U.S. Vice President Pence supports governors pausing re-openings

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – U.S. Vice President Mike Pence said on Thursday he supported governors who are pausing their states’ re-openings during the coronavirus pandemic, but sees no need for a national mandate for people to wear masks.

Pence also said he believed schools could reopen on time in the fall and that the United States would keep opening up after the coronavirus pandemic that shut down the economy for several months.

The vice president made the remarks before a visit to hard-hit Florida, which shattered records on Thursday when it reported over 10,000 new coronavirus cases, the biggest one-day increase in the state since the pandemic started, according to a Reuters tally.

“I don’t think there’s a need for a national mandate,” Pence said in an interview with CNBC.

“The truth is that we’re monitoring right now 12 states that have rising cases and rising positivity and we’re fully supporting efforts that governors are taking and local health officials are taking to encourage people to practice good hygiene, social distancing, wear a mask when social distancing is not possible.”

Pence said that the rise in coronavirus cases across Sunbelt states in recent weeks – California, Arizona, Texas and Florida – reflects younger Americans beginning to congregate in settings where the virus can spread.

He said he and President Donald Trump support efforts by governors of those states “to modify or pause aspects of their reopening.”

To contain the outbreak, Florida closed bars and some beaches, but the governor has resisted requiring masks statewide in public or reimposing a lock-down.

(Reporting by Lisa Lambert and Doina Chiacu; Editing by Chizu Nomiyama)

Florida shatters records with over 10,000 new COVID-19 cases in single day

By Lisa Shumaker

(Reuters) – Florida shattered records on Thursday when it reported over 10,000 new coronavirus cases, the biggest one-day increase in the state since the pandemic started, according to a Reuters tally.

Outbreaks in Texas, California, Florida and Arizona have helped the United States break records and send cases rising at rates not seen since April.

In June, Florida infections rose by 168% or over 95,000 new cases. The percent of tests coming back positive has skyrocketed to 15% from 4% at the end of May.

Florida, with 21 million residents, has reported more new daily coronavirus cases than any European country had at the height of their outbreaks.

To contain the outbreak, Florida has closed bars and some beaches but the governor has resisted requiring masks statewide in public or reimposing a lock-down.

Only one other state has reported more than 10,000 new cases in a single day. New York recorded 12,847 new infections on April 10, three weeks after the state implemented a strict lock-down that closed most businesses. While the state has relaxed many measures, it requires masks in public and mandates anyone arriving from 16 other U.S. states with high infections self-quarantine for two weeks.

Once the epicenter of the U.S. epidemic, New York saw cases rise by about 6% in June – the lowest rate in the entire country.

(Writing by Lisa Shumaker)

Explainer: How U.S. airlines are trying to stop COVID-19 on flights

By Tracy Rucinski

CHICAGO (Reuters) – As some Americans prepare to travel for the July 4 holiday weekend, and airlines slowly ramp up service, the U.S. government has not changed rules for air travel during the pandemic, leaving airlines to implement their own measures.

Most are taking what they call “a layered-approach.”

That is the trick, according to infectious disease specialist Dr. William Schaffner of the Vanderbilt University Medical Center: “To implement a series of measures that work together to reduce risk. You can’t rely solely on any one of them because there is no magic bullet that takes care of everything.”

Is he personally ready to fly? Not yet: people should still be sheltering in place if they can and avoid unnecessary travel, he said.

“By its very nature when you jam people together into a tube of toothpaste such as a plane, that’s close contact and you’re going to assume some risk while you do that,” he said.

Here is a list of airline policies and what Dr. Schaffner had to say about each.

MASKS

Major U.S. airlines all require masks and have threatened to remove a passenger’s flying rights for failing to comply.

“If I had to choose one thing, masks would be far and away the single most important thing.”

HEPA AIR FILTERS

These hospital-grade filters are standard on commercial aircraft and filter cabin air about every three minutes, removing 99.97% of airborne particles.

“These do a major job.”

MIDDLE SEATS

Delta Air Lines and Southwest Airlines are blocking middle seats through at least September. American Airlines and United Airlines are not.

“Close intimate contact is the way this virus is spread. You’re at risk based on the condition of the fellow passenger in your same row, two rows forward and two rows back.”

