The Latest: Trump threatens WHO with permanent cutoff of U.S. funds

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Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, director general of the WHO, addresses a press conference about COVID-19 on Feb. 24. President Trump is threatening to permanently cut U.S. funding if the agency does not make sweeping reforms. Salvatore Di Nolfi/Keystone via AP

WASHINGTON — President Trump escalated his threats against the World Health Organization over its handling of the coronavirus pandemic, saying he would permanently cut U.S. funding if it does not make sweeping reforms.

He said that the international agency must demonstrate “independence from China,” according to a letter, which the president posted on Twitter late Monday.

“If the World Health Organization does not commit to major substantive improvements within the next 30 days, I will make my temporary freeze of United States funding to the World Health Organization permanent and reconsider our membership in the organization,” Trump wrote in the letter to Director General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus.

In a tweet accompanying a copy of the letter, Trump called it “self-explanatory.”

The president announced on April 14 he would temporarily suspend U.S. funding to the WHO, accusing the group of being too supportive of China.

Feds urge ‘extreme caution’ for reopening nursing homes to visitors

NEW YORK — Federal authorities are urging governors to use “extreme caution” in deciding when to resume visits at nursing homes, saying it shouldn’t come before all residents and staff members have tested negative for the coronavirus for at least 28 days.

“We’re urging governors to proceed with extreme caution because these are the most vulnerable citizens. We know that nursing homes have struggled,” said Seema Verma, head of CMS, in a phone interview, Monday. Alex Brandon/Associated Press

The Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services’ criteria for relaxing restrictions at nursing homes come more than two months after the agency ordered homes to ban visitors. Instead of firm dates, it lists a variety of factors state and local officials should consider, such as adequate staffing levels at homes and the ability to regularly test all residents and workers.

“We’re urging governors to proceed with extreme caution because these are the most vulnerable citizens. We know that nursing homes have struggled,” Seema Verma, head of CMS, told The Associated Press.

Already, outbreaks in nursing homes and long-term care facilities have claimed more than 33,000 lives, more than a third of all coronavirus deaths in the U.S., according to a count by the AP.

The recommendations bolster the Trump administration’s broader guidelines that say senior care facilities should be among the last in a community to reopen, given the vulnerability of their elderly residents. And they noted that some homes may have to wait even longer than 28 days from the last negative test if they have had problems with infection controls, staffing or other issues.

Once visits resume, family members and others should still wear face coverings and practice social distancing, CMS said.

Read the full story on nursing home visits here.

Coronavirus ruthlessly whips through long-term care facilities in Canada

MISSISSAUGA, Ontario — It was not how Mary Witkowski pictured celebrating her birthday. But with visits to her nursing home suspended to keep the coronavirus out, she turned 90 on April 13 without family, in the room at the Camilla Care Community that she shared with three others.

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau addresses Canadians on the COVID-19 pandemic from Rideau Cottage in Ottawa last month. Sean Kilpatrick/The Canadian Press via AP

That week, Witkowski tested positive for COVID-19. On April 27, doctors told her family her body was “starting” to shut down. The next day, she died – the latest victim of one of the hundreds of outbreaks that have blazed through Canada’s long-term care facilities. Nursing homes account for 81 percent of the country’s COVID-19 deaths, according to Theresa Tam, Canada’s chief public health officer, a far greater proportion than in the United States.

The outbreak at the 236-bed Camilla Care Community in this Toronto suburb has been one of Canada’s deadliest. One hundred people, including 40 staff members, are sick with COVID-19, according to parent company Sienna Senior Living. Fifty-seven residents have died.

Officials say there are encouraging signs that the virus’ spread is slowing in many parts of Canada. But its ruthless whip through long-term care facilities continues – prompting calls for public inquiries, the deployment of military troops to hard-hit homes in Ontario and Quebec and an admission from Prime Minister Justin Trudeau that Canada is “failing” its elderly.

“We shouldn’t have soldiers taking care of seniors,” he said last month. “In the weeks and months to come, we will all have to ask tough questions about how it came to this.”

Advocates say the answers are not any secret.

Several factors – a frail and elderly resident population, old buildings with little space for separating the sick from the healthy, cramped living quarters and frequent contact between residents and caregivers – make long-term care facilities petri dishes.

Read the full story about Canada’s nursing homes here.

VA reports more than 1,000 coronavirus deaths, but veteran toll is much higher

More than 1,000 people have died of coronavirus infections at Department of Veterans Affairs hospitals, the agency reported Monday, a grim milestone that took 65 days to officially reach – but leaves out hundreds of others who died in state-run homes.

