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China reports zero new local coronavirus infections; Trump signs bill to ensure paid leave, other financial benefits

The Washington Post logo The Washington Post 3/19/2020 Siobhán O'Grady, Rick Noack, Marisa Iati, Lateshia Beachum, Brittany Shammas, Hannah Knowles, Michael Brice-Saddler, Teo Armus
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President Trump has signed into law a bill to ensure paid leave benefits to many Americans, part of a broader aid package to fight the effects of the pandemic. The legislation also promises free coronavirus testing to anyone who needs it, including the uninsured; increases health funding around the country; and supports nutrition programs such as the food stamp system.

China on Thursday said that there had been no cases of domestic coronavirus infections in the country the previous day, for the first time since the outbreak began. All 34 infections diagnosed on Wednesday were in people arriving into China from abroad, the National Health Commission said. It was a significant milestone for the country, where the virus was first reported in mid-November.

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Two members of Congress, Reps. Ben McAdams (D-Utah) and Mario Diaz-Balart (R-Fla.), said Wednesday they had tested positive for coronavirus.

Bing COVID-19 tracker: Latest numbers by country and state

Here are some significant developments:

  • Italy’s coronavirus death toll increased by 475 on Wednesday, the largest daily increase recorded in any country.
  • New York state has more confirmed cases than all but 10 countries in the world.
  • The White House coronavirus plan aims to send $2,000 to many Americans, includes $300 billion for small businesses, as markets continue to drop. The Senate on Wednesday passed a bill to ensure paid leave benefits to many Americans as coronavirus upends the labor market. It will now go to Trump for enactment.
  • The U.S. Air Force’s National Guard unit has transported 500,000 nasopharyngeal swabs for coronavirus tests from Italy to Memphis, Pentagon officials said.
  • Confirmed cases of the novel coronavirus have topped 200,000 worldwide, according to data collected by Johns Hopkins University.

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11:48 PM: Amazon confirms first case in N.Y. warehouse employee

An Amazon warehouse employee has tested positive for the novel coronavirus, according to the Atlantic, raising concerns about package delivery as millions of people quarantined inside their homes rely on the tech giant to receive basic goods.

Rena Lunak, a spokesperson for Amazon, confirmed to the magazine late Wednesday that someone who works at the company’s facility in Queens had tested positive for the rapidly spreading virus. (Amazon founder and chief executive Jeff Bezos owns The Washington Post.)

“We are supporting the individual who is now in quarantine,” Lunak told the Atlantic. “In addition to our enhanced daily deep cleaning, we’ve temporarily closed the Queens delivery station for additional sanitation and have sent associates home with full pay.”

Two office workers at the company’s Seattle headquarters previously tested positive for the virus, but the Queens employee is the first confirmed case among Amazon’s hourly warehouse workers, who make up the bulk of its workforce.

Jonathan Bailey, an employee who sorts packages at the Queens facility, said that management had not notified workers about the test result and that some believed they were still expected to work at the warehouse — a claim Amazon disputed.

A spokesperson for Amazon did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

By: Teo Armus

10:18 PM: Twitter cracks down on coronavirus misinformation

a hand holding a cell phone: Twitter said it will work with “trusted partners” such as governments and “public health authorities” to review information on the coronavirus. © Alex Flynn/Bloomberg News Twitter said it will work with “trusted partners” such as governments and “public health authorities” to review information on the coronavirus.

Twitter is cracking down on coronavirus content that contradicts health authorities, as several tech giants try to combat misinformation about the pandemic.

The social media platform will work with “trusted partners” such as governments and “public health authorities” to review information, it said in a Wednesday blog post. Facebook, which said back in January that it would remove dangerous claims about the virus, also on Wednesday announced a coronavirus news and resources portal for its billions of users.

Examples of tweets that will now be deleted, as outlined in the blog post, include: denials of expert guidance, such as the declaration that “social distancing is not effective”; promotion of actively harmful coronavirus treatments and remedies that are ineffective; unverified claims that spawn mass panic, such as a false statement that food shipments will end for two months.

Twitter said it is also creating a “global content severity triage system” — prioritizing the violations it addresses first by the harm they present. The company says it’s trying to reduce users’ burden to report problematic content.

The tactics against virus misinformation could evolve, Twitter says.

“As we’ve said on many occasions, our approach to protecting the public conversation is never static,” the company wrote. “That’s particularly relevant in these unprecedented times.”

By: Hannah Knowles

9:57 PM: China reports zero domestic infections for the first time since coronavirus outbreak began

China on Thursday said there had been no cases of domestic coronavirus infections in the country the previous day, for the first time since the outbreak began.

All 34 infections diagnosed on Wednesday were in people arriving into China from abroad, the National Health Commission said, in another sign the impact of the outbreak appears to be waning.

Among the 34 imported infections, 21 were found in Beijing, where authorities are imposing strict new quarantine rules to try to stop a new outbreak in the sensitive capital, the seat of the Communist Party power.

The new infections bring the total number of cases in China to more than 80,900, including upward of 3,200 deaths, Chinese health officials said. Eight deaths were reported in the past 24 hours.

Earlier this week, China said it had fewer cases of the virus than the rest of the world, for the first time since the outbreak was detected.

Still, some experts have warned that based on the patterns of previous pandemics, China could face further waves of infections.

By: Anna Fifield and Teo Armus

9:31 PM: Trump signs into law coronavirus aid bill to ensure paid sick leave

President Trump has signed into law a bill to ensure paid leave benefits to many Americans as the coronavirus upends the labor market, part of a broader aid package to fight the pandemic.

The legislation also promises free coronavirus testing to anyone who needs it, including the uninsured; increases health funding around the country; and supports nutrition programs such as the food stamp system.

It went to Trump, who had already expressed his support, after passing the Senate on Wednesday.

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Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.), who had urged reluctant fellow Republicans to “gag and vote for it anyway," tweeted shortly after the 90-8 Senate vote that legislators are “already working on additional bigger and bolder legislation to combat this crisis."

“The House and Senate are already hard at work on the third bill in the House’s Families First agenda, which will take bold, historic action on behalf of America’s workers and families,” House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) echoed in a statement Wednesday.

About a quarter of U.S. workers currently get no paid sick leave at all. Many are low-wage workers who live paycheck to paycheck. The Families First Coronavirus Response Act, which overwhelmingly passed the House on Saturday, aims to give paid leave to workers who did not have it and extend paid leave for workers who got only a few days. These benefits are not forever. They would apply only to workers stuck at home because of the coronavirus.

The measure will grant two weeks of paid sick leave at 100 percent of the person’s normal pay, up to $511 per day. It also will provide up to 12 weeks of paid family and medical leave at 67 percent of the person’s normal pay, up to $200 per day.

After the House passed the bill, it was changed to allow more companies to get out of the two weeks’ paid sick leave requirement and limit eligibility for the 12 weeks of paid family leave.

By: Hannah Knowles and Heather Long

9:18 PM: Police in India choreograph a dance for hand-washing

As the novel coronavirus continues to spread, experts say maintaining good hygiene is one of the best ways to be safe and healthy.

That includes washing your hands, a sentiment the official state police of Kerala in southern India decided to spread Tuesday in a fun choreographed dance video.

“Let’s put everything to work, including humour,” wrote the state’s chief minister, Pinarayi Vijayan, in a tweet that included the video.

The video depicts masked uniformed police personnel scrubbing their hands in a synchronized fashion as they sway back and forth to an uplifting Bollywood song.

“Let’s all work together. No panic, be alert. Kerala police with you,” the Kerala police office wrote on Facebook.

India has reported more than 150 confirmed cases of covid-19 and three deaths.

In the video, which has received more than 1 million views, text appeared with specific instructions on how to wash hands properly. “Soap the back of your hands,” it says. “Wash up to your wrist.”

By: Ruby Mellen

8:47 PM: Second congressman tests positive for coronavirus

Rep. Ben McAdams (D-Utah) has tested positive for the coronavirus, he confirmed in a statement late Wednesday. He was the second member of Congress to announce a positive test.

McAdams said he developed “mild cold-like symptoms” after returning home from Washington on Saturday evening. He immediately went in isolation, where his symptoms — including a “fever, a dry cough and labored breathing” — got worse. A local testing clinic confirmed the symptoms were a result of covid-19.

“I am still working for Utahns and pursuing efforts to get Utahns the resources they need as I continue doing my job from home until I know it is safe to end my self-quarantine,” McAdams wrote. “I’m doing my part as all Americans are doing to contain the spread of the virus and mitigate the coronavirus outbreak.”

Earlier Wednesday, Rep. Mario Diaz-Balart (R-Fla.) said he had tested positive for the coronavirus and also began feeling symptoms Saturday. In his statement, McAdams urged his constituents to take the coronavirus serious and follow recommendations from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention CDC.

By: Michael Brice-Saddler

8:30 PM: More than 8 million Californians are living under a shelter-in-place order

More than 8 million people living in California are being ordered to shelter in place as authorities continue to try to curb the rapid spread of the novel coronavirus.

On Wednesday, following the lead of 10 other California counties in the San Francisco Bay area and Central California, residents in Yolo and Napa counties joined San Francisco, Santa Clara, Sonoma, San Benito, Monterey, San Mateo, Alameda, Contra Costa, Marin and Santa Cruz as the latest California counties requiring residents to stay home.

Approximately 20 percent of the state’s population is now under one of the orders, which direct everyone to stay inside their homes and away from others as much as they can, except in the case of essential functions, like shopping for groceries and visits to the doctor, among other things.

Yolo’s shelter-in-place order will start Thursday and last through at least April 7. Businesses not defined as essential must also temporarily close. Napa’s order will go into effect on Friday and last through at least April 8.

The orders originated when six Bay Area counties, plus Santa Cruz County, ordered residents to stay home whenever possible, starting on Tuesday, before the order started to spread across varying counties. Solano is the last Bay Area county that has not issued an order.

Asking people to stay home except in the case of essential functions has been among the most drastic measures being taken across the country, as the number of cases continue to rise in California. Authorities in Southern Californian counties have not directed any shelter-in-place orders but have instead implemented sweeping restrictions.

In Ventura County, health officials announced Tuesday there would be a shelter-in-place order that applies only to older residents. The city of Fresno also announced Wednesday it would be asking residents to do the same. The Fresno order goes into effect on Thursday and will last through the end of the month.

By: Samantha Pell

8:15 PM: CDC report: Staff who worked with symptoms, limited resources helped virus’s deadly spread at Washington nursing home

More than half of Washington state’s coronavirus deaths to date have struck a single Seattle-area nursing home, a testament to the virus’s threat to the already-frail elderly. A new government report captures the devastation at Life Care Center of Kirkland in grim numbers and sheds light on what went wrong.

By March 9, the virus had also spread to at least eight other nursing and assisted living centers in King County, according to a Centers for Disease Control and Prevention paper released Wednesday. Staff members who continued working while they had symptoms and who worked in multiple facilities helped the outbreak’s deadly progress, the report states.

So did short supplies of personal protective gear and items such as hand sanitizer; lack of familiarity with standards; limited testing; and “difficulty identifying persons with COVID-19 based on signs and symptoms alone,” investigators write.

The report does not name the facility, but a spokesman for Life Care Center of Kirkland, Timothy Killian, confirmed to The Post that it refers to their nursing home.

Killian said staff have been working closely with the CDC on the analysis and now meet all the standards the agency urges. He said there was no policy encouraging employees to keep working while sick and emphasized that some symptoms popped up quickly, while people were on the job. The Kirkland center is not aware of staff who went on to work at other facilities, he said.

“This is a completely unprecedented situation,” Killian said, saying that staff “had to learn on the fly” without the guidelines now offered and struggled to get crucial testing resources.

“If there is some good that can come out of our experience, we’re grateful that the CDC has been able to publish this report,” he added.

The authors of the report advise long-term care centers to be “proactive” about identifying staff and visitors who may be infected and keeping them away, including by halting visits outside “compassionate care situations.” Centers should try to spot covid-19 patients as early as possible, they say.

Investigators found 129 covid-19 cases linked to the facility: 81 residents, 34 staff and 14 visitors, according to the CDC report, which covers the period from Feb. 27 to March 9. The death toll has already climbed by a dozen since then, to 35, according to state health authorities.

As of March 9, afflicted residents at the nursing home averaged 81 years old and had a death rate of about 27 percent. Visitors averaged about 63 years old and had a much lower fatality rate of 7 percent, while no staff members — who tended to be younger — had died.

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By: Hannah Knowles

8:09 PM: Small businesses worry they’ll run out of cash before emergency federal loans come through

Some entrepreneurs hurt by the coronavirus shutdown say they’re facing delays in tapping emergency loans from the Small Business Administration, even as the White House calls for billions more in funding for small businesses.

The SBA announced a coronavirus disaster loan program last Thursday, offering up to $2 million per business to help small firms overcome lost revenue.

SBA cautioned at the time that each state must seek and receive a disaster declaration from the SBA before the agency can start lending. Entrepreneurs in Indiana, New York and Tennessee told The Post that that process, required by law, is holding things up.

A few days’ delay wouldn’t matter to a large corporation but can make or break a small business, they said.

“People are still taking bills out of my account and I don’t have money coming in,” said Jason Smith, who employs seven people at M&M Car Care Center in Merrillville, Ind. “It’s going to get tight really quick.”

Smith said his wife called the SBA on Monday and was on hold for an hour and 40 minutes before getting disconnected. Later that day he visited the SBA site and found Indiana hadn’t yet been granted the disaster zone status.

The SBA didn’t immediately respond to a request for comment Wednesday. On Tuesday, the agency said it was easing the program requirements to enable states to receive emergency declarations faster.

Governors from Indiana and Tennessee announced Wednesday they had requested disaster declarations. New York didn’t respond to a request for comment.

The Trump administration is now working with congressional Republicans on an emergency stimulus package that would devote an additional $300 billion toward helping small businesses avoid mass layoffs, The Post reported Wednesday.

Read more here.

By: Jeanne Whalen

8:06 PM: Facebook launches new tool to help provide coronavirus updates

Facebook on Wednesday announced a portal that aims to be a one-stop shop for its more than 2.5 billion users to find news and resources about the novel coronavirus, something it said was a step in an effort to combat falsehoods and provide accurate information in the face of a fast-moving pandemic.

The new coronavirus information center will roll out over the next 24 hours and will go at the top of users’ Facebook news feeds, chief executive Mark Zuckerberg said on a media call. He stressed that the most important service Facebook can provide right now is authoritative information — while removing hoaxes and other falsehoods that could cause immediate harm to public health.

