect that trend to continue in the future,” he added.

President Donald Trump has heavily pitched the drug — even saying in recent days he had been taking it to prevent coronavirus infection — without scientific evidence of its effectiveness.

“We are all learning as we go in this crisis,” Wilkie told a House appropriations subcommittee. “Our mission is to preserve and protect life.”

The department, which is the nation’s largest hospital system, has recently been turning to remdesivir. Preliminary results from a major study found reduced recovery time, as well as convalescent plasma.

According to the VA’s website, 13,657 veterans have been infected with the coronavirus, and 1,200 have died.

Major veterans organizations had called on the VA to explain its use of hydroxychloroquine after an analysis of VA hospital data was published month showing hundreds of veterans who took the drug saw no benefit for COVID-19. About 28% of veterans who were given hydroxychloroquine plus usual care died, versus 11% of those getting routine care alone.

VA data provided Thursday to Congress show that weekly prescriptions for hydroxychloroquine surged from about two in mid-March to a peak of 404 about two weeks later as Trump began promoting its use. They remained at higher levels before tapering off in late April amid backlash over results of the VA hospital analysis and as remdesivir emerged as a form of treatment. In all, 1,370 veterans were prescribed hydroxychloroquine for COVID-19.

Wilkie said Thursday that he expected the VA to continue using the drug in limited forms such as clinical trials, based in part on the guidance of Dr. Anthony Fauci, the nation’s top infectious-diseases expert and a member of the White House coronavirus task force.

New virus cases double in South Korea, biggest spike in 53 days

South Korea reported its biggest spike in new coronavirus cases in nearly two months, raising fears of a second wave of infections that challenges its highly touted testing and contact tracing strategy to stem the pandemic.

The country on Thursday reported 79 new cases, about double the new infections reported a day earlier and marked the highest number of cases since April 5 when it registered 81. The total number of confirmed cases reached 11,344, according to the Korea Centers for Disease Control & Prevention.

In the wake of the new cluster of infections, the South Korean government said it was temporarily closing public museums, parks and galleries in the Seoul metropolitan area and may consider stronger social distancing measures if the situation worsens. There will be no change to scheduled plans for schools to reopen.

The latest surge came as health authorities were investigating a new outbreak at a distribution center for Softbank-backed Coupang Corp., an e-commerce company known for its “rocket delivery” service, which has increased in popularity as more Koreans have turned to online shopping in the wake of pandemic.

So far, 82 cases have been linked to the distribution center with the numbers likely to rise as health authorities complete testing of more than 4,000 known contacts, South Korea’s Vice Health and Welfare Minister Kim Kang-lip said at a briefing Thursday. About 80% of the potential contacts have been tested so far, he said.

N.Y. Gov. Cuomo presses Trump to spend big on infrastructure to ‘supercharge’ coronavirus recovery

New York Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo on Wednesday used a White House meeting to pitch President Trump on a massive investment in train lines, bridges and other building projects as a way to “supercharge” an economy laid low by the novel coronavirus.

The third-term Democrat, who has had a contentious relationship with his fellow Queens native, emerged proclaiming that the president “gets it,” saying he and Trump talked as New Yorkers and that he appealed to Trump’s instincts as a builder.

New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo arrives at the White House for a meeting with President Donald Trump on Wednesday. Associated Press/Manuel Balce Ceneta

But Cuomo castigated congressional Republicans for not wanting to inject additional money into states where finances have been pummeled by the virus. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) has dismissed appeals for aid to hard-hit areas such as New York, calling them “blue-state bailouts.”

“This is really an ugly sentiment,” Cuomo said at the National Press Club following his White House meeting. “It’s an un-American response. We’re still the United States of America.”

McConnell did not immediately respond Wednesday. But on Tuesday, he expressed continued reluctance to offer additional funding: “We’re not interested in borrowing money from future generations to send down to states to paper over preexisting problems.”

The visit to Washington by Cuomo, whose state has been hit harder than any other during the coronavirus outbreak, came as both he and Trump are anxiously eyeing the economy for signs of when, whether and how it can come back from the depths of joblessness and GDP drops not seen in decades.

