U.S. weekly jobless claims blow past 6 million mark

By Lucia Mutikani

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – The number of Americans filing claims for unemployment benefits shot to a record high of more than 6 million last week as more jurisdictions enforced stay-at-home measures to curb the coronavirus pandemic, which economists say has pushed the economy into recession.

Thursday’s weekly jobless claims report from the Labor Department, the most timely data on the economy’s health, reinforced economists’ views that the longest employment boom in U.S. history probably ended in March.

Initial claims for state unemployment benefits surged 3.341 million to a seasonally adjusted 6.648 million for the week ended March 28, the government said. Data for the prior week was revised to show 24,000 more applications received than previously reported, lifting the number to 3.307 million.

Economists polled by Reuters had forecast claims would jump to 3.50 million in the latest week, though estimates were as high as 5.25 million.

“Similar to last week’s unemployment claims numbers, today’s report reflects the sacrifices American workers are making for their families, neighbors, and country in order to slow the spread,” U.S. Labor Secretary Eugene Scalia said in a statement.

The United States has the highest number of confirmed cases of COVID-19, the respiratory illness caused by the virus, with more than 214,000 people infected. Nearly 5,000 people in the country have died from the illness, according to a Reuters tally.

The dollar <.DXY> was little changed against a basket of currencies. U.S Treasury prices were trading higher while U.S. stock index futures pared gains.

GENEROUS PROVISIONS

Applications for unemployment benefits peaked at 665,000 during the 2007-2009 recession, when 8.7 million jobs were lost. Economists say the country should brace for jobless claims to continue escalating, partly citing generous provisions of a historic $2.3 trillion fiscal package signed by President Donald Trump last Friday and the federal government’s easing of requirements for workers to seek benefits.

As a result, self-employed and gig workers who previously were unable to claim unemployment benefits are now eligible. In addition, the unemployed will get up to $600 per week for up to four months, which is equivalent to $15 per hour for a 40-hour workweek. By comparison, the government-mandated minimum wage is about $7.25 per hour and the average jobless benefits payment was roughly $385 per person per month at the start of this year.

“Why work when one is better off not working financially and healthwise?” said Sung Won Sohn, a business economics professor at Loyola Marymount University in Los Angeles.

Last week’s claims data has no bearing on the closely watched employment report for March, which is scheduled for release on Friday. For the latter, the government surveyed businesses and households in the middle of the month, when just a handful of states were enforcing “stay-at-home” or “shelter-in-place” orders.

It is, however, a preview of the carnage that awaits. Retailers, including Macy’s, Kohl’s Corp and Gap Inc , said on Monday they would furlough tens of thousands of employees, as they prepare to keep stores shut for longer.

According to a Reuters survey of economists, the government report on Friday is likely to show nonfarm payrolls dropped by 100,000 jobs last month after a robust increase of 273,000 in February. The unemployment rate is forecast to rise three-tenths of a percentage point to 3.8% in March.

“A rough look at the most affected industries suggests a potential payroll job loss of over 16 million jobs,” said David Kelly, chief global strategist at JPMorgan Asset Management in New York. “The loss would be enough to boost the unemployment rate from roughly 3.5% to 12.5%, which would be its highest rate since the Great Depression.”

Thursday’s claims report also showed the number of people receiving benefits after an initial week of aid jumped 1.245 million to 3.029 million for the week ended March 21, the highest since July 6, 2013.

(Reporting By Lucia Mutikani; Editing by Dan Burns, Chizu Nomiyama and Paul Simao)

Stuck at home and jobless, Americans confront growing costs of coronavirus

By Doina Chiacu and Susan Heavey

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – A record 6.6 million Americans filed for unemployment benefits last week, the U.S. government said on Thursday, after another four states told residents to stay at home in the latest signs of the human and economic cost of the coronavirus.

Initial jobless claims rocketed as more states imposed stay-at-home orders, forcing large and small businesses to curtail output or shut altogether. More than 80 percent of Americans in 39 states are now under orders to remain at home to contain the spread of the virus.

Florida, Georgia, Mississippi and Nevada told residents to stay home on Wednesday, when the death toll soared by 925 to more than 4,800 nationwide. Confirmed U.S. cases climbed to 214,000, nearly double that of Italy, with the second most.

Globally, the number of confirmed infections approached 1 million with nearly 47,000 fatalities, led by Italy with over 13,000 dead.

More gloomy news came on Thursday when the Labor Department reported a whopping 6.6 million people filed for jobless claims in the past week, double the previous record set a week ago.

“It takes your breath away,” said Justin Hoogendoorn, head of fixed income strategy and analytics at Piper Sandler in Chicago. “Obviously the immediate reaction to something like that is going to be fear, especially when (jobless claims) were just about double what economists were even predicting, thinking dire scenarios.”

The new evidence of the pandemic’s impact on the economy follows a growing consensus by health experts that the respiratory illness could kill 100,000 to 240,000 people even if lockdown orders remain in place and Americans abide by them.