“The top priority and focus for us has been making sure people can get access to good information and trusted sources during the pandemic,” he said.

Facebook and its other platforms, Instagram and WhatsApp, have struggled to police coronavirus-related misinformation since the outbreak began.

Read more here.

By: Elizabeth Dwoskin

7:10 PM: First member of Congress tests positive for coronavirus

Rep Mario Diaz-Balart (R-Fla.) on Wednesday said he tested positive for the coronavirus, becoming the first member of Congress to test positive for the virus.

According to a statement, Diaz-Balart said he decided to self-quarantine in Washington after votes on Friday, opting not to return to South Florida because his wife has preexisting health conditions “that put her at exceptionally high risk.” Diaz-Balart developed symptoms on Saturday and was recently notified that he has tested positive, according to the statement.

“I want everyone to know that I am feeling much better. However, it is important that everyone take this extremely seriously and follow CDC guidelines in order to avoid getting sick and mitigate the spread of this virus,” he wrote. “We must continue to work together to emerge stronger as a country during these trying times.”

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By: Michael Brice-Saddler

6:57 PM: Israel’s Sephardi Chief Rabbi permits use of phones during Sabbath

The Sephardi Chief Rabbi of Israel ruled Wednesday that observant Jews can use their cellphones on Sabbath to receive developments and alerts regarding the coronavirus.

“There is no doubt that everyone who has been tested for coronavirus must leave a cell phone available on Shabbat in order to answer,” Yitzchok Yosef wrote in a letter. “If they see the phone call coming from the health care provider, then they can be updated on their condition and where they should go. And even if there is doubt that the call is from the health care provider, it must be answered.”

“Even those who haven’t been tested for coronavirus should leave a cellphone available,” Yosef continued, “so that if it is found that they were near a confirmed sick person and must go into isolation, they can be notified.”

The Orthodox denomination of Judaism is very strict about not allowing the use of electricity during the Sabbath, or Shabbat, which stretches sundown to sundown every Friday and Saturday. But the one exception to the electricity rule is Pikuach nefesh, or saving a life.

Yosef has decided that, amid the coronavirus outbreak, Pikuach nefesh applies to permit phones as a critical safety measure. Judaism does not have a universal spiritual leader — like Catholicism does with the pope — but a sector of Jews will look to Yosef for guidance.

In the letter, Yosef also calls for synagogues within hospitals to be closed, since they are often small spaces and people cannot stay two meters apart, as the country’s ministry of health has recommended.

By: Jesse Dougherty and Miriam Berger

6:38 PM: FDA suspends most domestic inspections of food, drug, device makers

The Food and Drug Administration on announced Wednesday it postponed until further notice most U.S. inspections of manufacturers of food, drugs, biologics, devices and other products, citing the safety of its employees and industry concerns about visitors.

Earlier this month, the agency postponed through April most inspections of foreign facilities.

The inspections in question are routine “surveillance” ones that are conducted every few years based on a risk analysis.

“For cause” inspections, which occur when the FDA is worried about a specific problem, will “be evaluated and will proceed if mission-critical,” FDA Commissioner Stephen Hahn said in a statement.

The agency also directed all eligible FDA employees to begin teleworking.

Hahn said the agency is evaluating additional ways to conduct inspections that won’t jeopardize public safety or will protect staff and the firms, including evaluating records in lieu of conducting on-site inspections.

By: Laurie McGinley

6:30 PM: Trump administration’s ban on fetal tissue research is blocking some experiments on possible coronavirus treatments

An immunologist at the National Institutes of Health’s Rocky Mountain Laboratories in Montana has been appealing for nearly a month to top NIH officials, arguing that the pandemic warrants an exemption to a ban imposed last year prohibiting government researchers from using tissue from aborted fetuses in their work.

According to several researchers familiar with the situation, some of whom spoke on the condition of anonymity about the sensitive internal dispute, such experiments could be particularly fruitful. Just months ago, before the new coronavirus began to infect people around the world, other U.S. scientists made two highly relevant discoveries. They found that specialized mice could be transplanted with human fetal tissue that develops into lungs — the part of the body the new coronavirus invades. These “humanized mice,” they also found, could then be infected with coronaviruses — to which ordinary mice are not susceptible — closely related to the one that causes the new disease, covid-19.

Outside researchers said the scientists who created those mice have offered to give them to the Rocky Mountain Lab, which has access to the new virus that causes covid-19, so the mice could be infected with the source of the pandemic and experiments could be run on potential treatments. In addition, the Montana NIH site has a biosafety lab equipped with high-level protections for experiments with dangerous microbes.

“It isn’t clear if this added layer of urgent investigations will find more effective” treatments for people infected in the pandemic than other approaches being tried, said Irving Weissman, a leading stem cell researcher at Stanford University, “but it’s stupid not to try.”

Read more here.

By: Amy Goldstein

6:24 PM: Trump border controls not ready yet, will need Mexico’s cooperation, officials say

The Department of Homeland Security is making preparations to implement President Trump’s order for tightened border controls and the immediate return of migrants who cross illegally, but the arrangements will require the cooperation of the Mexican government, officials from both countries said Wednesday.

Homeland Security officials said the goal of the new restrictions is to limit the number of border crossers who are held in immigration jails to avoid a coronavirus outbreak that could further expose U.S. agents and officers to infection.

Mexican officials said they were blindsided by the Trump administration’s plans, and have pointed out that the number of confirmed coronavirus cases in the United States is far higher than Mexico’s total. Mexican officials say a large percentage of its cases are travelers returning from the United States.

“That kind of arrangement requires cooperation and coordination, and at this point we don’t have anything formal,” said a Mexican official who was not authorized to discuss the negotiations with the press.

Under the Trump administration’s plan, Border Patrol agents who interdict migrants would screen and record their biometric information “in the field” instead of taking them to stations and holding cells for processing, according to a senior CBP official who described the plans on the condition of anonymity to describe operational plans not yet made public.

Trump said he planned to announce the restrictions today, but the official said it would probably take several more days before such an arrangement could be made operational. Border Patrol agents do not yet have the tools to perform biometric checks, particularly in remote areas.

The plan will require Mexican authorities to agree to accept migrants from Central America and other nations at official border crossings after they’re processed and returned.

The Mexican government said Wednesday that Foreign Secretary Marcelo Ebrard is engaged in talks with U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, without providing more details.

“Foreign Secretary Ebrard emphasized the willingness of the Government of Mexico to collaborate with U.S. authorities jointly and in coordination to address the pandemic at the regional levels,” Mexico’s foreign ministry said in a statement.

It remains unclear whether the Trump administration’s tighter restrictions would apply to asylum seekers, family groups and unaccompanied children, but U.S. authorities return thousands of migrants to Mexico each month to make them wait outside U.S. territory while their applications for humanitarian protection are processed by U.S. courts.

The senior CBP official with knowledge of the plans said the agency would continue to detain border crossers who commit felonies or have outstanding criminal warrants. But the official said prosecutions for illegally entering the United States have plunged in recent days as federal courts struggle to continue functioning.

Some sections of the border have seen a large increase in arrests over the past few days, the official said, a surge the officials think is being driven by smuggling organizations’ decision to send as many clients over the border as possible before enforcement tightens.

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By: Nick Miroff

6:17 PM: First confirmed coronavirus case reported at Rikers Island

NEW YORK — The first confirmed case of novel coronavirus at Rikers Island, New York City’s notorious jail complex, has been confirmed, according to sources with knowledge of the diagnosis.

The male inmate who tested positive was being housed at the George R. Vierno Center at the isolated set of facilities near LaGuardia Airport, according to one of the sources, who is not authorized to speak about the situation. Rikers Island has come under fire in recent years for reports of rampant violence and inhumane conditions. The city voted to close the complex and relocate the jail population to each of the city’s boroughs, while also minimizing the jail population.

Due to covid-19 concerns, visits to inmates in all city jails were suspended March 18, according to a notice on the Department of Correction website. In lieu of in-person visits, DOC was granting phone calls free of charge to the city’s jail population, according to the website’s notice.

There were about 5,400 inmates in city custody through the end of last week, according to publicly available data. City jails house inmates who are awaiting trial and also defendants who have been sentenced to less than a year of incarceration.

DOC officials did not immediately respond to a request for comment about the coronavirus-positive inmate’s diagnosis.

Michael Skelly, spokesman for the Correction Officers’ Benevolent Association, said the inmate with confirmed COVID-19 is “being removed from the jail. He’s being quarantined as well.” The inmate, Skelly said, remains in custody under quarantine conditions.

Skelly also confirmed that a correction officer who is assigned to a Rikers Island entrance gate monitoring vehicles that pass through has tested positive. The union has pushed DOC officials to test its members and provide more protective measures.

“We’re advocating for our officers to have more masks, more gloves, more hand sanitizer and for the department to segregate new admissions,” Skelly said.

“We keep being told they’re working on it,” he added. “It’s not being done fast enough.”

By: Shayna Jacobs

6:01 PM: RNC chairwoman tests negative for coronavirus

Republican National Committee Chairwoman Ronna McDaniel does not have coronavirus, according to test results she received today.

An official close to McDaniel said the test, administered last weekend in her home state of Michigan, returned with a negative result Wednesday.

McDaniel had complained of flu-like symptoms but had tested negative for strep throat and the flu, the RNC had said. McDaniel had been at Mar-a-Lago this month when others who have since tested positive were at the club.

By: Josh Dawsey

5:29 PM: New York Stock Exchange to close trading floor next week after traders test positive

The New York Stock Exchange announced Wednesday that it is closing its trading floor and going completely electronic as the coronavirus pandemic continues to wreak havoc on the stock market.

The move stemmed partly from traders testing positive for the coronavirus, NYSE President Stacey Cunningham said on CNBC.

“NYSE’s trading floors provide unique value to issuers and investors, but our markets are fully capable of operating in an all-electronic fashion to serve all participants, and we will proceed in that manner until we can re-open our trading floors to our members,” Cunningham said in a statement.

“While we are taking the precautionary step of closing the trading floors, we continue to firmly believe the markets should remain open and accessible to investors,” Cunningham added. “All NYSE markets will continue to operate under normal trading hours despite the closure of the trading floors.”

The all-electronic trading kicks in Monday and will mean the closure of trading floors in New York and San Francisco, NYSE said.

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By: Hannah Knowles

5:26 PM: HUD offers 60-day moratorium on foreclosures for homeowners affected by coronavirus

The U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development on Wednesday authorized the Federal Housing Administration to put an immediate moratorium on foreclosures and evictions for the next two months for single-family homeowners who are unable to pay their FHA-backed mortgages amid the coronavirus pandemic.

Homeowners with loans backed by two government-controlled companies, Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac, also will be granted foreclosure relief, according to the Federal House Finance Agency, which regulates the companies. Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac back about half of the nation’s mortgages and have operated under government control since the global financial crisis of 2008.

“The halting of all foreclosure actions and evictions for the next 60 days will provide homeowners with some peace of mind during these trying times,” HUD Secretary Ben Carson said.

Read more

By: Renae Merle and Tracy Jan

5:12 PM: France issues more than 4,000 fines for violating lockdown in the first day

France’s sweeping, virus-motivated stay-at-home order has been in effect for a day — and police have already issued more than 4,000 fines for violations, according to the Telegraph.

That fine started at 35 euros (about $38) and has now been raised to 135 euros, Interior Minister Christophe Castaner said on television, the Telegraph reported. It can go up to 375 euros, he said.

Castaner tweeted Wednesday that it is crucial to respect social distancing measures and that authorities will make sure they are enforced.

France announced earlier this week that starting Tuesday, it would be following similar lockdowns in hard-hit Italy and Spain: Residents can leave their homes only for essential activities for at least 15 days, and those who do venture outside must justify their activity with signed papers.

Public health officials say that Europe has become the new global epicenter of the coronavirus pandemic.

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By: Hannah Knowles

4:48 PM: San Francisco Bay Area ordered millions to shelter in place. Elon Musk had Tesla employees report to work anyway.

About two weeks ago, as stock markets plunged, Tesla CEO Elon Musk tweeted: “The coronavirus panic is dumb.”

That attitude appeared to stretch into this week.

Despite a San Francisco Bay area-wide shelter-in-place order, he and other Tesla workers continued to work at the company’s factory in Fremont, part of Alameda County.

The move places Musk in an unusual standoff with local officials, who have said the factory does not qualify as “essential business,” which provides the only the exemption for the roughly 7 million residents who are otherwise supposed to remain in place. Violation of the order carries a potential misdemeanor charge.

“They are not essential during the health crisis,” said Sgt. Ray Kelly, spokesman for the Alameda County Sheriff’s Department, which is handling coronavirus-related inquiries for the county. “It’s not an issue that we are going to take lightly considering the fact that it’s a big employer in the state and the county with 10,000 employees that come in every day to work in the factory.”

Other tech giants including Apple, Google and Facebook headquartered in the counties affected by the order said they were sending workers home last week even before residents were ordered to shelter-in-place. Musk appeared to be the only tech CEO to resist drastic changes.

Late Monday, Musk sent an email to staff saying he would be at work on Tuesday.

“First, I’d like to be super clear that if you feel the slightest bit ill or even uncomfortable, please don’t feel obligated to come to work,” he wrote in an email to staff late Monday, according to the website Electrek, which obtained the memo shortly after it was sent. “I will personally be at work, but that is just me. Totally OK if you want to stay home for any reason.”

Read more here.

By: Faiz Siddiqui

4:47 PM: Resources strained, some police departments are changing their response to low-level crime

As the coronavirus outbreak shuts down court systems and strains public resources, some police departments are delaying arrests or otherwise changing their response to lower-level crimes.

Proponents say such moves will help avoid problematic buildups in the jail system and will also help minimize officers’ and offenders’ potential exposure to the virus. But the decisions have also stirred backlash from members of the public concerned about a possible uptick in crime.

In Philadelphia, a leaked memo on the changes for low-level offenses — which police confirmed to The Washington Post was authentic — went out a day after the city’s courts closed through April to combat the virus.

The new protocols apply as of Tuesday to all drug offenses, theft from people, burglary, economic crimes such as fraud, and more, the memo said.

“I am very worried that if many more places publicize, as Philadelphia did, that police will no longer be dealing with crimes like burglary, there may be a very general breakdown of public order,” one skeptic wrote on Twitter.

