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

CHICAGO — The State Department says Russia is using a well-developed online operation that includes a loose collection of proxy websites to stir up confusion around the coronavirus by amplifying conspiracy theories and misinformation.

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Pages from the State Department’s Global Engagement Center report released Wednesday. The department detailed a Russian-backed misinformation cycle that spreads false information online through state officials and state-funded media reports, by infiltrating U.S. social media conversation and leveraging a deceptive internet framework of websites. Jon Elswick/Associated Press

The disclosure on Wednesday was rare for the Trump administration, which has been cautious about blaming the Kremlin for disinformation campaigns, especially around the U.S. election. Despite evidence that Russia launched a divisive disinformation operation on social media during the 2016 U.S. presidential election, the State Department’s report did not examine how – if at all – Russia is waging another online influence campaign in this year’s election.

Secretary of State Mike Pompeo did, however, announce Wednesday that the U.S. would offer a reward of up to $10 million for information that identifies people working with foreign governments to interfere in the U.S. election through illegal cyber activity.

The department detailed a Russian-backed misinformation cycle that spreads false information online through state officials and state-funded media reports, by infiltrating U.S. social media conversation, and leveraging a deceptive internet framework of websites. The Kremlin’s efforts have most recently focused on conspiracy theories around the pandemic, the report found.

“Russia is playing a significant role in creating and spreading misinformation and propaganda around many topics,” said Lea Gabrielle, head of the State Department’s Global Engagement Center.

The department named more than a half-dozen websites that, serving as “proxies” for Russia, have peddled a series of conspiracy theories about the pandemic that have been widely spreading and hotly debated across social media platforms like Facebook, Twitter and Instagram.

Read the full story here.

Five conservatives sue Texas governor over contract for contact tracing

AUSTIN, Texas — Five Texas Republican lawmakers sued Republican Gov. Greg Abbott on Wednesday over a $295 million contact tracing deal signed during the early months of the coronavirus pandemic that they claim skirted oversight and amounted to the governor exceeding his authority.

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Texas Gov. Greg Abbott is being sued by five members of his own party over a contract awarded for contact tracing. Ricardo B. Brazziell/Austin American-Statesman via Associated Press

The lawmakers are among the most conservative in the state Legislature, and the lawsuit in a Travis County court broadly reflects ongoing anger from the Texas Republican Party’s far right over Abbott’s handling of the pandemic, including his orders in July to mandate face coverings that led to some county Republican groups censuring him.

The attorney who filed the lawsuit, Warren Norred, also represented Dallas salon owner Shelley Luther, who in May became a symbol of rising conservative ire over coronavirus lockdown measures when she was jailed over refusing to close her business.

The contract with Frisco, Texas-based MTX Group, which has drawn criticism from both parties as inefficient, was never publicly posted. The five lawmakers contend the contract should have required approval from the Legislature — which is not set to return until January, and can only be brought back to work if Abbott calls a special session.

“Governor Abbott has elevated his own personal choices to be enforced as though they are law,” the lawsuit states.

Abbott’s office did not return a message seeking comment. MTX Group, which is also named in the lawsuit, did not immediately respond to an email. The lawsuit was filed by Republican state Reps. Mike Lang, Kyle Biederman, Bill Zedler, Steve Toth and state Sen. Bob Hall.

The suit was filed as Texas reported an additional 236 deaths on Wednesday, pushing the total death toll to nearly 7,500. But hospitalizations in Texas dropped to 8,455, the lowest mark in a month.

What will trouble Texas health authorities, however, is a weeklong spike in the rolling positivity rate. The number has climbed from 12 percent a week ago to nearly 16 percent on Wednesday.

New York City will set up random virus checkpoints for entering travelers

NEW YORK — Travelers coming to New York City from 35 states and territories on the state’s COVID-19 quarantine list may be met at bridges and train stations and told to fill out travel forms under a program announced by Mayor Bill de Blasio.