To deal with the mounting number of fatalities, the U.S. Defense Department is looking to provide up to 100,000 body bags after the Federal Emergency Management Agency placed an order for that many, a Pentagon official told Reuters on Wednesday.

New York City crematories are extending their hours, burning bodies into the night, with bodies piling up so quickly that city officials are surveying cemeteries elsewhere in the state for temporary interment sites.

Funeral homes and cemetery directors describe a surge in demand unseen in decades as COVID-19 cases, the respiratory ailment caused by the novel coronavirus, surpassed 40,000 infections in the city, killing more than 1,000.

“We’ve been preparing for a worst-case scenario, which is in a lot of ways starting to materialize,” said Mike Lanotte, executive director of the New York State Funeral Directors Association.

NEW ORLEANS HIT HARDThe coronavirus is even more lethal in New Orleans, which has a per-capita death rate much higher than in New York City. Doctors, public health officials and available data say the Big Easy’s high levels of obesity and related ailments may be part of the problem.

“We’re just sicker,” said Rebekah Gee, head of Louisiana State University’s healthcare services division.

The outbreak will get worse and social distancing is the only way to contain it, said Dr. Anthony Fauci, director of the National Institute for Allergy and Infectious Diseases.

“We just have to do it,” Fauci told NBC’s Today show on Thursday. “That is our major weapon against this virus right now. We don’t have a vaccine that’s deployable. This is the only thing we have.”

He called on U.S. states to review the exemptions they have granted to their stay-at-home orders when he was asked whether businesses such as hair salons and florists should remain open.

“I urge the people at the leadership at the state level to really take a closer look at those kinds of decisions,” Fauci said.

An emergency stockpile of medical equipment maintained by the U.S. government has nearly run out of protective gear for doctors and nurses, as governors and healthcare providers across the country clamor for protective gear and medical equipment such as ventilators, which help COVID-19 patients breathe.

New York City, the epicenter of the U.S. outbreak, has appointed former police commissioner James O’Neill to oversee the city’s medical supply chain.

U.S. Senate Democratic Leader Chuck Schumer of New York called on Trump to follow suit and appoint a national czar with military experience to oversee the production and distribution of medical supplies.

“The system that the administration has in place is horrible,” Schumer told MSNBC, adding he would send a letter to Trump later on Thursday.

Fellow Democratic Senator Dick Durbin echoed Schumer, telling CNBC, “We are begging, pleading, scratching around at every way, shape or form to bring in the protective equipment that we need” for his state of Illinois.

Trump tweeted that New York has received more federal aid than any other state and said the man he describes as “Cryin’ Chuck Schumer” and local officials should stop complaining, saying they should have stocked up long ago.

Trump also said on Twitter that 51 large cargo planes with medical supplies were on their way to the states and the federal government was “sending many ventilators today” without giving details.

(Reporting by Doina Chiacu, Susan Heavey and Barbara Goldberg; Writing by Daniel Trotta; Editing by Howard Goller)

 

Top U.S. expert sees ‘glimmers’ social distancing dampening virus spread

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – The U.S. government’s top infectious disease expert said on Tuesday there were “glimmers” that social distancing efforts to slow the spread of the coronavirus were having an impact, even though the nation was still in a very dangerous situation.

“We’re starting to see glimmers that that is actually having some dampening effect,” National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases Director Anthony Fauci told CNN in an interview. “But that does not take away from the seriousness … We clearly are seeing cases going up.”

Fauci’s comments came after the United States endured its deadliest day yet on Monday with 575 coronavirus-related fatalities. U.S. officials want to build hundreds of temporary hospitals across the country as existing medical centers have come under siege from the coronavirus outbreak.

The number of U.S. dead has now climbed past 3,000, more than the number who died in the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, as confirmed cases of COVID-19 infections rose to more than 163,000, according to a Reuters tally of official U.S. statistics.

Fauci cautioned that, while stay-at-home restrictions were starting to produce some results, Americans remained at risk.

“We clearly are seeing cases going up. People in New York

are in a difficult situation,” he said. “We are still in a very difficult situation. We hope and I believe it will happen, that we may start seeing it turn around, but we haven’t seen it yet.

“We really have to hang in there and abide by the mitigation strategies. We do believe it’s working.”

(Reporting by Doina Chiacu and Tim Ahmann; editing by Susan Heavey and Bill Berkrot)

Crazy haircut? Shave? Americans in coronavirus lockdown try out makeovers

Crazy haircut? Shave? Americans in coronavirus lockdown try out makeovers
By Barbara Goldberg

NEW YORK (Reuters) – Jacob Kunthara’s wife and three adult children had never seen him without the mustache he sported for 45 years. During Coronavirus lockdown this week at home in Gilbert, Arizona, he shaved and covered up with a face mask, which he whipped off at dinner to shock his entire family.

Fiona Riebeling of New Haven, Connecticut, used a fork, barbeque skewer and nail scissors to transform her sleek long hair into jaunty bangs.