Police quickly tried to reassure the public that the changes did not mean they are “turning a blind eye to crime,” as Philadelphia Police Commissioner Danielle Outlaw put it in a news conference Wednesday. Instead, the department said, it means people will generally be issued a warrant. The department emphasized that officers can still use their judgment to physically detain someone if they believe public safety is at risk.

Normal processing for the offenses will resume “when we are on the other side of this health crisis,” Outlaw said. Some staff have also been reassigned to patrol to increase police visibility and deter crime, according to the department.

Police in Fort Worth, Tex. and Denver have also changed their approach to low-level crimes in the face of the pandemic, according to the Fort Worth Star-Telegram and the Denver Post. The San Francisco public defender has urged the city’s police to ease up on low-level crimes due to the virus; the police department did not immediately respond to an inquiry Wednesday. D.C. police Wednesday announced “operational adjustments” spurred by the coronavirus, too.

By: Hannah Knowles

4:31 PM: Largest U.S. mall owner is closing its properties in the country, as states crack down on shopping outlets

The United States’ largest mall owner said Wednesday that it is shuttering all its properties in the country through March 29, in another massive business closure spurred by the coronavirus pandemic.

The announcement by Simon Property Group came as New York, Pennsylvania, Connecticut and New Jersey moved to drastically cut shopping traffic. Those states will “temporarily close all indoor portions of retail shopping malls, amusement parks and bowling alleys” starting Thursday at 8 p.m., New York Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo (D) tweeted.

The Simon shutdowns will take effect 7 p.m. local time Wednesday, Simon Property Group said in a statement.

“The health and safety of our shoppers, retailers and employees is of paramount importance and we are taking this step to help reduce the spread of COVID-19 in our communities,” David Simon, Simon’s chief executive, said in a statement.

An S&P 100 company, Simon owns properties offering shopping, food and more around North America, Europe and Asia. The group says its locations serve as “community gathering places for millions of people every day” — exactly the kinds of environments that public health officials have been warning will foster the spread the virus.

As of last year, the Indiana-based group had 5,000 employees and revenue in the billions, according to a Forbes company profile. It has hundreds of properties in the United States.

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By: Hannah Knowles

4:27 PM: 500,000 swabs for coronavirus tests shipped from Italy to Memphis, Pentagon says

The U.S. Air Force’s National Guard unit transported 500,000 nasopharyngeal swabs for coronavirus tests from Italy to Memphis on Tuesday, Pentagon officials said Wednesday.

The swabs, which are used to collect a sample of cells from the back of the nose and throat, were then flown on FedEx airplanes to various locations across the country at the direction of the Department of Health and Human Services, chief Pentagon spokesman Jonathan Hoffman told reporters.

“There’s a company here in the United States that’s working around the clock producing these swabs, and we’re working with international partners to meet our full demand going forward on this,” Air Force Brig. Gen. Paul Friedrichs said.

Pentagon officials did not immediately provide additional details about the shipment.

By: Dan Lamothe and Marisa Iati

4:06 PM: Europe is mostly shut down. But what’s still open says a lot about a country’s priorities.

BRUSSELS — Many European countries have imposed drastic restrictions to limit the coronavirus outbreak, forcing people to remain at home and to venture out only for the most essential shopping and doctor’s trips.

But it turns out that what’s “essential” can vary from country to country. Amsterdam’s marijuana-supplying coffee shops remain open. Belgium’s french-fry stands are still serving up doses of greasy potatoes. Parisian wine shops — bien sûr — can still be paid a visit.

Here’s a look at what European countries view as essential.

FRANCE: The country closed most shops and markets Monday. But the government swiftly published about 40 categories of exceptions. Most French staples are still available in their often-tiny shops: bakeries, butcher shops, wine shops, tobacco shops and fine grocers all remain open. The French lockdown will last until at least April 16.

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BELGIUM: The country’s iconic friteries, or french-fry stands, remain open for business. Closing them would have dealt a major psychological blow to citizens, authorities reasoned. Since the stands are open-air, Belgian policymakers say the risks are minimal, so long as they eat the food elsewhere.

“The purpose is not to starve the population,” Belgian Health Minister Maggie de Block said.

Bookstores also remain open in Belgium, allowing anxious citizens an opportunity to pick up some light pandemic reading. And hairdressers are also open, though they can take only one client at a time.

THE NETHERLANDS: In the Netherlands, after the government announced Sunday it planned to close most shops later in the day, lines began to appear in the country’s famous marijuana-selling coffee shops. Dutch residents and tourists were rushing to get cannabis-related products. Authorities later backtracked, allowing the cannabis coffee shops to reopen. But clients cannot smoke drugs inside the shops.

Amsterdam’s iconic Red Light district, apparently, is nonessential, or at least a good place to spread the virus, and it will remain closed until at least April 6.

GERMANY: Germany is less locked down than some of its neighbors, and each German state has the ability to decide for itself what will remain open. In Berlin, authorities have included bike shops on the list of essential services — a perhaps understandable measure at a time when people are being urged to avoid public transportation.

ITALY: Italy remains the European country hardest-hit by the coronavirus, and there are few exceptions to its near-total shutdown. But newsstands remain open, a quaint and sweet measure that allows older residents a chance to read the papers. A small number of bread shops and bakeries have decided to stay open for takeaway service or delivery. And there is at least one Roman gelateria doing deliveries.

Read more here.

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Chico Harlan in Rome contributed reporting.

By: Quentin Ariès

3:50 PM: U.S. Census Bureau suspends field operations until April

The U.S. Census Bureau announced Wednesday that all field operations will be suspended for two weeks until April 1, 2020, because of the threat of the novel coronavirus.

During this pause, the bureau said, it will continue to evaluate all 2020 Census operations.

“Should any additional adjustments need to be made, the Census Bureau will communicate these changes broadly and promptly,” the agency said in a statement.

“The public is strongly encouraged to respond to the … Census online using a desktop computer, laptop, smartphone, or tablet, and can also respond by phone or mail,” the statement said. “Everyone should respond to the 2020 Census as soon as they receive their invitation.”

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By: Michael E. Ruane

3:46 PM: Ford, GM suspend North American auto production

Two of the United States’s leading automakers announced Wednesday that they would temporarily cease production at their North American plants as part of containment efforts for the coronavirus.

Ford said it would shut down its facilities after Thursday evening shifts, until March 30, to do a deep clean. Company executives said they plan to meet with United Auto Worker union leaders in the coming weeks to determine when to reopen plants and to devise ways to maximize social distancing between workers.

Ford’s Michigan Assembly Plant was temporarily closed for cleaning Wednesday morning after an employee there tested positive for the coronavirus. The company said it would instruct workers who came into contact with the infected employee to self-quarantine and seek medical attention.

General Motors also said it would begin to suspend operations in North America as a protective measure, for cleaning and because of market conditions. The closures will last until at least March 30 and will be evaluated on a week-to-week basis after that, company leaders said.

By: Marisa Iati

3:26 PM: Greece locks down island migrant camps, where overcrowding brings coronavirus concerns

ATHENS — Greece’s squalid island migrant camps, designed to hold 6,000 people, instead hold 37,000. At the largest of those camps, three state doctors deal almost exclusively with screening newcomers. Aid workers say that social distancing — or any of the other steps necessary to contain a possible coronavirus outbreak — is virtually impossible. In parts of the camp, there is only one water tap for every 1,300 people and no soap, according to Doctors Without Borders.

No cases have yet been detected among migrants at the camp, although that may be the result of a lack of testing.

But the Greek government Tuesday placed the camps under lockdown, barring volunteers and visitors and discouraging migrants — who live in tents pitched one next to the other — from moving around. Meanwhile, it has not taken steps to reduce the population or limit congestion, even while banning gatherings of more than 10 people in the rest of the country.

Greek aid workers say the new measures at the camps are problematic, sealing off massively overcrowded places where sickness is already widespread and rarely tested for.

“About 80 percent of the people that we see come to us with respiratory symptoms and fever,” said Siyana Mahroof-Shaffi, founder and director of Kitrinos Healthcare, which operates inside the largest camp, known as Moria. “It is very hard to know who might be positive, as there is no coronavirus testing in the camp.”

“If the coronavirus hits the camp, a great percentage of people will get it. And a large number of those may die. It is like a time bomb ticking,” Mahroof-Shaffi said. “If it hits the camp, there is no way of containing the virus, and it will also likely spread to the Greek population on the island.”

The Moria camp, on the island of Lesbos, has more than 19,000 people, many of whom live in tents that have spread into olive groves beyond the official camp gates.

One migrant, Zahra Mousavi, 17, from Afghanistan, said that the camp has posted instructions about how to prevent the coronavirus but that they are impossible to adhere to — including a step as simple as washing hands.

The lines for food, which can last for several hours because of the camp’s overcrowding, also present a problem.

“We are standing next to each other,” said Mustafa Dahadori, 17, from Afghanistan. “Some people wear masks, but I don’t know how they got them. Nobody gave us masks, and in my family we don’t have one. We know it is good to stay away from others, but it is impossible.”

By: Elinda Labropoulou and Chico Harlan

3:25 PM: Israel bars entry to anyone who is not a citizen or permanent resident

Israel on Wednesday barred all foreigners from entering the country, the latest in its stringent measures aimed at protecting itself from the spreading coronavirus.

International travel had largely ceased since March 12, when Israel announced a ban on anyone who is not an Israeli citizen or permanent resident and couldn’t prove they had a place to carry out a two-week quarantine.

Under the directive issued Wednesday by the Population Immigration and Authority, however, only Israeli nationals or permanent residents will be allowed to come and go. The latter status includes about 350,000 Palestinians in disputed East Jerusalem, who are not Israeli citizens but have permanent residency.

Israel’s interior minister on Wednesday also ordered border crossings with Egypt and Jordan to close.

Inside the country, Israel has limited public gatherings to 10 people and ordered residents not to leave their homes except for work or other essentials. The government has also said it will use cyber-monitoring to make sure patients remain quarantined and to conduct contact tracing.

The country has had around 430 confirmed cases and no deaths, but it did see a 40 percent rise in infections between Tuesday and Wednesday, according to health authorities.

Ruth Eglash in Jerusalem contributed to this report.

By: Miriam Berger

3:21 PM: Experts warn of rise in domestic violence worldwide during quarantine

As more communities around the globe enter into self-isolation, experts warn that these quarantine conditions could be rife for a rise in domestic and gender-based violence.

“Women who suffer domestic violence are already isolated. They’re isolated from family often, from friends often and sometimes even regular workplaces,” Joanne Yates, chief executive of the Australian group Domestic Violence NSW, told Australia’s Special Broadcasting Service (SBS). “So, an enforced self-isolation might in fact unintentionally increase their exposure to violence. We really fear that.”

Like covid-19, cases of gender-based violence transcend nationality, religion and class. And, like the coronavirus causing the disease, it’s an issue many governments are under-resourced or unprepared to address.

With so many places being closed to the public, where, for example, are women in need to go?

France’s secretary of state in charge of gender equality, Marlène Schiappa, recently warned that the situation of emergency shelters for victims “is a major concern” because of the country’s new quarantine measures, according to Brussels-based Euractiv.

Schiappa said that judges are still considering domestic violence cases, despite courts being on lockdown. However, an emergency government hotline for victims of domestic violence, 3919, is operating on a reduced schedule, she said, according to Euractiv.

On top of physical isolation, compounding economic problems and the overall stress of the global pandemic are potential triggers for domestic abusers.

China, where the novel coronavirus originated, passed its first national law criminalizing domestic violence in 2016. It was a landmark legislation for the country, but critics say it has been poorly enforced.

Quarantines have only worsened that trend, Sixth Tone, an online publication focused on China, reported in early March.

“The epidemic has had a huge impact on domestic violence,” Wan Fei, an anti-domestic-violence activist in Hubei province, told Sixth Tone. His group estimated that “90 percent of the causes” of recent domestic violence are tied to the virus.

“While everyone’s attention is on the epidemic, victims of domestic violence are very much being neglected,” he said.

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By: Miriam Berger

3:03 PM: Britain closes schools for all children except those of ‘key workers,’ like health-care staff

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LONDON — Schools in England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland will close on Friday in an effort to slow the spread of covid-19, British Prime Minister Boris Johnson announced Wednesday.

Up until now, the British government had resisted calls to close schools as it questioned the usefulness of a measure that could cause disruption to the workforce of parents, particularly those who work in health care, who would have to stay at home to look after their children.

But at a news conference Wednesday, Johnson said that the “vast majority of pupils” would stop going to school after the gates closed on Friday afternoon. Those exempt include vulnerable children and children of “key workers,” which he said included those in the health-care industry, police officers, supermarket delivery drivers, and social-care workers who look after the elderly. Johnson said the government would set out more detail about who exactly qualifies as a “key worker.”

Although the British government was reluctant to close schools, it said it was now pushing ahead with closures because it would help to slow the spread of the disease.

On Wednesday afternoon, the death toll in Britain. from coronavirus surpassed the 100 mark.

Earlier in the day, Nicola Sturgeon, the Scottish first minister, suggested that schools in Scotland may not resume before the summer break. When Johnson was asked how long the school closures would last, he said: “I wish I could give you an answer.”

By: Karla Adam

2:45 PM: Merkel says Germany is facing its biggest challenge since World War II

BERLIN — In a rare prerecorded televised message, a format normally reserved for her new year speeches, German Chancellor Angela Merkel on Wednesday impressed upon the country’s 87 million people that they face their gravest challenge since World War II.

She said she was addressing the people in this “unusual format” to share the details of what is guiding her as chancellor.

“It is serious,” she said. “Take it seriously. Since German reunification — no, since World War II, there’s not been a challenge to our country that depends as much on our united actions done in solidarity.”

It was an indication that the weight of the coronavirus crisis is hitting home in Berlin, after some criticized an initially slow reaction as the outbreak began to take hold in Europe.

But the scale of the crisis is setting in. German cases jumped by more than more than 1,000 overnight Wednesday to a total of 8,198. If effective measures aren’t taken, 10 million Germans could be infected in the next three months, health authorities warned Wednesday.

Germany has not introduced a large-scale lockdown seen in other states in Europe, but states have closed schools, and nonessential shops and bars and nightclubs have been shuttered.

“The coronavirus is currently changing life in our country dramatically,” Merkel said. “Our expectations of normality, of public life, of community — all that is being tested like never before.”