Nearly 70 residents died from the coronavirus at the Holyoke Soldiers’ Home in Holyoke, Mass. Patrick Johnson/The Republican via Associated Press

VA reported 1,012 deaths on its tracking site, with more than 700 logged as veterans who died during inpatient care at VA’s sprawling network of veteran hospitals. The remaining deaths were recorded elsewhere but reported to VA, agency spokeswoman Christina Noel said last week.

But Noel acknowledged VA’s count does not include veterans who have died at state-run veterans homes. That death count is at least 550, according to Vietnam Veterans of America, an advocacy group collecting nationwide data for a forthcoming report.

And even then, 28 states are not reporting veteran deaths, making the cumulative total unknown, said Linda Schwartz, a special adviser to the group and a former VA assistant secretary for policy and planning.

“VA grieves for all of the veterans and loved ones affected by this heartbreaking situation,” Noel said, noting the death count would include civilians enrolled in VA care in humanitarian cases, patients with military health care and active duty service members.

Noel did not provide a breakdown of those cases, though the overwhelming majority would be among the 9.5 million veterans enrolled in VA care.

Only one active duty service member has died of coronavirus – a sailor aboard the USS Theodore Roosevelt who died in a naval hospital in Guam last month. A National Guard soldier died in a civilian hospital in March before he was mobilized. And VA has only cared for a handful of civilians after its emergency response mission was activated.

Veterans advocates pointed to the deaths as a reminder of the greater toll on the community.

Read the full story about the toll on veterans here.

Massachusetts Gov. Baker unveils phased-in reopening plan 

BOSTON — Gov. Charlie Baker on Monday laid out a phased-in approach to gradually restart the Massachusetts economy, which was largely shuttered nearly two months ago as the state ramped up its fight against the coronavirus pandemic that has claimed nearly 5,800 lives.

In the first phase to begin Monday, manufacturing and construction will be allowed to reopen provided they follow guidance and standards meant to protect against the spread of the virus. Houses of worship will also be allowed to resume services if they can also follow social distancing guidance. Outdoor services are encouraged.

People jog on Revere Beach during the coronavirus pandemic, Saturday, May 16 in Revere, Mass. AP Photo/Michael Dwyer

On May 25, lab and office spaces can reopen as well as some personal services such as hair salons, pet grooming and car wash locations. Retail business will be allowed to do remote fulfillment and curbside pick-up. On June 1, some office space can reopen in Boston.

Also as part of the first phase of reopening, hospitals and community health centers will be allowed to provide high-priority preventative care, pediatric care and treatment for high risk patients and conditions.

Some recreation will also be allowed to reopen on May 25 as part of phase one as long as they adhere to social distancing guidance. That includes parks, drive-in theaters, some athletic fields and courts, most fishing, hunting, and boating, outdoor gardens, zoos, and reserves.

The plan calls for continued proper hygiene, maintaining social distancing protocols, and continuing to mandate the use of masks or other facial coverings in public places.

The plan calls for people over the age of 65 and people who have underlying health conditions — who are at high risk for COVID-19 — to continue to stay home except for essential errands such as going to the grocery store and to attend to health care needs.

All residents are advised to leave home only for health care, worship and permitted work, shopping, and outdoor activities. Residents are also warned not to participate in close contact activities such as pick-up sports games.

Phase two will including the reopening of retail businesses, restaurants, hotels and other personal services such as nail salons and day spas.

The first phase and subsequent phases will last at least three weeks and could stretch longer. If health data trends are negative, specific industries, regions or the entire state may need to return to an earlier phase, Baker said.

The Republican governor closed all but essential businesses on March 23.

Moderna vaccine shows encouraging early results; watchdogs cite possible conflict with former official

Moderna, the Massachusetts biotechnology company behind a leading effort to create a coronavirus vaccine, announced promising early results from its first human safety tests Monday. The company plans to launch a large clinical trial in July aimed at showing whether the vaccine works.

The company reported that in eight patients who had been followed for a month and a half, the vaccine at low and medium doses triggered blood levels of virus-fighting antibodies that were similar or greater than those found in patients who recovered. That would suggest, but doesn’t prove, that it triggers some level of immunity. The antibody-rich blood plasma donated by patients who have recovered is separately being tested to determine whether it is an effective therapy or preventive measure for covid-19.

