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New York mobilizes against virus

NEW YORK — New York authorities mobilized to head off a potential public health disaster in the city Wednesday, with its emergence as the nation’s biggest coronavirus hot spot a warning flare — and perhaps a cautionary tale — for the rest of the country. A makeshift morgue was set up outside Bellevue Hospital, and the city’s police, their ranks dwindling as more fall ill, were told to patrol nearly empty streets to enforce social distancing. Public health officials hunted down beds and medical equipment and put out a call for more doctors and nurses for fear the number of sick will explode in a matter of weeks, overwhelming hospitals as has happened in Italy and Spain. New York University offered to let its medical students graduate early so that they could join the battle. Worldwide, the death toll climbed past 20,000, according to a running count kept by Johns Hopkins University. The number of dead in the U.S. topped 900, with more than 60,000 infections. New York State alone accounted for more than 30,000 cases and close to 300 deaths, most of them in New York City. Gov. Andrew Cuomo, again pleading for help in dealing with the onslaught, attributed the cluster to the city’s role as a gateway to international travelers and the sheer density of its population, with 8.6 million people sharing subways, elevators, apartment buildings and offices. “Our closeness makes us vulnerable,” he said. “But it’s true that your greatest weakness is also your greatest strength. And our closeness is what makes us who we are. That is what New York is.” Some public health experts also attributed the burgeoning caseload in part to the state’s big push to test people.

Stocks have back-to-back gains

NEW YORK — Stocks scored their first back-to-back gains Wednesday since a brutal sell-off began five weeks ago, but much of an early rally faded late in the day as a last-minute dispute threatened to hold up a $2 trillion economic rescue package in Congress. The S&P 500 rose 1.2%, bringing its two-day gain to 10.6%. It had been up 5.1% earlier in the day as Congress moved closer to approving the plan to provide badly needed aid to an economy that has been ravaged by the coronavirus. The market is now down nearly 27% since setting a record high a month ago. Many on Wall Street say they don’t think stocks have hit bottom yet, but optimism rose after the White House and Senate leaders announced an agreement on the aid bill early Wednesday. A vote had been expected in the Senate by the end of the day, but then some lawmakers balked at the proposed bill.

Hotels used for quarantine

CHICAGO — Hours before his first shift cooking for people with mild cases of COVID-19 who are being quarantined in a downtown Chicago hotel, Jose Gonzalez made a plan to protect his family from the coronavirus. Chicago’s plan to reserve at least 1,000 hotel rooms through partnerships with five hotels is the first such sweeping strategy unveiled in the U.S. aimed at relieving the pressure on hospitals that are the only option for the seriously sick. But it will assuredly not be the last. Gonzalez, 27, said he has been reassured that only city employees will interact with patients. But he’s planning to frequently wash his hands and take other steps to limit his chances of becoming ill or spreading the virus to his 5-year-old daughter and fiancee. “My biggest concern is just making sure I don’t catch the virus,” he said. Samir Mayekar, deputy mayor for neighborhood and economic development in Chicago, said the city’s public health team wanted a plan that teamed with hotel owners and their staff, rather than a takeover run entirely by public employees as in cities in Asia and Europe.

Ships need $400K ‘flushes’

NORFOLK, Va. — Toilets on two Virginia-based Navy aircraft carriers that have become repeatedly clogged could require treatments costing $400,000 each to get them working properly, a U.S. Government Accountability Office report found. The USS Gerald R. Ford and USS George H.W. Bush were made with sewage systems similar to those used on commercial aircraft, but increased to accommodate more than 4,000 people, The Virginian-Pilot said, citing the report. But the pipes turned out to be too narrow to handle the volume of sailors flushing toilets at the same time, Shelby Oakley of the U.S. Government Accountability Office told the newspaper. Navy maintenance crews determined both Norfolk-based aircraft carriers’ sewage systems could require costly acid flushes, potentially regularly, to fix the problem, according to the report. Officials said they did not know how many times the treatments would be needed. The Accountability Office report, requested by the Senate Armed Services Committee, found 150 other examples of maintenance problems across ships in the Navy’s fleet that could require more than $130 billion in maintenance.

Swann dies, fought for integration

The Rev. Darius L. Swann, whose challenge to the notion of segregated public schools helped spark the use of busing to integrate schools across the country, has died at his Virginia home. He was 95. On Sept. 2, 1964, Swann wrote a letter to the Charlotte-Mecklenburg school board, asking that his son James be allowed to attend Seversville School, two blocks from his home, rather than the all-black Biddleville School, which was more than twice as far away. He was allowed to argue his case at a subsequent meeting of the school board, which suggested that the Swanns enroll James in Biddleville, then request a transfer. The Swanns said no thanks.