Across the U.S., the COVID-19 “stay at home” order with no end in sight has been seen by many as a once-in-a-lifetime chance to experiment with a dramatically different look, knowing that if the new image is a flop, they have several weeks behind closed doors to grow back or restyle the hair on their faces or heads.

“This is the most radical thing I’ve done ever,” said Kunthara, 62, a civil engineer whose home is about 25 miles (40 km) southeast of Phoenix.

After being forced to work at home for a week, Kunthara wielded his razor last weekend and then donned a face mask for a pre-dinner family prayer session, which ended in his stunning facial strip-tease.

“I thought, ‘Maybe this is the best time to try something. I’m home, we cannot go anywhere,'” Kunthara said.

Riebling said she had to improvise her haircut after watching a YouTube tutorial and realizing she had none of the proper tools.

“I scrounged around my apartment and did it ‘Little Mermaid’ style with thingamabobs,” said Riebeling, 23, a pre-school teacher, referring to the Disney movie in which a mermaid combs her hair using a fork she finds in a sunken ship.

“Being in quarantine takes off a lot of the pressure that you normally might feel going out in public and worrying about your appearance,” said Riebeling, who snipped away during a video conference call with two girlfriends also stuck in their homes, including an investment banker in New York and an occupational therapy student in Chicago.

“We’re limited right now in our movement and what we can do. That’s scary for a lot of people. To find places where you can feel empowered and make decisions about yourself, your body, how you choose to be in the world is a great way of reminding yourself that you are in control of as much as you can be,” Riebeling said.

When an Indianapolis call center deployed staff to work at home last week, employee Ed Maudlin scratched his years-old bushy beard and thought, “I wonder what I look like under there?”

Knowing only his girlfriend and whoever he chose to share his photos with online would see him before his office reopens in “at least a month,” Maudlin this week shaved his beard and his head.

“I decided to go with the full all-over – Nobody will know,” said Maudlin, 45, who said he expects facial and head hair will grow back by the time he’s returned to a shared office.

“I figure I will come out of this looking like maybe I need a bit of a haircut rather than looking like Tom Hanks on the island,” said Maudlin referring to the role Hanks, who this month became one of the first celebrities to test positive for COVID-19, played in the 2000 film “Cast Away.”

(Reporting by Barbara Goldberg in New York; Editing by David Gregorio)

With songs, screams and recipes, Americans find emotional balm six feet apart

By Maria Caspani, Alessandra Rafferty and Daphne Psaledakis

NEW YORK (Reuters) – It’s more than 10 months until Christmas, but as the global coronavirus pandemic takes hold in the United States, Margaret Haskell put out a call on her community Facebook group in New Jersey for people to hang their outdoor holiday lights back up.

“We are all finding new ways to virtually connect but many of us can’t shake the feeling of isolation and loneliness,” Haskell, 37, from South Orange, told Reuters. “My thought was that this would be a way to let each other know that we are still here, that life is still going on inside our houses.”

More than 12,500 people across the United States have been diagnosed with the COVID-19 illness and over 200 have died, with Washington state and New York worst hit so far.

Americans are being told to stay home and practise social distancing in a bid to slow the spread of the virus, so people are coming up with creative ways to cope with isolation, lift each others spirits, and get to know their neighbors.

Viral videos of people in Italy and Spain singing or taking part in mass exercise classes from their balconies during coronavirus lockdowns have provided inspiration.

Residents of a neighborhood of Jersey City, New Jersey, have started coming out at 6 p.m. to play whatever instruments are on hand, from guitars and toy drums to egg shakers – but all at a safe distance from each other.

“We’re called the Lockdown Jam Band,” said Shanee Helfer. In Jersey City, residents have been asked to remain indoors after 8 p.m.

In Boston, a man appeared in his window to sing Neil Diamond’s “Sweet Caroline,” an anthem long sung during breaks at Red Sox baseball games, a video widely circulated online showed.

“Hands, not touching hands,” he sang, tweaking the lyrics to follow public health guidance. “Reaching out, not touching me, not touching you.” A neighbor at a nearby window and passersby on the street joined in.

‘BREATHE DEEPLY. SCREAM’

New Yorkers are getting to know their neighbors – virtually, of course.

In the Brooklyn neighborhood of Bedford-Stuyvesant, a support group on the messaging app Slack has quickly grown to more than 1,000 members since it was set up on March 12. People are sharing recipes to try while stuck at home, information about which businesses are still open, and who needs help with groceries or medications.

“I think it has been kind of an emotional balm for a lot of people,” said Benjamin Krusling, a 29-year-old writer and artist, and one of the group’s organizers. “What’s the most helpful for people I’ve talked to who have joined is just kind of knowing… we’re all going through this thing together.”

In Washington, more than 1,500 people on Facebook have said they want to participate in an event on Monday evening designed to allow people to express their frustration with the pandemic.