Merkel called on all Germans to play their part to help to limit the damage. “This is a historical task, and it can only be accomplished together.”

While Germany has recorded only 12 deaths so far, officials say it’s a given that more will follow.

“These are not simply abstract numbers in statistics, but that is a father or grandfather, a mother or grandmother, a partner or partner — they are people,” said Merkel. “And we are a community in which every life and every person counts.”

By: Loveday Morris and Luisa Beck

2:38 PM: World Health Organization announces global study

The World Health Organization’s leader announced that the agency has created a global trial to study treatments for the new coronavirus.

Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, director general of the organization, told reporters in a Wednesday news conference that the “solidarity trial” is needed so data from researchers across the world can be evaluated to determine effective treatments for the virus.

“Multiple small trials with different methodologies may not give us the clear, strong evidence we need about which treatments help to save lives,” he said. “WHO and its partners are therefore organizing a study in many countries in which some of these untested treatments are compared with each other.”

Argentina, Bahrain, Canada, France, Iran, Norway, South Africa, Spain, Switzerland and Thailand are part of the trial.

Tedros repeated his messaging about the importance of practicing social distancing, testing suspected cases and isolating sick patients. He also shared that the first vaccine trial started just 60 days after the genetic sequence of the virus was shared by China.

As the international community works to flatten the curve, Tedros warned against assuming any area or person is immune to the virus and urged the public to be prepared for the worst.

“This virus is presenting us with an unprecedented threat,” he said. “But it’s also an unprecedented opportunity to come together as one against a common enemy — an enemy against humanity.”

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By: Lateshia Beachum

2:16 PM: Hospitals advised to postpone elective surgeries because of coronavirus

Hoping to preserve protective equipment for front-line health-care workers, the Trump administration called on surgeons, physicians and dentists Wednesday to limit nonessential surgeries and procedures.

The instruction from the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services is not mandatory. But the head of that agency made clear that masks, gowns, gloves and other equipment used in surgery or other invasive procedures are needed in the fight against the coronavirus.

“The reality is the stakes are high, and we need to preserve personal protective equipment for those on the front lines of this fight,” CMS administrator Seema Verma said.

Tens of millions of elective surgeries are performed annually in the United States, in hospitals and ambulatory surgery centers.

By: Lenny Bernstein

2:12 PM: Trump declines to condemn White House staffer’s reported use of term ‘kung flu’ for coronavirus

President Trump on Wednesday declined to denounce a White House staffer's reported use of the phrase "kung flu" to describe the novel coronavirus in a conversation with a Chinese-American reporter.

Asked at a coronavirus task force briefing about the use of the phrase, Trump first asked a reporter to repeat the term. The president then shook his head but did not denounce the unidentified staffer's use of the phrase.

Earlier, White House counselor Kellyanne Conway said she wasn’t interested in entertaining “hypotheticals” when a reporter asked her about the incident.

Conway condemned the term as offensive but then pressed reporters to reveal the identity of the staffer who allegedly used the term.

“I’m married to an Asian,” she said, referring to her husband and Trump critic George Conway. “My kids are 25 percent Filipino.”

George Conway, whose mother immigrated to the United States from the Philippines, hasn’t yet commented on his wife’s statement.

Seung Min Kim and Philip Wegmann contributed to this report.

By: Lateshia Beachum and Felicia Sonmez

1:58 PM: 50 FEMA teams will deploy to help state governments, amid criticism of agency’s second-string role

President Trump put the Federal Emergency Management Agency at its highest level of operation Wednesday, indicating that the agency will take on an increasingly greater role managing the nonmedical elements of the government’s disaster response.

“FEMA now is fully engaged at the highest levels,” Trump told reporters during Wednesday’s White House coronavirus task force briefing. “Today FEMA is activated in every region at Level 1 … the highest level.”

The agency is preparing to deploy 50 teams across the country to support states and local jurisdictions struggling to cope with coronavirus shutdowns and disruptions, FEMA spokeswoman Lizzie Litzow said Wednesday.

The four-person teams “will be there to support states as they activate their emergency operations centers,” said Litzow.

The Trump administration has used FEMA mostly in a secondary role, with the Department of Health and Human Services and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention taking the lead among federal agencies.

“This starts to shift the operational center of gravity from HHS to FEMA,” said Dan Kaniewski, who stepped down in January as FEMA’s second-in-command, and currently works as a risk consultant.

The White House task force will continue to run the government response, but FEMA is best-qualified to coordinate among federal agencies, deploy resources and respond to state requests for assistance, while allowing HHS and the CDC to continue to take the lead on the medical emergency response, Kaniewski added.

“FEMA is the quarterback for the federal response to disasters,” he said. “This is a disaster, and it needs to be coordinated.”

FEMA administrator Peter Gaynor briefed the White House coronavirus task force about the agency’s assets and resources for the first time Wednesday, Litzow said.

The agency does not have stockpiles of materials or medical supplies, but its incident managers are tasked with assisting states and localities with the procurement process and providing financial resources.

The agency’s 10 regional coordinating offices are working with state governments, and more than 50 emergency teams will support them, Litzow said. “Our regional administrators are in touch with all the governors and in touch with the White House task force,” she said. “This is the whole of the government response.”

FEMA has broad authority to coordinate among federal agencies in response to a natural disaster. Officials at the agency will continue to play a “supporting role” to federal authorities because the coronavirus is a public-health pandemic, rather than a natural disaster such as a hurricane or flood.

Trump is scheduled to visit FEMA’s emergency operations center in Washington Thursday, an administration official said.

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By: Nick Miroff

1:54 PM: Italy reports 475 deaths, record single-day toll

an old stone building with Piazza Navona in the background: The Piazza Navona sits empty on Wednesday in Rome. © Andrew Medichini/AP The Piazza Navona sits empty on Wednesday in Rome.

Italy on Wednesday reported 475 new deaths, the largest one-day toll recorded yet in any nation.

Even as lockdown measures have gradually slowed the number of new cases, the country’s death toll has exploded, more than tripling in the span of a week, to 2,978. Italy has reported more than 300 deaths in each of the past four days. By comparison, China, the country with the highest overall death toll, of 3,241, only once reported more than 200 deaths in a day.

The virus is proving especially deadly in Italy because of its elderly population and its overloaded hospitals. The country’s death toll is increasing exponentially in a way that mirrors the growth of total cases earlier this month, as people lose battles with the disease after several weeks.

Italy is the hardest-hit country in Europe, with 35,713 cases, about 17 percent of the world’s total.

About half of Italy’s cases are in the northern Lombardy region, which includes Milan.

On Wednesday, the governor of that region, Attilio Fontana, said that medical facilities there will soon be unable to help the sick.

“We will soon be unable to give a response to those who fall ill,” Fontana said.

By: Chico Harlan

1:38 PM: Just went on a cruise? Stay home for two weeks, CDC says.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention is advising travelers who have recently disembarked from a cruise to self isolate.

“Stay home for 14 days from the time you disembark, practice social distancing and monitor your health,” the agency said Tuesday. “Social distancing means staying out of crowded places, avoiding group gatherings, and maintaining distance (approximately six feet or two meters) from others when possible.”

The CDC’s recommendation came in a new travel warning Tuesday that raises cruising to a Level 3 — “avoid nonessential travel” — status. The agency recommends travelers put off all cruise travel around the world, though it does not give a timeline for when it would be safe to start again. Most lines have canceled sailings until at least early April.

At least nine oceangoing cruise ships have had confirmed cases of coronavirus onboard since late January, as well as several river cruises in the Nile.

Read more here.

By: Hannah Sampson

1:33 PM: Trump says hospital ships are preparing to deploy in coronavirus response, but timeline is unclear

President Trump said Wednesday that two Navy hospital ships are being prepared for deployments in response to the coronavirus pandemic, saying at least one of them will go to New York.

Trump, speaking at the White House alongside several advisers, said that the “the big white ships with the red cross on the sides” will “soon” be in “tiptop shape” and able to deploy. Each vessel has about 1,000 beds, the size of a large hospital, and will be able to offer support in one location.

It’s unclear how long it will take for the ships to be useful. The USNS Comfort, with home port in Norfolk, is currently under maintenance, Defense Secretary Mark T. Esper told reporters Tuesday. Its sister ship, the USNS Mercy, is based in San Diego. Trump said the administration hasn’t “made the final determination as to where it’s going to go on the West Coast.”

But defense officials have said repeatedly that it can take longer than that to assemble the needed medical personnel to staff the ships. On Tuesday, Esper also said that he was concerned that calling upon reserve service members who are already working in other medical facilities as civilians could be counterproductive.

In a statement released after Trump’s announcement, the Navy said the ships are preparing to deploy “if called upon.” Both of them are undergoing scheduled maintenance and a search for medical staff to deploy as “soon as possible,” the statement said.

As Esper said Tuesday, it is likely that the hospital ships will not be deployed to treat patients with the covid-19 virus, the Navy said. That’s a reflection of the ship’s design, which has an open floor plan and is focused on treating trauma patients.

The ships will “be made available to assist with treatment of other patients in coastal locations where local health professional are necessarily focused on a large number of COVID cases,” the Navy statement said.

By: Dan Lamothe

1:16 PM: Trump touts his approval numbers, attacks Biden again amid coronavirus response

President Trump has continued to deny criticism of his administration’s failures to ramp up coronavirus testing sooner, stock hospitals with equipment to keep people alive, and take more decisive measures to protect Americans.

He tweeted Wednesday morning he gives himself a 10 out of 10 on the coronavirus response. But when a reporter asked him Wednesday how he reassures Americans who don’t trust him to handle this crisis, he repeated his familiar defense: That he is unequivocally doing a good job.

“We have very great approval numbers, people like the job we are doing,” he said, without citing a specific poll. “I’m beating Sleepy Joe Biden by a lot in Florida and a lot of other states,” he said, later, without citing which poll.

A Pew Research Center survey finds 52 percent of Americans don’t think Trump has taken the threat seriously, and an average of recent approval rating polls show a 52 percent disapprove of the job he’s doing as president. And Trump has, for weeks, downplayed the threat of the virus, comparing it to the flu, but he denied on Wednesday he did that, either.

“I think my earlier comments are to be calm,” he said.

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By: Amber Phillips

1:11 PM: Trump confirms he plans to impose emergency border controls targeting migrants

Trump confirmed Wednesday that his administration is developing a plan to impose emergency border controls that would immediately send migrants who cross illegally back to Mexico, including those who arrive seeking asylum.

Administration officials involved in the preparations had told The Washington Post on Tuesday that “all options are on the table."

“The answer is yes,” Trump told reporters at Wednesday’s media briefing when asked whether he was planning to impose the border controls. He added that he would probably make the move “very soon; probably today.”

Homeland Security agencies are working out the logistics of the new measures, which would also be paired with new restrictions at the Canadian border. They would not apply U.S. citizens, legal residents and their families, or the flow of commercial goods.

One Department of Homeland Security official with knowledge of the plans said Tuesday that one goal of the measures would be to reduce the detainee population in immigration jails along the Mexico border, where fears of an outbreak are high.

Mexico has only confirmed about 100 coronavirus cases so far, compared to roughly 5,000 in the United States, but the Trump administration views travel restrictions as one of its most effective tools for slowing the spread of infection. Last month, a little more than 37,000 migrants were detained by U.S. authorities along the Mexico border.

By: Nick Miroff and Felicia Sonmez

1:04 PM: Senate Democrats raise privacy concerns with Google, White House about coronavirus screening service

A coronavirus screening service launched by Verily, Google’s sister company, this week is raising red flags on Capitol Hill, where five senior Senate Democrats are questioning whether the tech giant is properly safeguarding patients’ data.

Lawmakers’ concerns center on a new tool that allows people in the San Francisco Bay area to input their symptoms, and, if they show signs of infection, obtain testing. Verily, the health subsidiary of Google’s parent company, Alphabet, unveiled the portal Monday after President Trump touted it days earlier.

But congressional Democrats, including Sens. Robert Menendez (N.J.), Cory Booker (N.J.) and Kamala D. Harris (Calif.), say they aren’t clear what Google plans to do with the data it collects — and whether the information the company obtains, or possibly harnesses from users’ browsing habits, might be used for purposes that people might not expect.

To that end, lawmakers asked Google and the Trump administration in letters Wednesday to explain the privacy protections in place and how Google’s effort would be monitored.

Read more here.

By: Tony Romm

1:01 PM: Coronavirus cases in New York rise to 2,382, up 1,008 since Tuesday

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New York confirmed 1,008 new coronavirus cases on Tuesday, raising the state’s total to 2,382, Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo (D) told reporters Wednesday.

Cuomo attributed the increase in cases to more testing and said New York now has the most cases of any state. Of people who are ill, 549 are hospitalized.

“We are a more dense environment, we have more people, than Washington state,” Cuomo said, referring to another state with many reported cases. “So science would dictate, mathematics would dictate, that you’ll have a higher rate of spread.”

The virus’s growth curve suggests that New York could need 110,000 hospital beds and 37,000 ventilators 45 days from now, Cuomo said. The state currently has 53,000 beds and 3,000 ventilators.

Officials may convert available facilities into temporary hospitals for patients who need lower levels of care, according to the governor. He said the Trump administration would send the USNS Comfort, a Navy medical ship with about 1,000 rooms, to New York City Harbor. The federal government also may make available mobile hospitals with between 200 and 250 beds, Cuomo said.

The governor said ventilators are the state’s most pressing need.

Cuomo also announced a new mandatory statewide requirement, to be formalized by executive order, that no more than half of any business’s staff report to work outside their homes. The order will exclude “essential services,” including grocery stores, pharmacies, health care and others.

Cuomo said he’s disinclined to order New York residents to shelter in place, a policy that would restrict people to their homes, in part because total business closures would make it hard for residents to access food and other needs. He urged residents to remain calm in the face of the crisis.

“I get the drama, I get the anxiety, but all in moderation, and all in connection with the facts,” Cuomo said.

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By: Marisa Iati

12:53 PM: U.S. health officials warn millennials this virus could be serious for them, too

The one thing that scientists thought they knew about the novel coronavirus was that it leads to more serious — and deadly — complications in people older than 60. But on Wednesday, White House coronavirus response coordinator Deborah Birx said health experts aren’t so sure anymore that younger people are largely spared serious complications from the virus.