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Arriving travelers walk by a COVID-19 travel advisory sign in the baggage claim area of Terminal B at New York City’s LaGuardia Airport in June. Thirty-four states plus Puerto Rico are on New York state’s quarantine list because of high rates of coronavirus infection. Kathy Willens/Associated Press

The city plans to set up checkpoints at Penn Station and other entry points to the city to tell travelers from places with a high rate of coronavirus infections that they must quarantine for 14 days.

The travelers will be given a health form to complete so that contact tracers can follow up and make sure they are quarantining, said the mayor, a Democrat.

The checkpoints will be set up at different entry points each day starting with Penn Station on Thursday. New York City Sheriff Joseph Fucito, who whose deputies will staff the stations, said there will be “a random element” and every sixth or eighth car on a bridge might be checked.

Travelers who refuse to fill out the travel form could be fined up to $2,000, de Blasio said.

“If you come here you must quarantine,” de Blasio said. “It is not optional. We do not want to fine you. We do not want to penalize you. In fact, we want to help you quarantine. But if you don’t respect our laws we will penalize you, because this is about respecting the health and safety of New Yorkers.”

Thirty-four states plus Puerto Rico are on New York state’s quarantine list because of high rates of coronavirus infection. The random check system de Blasio described is similar to what is already in place at airports.

Some privacy advocates criticized the plan. “This is a ludicrous, invasive, and deeply dangerous plan,” Albert Fox Cahn, the executive director of the Surveillance Technology Oversight Project, said in a statement. “Rather than addressing the city’s backlog in testing capacity and struggling contact tracing program, the mayor is transforming this pandemic into a policing issue.”

Coronavirus infections have eased since the pandemic’s peak in the state in April, but new infections continue to occur daily. New York City has yet to go a day without a coronavirus death. Statewide, more than 630 new infections were reported as of Tuesday, approximately the level that has persisted since early June.

City, state and local officials remain under tremendous pressure to keep new infections low as they prepare to reopen schools in late summer.

U.S. cruises canceled until at least Oct. 31

Cruise companies are canceling U.S. cruises until at least Oct. 31.

The industry lobbying group Cruise Lines International Association announced Wednesday that its member lines won’t be coming back until at least that date. In June, the group agreed to cancel U.S. cruises through mid-September, before the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention banned cruises until Oct. 1.

CLIA member companies include Florida-based Carnival Corporation, Royal Caribbean Group, Norwegian Cruise Line Holdings, MSC Cruises, Disney Cruise Line and Virgin Voyages.

“CLIA cruise line members will continue to monitor the situation with the understanding that we will revisit a possible further extension on or before 30 September 2020,” the group said in a statement. “At the same time, should conditions in the U.S. change and it becomes possible to consider short, modified sailings, we would consider an earlier restart.”

The announcement comes as cruise companies struggle to repatriate crew members, some who have been stuck at sea since mid-March when the industry first shut down, most without pay. Ships continue to experience outbreaks of COVID-19 among crew. There are currently 15 cruise ships in and around U.S. waters with COVID-19 or COVID-like illness, according to the CDC.

Four cruise companies that have started cruising again this summer _ Hurtigruten, Ponant, UnCruise and SeaDream _ have been forced to cancel cruises after passengers tested positive this week.

COVID-19 cases and deaths in the U.S. continue to surge. On Wednesday, Florida reached more than 500,000 cases of the disease and 7,627 resident deaths.

‘We are no less American’: Virus deaths pile up on Texas border

RIO GRANDE CITY, Texas — When labor pains signaled that Clarissa Muñoz was at last going to be a mom, she jumped in a car and headed two hours down the Texas border into one of the nation’s most dire coronavirus hot spots.