Veterinarians donate supplies

RALEIGH, N.C. — Veterinary hospitals are donating breathing machines, masks, gowns and other vital equipment and supplies purchased with Fido in mind, but now being redeployed to help doctors fight the spread of COVID-19 among humans. “We buy at the same stores,” said Paul Lunn, dean of the North Carolina State University College of Veterinary Medicine in Raleigh, which on Monday turned over two full-service ventilators, 500 protective suits and 950 masks for use in area hospitals. “There’s no difference in the equipment.” In response to a call last week by U.S. Agriculture Secretary Sonny Perdue for materials to combat the pandemic, vet schools from North Carolina to Colorado to New York are stepping up. There are 30 fully accredited veterinary medical schools in 26 states, according to the Association of American Veterinary Medical Colleges. Of those, 27 have veterinary teaching hospitals with comprehensive services treating everything from pet cats and dogs to horses and other large animals. Lunn said the schools have identified more than six dozen ventilators that could be commandeered for human treatment. The 2009 outbreak of H1N1 influenza had veterinarians readying to help in this kind of emergency, he added: “This isn’t the first time we’ve prepared for this, although it’s the first time in my personal experience that we’ve actually had to pull the trigger.” Private institutions are also heeding the call. Dr. Virginia Sinnott-Stutzman, chair of the Infection Control Committee at Angell Animal Medical Center in Boston, said members of the Veterinary Emergency and Critical Care Society have identified about 100 full-service ventilators that can provide long term breathing support. She said there are also hundreds more relatively simple anesthesia ventilators — “basically like an automated hand squeezing a bag … to get air into the patient” — nationwide that could be pressed into service, though it amounts to just a dent in the overall need with officials saying tens thousands of ventilators are needed in New York alone. “While that may not seem like a lot, if it’s, you know, your grandmother, spouse that gets that ventilator, we’re hoping it can save a life,” she said.

‘Body blow’ to ski industry

DENVER — Ski resorts across the West that were shut down amid coronavirus fears are grappling with an economic “body blow” at a time when they normally would be welcoming hordes of spring break revelers. March is usually one of the busiest months for Colorado resorts, which tallied a record 13.8 million skier visits last winter and typically contribute between $5 billion and $6 billion annually to the economy. But on Tuesday, the chair lifts at Vail swayed silently in the breeze, and the resort’s typically bustling base village was all but empty. “Today it’s desolate. It’s a ghost town,” said Colin Tabb, a Vail resident and snowboarder. “Usually we are fighting lift lines and we are doing our thing still, but it’s a complete ghost town.” Melanie Mills, CEO of Colorado Ski Country USA, an industry group that represents 23 ski areas across the state, said the March 14 decision to close the resorts came on one of the season’s busiest arrival days for visitors. “We had several weeks left to go, in some cases more than a couple of months to go. So this was a body blow,” Mills said. Many resorts generate 25% to 30% of their revenue from March through the end of the season.

Mosque shooter changes plea

WELLINGTON, New Zealand — One year after killing 51 worshipers at two Christchurch mosques, an Australian white supremacist accused of the slaughter on Thursday changed his plea to guilty. Twenty-nine-year-old Brenton Harrison Tarrant pleaded guilty to 51 counts of murder, 40 counts of attempted murder and one count of terrorism. The killing spree was the deadliest in New Zealand’s modern history and prompted the government to rush through new laws banning most semi-automatic weapons. Tarrant was scheduled to go to trial on the charges in June. His change in plea came as a surprise and relief to survivors and relatives of the victims. A sentencing date has yet to be set. Tarrant faces life imprisonment on the charges. The plea came at a hastily arranged court hearing at a time that New Zealand was beginning a four-week lockdown to try and combat the new coronavirus. The lockdown meant that Tarrant appeared in the court from his jail cell via video link and that only a few people were allowed inside the courtroom.

US jobless claims climb sky high

NEW ORLEANS — Barely a week ago, David McGraw was cooking daily for hundreds of fine diners at one of New Orleans’ illustrious restaurants. Today, he’s cooking for himself, at home — laid off along with hundreds of thousands of people across the U.S. in a massive economic upheaval spurred by efforts to slow the spread of the coronavirus. U.S. Department of Labor figures to be released Thursday are expected to shatter the old record for the greatest number of new unemployment claims filed in a single week. There are more suddenly jobless Americans than during the Great Recession — and more than in the aftermath of major natural disasters such as hurricanes, fires and floods. But McGraw, and others like him, don’t need official numbers to understand the new realities of life in one of the nation’s hot spots for the virus that causes the COVID-19 disease. “The whole city, laid off. Everybody,” said McGraw, using an exaggeration that didn’t seem like much of one. “Everybody who worked at a restaurant is laid off.”

US believes ex-FBI agent has died

WASHINGTON — The U.S. government has concluded that retired FBI agent Robert Levinson, who vanished more than a decade ago, has died while in the custody of Iran, his family said Wednesday. Shortly after the family’s announcement, President Donald Trump told reporters that “I won’t accept that he’s dead,” even though his own acting national intelligence director appeared to confirm the news with a statement conveying sympathies for the Levinsons. The family said in a statement posted on Twitter that it had no information about how or when Levinson had died, but that it occurred before the recent coronavirus outbreak. The family said information that U.S. officials had received led them to conclude that he is dead. U.S. officials communicated the news to Levinson’s family in a meeting in Washington in recent weeks, according to a person familiar with the situation who spoke on condition of anonymity to discuss the private encounter. The person said the information about Levinson had come from Iran’s foreign minister. “It is impossible to describe our pain,” the family’s statement said. “Our family will spend the rest of our lives without the most amazing man, a new reality that is inconceivable to us. His grandchildren will never meet him. They will know him only through the stories we tell them.’