The instructions for the event – named DC Area Primal Scream – are simple: “Step outside if you can (six feet from your neighbor, please). Head to the roof or the balcony, or stick your head out a window. Breathe deeply. Scream.”

And social distancing does not mean no more happy hours. About a dozen neighbors in Portland, Oregon, drew circles on the ground six feet apart for each guest at their street party with a difference to stand in, said Leslie Garey, 51.

“Everyone visited and drank from their circles,” Garey said. “We plan to do it often.”

For working parents now stuck at home with their children, people are looking for ways to entertain them in the new era of social distancing.

In Jackson Heights, Queens, neighbors on a block are using shared Google docs to organize a home-schooling collective, asking work-from-home parents to teach classes in their area of expertise to kids of all ages. But some parents balked at including their kids in groups.

“People have gotten more nervous and cautious about even small social gatherings,” said Benjamin Tausig, a music professor and crossword constructor who offered classes in both subjects. “Any contact outside one’s family might depend a lot on levels of trust.”

More than 150 rainbows have popped up in windows of Brooklyn brownstones, high-rise apartment buildings, storefronts and in courtyards as a symbol of hope for children of all ages and inspired by similar efforts in Italy and Spain.

Marisa Migdal, 35, shared the idea in a Brooklyn parents Facebook group. “Everything feels so overwhelming and scary right now,” Migdal said. “It is nice to feel connected. It adds a reminder that everything is going to be okay.”

(Additional reporting by Scott Malone, Jessica Resnick-Ault, Nick Zieminski and Lauren Young; Writing by Michelle Nichols; Editing by Frank McGurty and Rosalba O’Brien)

Mnuchin urges Congress to pass massive economic relief bill by next week

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – U.S. Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin on Thursday urged Congress to move quickly to pass a $1 trillion economic relief measure by early next week, saying he expects bipartisan support for the bill to get cash payments to Americans during the coronavirus crisis.

Mnuchin, in an interview on Fox Business Network, said the federal government was focused on being able to provide liquidity to companies and had no problem issuing more debt, but that it expected loans to businesses to be paid back.

Congress is taking up its third legislative package to address the coronavirus pandemic as the response to the crisis shutters U.S. businesses and puts pressure on the nation’s healthcare system.

Lawmakers already have passed a $105 billion-plus plan to limit the damage from the coronavirus pandemic through free testing, paid sick leave and expanded safety-net spending as well as an $8.3 billion measure to combat the spread of the pathogen and develop vaccines. U.S. President Donald Trump has signed both into law.

The Trump administration now wants another $1.3 trillion in aid to help businesses and individual Americans harmed economically by the virus, with Mnuchin on Thursday saying the plan was not a bailout for companies.

“We’re going to get through this,” Mnuchin said. “This is not the financial crisis that will go on for years.”

Mnuchin also rejected any suggestion that U.S. tariffs were keeping Chinese-made medicines out of the United States.

“We’re doing everything to make sure the supply chains stay open,” he said, noting that U.S. Trade Representative Robert Lighthizer had waived tariffs on any critical items.

(Reporting by Andrea Shalal and Doina Chiacu; Writing by Susan Heavey; Editing by Will Dunham)

Life upended for Americans as U.S. scrambles to contain coronavirus threat

By Jonathan Allen and Steve Holland

NEW YORK/WASHINGTON (Reuters) – From Disneyland to the U.S. Supreme Court, from Wall Street to Dodgers Stadium, nearly every facet of American life fell into turmoil on Thursday as the coronavirus outbreak caused sweeping closures and economic disruption.

As concern grew over a rapid spread of the sometimes-fatal COVID-19 respiratory illness caused by the virus, the U.S. stock market cratered anew, professional and college sports leagues suspended play, Broadway theaters went dark and many schools from Ohio to Texas shuttered.

The unprecedented cascade of shutdowns reflected growing fears that the outbreak of the highly contagious pathogen, which has already killed at least 40 people in the United States, could race out of control unless authorities squelch large public gatherings.

As companies locked their offices and sent employees to work from home, fears of a recession rose in step with the number of U.S. infections, which jumped to more than 1,300 on Thursday. The concerns were reflected in U.S. stock markets, with major indexes now in bear-market territory – down at least 20% from their recent high.

New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio declared a state of emergency, granting him new powers as the number of confirmed cases rose to 95 in the nation’s most populous city.

“We are getting into a situation where the only analogy is war and a wartime dynamic,” de Blasio said, referring to an expected surge in demand for hospital beds.

From California to New York, officials banned large gatherings and closed museums and other institutions without saying how long the directives would stay in place, compounding the uncertainty.

After the Trump administration imposed sweeping restrictions on air travel between the United States and Europe, Gabriella Ribeiro, a Wayne, New Jersey-based travel consultant, said she was fielding a flood of panicked calls from customers.

“We call it the ‘C’ word,” Ribeiro said of coronavirus. “We’ve been through Ebola and SARS, but I haven’t seen this level of panic among travelers since 9/11.”