Moderna’s announcement comes days after one of its directors, Moncef Slaoui, stepped down from the board to become chief scientist for Operation Warp Speed, a White House initiative to speed up vaccine development. Watchdogs called out Slaoui’s apparent conflict of interest. Filings with the Securities and Exchange Commission show Slaoui’s stock options in Moderna are worth more than $10 million with the company’s share price at $66.69. In pre-market trading Monday, Moderna’s stock soared as high as 30% to nearly $87.

Moderna also received $483 million from the Biomedical Advanced Research and Development Authority, a federal agency.

“Slaoui’s blatant financial conflicts of interest disqualify him for the role of vaccine czar, unless he commits immediately to global vaccine access conditions over the obvious profit interests of the corporations he serves,” said Peter Maybarduk, director of the Access to Medicines Program at Public Citizen, a consumer advocacy group.

Sen. Elizabeth Warren, D-Mass., called for Slaoui to divest his stock options, tweeting it is “a huge conflict of interest for the White House’s new vaccine czar to own $10 million of stock in a company receiving government funding to develop a covid-19 vaccine.”

The data released Monday by Moderna is encouraging, but represents only a first step in a long process to bring a vaccine to market. It comes from an interim report on dozens of patients followed over weeks, whereas vaccine studies require broad testing in thousands of patients followed over many months or years.

Read the full story here.

Scotland moves toward easing restrictions

LONDON — First Minister Nicola Sturgeon says Scotland could begin easing its lockdown measures by the end of the month.

Scotland has clashed with the government in London over the lifting of restrictions, with Sturgeon taking a stricter approach on topics including when to reopen schools.

Sturgeon said Monday that if progress is made in reducing the spread of the coronavirus, Scots may be allowed to meet people in other households, and some sporting events may be permitted. She added a “route map” to paths out of lockdown will be published Thursday.

She said: “Within two weeks, my hope is that we will be taking some concrete steps on the journey back to normality.”

A total of 2,105 patients have died in Scotland after testing positive for COVID-19, up by two from 2,103 on Sunday.

German foreign minister says plans underway to allow international vacations

BERLIN — Germany’s foreign minister says European countries will work over the next two weeks on criteria that would help make international vacations on the continent possible this summer.

Foreign Minister Heiko Maas consulted Monday with counterparts from 10 countries that are popular with German tourists, most in southern Europe.

Maas stressed the need for a coordinated safety-first approach rather than a bilateral “European competition for tourists.”

He said the ministers likely will meet again in two weeks, and officials will work on details before then — addressing issues such as whether vacationers who become infected with the coronavirus while away should be quarantined at their destinations or transported home.

Maas said “it will be necessary to tell people clearly … that there will be restrictions everywhere, on the beaches, in restaurants, in city centers.”

At present, many European borders are at least partly closed and some countries require all or most people arriving to go into quarantine for two weeks.

WHO head says independent evaluation of response will begin soon

GENEVA — The head of the World Health Organization says he will begin an independent evaluation of the U.N. health agency’s response to the coronavirus pandemic “at the earliest appropriate moment.”

WHO Director-General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus made the pledge Monday after an independent oversight advisory body published its first interim report about the U.N. health agency’s response to COVID-19 from January to April.

The 11-page report raised questions such as whether WHO’s warning system for alerting the world to outbreaks is adequate, and suggested member states might need to “reassess” WHO’s role in providing travel advice to countries.

The advisory body’s review and recommendations appeared unlikely to appease the United States administration, which has been scathing in its criticism of WHO — in part over President Donald Trump’s allegation that it had criticized a U.S. travel ban that he ordered on people arriving from China, where the outbreak first appeared late last year.

Trump ordered a temporary suspension of funding for WHO from the United States — the health agency’s biggest single donor — pending a review of its early response. But the review panel, echoing comments from many countries, said such a review during the “heat of the response” could hurt WHO’s ability to respond to it.

EU official urges lifting restrictions on movement of medicine, food

BRUSSELS — A senior European Union official is warning EU countries that they face legal action if they do not lift restrictive measures on the movement of medicines and food products inside Europe’s single market.

Internal Market Commissioner Thierry Breton told EU lawmakers Monday that he is “concerned by recent measures introduced by certain member states, notably on food products and medicines.”

Breton says he’s been talking to ministers and officials from 18 countries concerning around 30 restrictive measures that have been put in place during the coronavirus pandemic.

Vowing a “zero-tolerance” policy, Breton says such restrictions are “not acceptable, and the commission will not hesitate to act.”

He did not name any countries, but the EU commission launched infringement proceedings last week against Bulgaria for obliging retailers to favor local food producers.