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Clarissa Munoz, who is infected with COVID-19, shares a photo of her baby at DHR Health last week in McAllen, Texas. Munoz was separated from her child after giving birth. Eric Gay/Associated Press

She went first to a hospital so desperate for help that nurses recently made 49 phone calls to find a bed 700 miles away to airlift a dying man with the virus. From there, she was taken to a bigger hospital by ambulance. Along the way, she passed a funeral home that typically handles 10 services a month but is up to nine a week. And when she finally arrived to give birth, she was blindsided by another complication: A test revealed that she too was infected.

Hours later, Muñoz was granted just a few seconds to lay eyes, but no hands, on her first born, who was quickly whisked away.

On America’s southern doorstep, the Rio Grande Valley, the U.S. failure to contain the pandemic has been laid bare. For nearly a month, this borderland of 2 million people in South Texas pleaded for a field hospital, but not until Tuesday was one ready and accepting patients. In July alone, Hidalgo County reported more than 600 deaths — more than the Houston area, which is five times larger.

At DHR Health, one of the largest hospitals on the border, nearly 200 of the 500 beds belong to coronavirus patients isolated in two units. A third unit is in the works. That doesn’t even include the COVID-19 maternity ward, where mothers and newborns are separated immediately.

Doctors and nurses rushed Muñoz’s baby out of the delivery room and down a hallway sealed by a zippered tarp to restrict contaminated air. Seven hours later, she still did not know his weight. Across the street, alarms blared constantly in a coronavirus intensive-care unit, summoning nurses to roll patients onto their stomachs to force more air into their lungs.

“It’s a really, really ugly feeling,” Muñoz said of watching her son being taken away.

Read the full story about the situation at the border here.

Virus testing in the U.S. is dropping, even as deaths mount

U.S. testing for the coronavirus is dropping even as infections remain high and the death toll rises by more than 1,000 a day, a worrisome trend that officials attribute largely to Americans getting discouraged over having to wait hours to get a test and days or weeks to find out the results.

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Vehicles wait in line at a COVID-19 testing site at the Miami Beach Convention Center during the coronavirus pandemic in Miami Beach, Fla., on July 12. Some health and government officials are seeing growing public frustration and waning demand. Lynne Sladky/Associated Press

An Associated Press analysis found that the number of tests per day slid 3.6 percent over the past two weeks to 750,000, with the count falling in 22 states. That includes places like Alabama, Mississippi, Missouri and Iowa where the percentage of positive tests is high and continuing to climb, an indicator that the virus is still spreading uncontrolled.

Amid the crisis, some health officials are calling for the introduction of a different type of test that would yield results in a matter of minutes and would be cheap and simple enough for millions of Americans to test themselves — but would also be less accurate.

“There’s a sense of desperation that we need to do something else,” said Dr. Ashish Jha, director of Harvard’s Global Health Institute.

Widespread testing is considered essential to containing the outbreak as the U.S. approaches a mammoth 5 million confirmed infections and more than 156,000 deaths out of over 700,000 worldwide.

Testing demand is expected to surge again this fall, when schools reopen and flu season hits, most likely outstripping supplies and leading to new delays and bottlenecks.

Some of the decline in testing over the past few weeks was expected after backlogged commercial labs urged doctors to concentrate on their highest-risk patients. But some health and government officials are seeing growing public frustration and waning demand.

Read the full story on testing here.

Union wants vulnerable TSA officers to be kept home as coronavirus cases among employees surge

The union representing Transportation Security Administration officers is urging the agency’s chief to allow its most vulnerable employees to stay home as cases of the novel coronavirus in the agency’s ranks climbs rapidly, topping 1,500 this week.

In the early stages of the pandemic, employees in high-risk health groups were allowed to stay home using weather and safety leave, and the agency’s regional directors reduced work schedules for everyone else, union leaders say. But in late June, just as the virus began taking hold again, the leave policy was canceled, and officers were ordered back to work, even though air passenger numbers were still down by about 70 percent.

Since then, virus cases among TSA employees have surged. On Friday, the union wrote to TSA Administrator David Pekoske asking for the previous leave policy to be restored.