CANCELED: MARCH MADNESS AND BASEBALL

With cancellations hitting everything from Little League baseball to school fairs, the rituals of American life started to grind to a halt.

The NCAA canceled its annual “March Madness” college basketball tournament. Professional hockey and basketball seasons were halted indefinitely. Major League Baseball ended spring training and suspended the first two weeks of the season.

“Opening day is religion around here,” said Frank Buscemi, a self-described sports junkie and Detroit Tigers baseball fan. “It makes sense, and you’ve got to err on the side of caution – we get that. It doesn’t make it any easier and it doesn’t make it any more fun.”

Officials in hard-hit areas, including New York and Washington states, sought to balance the need to protect the public without crippling economic activity.

New York state banned gatherings of more than 500 people beginning on Friday, Governor Andrew Cuomo told reporters. California placed the cap at gatherings of 250 people.

Hollywood postponed the release of several movies and theaters around the world closed over the health crisis.

The Walt Disney Company shuttered their large U.S. properties, including Disneyland in California and Disney World in Florida.

In Washington, D.C., officials closed the U.S. Capitol complex to the public after a staffer for a senator from Washington state tested positive for the coronavirus. [L1N2B50S4] The Supreme Court closed to the public indefinitely, and the Kennedy Center canceled all performances.

Oscar-winning actor Tom Hanks and at least one player in the National Basketball Association announced that they had tested positive for the coronavirus.

“WE’RE NOT SET UP”

The patchwork of state and local directives to stem the tide of infections came as U.S. health officials struggled to expand the country’s limited testing capacity.

“The system is not really geared to what we need right now,” Anthony Fauci, the top U.S. official on infectious diseases, said at a congressional hearing. “The idea of anybody getting it (testing) easily the way people in other countries are doing it, we’re not set up for that.”

Two U.S. senators, Rick Scott and Lindsey Graham, opted for self-quarantine after interacting with a delegation led by Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro in Florida. One of Bolsonaro’s team has tested positive for the virus.

President Donald Trump and Vice President Mike Pence also met the Brazilian delegation, but White House spokeswoman Stephanie Grisham said both of them had “almost no interactions with the individual who tested positive and do not require being tested at this time.”

Republicans initially balked at a sweeping coronavirus economic aid package crafted by Democrats in the House of Representatives. After a day-long negotiating session, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi said late Thursday that they were close to a deal with the administration.

The Senate canceled a scheduled recess and will return next week to work on legislation.

The Trump administration spelled out details of new rules on U.S. citizens and permanent residents’ returning from Europe under restrictions that ban most Europeans from entering the United States.

“Americans coming home will be funneled through 13 different airports, they’ll be screened, and then we’re going to ask every single American and legal resident returning to the United States to self-quarantine for 14 days,” Pence said.

Trump defended his decision, which goes into effect at midnight on Friday and lasts for 30 days. He said the ban could be lengthened or shortened.

The restrictions will heap pressure on airlines already reeling from the pandemic, hitting European carriers the hardest, analysts said.

American Airlines Inc <AAL.O> and Delta Air Lines Inc <DAL.N> said they were capping fares for U.S.-bound flights from Europe amid reports of exorbitant pricing as U.S. citizens flocked to European airports trying to return home.

(Reporting by Jonathan Allen and Steve Holland; Additional reporting by Susan Heavey, Lisa Lambert, Patricia Zengerle, David Morgan and Richard Cowan in Washington and Maria Caspani, Michael Erman and Dan Burns in New York, Steve Gorman in Culver City, California; Writing by Ginger Gibson and Paul Simao; Editing by Sonya Hepinstall, Cynthia Osterman, Leslie Adler and Daniel Wallis)

U.S. pumps $8.3 billion into coronavirus battle as more states report cases

By Gabriella Borter

(Reuters) – A bill signed by U.S. President Donald Trump on Friday will provide $8.3 billion to bolster the country’s capacity to test for the fast-spreading new coronavirus and fund other measures to stem an outbreak that has now hit 21 states, with Pennsylvania and Indiana reporting their first cases.

The president signed the legislation, approved by the Senate on Thursday, at the end of a week in which the virus began to disrupt daily life for many Americans.

In Seattle, the epicenter of the nation’s outbreak, there were school closings and orders to work from home. In Miami and Baltimore, areas less affected by the outbreak, music festivals and sporting events were canceled or curtailed as a precaution.

The funds will partly go toward expanding testing capacity, which health officials say is a key slowing the spread of the respiratory illness in the United States.

The U.S. death toll reached 14 by Friday with more than 230 cases. Worldwide, about 100,000 people have been infected and more than 3,400 have died, most of them in China.

“We’re doing very well,” the president said after signing the bill. “But it’s an unforeseen problem … came out of nowhere but we’re taking care of it.”

Trump’s spokeswoman said he would travel to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) in Atlanta on Friday.

The planned trip had been called off because a CDC staff member was suspected to have the virus, but the person tested negative, White House spokeswoman Stephanie Grisham said.