Hundreds of steelworkers protest in Italian city

GENOA, Italy — Hundreds of steelworkers protested outside a factory in the port city of Genoa on Monday in what they billed as Italy’s first industrial protest since the country locked down due to the coronavirus in early March.

As restrictions eased significantly, workers gathered to protest ArcerlorMittal’s decision to put another 1,000 workers at plants throughout the country on short-term unemployment schemes at a fraction of usual pay. The company has already put more than 3,000 workers in its beleaguered Taranto plant in southern Italy on temporary unemployment.

Many Italian steelmakers stopped producing during the lockdown, although ArcelorMittal’s plant in Taranto — Italy’s largest — remained open throughout.

Bosnians struggle with cumbersome unemployment process

SARAJEVO, Bosnia-Herzegovina — Thousands of people in Bosnia who lost their jobs over the past two months due to the coronavirus lockdown in the country have been blocked by cumbersome and lengthy application procedures from accessing unemployment benefits they had been promised by the government.

Hundreds can bee seen daily waiting in long queues outside the government employment offices around the country. The offices are where all who had lost their jobs must report to start the application procedure.

According to the incomplete official statistics, over 30,000 people have lost their jobs in Bosnia since March when the authorities ordered all nonessential businesses, schools and public venues to close as part of measures to stem the spread of the virus.

Experts warn that many of those jobs will be lost for good, dealing a heavy blow to the country of some 3.5 million people where nearly 40% percent of the labor force was unemployed prior to the pandemic. So far, the economic upheaval has not hit public-sector jobs in Bosnia. But this could become a source of popular outrage since Bosnia’s oversized public sector is funded by a relatively small, but highly taxed private sector. Almost a quarter of government spending in Bosnia is used on salaries of nearly 100,000 public administration workers.

Merkel urges nations to collaborate

GENEVA — German Chancellor Angela Merkel says countries need to work together to overcome the coronavirus pandemic.

In a video address Monday to the annual World Health Assembly, Merkel said that “no country can solve this problem alone.”

She backed the World Health Organization’s efforts to combat the outbreak but added that countries should “work to improve procedures” at the global body and ensure its funding is sustainable.

Merkel made no direct reference to U.S. President Donald Trump’s decision to cut funding for WHO over its handling of the coronavirus outbreak.

Denmark will test all adults

COPENHAGEN, Denmark — The Danish health minister said Monday that adults in Denmark over the age of 18 can now be tested for the coronavirus.

“It is imperative that there are no hidden pockets of infection that can cause the infection to rise again. Every single chain of infection is one too many and can potentially turn into several,” Magnus Heunicke said.

“So, if one has the slightest suspicion that you have been infected with COVID-19, then one should be able to be tested,” he added.

People can book a time online and tests will be carried out in makeshift centers that have been erected across the country near hospitals, or in mobile unit for people living in remote areas.

He said the first 600,000 to be allowed to be tested would be those between 18 and 25. After that, other age groups will be able book time online and about 50,000 tests can be conducted per week.

The ministry didn’t give a number for how many who could potentially get the test, saying they presently have enough capacity. Denmark has a population of 5.8 million.

People with symptoms of the disease, medical staff, residents and employees at retirement homes, among others, will automatically be tested.

China pledges $2 billion over 2 years

GENEVA — Chinese President Xi Jinping says China will provide $2 billion over two years to help with the response to the coronavirus pandemic.

XI’s announcement by videoconference at the start of the World Health Organization’s annual assembly marks a sharp contrast to the United States: The Trump administration has announced a suspension of its funding for WHO over its alleged mishandling of the outbreak and praise of China’s response.

Xi did not specify where the injection of Chinese funds would go, but said “China will provide $2 billion over two years to help with COVID-19 response.”

Xi also said that vaccine development and deployment of vaccines in China will be made a “global public good” and said that China supported a review of the global response to the outbreak after it is brought under control.

Shops open, but Italians stay home

MILAN — The tony Montenapoleone district of luxury boutiques in Milan reopened Monday — but no shoppers were in sight.

The shopping district is home to such Milan fashion mainstays as Armani, Versace, Ferragamo, Fendi and Bottega Veneta, but most sales are to foreigners — primarily Arabs and Americans, according to official figures — who still are not able to travel to Italy.

Air traffic remains severely limited and a 14-day quarantine on arrivals in place until June 3.

Meanwhile, nearby at city hall, hundreds of open-market vendors were protesting the failure of the city to come up with rules for non-food stands to reopen.