Although infection rates in many areas of the country continue to rise or have stubbornly plateaued, Trump has long been anxious to turn the page on state-imposed stay-at-home orders, seeking an economic rebound.

Cuomo has increasingly pivoted to recovery questions as infection rates in New York continue to fall, following an alarming ascent in March and early April. New York accounts for nearly a third of all virus-related deaths across the United States, as that total nears 100,000. But new cases, hospitalizations and deaths in New York all have been declining, and nearly all of the state — with the exception of densely populated New York City — has begun to reopen.

Pandemic brings rat cannibalism, fears of rodent ‘plague’ in Sydney

Rats are eating one another, scurrying into suburbs and altering their behavior as a result of a significant lack of food since strict lockdown measures were implemented around the world amid the deadly coronavirus outbreak.

In Sydney, the closure of commercial establishments and workplaces has sparked a surge in suburban rat infestations, which could eventually lead to a “plague” of rodents in one of Australia’s largest cities once lockdown restrictions begin to lift, according to experts.

Rat-catcher Geoff Milton told the Guardian Australia that calls regarding suburban rat infestations have spiked 30 percent compared to last year. He explained that the health crisis has forced the creatures into new areas and households to find food.

Some rats, it seems, are eating one another as a result of the hunger crisis. Rodent expert Peter Banks estimated that rat cannibalism would have taken hold “within days” of the enforcement of lockdown restrictions in the country.

“If they produce babies they can’t support, they kill them. Or one of their relatives comes in and kills them,” he said, adding that such actions were a direct result of food stress. Both experts predicted that once limitations begin to ease, a “new plague” of rodents would return to reclaim their city, especially once waste disposal begins to rise as restaurants and attractions open again.

The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recently warned that hungry American rats could display signs of “aggression” as a result of less food on the streets amid the closure of establishments that produce their nourishment.

Researchers ponder why COVID-19 appears more deadly in the U.S. and Europe than in Asia

TOKYO — It is one of the many mysteries of the coronavirus pandemic: Why has the death toll from covid-19 apparently been lower in Asia than in Western Europe and North America?

Even allowing for different testing policies and counting methods, and questions over full disclosure of cases, stark differences in mortality across the world have caught the attention of researchers trying to crack the coronavirus code.

Parts of Asia reacted quickly to the threat and largely started social distancing earlier. But researchers are also examining other factors, including differences in genetics and immune system responses, separate virus strains and regional contrasts in obesity levels and general health.

Read the full story.

2.1 million workers sought jobless aid last week, raising total layoffs to nearly 41 million

Americans have filed more than 40 million claims for jobless benefits in the past 10 weeks, according to new Labor Department data, laying bare a tremendous and sudden disruption in the U.S. economy that is already changing the types of jobs desperate workers are looking to fill.

More Americans are vying against each other to snag a shrinking pool of jobs assisting offices, entering data and handling other responsibilities that can be predominately executed from home, offering early clues about a labor market crunch that will intensify this summer.

The competition for these postings has become even more intense. The new Labor Department data said 2.1 million Americans filed for jobless claims last week, adding to an already tremendous number of people who have recently been laid off.

The scramble for remote, socially distant employment reflects lingering fears on the part of U.S. workers about their physical and financial security as the coronavirus pandemic stretches into its third month. There have been roughly 40 million applications for jobless benefits since March, and the Trump administration is expected to announce Thursday that even more have joined their ranks.

Many states have begun to reopen their economies, but the process has been uneven and companies continue shedding workers as the economic outlook for the rest of the year remains quite dark.

Read the full story.

ICE says it is transferring detainees without testing, contributing to asymptomatic spread

A lawyer for Immigration and Customs Enforcement told a federal judge in Florida on Wednesday that the agency only tests immigrant detainees who are showing symptoms of a coronavirus infection before transferring them between detention facilities, the Miami Herald reported.

“If the individual is actively ill, if the individual has tested positive or showing symptoms, they are not cleared for travel and they will not be transferred until those issues are resolved,” said Dexter Lee, an assistant U.S. attorney representing ICE, at a virtual hearing as part of a lawsuit seeking to release detainees at three South Florida detention centers. “The problem is that there are individuals who are asymptomatic and they may be positive for coronavirus.”