Tony Awards postponed

NEW YORK — With Broadway shuttered amid the coronavirus pandemic, producers of the annual Tony Awards have postponed this year’s celebration of American theater. The show was originally scheduled for June 7 but the virus forced all 41 Broadway theaters to go dark and caused turmoil in the Tony schedule. The awards show will be “rescheduled at a later date,” according to producers. Broadway theaters abruptly closed on March 12, knocking out all shows on the Great White Way but also 16 that were still scheduled to open, including “Diana,” “Mrs. Doubtfire” and “Company.” Already some shows scheduled to open this spring have abandoned their plans, including “Hangmen” and a revival of Edward Albee’s “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?” Broadway producers have vowed to resume musicals and plays the week of April 13, but that would be only 10 days before the official cut-off for eligibility for the Tonys. There was no word on whether the original timetable will stay but all signs indicate the eligibility date will also have to shift. Other awards shows postponed by the virus include the 2020 iHeartRadio Music Awards and the Academy of Country Music awards.

Prince Charles tests positive

LONDON — Prince Charles, the heir to the British throne, has tested positive for the new coronavirus, royal officials confirmed Wednesday — touching off debate about whether his wealth and status gave him priority in receiving a test. The 71-year-old is showing mild symptoms of COVID-19, the disease caused by the virus, and is self-isolating at a royal estate in Scotland, the prince’s Clarence House office said. His wife, Camilla, the Duchess of Cornwall, has tested negative. Britain’s Press Association, citing a source, said the prince and the 72-year-old duchess remained in good spirits, and that Charles was not bedridden.

Aetna waives patient payments

One of the nation’s biggest health insures is waiving patient payments for hospital stays tied to the coronavirus. CVS Health’s insurer Aetna said Wednesday that many of its customers will not have to make copayments or other forms of cost sharing if they wind up admitted to a hospital in the insurer’s provider network. The move could save those patients thousands of dollars, depending on their coverage and how much health care they’ve used so far this year. The waiver lasts through June 1. It applies to the insurer’s 3.6 million customers who have fully-insured coverage, which is usually offered through a small business. Big employers that offer Aetna coverage also can chose to waive those payments, a spokesman for the insurer said.

Canada: mandatory self-isolation

TORONTO — Canada announced Wednesday it is imposing mandatory self-isolation for those returning to Canada under the Quarantine Act. Deputy Prime Minister Chrystia Freeland said it will begin at midnight Wednesday and the requirement will be for 14 days. “It will be a legal obligation for people entering Canada from outside Canada,” Freeland said. “Essential workers are excluded.” More than a million Canadians and permanent residents returned to Canada between March 14 to March 20, according to Canada Border Services.

A nod to faith and business

WASHINGTON — President Donald Trump’s “beautiful” idea to reopen the U.S. economy by Easter Sunday and pack church pews that day was dreamed up during a conference call among business leaders desperate to get the country back up and running. But his target date for easing coronavirus restrictions is another outstretched hand to a group he has long courted: evangelical Christians. Cooped up at the White House and watching the stock market tumble, Trump had already been eager to ease federal guidelines aimed at halting the spread of a virus that has infected more than 55,000 Americans when about a dozen business leaders convened a conference call on Sunday. “There was a concern — not unanimity, but consensus — that you had to have a reopening of the economy at some point soon,” said Stephen Moore, a conservative economist and informal Trump adviser. On the call, Moore said, he argued in favor of setting a specific date as a goal by which point the economy could gradually begin to be reopened. “One of the things we were saying was that this would instill some confidence in people, that there would be some kind of light at the end of the tunnel,” he said.

Feds urged to free migrants

WASHINGTON — Pressure was mounting on the Trump administration Wednesday to release people from immigration detention facilities where at least one detainee has tested positive for COVID-19 and advocates fear tight quarters and overall conditions could cause rapid spread of the virus. The U.S. holds around 37,000 people in immigration detention. Detainees and advocates say many are vulnerable because of age and pre-existing medical conditions, and because they are often held in open rooms, beds 3-feet apart, and without adequate supplies of masks or other protections. “It’s impossible to stay calm,” said Marco Battistotti, an Italian who is among 170 people detained by U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement at the Bristol County jail in Massachusetts. “People are panicking. People are in fear.” The 54-year-old Battistotti was among about 100 detainees at the county jail near Cape Cod who signed a letter released by a local immigration lawyer detailing conditions inside. They asked to be released to await decisions on their immigration cases. “I don’t want to die in an ICE jail,” he said in a phone interview with The Associated Press. “Why can’t I fight my case on the outside?”

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