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TSA officers wear protective masks at a security screening area at Seattle-Tacoma International Airport in SeaTac, Washington, in May. A high-ranking TSA official says the agency is falling short when it comes to protecting airport screeners and the public from the new coronavirus, according to published reports. Elaine Thompson/Associated Press

“Your decision to implement WSL for high-risk employees correctly recognized that the Agency could continue to carry out its mission without having to sacrifice its most vulnerable employees, and this calculus has not changed,” union president Hydrick Thomas wrote. “Passenger throughput continues to be a fraction of what it was one year ago, the number of flights per day remains low, and the coronavirus continues to wreak havoc on vulnerable populations.”

The number of cases among agency employees has been growing rapidly in recent weeks, according to data assembled by The Washington Post using archived versions of the agency’s disclosure web pages. And while it’s not clear that officers are being exposed at work, the TSA has reported far higher rates of positive tests than either the Defense Department or Veterans Affairs Department, which also regularly disclose when employees have fallen ill.

Lisa Farbstein, a TSA spokeswoman, said the agency changed its policy in anticipation of needing more officers in advance of the July 4 holiday. Having extra officers available to work means that passengers can be moved through checkpoints quickly while still being allowed to spread out, reducing their risk of being exposed to the virus.

“We want to keep the lines moving as efficiently as possible,” Farbstein said. She said wait times are at around nine minutes in normal checkpoint lanes and four minutes for TSA PreCheck passengers.

But Thomas, who knew the first TSA officer to die of covid-19 and lost a 27-year-old niece to the virus, said the agency has to do more.

“I don’t want to go to any funerals,” he said in an interview.

Read the full story here.

Chasm grows between Trump and government coronavirus experts

WASHINGTON — In the early days of the coronavirus crisis, President Donald Trump was flanked in the White House briefing room by a team of public health experts in a seeming portrait of unity to confront the disease that was ravaging the globe.

But as the crisis has spread to all reaches of the country, with escalating deaths and little sense of endgame, a chasm has widened between the Republican president and the experts. The result: daily delivery of a mixed message to the public at a moment when coherence is most needed.

Trump and his political advisers insist that the United States has no rival in its response to the pandemic. They point to the fact that the U.S. has administered more virus tests than any other nation and that the percentage of deaths among those infected is among the lowest.

“Right now, I think it’s under control,” Trump said during an interview with Axios. He added, “We have done a great job.”

But the surge in infections, hospitalizations and deaths tells a different story. And it suggests that the president is increasingly out of step with the federal government’s own medical and public health experts.

The U.S. death toll, which stands at more than 156,000, is expected to accelerate. The latest composite forecast from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention projects an average of nearly 1,000 deaths per day through Aug. 22.

Dr. Deborah Birx, White House coronavirus task force coordinator, warned this week that the virus has become “extraordinarily widespread.”

Trump didn’t like that. He dismissed her comment as “pathetic” and charged she was capitulating to criticism from House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, who had earlier criticized Birx.

Read the full story.

Number of new cases in Hong Kong  fall

HONG KONG — Hong Hong has reported 80 new cases of COVID-19 and four additional deaths, while new cases in mainland China fell to just 27.

Hong Kong saw cases spike in a new wave of infections, but new daily cases have now fallen back into the double digits.

Authorities in the semi-autonomous Chinese city have ordered masks be worn in all public places, slapped restrictions on indoor dining, banned many activities and increased testing for coronavirus. Hong Kong has recorded a total of 3,669 cases and 42 deaths from COVID-19.

Of mainland China’s cases, 22 were in the northwestern region of Xinjiang, whose capital and largest city Urumqi has been the center of China’s latest outbreak. China has reported 4,634 deaths among 84,491 cases since the virus was first detected in the central Chinese city of Wuhan late last year.

China said Tuesday it was working with the World Health Organization on an investigation into the origins of the novel coronavirus, but gave no word on when that would get underway.


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