“There are concerning reports coming out of France and Italy about some young people getting seriously ill and very seriously ill — in the ICU,” Birx said. She said that they have not seen any significant mortality among children but that people in their 20s, 30s and 40s could be in more danger than earlier thought. She wondered whether the higher hospitalization rates in Europe for younger people were a result of that demographic making up a significant share of the overall population.

Birx also urged younger people to stay home.

“We cannot have larger gatherings that are continuing to occur around the country for people who are off work and socializing,” she said. “You have the potential to spread it to someone who does have an underlying condition that none of us knew about and cause us to have a disastrous outcome.”

Birx also addressed the widespread coronavirus testing shortage, saying officials are focused on ensuring tests reach the hardest-hit areas of the nation first. Of all the testing done so far, she said, about 93 percent has been negative, comparing that with South Korea’s 96 percent negative rate. That country has largely gotten its outbreak under control.

By: Amber Phillips

12:51 PM: Trump defends use of phrase ‘Chinese virus’: ‘It’s not racist at all’

Donald Trump, Mike Pence are posing for a picture: President Trump speaks during Wednesday's briefing with the coronavirus task force at the White House. © Evan Vucci/AP President Trump speaks during Wednesday's briefing with the coronavirus task force at the White House.

Trump issued a defiant defense of his use of the phrase “Chinese virus” to describe the novel coronavirus, pushing back against criticism that the phrase is racist.

Some members of Trump’s own administration have balked at using the phrase, arguing that ethnicity does not cause the virus. And critics have argued that calling the coronavirus a “Chinese virus” has spurred attacks against those of Asian ethnicity in the United States and worldwide.

But Trump said Wednesday that he sees no problem with the term.

“It’s not racist at all,” Trump told reporters at the daily news briefing. “No, not at all. It comes from China, that’s why. It comes from China. I want to be accurate.”

Pressed further on the matter, Trump suggested that he decided to use the term in response to conspiracy theories spread by some Chinese diplomats — including a Chinese Ministry of Foreign Affairs spokesman — that the U.S. military brought the virus to Wuhan, where the first cases were recorded.

After the emergence of Middle East respiratory syndrome (MERS) in Saudi Arabia in 2012, the WHO in 2015 asked national authorities, scientists and the news media to not name a virus after people, a geographic location, a cultural group or even a species of animal, because that can stigmatize communities or incite needless slaughtering of animals.

“I have great love for all of the people from our country, but as you know, China tried to say at one point — maybe they’ve stopped now — that it was caused by American soldiers,” Trump said Wednesday. “That can’t happen. It’s not going to happen, not as long as I’m president. It comes from China.”

By: Felicia Sonmez and Joel Achenbach

12:35 PM: Trump says HUD will halt foreclosures and evictions until the end of April

At Wednesday’s coronavirus task force briefing, Trump announced that the Department of Housing and Urban Development will suspend all foreclosures and evictions until the end of April.

The move will provide “immediate relief to renters and homeowners” amid the coronavirus pandemic, Trump said.

The president also announced that he will invoke the Defense Production Act of 1950 to better mobilize private industry during the crisis.

The two Navy hospital ships, the Mercy and the Comfort, will be dispatched soon to New York and the West Coast, Trump said.

And the administration is working with “several groups” to determine the feasibility of wide-scale self-swabbing, the president said, adding that there will be another news conference on the issue either later in the day or Thursday.

By: Felicia Sonmez

12:12 PM: 52 percent say Trump has not taken outbreak seriously enough, Pew survey finds

Over the span of a single week, Americans have grown sharply more worried about how the coronavirus outbreak threatens the health and economic standing of the country and their own communities, according to a Pew Research Center survey released Wednesday.

The national survey of nearly 9,000 adults highlights the degree to which Americans’ concerns have grown from even the middle of last week. In interviews conducted last Tuesday and Wednesday, 29 percent of adults thought the coronavirus outbreak posed a major threat to daily life in their communities. That grew to 39 percent by Thursday and Friday and to 46 percent among those interviewed Saturday through Monday, the final day of the survey.

Americans’ biggest worry continues to be the U.S. economy, with 77 percent saying the coronavirus poses a major threat to the economy in the last three days of the survey, while 55 percent were concerned about the health of the U.S. population overall. Still, 4 in 10 were concerned about their own financial situation, and roughly 3 in 10 about their own personal health.

a screenshot of a cell phone

Clear majorities rated CDC officials as well as state or local officials positively for responding to the outbreak, though less than half said the same for President Trump. A slight 52 percent majority said Trump has not taken the outbreak’s risks seriously enough.

The poll found mixed ratings for the news media, with 7 in 10 saying they are doing a very or somewhat good job covering the outbreak, even as more than 6 in 10 said they have generally exaggerated the risks.

The Pew survey was conducted March 10-16 among 8,914 adults using its American Trends Panel, which was recruited from a random sample of U.S. households. Overall results have a margin of sampling error of plus or minus 1.6 percentage points.

By: Scott Clement

11:55 AM: Trump, Trudeau agree to close U.S.-Canada border to ‘nonessential’ traffic

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Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau said Wednesday that the United States and Canada had agreed to close their 5,500-mile border to “all nonessential travel” as the novel coronavirus outbreak continues to spread.

Trudeau spoke after President Trump tweeted the plan to close earlier Wednesday. The world’s longest undefended border was being closed with the “mutual consent” of Canada, Trump said, and would not impact trade.

Trudeau agreed that the decision was mutual. He vowed to “ensure the smooth flow of goods and essential materials and medication.” He described new spending to ease the impacts of the coronavirus outbreak on Canadians. Trudeau spoke outside Rideau Cottage, an official residence in Ottawa, where he has been working in self-isolation since his wife, Sophie Grégoire Trudeau, tested positive for covid-19 last week.

Canada has confirmed around 600 cases of the coronavirus, according to a count kept by the Johns Hopkins University. At least eight people have died. The United States has confirmed more than 6,400 cases, with patients now in all 50 states and the District of Columbia. More than 110 people have died.

Trudeau announced the closure of Canada’s borders to most travelers on Monday, but exempted U.S. citizens, Canadian citizens and permanent residents.

Read more here.

By: Rick Noack

11:49 AM: Spain orders hotels to close

Spain has ordered all hotels to close by Tuesday as part of the country’s expanding lockdown and emergency measures to stem the spread of the coronavirus.

Spain, which has had about 600 deaths and over 13,700 coronavirus cases, is a very popular tourist destination for Europeans and others.

A spokesman for Britain’s Foreign Office confirmed the closure in a news statement and urged “British travelers in Spain to contact their tour operator or airline as soon as possible, to arrange their return journey home before this date.”

That, however, is far easier said than done.

From Peru to Morocco to Ukraine, tourists have reported becoming stranded after sudden flight cancellations amid closing borders left them with no route home. The United States has banned travelers (who aren’t U.S. citizens or permanent residents) from Europe, as well as China and Iran, causing almost all flights between the two continents to stop.

The Moroccan government Sunday abruptly suspended international travel and Monday ordered all hotels and restaurants to close. The North African country relies heavily on tourism and hosted around 12 million tourists in 2018 — but that’s changing in the age of the coronavirus. Countries such as Britain and France have raced to organize emergency flights out of Morocco prioritizing their citizens, while U.S. citizens have pleaded with the U.S. government to assist them in finding a way home.

Some Moroccan hotels have remained open despite the ban, providing tourists a discounted stay.

By: Miriam Berger

11:37 AM: Germany suspends refugee resettlement programs

BERLIN — Germany on Wednesday said it will suspend resettlement programs for refugees because of the coronavirus outbreak.

Reasons for the decision include travel bans imposed in recent weeks to halt the spread of the virus, said Steve Alter, a government spokesman. The European Union banned all nonessential travel in and out of the 27-member bloc this week.

Partner organizations like the International Organization for Migration (IOM) and United Nations Refugee Agency (UNHCR) also suspended resettlement activities, citing “severe disruptions” to travel arrangements related to the coronavirus outbreak.

The government spokesman, Alter, said: “It is an adaptation to the actual situation that we are now experiencing.”

E.U. resettlement agreements with Turkey also will be suspended, including the so-called one-to-one mechanism by which one Syrian asylum seeker or migrant is resettled to an E.U. member state for every Syrian asylum seeker returned to Turkey.

The programs have come to a “de facto standstill” since last Friday and will be resumed “as soon as it’s actually possible,” Alter said.

By: Luisa Beck

11:28 AM: White House coronavirus plan aims to send $2,000 to many Americans

White House officials are working with congressional Republicans on an emergency stimulus package that could send two $1,000 checks to many Americans and also devote $300 billion toward helping small businesses avoid mass layoffs, according to two senior administration officials and a Treasury Department fact sheet.

No final decisions have been made, and talks with Republican leaders remain fluid, but the growing scale of the $1 trillion rescue plan is coming into sharper focus. The Treasury Department is circulating a two-page sheet of priorities that it wants to see in the final deal.

The White House will still need backing from Democrats before any plan can be pushed into law, but many Democrats have said they would support sending cash payments to Americans who are struggling to pay bills because of the virus’s economic impact. Still, multiple levels of negotiations remain. The senior administration officials spoke on the condition of anonymity because talks remain ongoing.

The White House’s evolving spending plan could be unprecedented in its size and velocity, dwarfing the stimulus bill passed during the Obama administration and the Troubled Asset Relief Program passed during the George W. Bush administration.

Read more here.

By: Erica Werner and Jeff Stein

11:20 AM: U.S. Embassy in Ethiopia warns of ‘incidents of harassment and assault directly related to COVID-19’

Just days after Ethiopia’s first cases of the novel coronavirus were announced, threatening and even violent incidents have been reported by foreigners in the country, prompting the U.S. Embassy in the capital Addis Ababa to issue a rare security alert for the normally peaceful city.

“The Embassy continues to receive reports regarding a rise in anti-foreigner sentiment revolving around the announcement of COVID-19 in Ethiopia. Typical derogatory comments directed at foreigners, the terms ‘China’ and ‘Ferengi’ (foreigner), have been reportedly coupled with the label ‘Corona,’ indicating a disparaging view on the link between the outbreak of COVID-19 and foreigners in Ethiopia,” the statement read. Covid-19 is the disease caused by the novel coronavirus.

“Reports indicate that foreigners have been attacked with stones, denied transportation services, being spat on, chased on foot, and been accused of being infected with COVID-19.”

Ethiopia has confirmed six cases of the coronavirus, four of which were in foreigners (three Japanese business executives and one British diplomat). The government recently closed schools and offered up state-owned transport vehicles, equipped with hand sanitizer, to ease the burden on the capital’s dilapidated shared van taxis that most use to commute.

The U.S. Embassy urged Americans to not go out alone and to seek shelter in case of threats, rather than to retaliate.

By: Max Bearak

11:11 AM: California schools are unlikely to reopen this school year

The more than 6 million children who attend California’s public schools are unlikely to return to the classroom before the end of the school year, Gov. Gavin Newsom (D) said Tuesday as he outlined more measures to control the coronavirus outbreak.

“Let me be candid, and this is a very sobering thing to say,” Newsom said at a news conference, “It’s unlikely that many of these schools — few, if any — will open before the summer break.”

Nearly all of California’s schools have closed, he said, and the remaining schools are likely to shutter soon.

His comments came after Kansas Gov. Laura Kelly (D) announced schools in that state would remain closed for the rest of the academic year.

According to Education Week, nearly 42 million children are out of school because of pandemic-related closures. In recent days, school leaders have expressed frustration at the lack of clear guidance from the White House and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

More than half of California’s schoolchildren come from households poor enough to qualify for free or subsidized lunches, and many schools have continued to serve meals to meet the needs of hungry families.

For many children, schools are a lifeline, a refuge from violence and a place where they can get a warm meal, connect with a social worker and see a nurse. The move to close schools has raised questions about the kind of harm it could do to the well-being of children.

By: Moriah Balingit

10:59 AM: W.Va senator: State had no cases because it wasn’t looking for them

West Virginia was the last state to confirm a positive case of covid-19 because of a lack of testing, Sen. Joe Manchin III (D) told CNN’s John Berman on Wednesday.

“Up until a couple a couple of days ago, we only had 40 tests done,” Manchin said, adding that the total number of tests is now over 130.

The claim is a sharp contrast to President Trump’s praise of Republican Gov. Jim Justice’s handling of the then-zero cases in the state. Although Justice closed West Virginia’s schools last week, he also encouraged residents to not panic.

“Go to the grocery stores. If you want to go to Bob Evans and eat, go to Bob Evans and eat,” he said at a news conference.

Manchin, who governed the state from 2004 to 2010, had hoped the president didn’t look to his state as a beacon of excellence considering the lack of tests, he said. He saw carnage on the horizon because of the many vulnerable populations in the state.

“We have over 700,000 [ …] or more people who are elderly,” he said. “We have over 230,000 people who are under 60 with chronic illness because of all the hard work they’ve done.”

Manchin said West Virginia is not prepared for the virus that has shut down other states and claimed lives. He said he has asked federal health officials for more tests and asked Vice President Pence for supplies that would protect medical first responders.

“When it hits my state, and it has hit,” he said, “it’s going to be absolutely catastrophic.”

By: Lateshia Beachum

10:47 AM: Eurovision Song Contest is canceled for the first time in 64 years

The Eurovision Song Contest, an annual international song competition that has taken place since 1956, has been canceled because of the coronavirus outbreak.

Representatives from 41 countries were scheduled to participate in the event in May in Rotterdam, the Netherlands, before the European Broadcasting Union announced its cancellation Wednesday. The company said this is the first cancellation of the event in its 64 years.

“Over the past few weeks we have explored many alternative options to allow the Eurovision Song Contest to go ahead,” the EBU said in a statement. “However the uncertainty created by the spread of COVID-19 throughout Europe — and the restrictions put in place by the governments of the participating broadcasters and the Dutch authorities — means the European Broadcasting Union (EBU) has taken the difficult decision that it is impossible to continue with the live event as planned.” Covid-19 is the disease caused by the new coronavirus.

The EBU said it would “continue a conversation” about hosting the contest in 2021.

By: Marisa Iati

10:39 AM: New study of coronavirus in children shows they might spread the virus even more easily than adults do

A paper released this week in the journal Pediatrics, based on 2,143 young people in China, provides the most extensive evidence on the spread of the virus in children.

The study provides confirmation that coronavirus infections are generally less severe in children, with more than 90 percent having mild to moderate symptoms or even being asymptomatic. But it contains worrisome information about one subset — infants — and suggests children may be a critical factor in the disease’s rapid spread.