Outbreaks within ICE facilities have been linked to detainee transfers in recent weeks. Lee said in court that the agency does not have enough tests to screen every immigrant slated to be transferred to a another facility.

U.S. District Judge Marcia G. Cooke had previously issued a temporary restraining order strongly urging ICE to release detainees at three Florida detention facilities to decrease the detainee population to 75 percent capacity and encourage social distancing. ICE said it complied with that order by moving immigrants to facilities in other states.

“You realize you may be expanding the reach of the virus by transferring asymptomatic carriers,” Cooke said Wednesday, the Herald reported. She added, “By keeping spreading this around, ICE is just basically going through — as the petitioners say — ‘a shell game’ of detainees.”

The judge’s order is set to expire this week, and Cooke will decide whether to extend it.

Russia cases increase; 3rd highest in the world

MOSCOW — Russia is continuing to see high numbers of new coronavirus cases even though its far-flung regions have increasingly moved to reopen the economy.

The government’s anti-coronavirus task force reported 8,371 new infections Thursday, about the same as in the previous day and lower than the peak levels of more than 11,000 cases earlier this month. The total number of infections topped 379,000, the world’s third-largest caseload behind the United States and Brazil.

Russian officials reported 174 new deaths, repeating the highest daily toll recorded two days ago and bringing the total to 4,142.

The Russian capital, which accounted for about half of all infections, eased the lockdown in place since late March, ordering to reopen non-food stores, dry cleaners and repair shops. The city mayor also announced that residents will be allowed to walk in the parks with some restrictions and engage in sports in the mornings.

India experiences another spike in cases as lockdown is set to expire

NEW DELHI — India sees no respite from the coronavirus caseload seeing another record single day jump of over 6,500 cases at a time when the two-month-old lockdown across the country is set to end on Sunday.

Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s government is preparing a new set of guidelines to be issued this weekend, possibly extending the lockdown in worst-hit areas as it promotes economic activity.

The Health Ministry reported a total of 158,333 cases on Thursday, a jump of 6,566 cases in the past 24 hours, with 4,531 deaths, an increase of 194. It said the recovery rate has also risen to more than 42% .

Mumbai, India’s financial and entertainment capital, is the worst hit city in the country with more than 33,000 cases and nearly 1,200 deaths. Most of the cases are concentrated in Maharashtra, Gujarat, Tamil Nadu New Delhi, Madhya Pradesh and Rajasthan states.

An increase in cases have also been reported in some of India’s poorest eastern states as migrant workers stranded returning to native villages from India’s largest cities have begun arriving home on special trains.

India started easing lockdown restrictions earlier this month, allowing reopening of shops and manufacturing and resumption of some trains and domestic flights and vehicles’ movement.

Metro services, schools and colleges, hotels and restaurants are shuttered nationwide.

Australian archbishop protests rule limiting pub attendance to 50, church to 10

CANBERRA, Australia — A Catholic archbishop has accused an Australian state government of inequitable pandemic rules by allowing up to 50 people into pubs while church congregations are limited to 10.

Sydney Archbishop Anthony Fisher on Thursday encouraged Catholics to sign a petition calling on the New South Wales government to treat churches the same as pubs, restaurants and cafes.

New pandemic restrictions that take effect on June 1 increase the number of customers that such commercial premises can hold from 10 to 50.

“Contrary to what has been said throughout this pandemic, we do not consider church attendance to be non-essential; indeed, nothing is more essential than the practice of our faith,” the petition said.

Fisher said he was standing up for freedom of worship “when I see so many double standards being applied to people of faith.”

“We aren’t asking for special treatment, we are asking for equal treatment,” Fisher said.

Federal Health Minister Greg Hunt said state governments were working at their own pace in lifting pandemic restrictions.

New South Wales is Australia’s most populous state and has been the worst effected by COVID-19. New South Wales has recorded 48 of Australia’s 103 deaths. Catholicism is the largest denomination in Christian-majority Australia.

 


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