Washington’s King County has been the hardest hit area in the United States with 12 of the deaths, at least six whom were people living at a nursing facility in the Seattle suburb of Kirkland.

The University of Washington announced on Friday that all classes would be held virtually for the rest of the winter term to limit contagion.

Alphabet Inc’s Google on Thursday joined Amazon.com Inc, Facebook Inc and Microsoft Corp in recommending employees in the Seattle area work from home after some contracted the virus, a policy affecting more than 100,000 people. Gap Inc on Friday closed its New York headquarters because one employee had tested positive.

In Florida, Miami officials canceled two music festivals on Friday – Ultra and Calle Ocho – because of potential risk that coronavirus could spread at events that bring large crowds into close proximity.

For similar reasons, the NCAA Division III men’s basketball tournament will go ahead at Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore this weekend but without spectators, the university said on Friday.

As new states report their first cases, others watched their tally grow. Cases in New York jumped to 33 from 22, Governor Andrew Cuomo said on Friday, adding that some 4,000 people in the state were under precautionary quarantine and 44 under mandatory quarantine.

But he also tried to stem any sense of panic by the public. “I think the anxiety and the fear is more of a problem than the virus,” Cuomo said.

GRAPHIC: Tracking the spread of the novel coronavirus – https://graphics.reuters.com/CHINA-HEALTH-MAP/0100B59S39E/index.html

INCREASED TESTING

Trump said he had spoken to California Governor Gavin Newsom about a cruise ship that was barred from docking in San Francisco after at least 35 people developed flu-like symptoms while on board. The ship has been linked to two confirmed cases of the illness caused by the virus called COVID-19.

“We’re doing testing on those people,” Trump said.

Test results of passengers were due on Friday, according to Mary Ellen Carroll, executive director of San Francisco’s Department of Emergency Management. State and local officials airlifted diagnostic kits to the vessel.

More than $3 billion included in the $8.3 billion spending bill is intended for test kits, research and development into vaccines and treatments. There are currently no approved vaccines or treatments for the illness, which began in China and has spread to about 90 countries and territories.

Health and Human Services Secretary Alex Azar, who was present at Trump’s bill signing, said the CDC had already sent tests for 75,000 people to public health labs around the country, amid widespread criticism of not enough tests available for states in need.

Azar said a private contractor was working with the CDC to send kits capable of testing 400,000 people to private hospitals and labs nationwide.

“The production and shipping of tests that we’ve talked about all week is completely on schedule,” Azar said.

Anthony Fauci, the director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, acknowledged issues that slowed distribution of coronavirus tests, but said the overall response was going well.

“There were certainly some missteps in the beginning,” he told NBC’s Today program. “In the next couple of weeks we should be ratcheted up to get many more out.”

U.S. Vice President Mike Pence, tasked by Trump to lead the coronavirus response, on Thursday noted there were not yet enough tests to meet demand going forward.

The deepening crisis has hit stocks hard. The benchmark S&P 500 was down nearly 3% on Friday after also falling by as much on Thursday.

The Trump administration may take targeted steps to stimulate the U.S. economy as the outbreak may temporarily drag down some sectors, White House economic adviser Larry Kudlow said on Friday.

“We’re worried about individuals at home who may lose paychecks. We’re worried about small business,” he said.

(Reporting by Susan Heavey, Lisa Lambert Timothy Ahmann and Steve Holland in Washington, D.C., Gabriella Borter, Peter Szekely and Nathan Layne in New York; Writing by Gabriella Borter; Editing by Frank McGurty and Bill Berkrot)

Gatherings banned, travel restricted as coronavirus cases grow worldwide

By Steve Holland and Julia Harte

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – Leaders in Europe, the Middle East and the Americas rolled out bans on big gatherings and stricter travel restrictions as cases of the new coronavirus spread around the world.

The United States on Saturday reported its first death from the disease, a man in his 50s in Washington state, where officials said two of the state’s three cases have links to a nursing home with dozens of residents showing disease symptoms.

Although most Americans face a low risk from the virus, more U.S. deaths could be imminent following the nation’s first, CNN quoted Vice President Mike Pence as saying.

“We know there will be more cases,” Pence told CNN’s Jake Tapper in a clip released on Saturday, echoing President Donald Trump’s earlier comments that additional cases in America were “likely.”

Travelers from Italy and South Korea would face additional screening, Trump and top officials told a White House news briefing, warning Americans against traveling to coronavirus-affected regions in both countries.

Pence said an entry ban on travelers from Iran would be expanded to include any foreign nationals who have visited Iran in the last 14 days.

The United States may also restrict travel on its southern border with Mexico, officials said. However, they encouraged Americans to travel around the country, including states that have recorded some of its more than 60 cases.

The outbreak is disrupting flight demand and many airlines have suspended or modified services in response. After Saturday’s press conference, the White House held a call with airlines to discuss new travel restrictions.

American Airlines Inc said late on Saturday it was suspending all U.S. flights to Milan.