According to the analysis by Shanghai Children’s Medical Center researchers Yuanyuan Dong, Xi Mo and co-authors, mild cases (52 percent) were marked by the typical symptoms of a cold — fever, fatigue, cough, sore throat, runny nose and sneezing. Some patients had no fever and only digestive symptoms such as nausea, vomiting, abdominal pain and diarrhea.

Those with moderate infection (39 percent) had pneumonia with frequent fever and cough, mostly dry cough, followed by a wetter cough. Some had wheezing but no obvious shortness of breath.

Severe cases were rare (5 percent) as were those who required critical care (0.4 percent). The severe cases began with early respiratory symptoms, which were sometimes accompanied by gastrointestinal issues. Around one week, the children have more difficulty breathing. Those cases sometimes quickly progressed to critical illness with acute respiratory distress or failure, which in turn sometimes led to other organ dysfunction — heart failure or kidney injury.

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The data suggests they may have more symptoms that make them contagious, such as runny nose, and that they may have more gastrointestinal symptoms which raises concerns for the virus being in the feces for several weeks after infection.

Of special interest to pediatricians is a group of seven infants (11 percent of the total number of infants in the study), and two children in the 1-to-5 age range (15 percent), who progressed to critical condition. The study suggests, the authors wrote, that “young children, particularly infants, were vulnerable.”

Read more here.

By: Ariana Eunjung Cha

9:53 AM: Trump says border with Canada will be temporarily closed to ‘non-essential traffic’

A man walks towards El Paso, Texas from Mexico, on the international border bridge Paso del Norte, as seen from Ciudad Juarez, Mexico  on March 13. © Jose Luis Gonzalez/Reuters A man walks towards El Paso, Texas from Mexico, on the international border bridge Paso del Norte, as seen from Ciudad Juarez, Mexico on March 13.

The United States and Canada have mutually agreed to close their border to non-essential traffic to stem the flow of the virus, President Trump said Tuesday.

“Trade will not be affected!” he said in a tweet. “Details to follow!”

The Trump administration is also developing a plan to impose emergency border controls that would immediately send migrants who cross illegally back to Mexico, including those who arrive seeking asylum, according to administration officials involved in the preparations.

“All options are on the table,” said one senior official who, like others, would discuss the plans only on condition of anonymity.

Homeland Security agencies are working out the logistics of the new measures, which could be announced in the coming days. They would not apply U.S. citizens, legal residents and their families, or the flow of commercial goods. The measures were first reported by the New York Times.

One Department of Homeland Security official with knowledge of the plans said one goal of the measures would be to reduce the detainee population in immigration jails along the Mexico border, where fears of an outbreak are high.

Mexico has only confirmed about 100 coronavirus cases so far, compared with roughly 5,000 in the United States, but the Trump administration views travel restrictions as one of its most effective tools for slowing the spread of infection. Last month, a little more than 37,000 migrants were detained by U.S. authorities along the Mexico border.

Under the plan being discussed, migrants taken into custody would be quickly turned around and sent back across the border. The administration is already using similar measures for asylum-seekers, fast-tracking their deportations or requiring them to wait in Mexico for their court cases.

The administration would justify the added restrictions by citing the health risks, while also potentially relying on the president’s broad authorities to deny entry to foreign nationals during an emergency.

Immigration hawks in the administration have long argued the president has the ability to send migrants back to Mexico under a provision in U.S. immigration law known as “return to territory.” At moments of peak frustration, President Trump has also ordered aides to shut down the Mexico border.

"The White House finally has a publicly acceptable reason to close the southern border,” said one DHS official who requested anonymity to speak candidly.

A senior Mexican official reached late Tuesday said the Mexican government has not received notice from the Trump administration. “They haven’t told us anything,” the official said.

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By: Nick Miroff and Marisa Iati

9:46 AM: China delivers medical equipment to Poland, Italy, amid continental anger at E.U. response

a truck is parked in a parking lot: Airport workers unload medical supplies from a China Eastern Airbus A-350 from Shanghai, at Fiumicino airport in Rome on March 12. (Photo by ITALIAN RED CROSS PRESS OFFICE HANDOUT/EPA-EFE/Shutterstock) © Italian Red Cross Press Office Handout/EPA-EFE/REX/Shutterstock Airport workers unload medical supplies from a China Eastern Airbus A-350 from Shanghai, at Fiumicino airport in Rome on March 12. (Photo by ITALIAN RED CROSS PRESS OFFICE HANDOUT/EPA-EFE/Shutterstock)

BRUSSELS — Poland’s Foreign Ministry said Wednesday it is expecting the delivery of 10,000 coronavirus test kits and additional protective medical equipment from China, as Beijing is increasingly seeking to portray itself as a partner to nations feeling abandoned by the European Union amid the coronavirus crisis.

“Although the battle with coronavirus in China is not over yet, the country decided to show solidarity with Poland,” a Polish Foreign Ministry statement read.

France and Germany last week threw up political borders around crucial medical equipment produced in their territory, banning the export of protective gear, including masks, to any other country, even Italy, which is struggling with shortages. After entreaties by European Union leaders, the countries loosened their bans, but not before the message was sent to Italians and others: In a crisis, don’t count on your neighbors to help you out.

Just outside E.U. borders, Serbian President Aleksandar Vucic reacted bitterly to news that the E.U. this weekend imposed a bloc-wide export ban on equipment to protect medical workers, such as masks and gowns.

“International solidarity does not exist. European solidarity does not exist,” Vucic said. “The only country that can help us is China.”

China has moved quickly to step into the gaps in European generosity, airlifting masks, respirators and other critical supplies to Rome’s Fiumicino Airport last week when France and Germany had yet to offer assistance to Italy. Chinese media has played up the international assistance efforts, even though the government’s halting response to the initial viral outbreak was seen as helping fuel the pandemic.

Chinese leader Xi Jinping said this week the country is working to establish a “Health Silk Road,” according to the Xinhua News Agency — a reference to Beijing’s global infrastructure project.

Noack reported from Berlin.

Read more here.

By: Michael Birnbaum and Rick Noack

9:45 AM: Trump administration postpones immigration hearings in 9 cities

The Trump administration Wednesday postponed immigration hearings in nine cities amid worries about further spread of the novel coronavirus — a move that immigration advocates have been seeking for several weeks as courthouse lobbies in heavily affected communities remained crowded.

“Due to EOIR’s continuing evaluation of information from local, regional, state, and federal officials regarding the coronavirus pandemic, the agency is postponing non-detained hearings nationwide,” the Justice Department’s Executive Office for Immigration Review, which oversees 58 immigration courts nationwide, announced Wednesday.

The postponements, which will last until April 10, are for hearings that don’t involve an undocumented immigrant already being held in detention, the agency said.

They will occur in the following cities: Atlanta, Charlotte, Houston, Louisville, Memphis, New York (both Broadway and Federal Plaza locations), Newark, Los Angeles and Sacramento.

The agency said all court hearings at its other locations will continue.

By: Antonio Olivo

9:19 AM: Liberia’s first coronavirus case was a government official who broke the country’s health safety rules. The second: His personal chef.

a man holding a sign: Nathaniel T. Blama, director of Environmental Protection Agency speaks during the official clean up of plastic and other wastes at the Snow Beach in Paynesville City, outside Monrovia, Liberia, March 18, 2019. © Ahmed Jallanzo/EPA-EFE/REX/Shutterstock Nathaniel T. Blama, director of Environmental Protection Agency speaks during the official clean up of plastic and other wastes at the Snow Beach in Paynesville City, outside Monrovia, Liberia, March 18, 2019.

William Berrah’s boss was due home from Switzerland, so the Liberian chauffeur slid into a shiny, government-owned SUV and rolled to the West African nation’s biggest airport.

Nathaniel Blama, head of Liberia’s Environmental Protection Agency, had a slight fever when he landed on March 13. The government official should have gone into hospital quarantine, per state protocol, because he’d arrived from a coronavirus hotspot: Switzerland, which by then had reported more than 1,300 cases.

But Blama — who became Liberia’s first confirmed covid-19 case three days later — walked out of the airport and into his driver’s back seat, unknowingly thrusting his employees into economic distress.

“My family has nothing in the house — no money,” said Berrah, 34, speaking from a military hospital room that he is not allowed to leave. “The people in the government need to show some concern. They aren’t doing anything to help us.”

The chauffeur, along with two security guards, tested negative but must remain in the hospital for seven more days. Blama’s cook wasn’t so lucky: He was identified as Liberia’s second case on Tuesday. (Both men remain in stable condition, and Blama did not immediately respond to requests for comment.)

Liberia has suspended the EPA head for breaking the rules, but Blama has defended himself in a widely circulated voice message, saying he thought he was doing everything correctly and that he sought prompt medical attention.

Blama went to a popular pharmacy in Monrovia when he started feeling ill, authorities said, then sought treatment from a doctor.

“Everywhere he breached protocol,” said Isaac Solo Kelgbeh, press secretary for the Liberian president.

Leaders worldwide tend to enjoy special treatment, but Liberia’s case illustrates how one powerful person’s actions can potentially unleash serious consequences.

Because of these two lone cases caused by a single returning official who broke protocol, this West African nation has shuttered schools, halted public gatherings and banned handshakes.

By: Danielle Paquette

9:01 AM: Puerto Rico’s governor asks FAA to suspend domestic and international flights to island

Wanda Vázquez Garced, the governor of Puerto Rico, said Wednesday that she asked the Federal Aviation Administration to suspend domestic and international flights to the island for 14 days due to the pandemic.

Garced also asked the agency to let her close airports where the National Guard will not conduct screenings and to allow her to redirect charter flights from coronavirus-impacted countries to three airports, according to a statement from her office.

“A few days ago, we did not have cases of the coronavirus (covid-19), and now, because of the arrival of tourists by boat and by plane, we are counting five positive cases,” Garced wrote. “We do not want more cases in Puerto Rico, and the only way of preventing more people infected with the virus from arriving is to take greater control over the arrival of travelers.”

Puerto Rico has reported five confirmed cases of the virus and no deaths.

The Outer Banks, a collection of barrier islands that are part of North Carolina, are also trying to keep out nonresidents. Officials in Dare County, which includes the Outer Banks, said Tuesday that they were setting up checkpoints to restrict visitor access.

By: Marisa Iati and Kim Bellware

8:56 AM: Washington state hospital staff are crafting their own masks because of shortage

a man in a tent: A nurse at a drive up coronavirus testing station set up by the University of Washington Medical Center exits a tent while holding a bag containing a swab on March 13 in Seattle. © Ted S. Warren/AP A nurse at a drive up coronavirus testing station set up by the University of Washington Medical Center exits a tent while holding a bag containing a swab on March 13 in Seattle.

Medical staff in one of the nation’s epicenters of the novel coronavirus outbreak have resorted to creating makeshift masks to care for patients, Bloomberg News reported.

Washington state hospital workers, part of Providence St. Joseph Health system, are improvising protective wear by crafting masks out of marine-grade vinyl, industrial tape, foam and elastic bought from craft stores and Home Depot, the outlet reported.

Washington state has the highest death total from covid-19 and the second highest total of confirmed cases. The state has implemented stern measures to contain the virus after it ripped through a nursing home, adding fatalities in its wake.

The rapid spread of the virus is stretching thin medical supplies for workers interacting with patients, causing Providence infection control and quality experts to step in and design emergency gear that can be constructed from store fronts, Bloomberg News reported.

Becca Bartles, executive director of infection prevention at Providence St. Joseph Health, told Bloomberg News reporters that the hospital system is close to running out of face shields and that it’s only days away from being without face masks.

To prepare for more homemade masks and shortages, the hospital system plans to purchase needed items from wholesale retailers so staff can keep stitching and sewing their custom masks in a large conference room at its headquarters, Bloomberg News reported.

Experts are also testing another mask made from the material that lines surgical trays.

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By: Lateshia Beachum

8:48 AM: Spanish royals postpone White House trip

The White House is postponing a scheduled April visit by Spain’s king and queen as leaders focus on mitigating the spread of the new coronavirus in their countries, according to a statement Wednesday.

King Felipe VI and Queen Letizia were supposed to visit President Trump and first lady Melania Trump on April 21, but the global pandemic is taking precedence over the trip.

“President Donald J. Trump and First Lady Melania Trump look forward to welcoming Their Majesties to the United States and the White House in the near future,” the White House statement said. “The United States will continue to work with Spain and all of our European partners to minimize the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic.”

The number of confirmed U.S. cases doubled over the past three days, from 2,844 on Saturday to more than 6,000 as of Tuesday evening. Due to limited availability of coronavirus tests in the United States, experts agree the actual number of cases is much higher.

Spain is under a nationwide lockdown as its number of confirmed cases has grown to nearly 14,000. Deaths have reached a total of 558, according to Johns Hopkins University and Medicine.

By: Lateshia Beachum

8:36 AM: Death toll in Iran from coronavirus passes 1,000 people after largest single-day rise in fatalities

a man standing in front of a building: In this Tuesday, March 17, 2020, photo, men carry their goods through mostly closed Tehran's Grand Bazaar, Iran. © Vahid Salemi/AP In this Tuesday, March 17, 2020, photo, men carry their goods through mostly closed Tehran's Grand Bazaar, Iran.

ISTANBUL — The death toll in Iran from coronavirus infections surged past 1,000 people Wednesday as the Health Ministry announced the largest single day rise in fatalities since the outbreak began.

Between Tuesday and Wednesday, 147 people died, bringing the total number of deaths to 1,135, Alireza Raisi, Iran’s deputy health minister, said at a news briefing. Across Iran, 17,361 people have been infected, after 1,192 new cases were reported over the past 24 hours, Raisi said.

Iran, with a population of about 80 million people, has suffered one of the worst surges of coronavirus infections outside of China, where the pandemic originated. As the rate of infections has spiked, the virus has not spared the country’s top leadership. Parliament members and an adviser to Iran’s supreme leader are among the dead, and dozens of other officials have been infected.

The government, which began announcing infections in late February, has been accused of covering up the full extent of the outbreak and criticized for not mandating a stricter lockdown on public activities. On Wednesday, President Hassan Rouhani defended his government’s response, saying in a televised speech that officials had been “honest” with the public and continued to provide critical supplies of food and medicine in the midst of the pandemic, even as the country struggled under U.S.-imposed sanctions and as European nations suffered shortages.