“They haven’t worked for three months. What are they going to do if they can’t reopen — steal, go ask charity?’’ said Nicola Zarrella, the vice president of Euroimprese, which represents 22,000 market vendors in Lombardy. “They want to work, not get handouts.”

UN head calls pandemic greatest challenge of our time

LONDON — The Secretary-General of the United Nations has called the ongoing coronavirus pandemic “the greatest challenge of our age” and said it’s still unclear when we will have effective treatments or vaccines against the disease.

In a virtual address to the World Health Organization’s decision-making body on Monday, Antonio Guterres echoed the WHO’s repeated calls for global solidarity, saying “we are all paying a heavy price” for the sometimes contradictory national responses to the pandemic.

“Many countries have ignored the recommendations of the World Health Organization,” he said. “As a result, the virus has spread across the world and is now moving into the global south, where its impact may be even more devastating and we are risking further spikes and waves.”

Guterres said it was a “false dichotomy” to assume governments would be choosing between saving their citizens or their economies.

“Unless we control the spread of the virus, the economy will never recover,” he warned. He called for the G20 countries to urgently consider a large-scale stimulus package that would amount to a “double-digit percentage of global GDP.”

Britain adds loss of taste or smell to symptoms list

LONDON — British health officials are adding a loss or change of taste or smell to the list of symptoms of COVID-19.

The decision announced Monday came amid pressure from experts that cases were being missed under a more narrow symptom list, which includes fever and persistent cough.

In a statement, UK health officials say they had been “closely monitoring the emerging data and evidence on COVID-19 and after thorough consideration, we are now confident enough to recommend this new measure.’’

The health officials say that people should self-isolate if they develop anosmia — the loss or a change in a normal sense of smell. The sense of taste can also be affected, as they are closely linked.

Portugal’s prime minister dines out

LISBON, Portugal — Portugal’s prime minister has taken his morning coffee at his local Lisbon cafe and is having lunch at a restaurant with the speaker of parliament, as officials encourage people to emerge from a lockdown.

Some cafes and restaurants are reopening in Portugal on Monday. Nursery schools also reopened their doors, while school classes resumed for students age 16-18. Social distancing, masks and temperature checks at entrances are among the establishments’ new rules.

The government is gradually easing measures introduced to stem the spread of the new coronavirus. The country has officially recorded just over 1,200 deaths and about 29,000 confirmed cases.

Prime Minister Antonio Costa told reporters that “we can’t return to our old life as long as the virus is around” but noted that the economy has to come back to life.

Somber Eid ahead in Indonesia

JAKARTA, Indonesia — The coming Eid-al Fitr holiday looks set to be a somber one for millions of people in Indonesia, the world’s most populous Muslim nation.

Indonesia’s COVID-19 tally exceeded 18,000 cases with nearly 1,200 deaths as of Monday.

The figure prompted President Joko Widodo to reiterate that he will not relax nationwide restriction during the Islamic holiday, which will fall on May 23 or 24, depending on the moon sighting by religious authorities.

Confirmed cases of coronavirus infections in Indonesia spiked by 496 on Monday to take the total cases to 18,010, including 1,191 deaths and 4,324 recoveries.

Arnold urges Norwegians to wash hands for Syttende Mai

COPENHAGEN, Denmark — Arnold Schwarzenegger has urged Norwegians to wash their hands and observe other measures to fight the coronavirus pandemic as the Scandinavian country marked its National Day.

In an online message on Sunday, Prime Minister Erna Solberg spoke of the importance of new limitations to fight the pandemic before switching over to someone she said is “good at getting things back.”

The actor and former California governor then appeared on the screen wearing a cowboy hat. He said that parades and other events that normally take place on May 17 “will be back,” as using a catchphrase made famous in his 1984 film “The Terminator.”

“But make sure to wash your hands every day, over and over, and over again. And do the social distancing. Then we are all gonna be back,” he said flashing a thumbs up. “Hasta la vista,” he said, using a phrase from the 1991 sequel “Terminator 2.”

France records 70 infections in reopened schools

PARIS — France has reported about 70 cases of people infected with the virus in the country’s schools since they started reopening last week, after two months of lockdown.

French Education minister Jean-Michel Blanquer said the affected schools have been closed again. He did not break down the numbers by students or teachers.

Given that the incubation period for the virus is several days, people are “likely” to have been infected before the reopening of the schools, he said, speaking on French radio RTL on Monday.

France reopened about 40,000 preschools and primary schools last week, with classes capped to 15 students. About 30% of children went back to school, Blanquer said, as the government allowed parents to keep children at home.

This week France is reopening junior high schools in regions less affected by the virus.

 

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