NEW CASES

Ecuador on Saturday reported its first case, in a woman who had traveled from Madrid, while Mexico reported four cases, all in people who had visited Italy.

Brazilian officials confirmed that country’s second case, a patient in São Paulo who recently visited Italy.

As governments worldwide stepped up efforts to halt the spread of the virus, France announced a temporary ban on public gatherings with more than 5,000 people in confined spaces. It reported 16 new cases for a total of 73, and canceled a half-marathon of 40,000 runners scheduled for Sunday.

Switzerland said it is banning events expected to draw more than 1,000 people.

More than 700 tourists remain quarantined at a hotel in the Canary Islands, after several Italian guests there tested positive for coronavirus.

Schools and universities in Italy, which is experiencing Europe’s worst outbreak of the disease, will stay closed for a second consecutive week in three northern regions. The country has reported more than 1,100 cases and 29 deaths.

Analysts have warned that the outbreak looks set to shunt Italy’s fragile economy into its fourth recession in 12 years, with many businesses in the wealthy north close to a standstill and hotels reporting a wave of cancellations.

FOCUS ON IRAN

Iraq reported five new cases of the disease, bringing its total to 13, and Qatar reported its first Saturday, leaving Saudi Arabia as the only Gulf state not to have signaled any coronavirus cases.

The majority of infections in other Gulf countries have been linked to visits to Iran or involve people who have come into contact with people who had been there.

Armenia reported its first infection on Sunday, in a citizen returning from neighboring Iran.

Tehran has ordered schools shut until Tuesday and extended the closure of universities and a ban on concerts and sports events for a week. Authorities have also banned visits to hospitals and nursing homes as the country’s case load hit nearly 600.

One Iranian lawmaker, elected in Feb. 21 polls, has died from the disease along with more than 40 other Iranians, and several high-ranking officials have tested positive for the virus.

Azerbaijan said on Saturday it had closed its border with Iran for two weeks to prevent the spread of coronavirus. Two Azerbaijanis who traveled to Iran have tested positive for the disease and quarantined.

Mainland China reported 573 new confirmed coronavirus cases on Feb. 29, up from 427 the previous day, national health officials said on Sunday in China. The number of deaths stood at 35, down from 47 the previous day, taking the toll in mainland China to 2,870.

A man wearing a face mask is seen at a checkpoint for registration with a body temperature measurement tool in his hand near a residential compound, as the country is hit by a novel coronavirus outbreak in Beijing, China March 1, 2020. REUTERS/Stringer

The epidemic, which began in China, has killed almost 3,000 people worldwide, the ministry said.

Thailand reported its first death from the virus on Sunday, while in Australia, a former passenger on the Diamond Princess cruise ship quarantined off Japan died in the western city of Perth.

Churches closed in South Korea as many held online services instead, with authorities looking to rein in public gatherings, as 376 new infections took the tally to 3,526 cases.

(Reporting by Steve Holland and Julia Harte; Additional reporting by Reuters reporters worldwide; Writing by Heather Timmons; Editing by Daniel Wallis and Clarence Fernandez)

Mixed messages, test delays hamper U.S. coronavirus response

By Julie Steenhuysen, Andrew Hay and Brad Brooks

(Reuters) – Even as U.S. officials warn of an inevitable outbreak of coronavirus in the United States, and are alerting Americans to take precautions, some health agencies charged with protecting the public appear unprepared to deal with the threat.

Barely more than a handful of public health departments across the country are able to test for the novel virus, which began in China and has spread to at least 44 countries. The federal government has less than 10% of the protective masks required to protect healthcare workers and the public. And Washington still does not have adequate funding in place to support health departments’ efforts, though more money is on the way.

Conflicting messaging from the White House and top U.S. officials regarding the severity of the threat has only added to the uncertainty.

The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) this week for the first time advised American businesses, schools, hospitals and families to prepare for domestic acceleration of the virus, which has infected more than 80,000 people worldwide and killed nearly 3,000.

President Donald Trump on Wednesday assured Americans that the risk of coronavirus transmission in the United States was “very low.” Despite an explosion of cases in China over the past two months, the Trump administration only this week put in a request for $2.5 billion to aid in the response, an amount both Republicans and Democrats have said is too small.

Critics of the federal response say the United States squandered precious weeks by focusing too narrowly on keeping the coronavirus from crossing U.S. borders rather than marshalling resources to prepare American communities for a widespread domestic outbreak that officials now say was inevitable.

“This has been a realistic risk for a month, and the signal to trigger that kind of preparedness has only been going out in the last few days in an explicit way,” said Jeremy Konyndyk, a senior policy fellow at the Center for Global Development in Washington. “That’s a huge problem.”

An employee carries cans of freeze dried food to put into boxes as part of personal protection and survival equipment kits ordered by customers preparing against novel coronavirus, at Nitro-Pak in Midway, Utah, U.S. February 27, 2020. REUTERS/George Frey

FEW BEING TESTED

There are 60 confirmed U.S. cases of the novel coronavirus, which causes the disease known as Covid-19, U.S. health officials said on Wednesday. But experts admit they have no way of knowing the true figure because access to testing at present is severely limited.