The government had shut down schools, universities and taken “major” steps to reduce gatherings at religious sites, including by halting weekly congregational prayers, he said. “It is not easy to close down Friday prayers. It is not easy to close down our holy shrines,” he said. “We did it for the sake of people’s health. It was a religious duty.

By: Kareem Fahim

8:30 AM: German cases growing ‘exponentially’ and 10 million could be infected in coming months, health official warns

BERLIN — A top German health official on Wednesday warned that it was possible that as many as 10 million people in the country could be infected with coronavirus over the next three months if social-distancing measures do not work effectively.

Lothar Wieler, the head of Germany’s Robert Koch Institute, the federal agency for disease control, laid out the grim assessment at a news conference in Berlin on Wednesday, as he warned that German cases were spiking.

The institute switched its risk level for Germany from “moderate” to “high” a day earlier, after which cases jumped by more than 1,000 overnight. There are 9,877 confirmed cases in Germany according to Robert Koch, though the death toll has remained low in comparison to other countries, with 26 fatalities.

“We have exponential growth,” Wieler said. “To make it clear, we are at the beginning of an epidemic that will continue to exist in our country for many weeks and months.”

He said that the institute believes that the number of infections could be “significantly” reduced if social contacts between people were minimized. It should become clear in the new few weeks if current measures are having an impact, he added.

However, he also cautioned that the pandemic could continue to affect Germany for as long as two years.

“Pandemics always occur in waves,” he said. It could take two years for a majority of people to “get through” covid-19 and for immunity to build until a level that the infection is stopped, a phenomenon known among experts as “herd immunity.”

Chancellor Angela Merkel, who will address Germans in a speech on Wednesday evening, has said she expects at least 60 to 70 percent of the population of 87 million to be eventually infected if conditions remain the same.

By: Loveday Morris and Luisa Beck

8:03 AM: Traffic jams at borders and travel bans: Europe adapts to life under new restrictions

a large long train on a steel track: Trucks are jammed in the early morning on Autobahn 12 in front of the German-Polish border crossing near Frankfurt (Oder), Germany, Wednesday, March 18, 2020. (Patrick Pleul/dpa via AP) © Patrick Pleul/AP Trucks are jammed in the early morning on Autobahn 12 in front of the German-Polish border crossing near Frankfurt (Oder), Germany, Wednesday, March 18, 2020. (Patrick Pleul/dpa via AP)

BERLIN — European nations continued to impose new measures to slow the spread of the coronavirus Wednesday, as an E.U. travel ban was implemented that will temporarily make it impossible for most non-E.U. citizens to enter nearly all members of the bloc plus aligned countries.

Inside the bloc, recently adopted restrictions on free movement continued to be enforced with fines in Italy and France.

Meanwhile, concerns over supply chain disruptions on the continent mounted. Volkswagen Group, one of the world’s largest carmakers, will suspend European production Thursday as the coronavirus outbreak and its economic impact bring an enormous share of the manufacturing sector to a virtual standstill.

The German company said late Tuesday that it was responding to the rapid spread of the virus, disruptions to supply chains and the fast decline in demand. Factories in Germany, Slovakia, Spain and Portugal will wind down, as will components plants throughout Europe. Production is expected to stop for two weeks, initially.

Numerous other companies had already shuttered their European plants in recent days.

Even though countries had vowed to keep supplies exempted from border closures or reintroduced checks, long traffic jams formed along the Polish-German frontier.

In Spain, the total number of deaths approached 600, with the total number of confirmed cases exceeding 13,700. The number of cases jumped to more than 31,000 in Italy.

Rachel Siegel contributed to this story.

Read more on the economic impact here.

By: Rick Noack

7:59 AM: Worldwide confirmed coronavirus cases top 200,000

The number of confirmed cases of the new coronavirus worldwide has surpassed 200,000, according to a tally by the Johns Hopkins Center for Systems Science and Engineering.

There were 201,672 cases as of Wednesday morning, with 82,071 of those listed as recovered.

Europe has now had more deaths from the virus than Asia. The Washington Post calculated the number using the Johns Hopkins data. At least 8,000 people worldwide have died since the outbreak began. China, Italy and Iran have had the highest death counts.

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By: Marisa Iati

7:20 AM: Petition warns doctors on the British frontlines are at risk, but cannot get tested

a yellow and black truck parked in front of a building: A coronavirus pod outside a hospital in London, Britain, March 14, 2020. © Andy Rain/EPA-EFE/REX/Shutterstock A coronavirus pod outside a hospital in London, Britain, March 14, 2020.

LONDON — A petition started by a junior doctor in Britain to highlight the dangers health workers are facing and the testing needed amid the outbreak is heading for almost 1 million signatures.

Rebecca McCauley, the petition’s founder, highlights the predicament many doctors are facing amid the crisis. “I have a dilemma. I have a cough,” she writes. “My cough is minor, but how do I know it’s not COVID-19? The truth is I don’t.”

She continued: “So now I have to ask ... do I stay off work for 7 days, leaving a shortfall of staff and putting further strain on the already strained NHS [National Health Service], when the likelihood is that I don’t actually have COVID-19?”

McCauley then goes onto debate the other alternative: still going to work with a minor cough but “potentially spreading COVID-19 to all of the sicker patients” she interacts with daily. The petition claims tests are only being done on certain patients and those working in hospitals, including cleaning staff, are not being screened for the infection.

“This is just total common sense — incredible someone has to start a petition to get it done,” read one comment from a supporter of the petition.

Another doctor took to Twitter to also call for testing to be prioritized. “My wife has a sore throat. I am fine. I have to self isolate, without a test at present, for 14 days from initiation of her symptoms. We must rapidly prioritise staff testing,” read a tweet from Toby Eyre, a lymphoma consultant working in Oxford, England.

In the United States, dozens of health care workers have contracted the virus, while others have been forced to self-isolate after being exposed to the infection. “They’re not doing the testing,” one doctor told The Washington Post this week, adding that staff were not being protected.

By: Jennifer Hassan

7:12 AM: New York’s Orthodox Jewish leaders meet opposition over social distancing

a traffic light on a city street: In this April 26, 2018 photo, a Jewish boy walks to a yeshiva in the Brooklyn borough of New York. © Mark Lennihan/AP In this April 26, 2018 photo, a Jewish boy walks to a yeshiva in the Brooklyn borough of New York.

As businesses, schools and workplaces nationwide shut down due to the new coronavirus, some leaders in New York’s Orthodox Jewish communities are working to do the same — but not without provoking some tensions in these tight knit, highly devout pockets of Brooklyn and Rockland County.

Of the state’s more than 1,600 cases, at least three are in Crown Heights, a Brooklyn neighborhood home to a large Orthodox Jewish community and an expansive synagogue that serves as the world headquarters for the Hasidic movement.

That synagogue’s lay leaders have prohibited anyone 65 or older from entering the building, according to COLlive.com, a local news website. Members of the neighborhood’s rabbinical court warned in a public letter that anyone experiencing symptoms should not be going inside the synagogue either.

“A fire is burning in our community,” the Monday letter read, declaring that attendance at religious services amid the pandemic was “a Mitzvah performed through sin.”

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But Zalman Lipsker, one of the synagogue’s ushers, insisted on Tuesday that the building would not be closing. Over the weekend, photos emerged on social media of a packed Orthodox wedding in a nearby neighborhood.

Still, others within these communities have pushed back. Aron Wieder, an Orthodox Jewish legislator in Rockland County, N.Y., implored his constituents to stay home in a video in Yiddish this week.

“Out on the streets there is a pandemic,” he warned. “People are already sick, some at home and some in the hospital.”

Some of the messaging appeared to be working: On Tuesday evening, striking photos emerged on social media of a Brooklyn minyan, a quorum of 10 or more required for traditional Jewish worship.

Though normally an intimate practice, the image showed participants all spread out throughout the courtyard, at least six feet apart.

By: Teo Armus

6:37 AM: Restrictions force Israeli couples to hold creative — and clandestine — weddings

JERUSALEM — “Love in the time of coronavirus" is already becoming cliched but for some eager couples in Israel their desire to tie the knot despite the rapidly spreading virus and increasingly tight restrictions on social interaction has meant getting creative — and clandestine.

On Saturday, Israel ordered all places of entertainment closed and banned gatherings of more than 10 people. Since then, videos have surfaced online of undeterred couples holding their weddings isolated on rooftops, in parks, and outside courtyards as well-wishers watch from afar.

One extra-determined couple even walked down the aisle in a supermarket, the only public place where the cap on the number of people is a little more flexible.

In the city of Beit Shemesh, near Jerusalem, the organizers of one wedding sent a notice to guests telling them the wedding was going ahead but urging them to keep quiet about the ceremony.

After images of the wedding showing more than 100 people dancing in close contact went viral, police said Wednesday they had arrested three people for endangering the public and violating the health orders.

Read more here.

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By: Ruth Eglash

6:33 AM: Fearing spread of coronavirus, Middle East governments release some inmates from teeming prisons

a little girl brushing her teeth: In this photo released by the Free Nazanin campaign on August 23, 2018 shows Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe embracing her daughter Gabriella in Damavand, Iran following her release from prison for three days. © -/Free Nazanin Campaign/Afp Via Ge In this photo released by the Free Nazanin campaign on August 23, 2018 shows Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe embracing her daughter Gabriella in Damavand, Iran following her release from prison for three days.

ISTANBUL — Middle East states battered by the coronavirus pandemic have begun to release or furlough prisoners, including some political dissidents, amid concerns about spreading infections in jails notorious for harsh treatment, unsanitary conditions and overcrowding.

Officials in Iran, which has suffered one of the worst outbreaks of the virus, said Tuesday that about 85,000 prisoners had been released on temporary furlough across the country. Those released included Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe, a British-Iranian woman who has been held for nearly four years.

Bahrain, a tiny Persian Gulf state that has reported more than 200 coronavirus infections, pardoned or ordered alternative sentencing for nearly 1,500 prisoners last week. Jordan also began releasing hundreds of prisoners this week.

The releases highlighted global fears that the pandemic could spread quickly in restricted and confined spaces. An outbreak in prisons in China, where the pandemic started, infected hundreds of inmates last month.

An Iranian judiciary spokesman said the temporary releases included half of all “security-related” detainees — an apparent reference to political prisoners. Activists said at least 17 political prisoners were released.

a woman holding a baby: A handout picture released by the Free Nazanin campaign on March 17, 2020 shows Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe holding an old picture of herself with her husband and daughter as she poses for a photograph in West Tehran, Iran following her release from prison for two weeks. © -/Free Nazanin Campaign/Afp Via Ge A handout picture released by the Free Nazanin campaign on March 17, 2020 shows Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe holding an old picture of herself with her husband and daughter as she poses for a photograph in West Tehran, Iran following her release from prison for two weeks.

Among them was Zaghari-Ratcliffe, who was released from Evin prison on a two-week furlough, according to a statement on the Facebook page of the Free Nazanin campaign. A picture released by her family showed Zaghari-Ratcliffe smiling as she wore an ankle tracking bracelet that limited her movement to 300 meters around her parent’s home, the statement said.

Opposition activists said those released by Bahrain included some political prisoners but not the country’s most prominent dissidents, and that the pardons were a response to the outbreak. “They were forced to take this step,” said Sayed Ahmed Alwadaei of the London-based Bahrain Institute for Rights and Democracy, citing what he said were overcrowded and filthy conditions in Bahrain’s jails.

By: Kareem Fahim

5:36 AM: European markets fall as fears mount over coronavirus

a clock on the side of a building: Stock price movement figures sit reflected in a window in the lobby of the Euronext NV Paris stock exchange in the La Defense business district of Paris, on Friday, Feb. 28, 2020. © Cyril Marcilhacy/Bloomberg Stock price movement figures sit reflected in a window in the lobby of the Euronext NV Paris stock exchange in the La Defense business district of Paris, on Friday, Feb. 28, 2020.

European markets fell on Wednesday as fears over coronavirus continue to disrupt the international economy, despite policymakers’ efforts to ward off a recession. London’s FTSE 100 slumped more than 4 percent and the Pan-European Stoxx 600 fell by close to 3 percent.

Oil prices also fell, with U.S. crude futures dropping almost 4 percent. Stocks also retreated in Asia, with Hong Kong’s market falling more than 4 percent.

U.S. indexes rallied on Tuesday but the moves overnight in Europe and Asia suggested Wednesday will lead to further falls in U.S. markets, as business has ground to a halt across major U.S. cities.

By: Siobhán O'Grady

5:25 AM: A ray of hope for the elderly amid coronavirus and supermarket chaos

a person standing in front of a fruit stand: Customers shop for essentials during the first Coles Community Hour at Coles Southland on March 18, 2020 in Melbourne, Australia. © Martin Keep/AFP/Getty Images Customers shop for essentials during the first Coles Community Hour at Coles Southland on March 18, 2020 in Melbourne, Australia.

LONDON — People around the world are stockpiling — grabbing canned goods and disinfectant from supermarket shelves like they’re gold dust. In Australia, shoppers allegedly broke out in a fight over toilet paper, while many aisles across Britain were stripped of all items over the weekend. In the United States, a man was widely condemned for hoarding 17,700 bottles of hand sanitizer and in Germany, stores appealed to students to help refill empty shelves.

In the midst of all the panic buying, the elderly and other vulnerable shoppers are suffering and supermarkets are now taking steps to protect them.

A supermarket in Northern Ireland was the first to announce its plan to provide a dedicated shopping hour for the elderly from 8 to 9 a.m. The slot provides them with space to do their shopping before stockpilers can raid newly stacked shelves.

“We are focused on being able to feed the nation and to support those most in need,” the chain known as Iceland said.

With online delivery slots booked up for weeks, Sainsbury’s announced that as of March 23 that vulnerable shoppers and customers over the age of 70 will be given priority to have their orders delivered.

Australia’s largest supermarket chain, Woolworths, implemented similar measures, opening stores early for elderly customers. The chain said the move was in response to panic buying and noted that vulnerable shoppers were “missing out on vital items they may need.”

Stores such as Tesco have also imposed limits on how many items customers can buy, in an attempt to clamp down on those bulk-buying foods such as pasta. On Monday, supermarket chain Aldi announced: “Customers are currently limited to buying four items of any one product during each visit,” adding that “not everyone has the financial or practical resources to buy in bulk, including our elderly customers.”