So far, the U.S. strategy has focused almost exclusively on testing infected travelers, using a test that looks for genetic material from the virus in saliva or mucus. As of February 23, fewer than 500 people from 43 states had been or are being tested for the virus.

Currently, just seven state and local health departments have the ability to screen for the virus, the Association of Public Health Laboratories (APHL) said on Wednesday. CDC-developed tests issued three weeks ago were producing inaccurate results in some labs, so new tests had to be made and cleared by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA), leaving many labs with no local testing capability, the group said.

The CDC and FDA have worked out a fix that will allow 40 more public health labs to do testing by the end of next week, the APHL’s Chief Executive Scott Becker told Reuters.

In the meantime, the burden has fallen largely on the CDC, which does testing for most of the country on its campus in Atlanta.

“Unfortunately, we are now in the bottom tier in countries capable of doing population-based testing,” said Dr. Michael Osterholm, director of the Center for Infectious Disease Research and Policy at the University of Minnesota.

U.S. patients typically wait 24 to 48 hours to find out whether they have tested positive and need to be quarantined, health officials said, during which time those who are infected can spread the virus to others

The CDC’s test is restricted solely for use by public health labs, but if the virus begins spreading widely in the United States, hospitals will need to be able to do the tests themselves, public health experts say. Such testing is typically done using kits produced by commercial companies. Several privately developed tests are in the works, but none have yet won approval from the FDA.

Some health experts also fault the narrow testing criteria that the United States is using to screen for potential infections. Currently, individuals with flu-like symptoms are only tested for the coronavirus if they have traveled to a country where the virus is spreading. This has raised concerns that there are far more cases in the United States than are currently recorded.

“If the majority of testing is all around airports or travelers, we won’t know whether it’s circulating in communities,” said Dr. Tom Inglesby, director of the Center for Health Security of the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health.

Those worries were reinforced on Wednesday when the CDC confirmed the first U.S. case of coronavirus in a California patient with no apparent travel history. The University of California Davis said in a statement the patient was transferred to the hospital with severe pneumonia and the hospital requested testing. But since the patient didn’t fit the CDC’s criteria, those tests were delayed by several days.

On Thursday, CDC said it is broadening those criteria to allow testing when the virus is suspected.

MASKS IN SHORT SUPPLY

Around 15 state health departments contacted by Reuters raised concerns about challenges they would face in the event of community spread, including worries about not having enough personal protective gear to safeguard frontline medical workers.

The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services on Tuesday estimated that the United States would need 300 million face masks to protect healthcare workers and the public from people infected with the virus. The country has fewer than 20 million of the kind of masks needed to protect healthcare workers in the Strategic National Stockpile, a government repository of medical supplies needed to address public health emergencies.

“There is a real concern the availability of this equipment may be limited, in part because of the public buying it in a panic when they don’t need it,” said Matt Zavadsky, head of the National Association of Emergency Medical Technicians.

President Donald Trump’s administration is considering invoking special powers through a law called the Defense Production Act to quickly expand domestic manufacturing of protective masks and clothing to combat the coronavirus in the United States, two U.S. officials told Reuters.

With no Covid-19 vaccine or proven anti-viral medicine available, states are planning to isolate sick people in their homes, both to slow community spread and reduce pressure on hospitals, according to the CDC.

Their ability to track a rapidly expanding web of patients who test positive, and all the people with whom they have had contact, is of major concern, according to chief epidemiologists in several states.

Health departments in some states have purchased disease surveillance software to help them with that task. The state of Washington’s system, for instance, tracks patients and people they have had contact with, and asks them about their condition. If someone reports symptoms that merit hospitalization, the patient and doctors are informed of that.

The CDC said in a news conference on Tuesday that transmission of the virus could be slowed by the closure of schools and businesses and the cancellations of concerts and other mass gatherings.

But exactly who would make those decisions or how they would be enforced isn’t clear and could vary widely throughout the nation.

In Texas, for example, such decisions may be made by local officials, said Chris Van Deus, a spokesman with the Texas health department.

“Texas is a home rule state so the buck really stops with county judges and mayors,” Van Deus said.

Another concern is a flood of patients into health systems that are already overburdened in many parts of the country, particularly during winter flu season.

Washington state is considering temporary drive-through care facilities to stop potential coronavirus carriers entering healthcare facilities, mindful that hospitals can amplify outbreaks, as was the case with the viruses that cause MERS and SARS.

New Mexico is working with healthcare systems to turn outpatient facilities into care units if needed, said State Epidemiologist Michael Landen.

“The biggest challenge is getting a consistent message to the public with respect to their options with dealing with this virus,” Landen said.

(Reporting by Julie Steenhuysen in Chicago, Andrew Hay in Taos, New Mexico and Brad Brooks in Austin, Texas; Editing by Marla Dickerson)