By: Jennifer Hassan

4:44 AM: Nevada shuts down casinos, all gambling activity

a group of stuffed animals sitting on top of a building: Visitors play slot machines at Flamingo Hotel and Casino in Las Vegas last week. © Bridget Bennett/Afp Via Getty Images Visitors play slot machines at Flamingo Hotel and Casino in Las Vegas last week.

Nevada will shut down all gambling and casinos Wednesday, marking the first time that the state’s bedrock industry will close since it legalized the practice nearly a century ago

The sweeping order from Gov. Steve Sisolak (D) follows similar measures from more than a dozen other states in recent days to contain the spread of the novel coronavirus.

But Nevada’s directive, which also closes other “nonessential” businesses and restricts restaurants to offering only takeout and delivery, is bound to have an especially deep impact on Nevada’s $68 billion hospitality industry.

Banning blackjack tables at Las Vegas’s casino resorts and convenience store slot machines alike, the ban almost immediately drew concern from casino industry leaders and unions, who demanded continued pay and health benefits for their members.

“I know this directive will cause many of our friends and neighbors to distress,” Sisolak said at a news conference late Tuesday. “But I ask you — what are you willing to do to save your own life and the lives of those you love?”

Early this week, both MGM Resorts International and Wynn Resorts announced they planned to close their Las Vegas properties. Three more casino resorts joined in on Tuesday.

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By: Teo Armus

4:39 AM: Saudi Arabia suspends group prayers, orders businesses to work from home

a group of people standing in front of a crowd: Muslim worshippers circumambulate the sacred Kaaba in Mecca's Grand Mosque, Islam's holiest site, on March 13, 2020. © -/Afp Via Getty Images Muslim worshippers circumambulate the sacred Kaaba in Mecca's Grand Mosque, Islam's holiest site, on March 13, 2020.

DUBAI — Saudi Arabia suspended congregational prayers in mosques and ordered employees of the private sector to stay home for the next 15 days to combat the spread of the coronavirus, state media reported Wednesday.

The order by the Ministry of Human Resources exempted sensitive sectors like electricity, water or communications and said those involved in supply chains could allow up to 40 percent of employees to come to their offices as long as they followed certain hygiene precautions.

The commission of senior religious scholars in the country also suspended all group prayers in mosques, except for the two holiest mosques in Mecca and Medina. The call to prayer has also been altered, urging listeners to pray at home rather than “come to pray.” Saudi Arabia recorded 38 new cases of the virus on Tuesday, raising the national total to 171.

Cases continue to rise around the nations of the Arabian peninsula, with Kuwait, which has already closed all businesses and its air space, announcing 12 new cases, raising its total to 142. The United Arab Emirates also said it had confirmed 15 more infections, for a total of 113.

The Sultanate of Oman, meanwhile, followed Kuwait’s lead and closed all shops and restaurants, houses of worship and tourists sites, including beaches, parks and nature attractions.

All business conferences in the UAE have also been canceled until the end of the month, but malls for now remain open, though with restricted hours.

By: Paul Schemm

3:22 AM: South Korean nursing hospital reports alarming uptick in cases

a man wearing a costume: Medical workers head to a hospital facility to treat coronavirus patients amid the rise in confirmed cases of coronavirus disease in Daegu, South Korea, March 14, 2020. © Kim Kyung-Hoon/Reuters Medical workers head to a hospital facility to treat coronavirus patients amid the rise in confirmed cases of coronavirus disease in Daegu, South Korea, March 14, 2020.

SEOUL — A nursing hospital in South Korea’s hardest-hit city reported scores of new cases of the novel coronavirus on Wednesday, raising alarm about the possible reversal of a downward trend in infections.

Kwon Young-jin, the mayor of Daegu, the southeastern city where more than 6,000 coronavirus cases have been recorded, said on Wednesday that 74 new infections can be traced to the local hospital, which specializes in care for elderly patients with Alzheimer’s disease.

South Korea’s health authorities ordered a thorough inspection of 1,435 nursing homes and hospitals nationwide earlier this month after multiple infection clusters emerged in elder-care facilities.

Kwon said the most recent cluster was found during those inspections. A dozen more cases of the virus were reported in nursing homes and hospitals in the city on Wednesday, he said.

South Korea’s total confirmed infections rose by 93 on Wednesday, marking another day that the country recorded fewer than 100 cases, after several weeks in a row when hundreds of new cases were confirmed each day.

By: Min Joo Kim

3:06 AM: Japan defends lack of testing as infection rate advances only slowly

TOKYO — Japan has defended its low rate of testing for the new coronavirus, insisting that’s not the reason infections have only been climbing fairly slowly in the country.

Japan has an extensive network of public health centers, with universal access to health care, enabling it to find pockets of the virus even in small towns in the sparsely populated northern island of Hokkaido, authorities say.

“If we had an outbreak of pneumonia, we would have individual public health centers report that to us. So far, we haven’t heard of that,” said Takuma Kato, a senior Health Ministry official. “In addition, we have given a high priority to those incidents of pneumonia whose origins are not clear. The PCR tests have been given to them. Therefore, we think the test has been given without delay.”

The government was criticized for an initial lack of testing capacity, with unfavorable comparisons drawn to South Korea. So far it has tested 32,125 people, and there are still concerns it is missing people with milder symptoms.

The health ministry announced 47 fresh cases of coronavirus on Wednesday, bringing the total to 868 cases, according to public broadcaster NHK, not including 712 from the Diamond Princess. Deaths rose by one to 29, plus seven cruise ship passengers.

Some experts see the relatively high mortality rate, running at around 3.3 percent, as evidence of hidden infections.

Hitoshi Oshitani, a member of the government’s expert advisory panel, acknowledges an initial lack of testing meant some virus “transmission chains” went undetected, but says the authorities have since worked hard to identify clusters of infection. Japan says it can test more than 6,000 people a day and aims for a capacity of 8,000 by the end of the month in case a large outbreak occurs.

By: Simon Denyer and Akiko Kashiwagi

2:45 AM: Health officials target millennials for social distancing

a group of people on a beach: Two men wrestle each other as spring break revelers look on during a contest on the beach, Tuesday, March 17, 2020, in Pompano Beach, Fla. © Julio Cortez/AP Two men wrestle each other as spring break revelers look on during a contest on the beach, Tuesday, March 17, 2020, in Pompano Beach, Fla.

The new coronavirus has taken the most severe toll on people over the age of 60, causing outbreaks at nursing homes and proving most fatal for older people with underlying conditions.

But to contain its spread, health officials are turning to a much younger group: millennials.

In a public service announcement from the White House on Tuesday, U.S. Surgeon General Jerome Adams urged members of the demographic group, who fall between the ages of 23 and 39, to avoid gatherings of 10 or more people.

“Why should young people care about the spread of coronavirus?” he asked. “We know that if you get coronavirus, you’re at risk for spreading it to someone else.”

Others have put out a similar call to arms. Earlier this week, Deborah Birx, the White House’s coronavirus response coordinator, said at a news conference that millennials are the “core group that will stop this virus.”

“The millennials are incredibly good about getting information out in a clear way, but more importantly, they are incredibly good about understanding how to protect one another,” she told ABC’s “Good Morning America” on Monday.

That may be too positive an evaluation, at least for now. Over the weekend, throngs of mostly young people swarmed bars and beaches at party spots around the country, seemingly unconcerned about the pandemic.

Those scenes also reflect a demographic reality that may be instrumental in combating the spread. In every major U.S. city, millennials make up the largest segment of the population — about 22 percent, she said.

Because so many cases of their cases will be mild or asymptomatic, young people in particular should be separated from others, potentially even at home, to protect their parents and grandparents.

“We need the army of millennials out there doing everything that they can,” Birx said.

By: Teo Armus

2:13 AM: United to slash flights as travel demand collapses

a large air plane on a runway at an airport: A United Airlines jet takes off from Frankfurt Airport in Germany on Monday. © Alex Kraus/Bloomberg A United Airlines jet takes off from Frankfurt Airport in Germany on Monday.

United Airlines will cut flights by 60 percent, as the airline industry struggles with the coronavirus outbreak that has limited demand for travel worldwide amid widening quarantine measures and fears of contagion.

Flights in the United States and Canada will be cut by 42 percent and international flights will be cut by 85 percent, the airline said in a statement late Tuesday.

The statement said that it does not currently plan to suspend service to any cities in the United States other than Mammoth Lakes, Calif., but that the company is “closely monitoring demand as well as changes in state and local curfews and government restrictions across the U.S. and will adjust its schedule accordingly throughout the month.”

San Francisco has already ordered residents to essentially shelter in place, and officials in New York have said they are considering a similar mandate there, which would likely dramatically affect travel flows in and out of the city. As more people are quarantined, airlines are being forced to confront their most rapid, dramatic drops in demand in years by furloughing staff and cutting once-popular routes.

Sign up for our daily Coronavirus Updates newsletter to track the outbreak. All stories linked in the newsletter are free to access.

By: Siobhán O'Grady

1:22 AM: Japan expert adviser says avoiding clusters is key to beating coronavirus

a bottle of wine on a table: Tourists — and a bottle of disinfectant — in a bar in Tokyo on March 10. © Hannibal Hanschke/Reuters Tourists — and a bottle of disinfectant — in a bar in Tokyo on March 10.

TOKYO — Avoiding clusters of infection is the key to tackling the coronavirus, a leading Japanese expert and government adviser said on Wednesday.

Japan’s health ministry released a map Tuesday evening showing 13 infection “clusters” around the country, giving fresh insight into what kind of activities are highest risk — and what needs to be avoided to keep the pandemic under control.

The 13 clusters, each directly responsible for five or more infections, include four daycare centers for the elderly, two medical institutions, two gyms, two live music venues, an exhibition, a boat where a party was held, and a table-tennis club. The biggest cluster was a live music club in Osaka responsible for more than 50 infections.

Hitoshi Oshitani, a member of the government’s expert advisory panel who helped compile the map, said while the virus is difficult to control, “it also has some weak points.”

Oshitani, a virology professor at Tohoku University’s School of Medicine, said 80 percent of individuals do not pass the virus to anyone else, while 10 to 15 percent of infected people only infect one other individual.

“But in some instances, one infected individual infected many others,” he said. “That’s what we call a cluster. Without clusters, most of the transmission chains will die off without any intervention.”

Japan’s approach has been to identify clusters and then track down infections related to those clusters. But Oshitani said it was important to avoid fresh clusters breaking out.

Although schools in Japan remain largely closed, many people in Tokyo have already tired of staying at home, with shopping streets, bars and restaurants all busy recently. “Many people are still drinking in bars — every night,” he said. “They need to change their behavior.”

By: Simon Denyer

1:03 AM: Taiwan to close its borders to foreigners, except residents and diplomats

a large passenger jet flying through a blue sky: A passenger jet of Taiwan's China Airlines takes off from Taipei's Taoyuan airport on Jan. 30. Taiwan said it would bar entry to all non-resident foreigners as coronavirus shutdowns widen. © David Chang/EPA-EFE/REX/Shutterstock A passenger jet of Taiwan's China Airlines takes off from Taipei's Taoyuan airport on Jan. 30. Taiwan said it would bar entry to all non-resident foreigners as coronavirus shutdowns widen.

HONG KONG — Taiwan will deny entry to all non-resident foreigners who are not diplomats, its government announced on Wednesday, the latest harsh restriction in a region wary of travelers introducing the virus to places that have largely controlled their own outbreaks.

The new measures go into effect at midnight local time, Reuters reported. Anyone who enters the self-ruled island, which Beijing regards as part of its territory, will be required to self-isolate at home for 14 days, an increasingly common order being placed on travelers worldwide.

Taiwan has recorded 77 cases of the virus, and the number of coronavirus cases imported from abroad has “increased sharply,” Health Minister Chen Shih-chung told reporters Wednesday.

Foreign Minister Joseph Wu told the news conference that the United States and Taiwan are coordinating to share protective gear for health workers. The United States will supplies for 300,000 protective suits to Taiwan, he said, and Taiwan will send 100,000 masks back each week.

“This symbolizes the close relationship between Taiwan and the United States," Reuters reported him as saying.

By: Siobhán O'Grady

1:01 AM: Local, state officials push ahead on uneven response, as U.S. death toll surpasses 100

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As calls intensified for Americans to adopt social distancing, some states, counties and cities escalated their aggressive restrictions on daily life, pointing to the patchwork response emerging to the novel coronavirus in the United States.

As of late Tuesday, more than 6,000 cases had been reported across the United States, including — for the first time — at least one patient in every state and the District of Columbia. The country’s death toll surpassed 100, another milestone that demonstrates the pandemic’s wide spread.

In Washington, the Trump administration indicated that Americans could be getting a check for $1,000 or more in the coming weeks, as part of an $850 billion economic stimulus package to protect people from going bankrupt. And the Federal Reserve said it will buy short-term loans to keep credit flowing in the economy.

“We’re going big,” Trump said on Tuesday.

But much else in the government’s response remains inconsistent. Kansas said Tuesday it is closing its schools for the rest of the year, but 11 states are still sending students to in-person class this week. While restaurants and bars continued to operate fully in some parts of the country, six counties in the San Francisco Bay Area were nearly shut down, and New York may soon follow.

And as the virus prompted Ohio to shutter its polls, three other states forged ahead with their primaries. On Tuesday, the Democratic National Committee urged states to adopt no-excuse absentee voting and expand polling place hours to prevent more delays.

The impact of the virus is only expected to become more pronounced: Dozens of health-care workers on the front lines get infected. Some warn that, with many families relying on schools for meals, the pandemic could spur a child hunger crisis.

“We all suspect it’s the tip of the iceberg,” said Liam Yore, a board member of the Washington state chapter of the American College of Emergency Physicians.

By: Teo Armus

1:01 AM: China reports only 13 new cases, 12 of them imported

BEIJING — China reported only 13 new coronavirus cases on Wednesday, and said 12 of them were patients who recently entered the country from abroad.

The new data is the latest indication from China that the outbreak has slowed down markedly in recent weeks, even in Hubei province, the original epicenter of the crisis.

Only one case reported on Wednesday occurred in Hubei, although 11 deaths linked to the virus were also recorded there. China has recorded nearly 81,000 cases of the virus and 3,237 deaths since the outbreak was first publicly recorded in December.

But as the virus spread around the globe, Chinese authorities raised concern that travelers entering China from abroad could reintroduce deadly community transmission. In recent days, travelers entering the country are facing increasingly stringent new measures, including mandatory two-week self-quarantines in some places.

By: Liu Yang and Siobhán O'Grady

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