DEEP CLEANING

Airlines say they have increased cleaning between flights and overnight, disinfecting high-touch surfaces from seat buckles to overhead bin handles with products approved to kill human coronavirus.

Many also use an electrostatic spray that wraps around aircraft surfaces, killing viruses on contact and forming a protective shield for 30 days.

“These steps take care of the inanimate part of transmission. If you’re particularly fastidious, bring some wipes along.”

TEMPERATURE CHECKS

U.S. airlines have called for government-administered temperature checks during the airport screening process but nothing has been agreed. Frontier Airlines began its own screenings last month.

“Useful but with profound limitations.”

HEALTH CHECKLISTS

Leading airlines are requiring passengers to disclose during the check-in process whether they have any COVID-19 symptoms or have been exposed in the past 14 days.

“This is also limited because people can just tell you falsehoods.”

LIMITING FOOD AND DRINK SERVICES

Airlines have mostly suspended in-flight services on domestic flights.

“The issue is that you have to remove your mask while eating or drinking.”

DECALS INDICATING 6-FT SPACES ON FLOORS

Airports now have markers on the floor reminding people to keep a distance.

“That’s a simple, inexpensive and very good thing to do. People do need reminding.”

(Reporting by Tracy Rucinski; Editing by Richard Chang)

Exclusive: U.S. delays diplomats’ return to China amid concerns over coronavirus testing, quarantine

By Humeyra Pamuk

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – The United States has postponed flights for dozens of diplomats who had planned to return to China later this month, after failing to reach agreement with Beijing over issues including COVID-19 testing and quarantine.

Five months after the coronavirus epidemic forced the evacuation of some 1,300 U.S. diplomats and family members from China, Washington and Beijing remain locked in negotiations over conditions for their return, according to more than a dozen internal State Department emails seen by Reuters and people familiar with the matter.

The impasse comes as the pandemic intensifies in many parts of the world, including the United States, with the global tally this week topping 10 million cases and half a million deaths.

It also comes as relations between the world’s two largest economies have sunk to their lowest in decades over issues including China’s handling of the pandemic, bilateral trade and a new security law for Hong Kong.

In a previously unreported June 30 email, Terry Branstad, the U.S. ambassador to China, told embassy staff that two charter flights for diplomats returning to Shanghai and Tianjin planned for July 8 and July 10 respectively had been scrapped and would be rescheduled.

“Protecting the health and safety of our community remains our guiding principle and our top priority in this unprecedented situation,” Branstad wrote. “This means that flight plans will not be confirmed until we have reached an agreement that meets these goals.”

The State Department did not immediately respond to questions about the flight cancellations.

In an emailed response to Reuters questions, the State Department did not specifically discuss negotiations with Beijing, but said: “Mission China and the Department have engaged with Chinese authorities at both the Central Government and the local level to receive assurances of the safe and orderly return of our employees and family.”

A spokesperson for China’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs said there had been close communication regarding the return of U.S. diplomats to China.

“The virus is still spreading overseas and China continues to be under a fair amount of pressure to prevent the import of cases from overseas,” the spokesperson said in fax response to Reuters’ questions.

“The epidemic control measures for the diplomatic corps in China are applied equally across the board. China strives to preserve its hard-won achievement in countering the virus together with the diplomatic corps, and to provide good conditions and a good living environment for everyone to work and live in China.”

‘SIGNIFICANT LOGISTICAL HURDLES’

People familiar with the matter say Washington and Beijing have not been able to overcome the “significant logistical hurdles”, including the lack of an agreement on Chinese testing and quarantine procedures for diplomats and families that were cited in a May 28 State Department email to China staff.

Diplomats say agreeing to be tested contravenes the 1961 Vienna Convention on Diplomatic Relations. While an internal State Department guideline dated June 17 says it has approved a plan that includes testing under Chinese procedures upon arrival, sources familiar with the matter say the agency does not want to waive the diplomatic inviolability of staff and is still negotiating with Chinese authorities on the issue.

Several diplomats said they were concerned about the potential for Chinese authorities to take DNA samples and the possibility of parents being separated from their children if some family members tested positive.

“This essentially puts us at the mercy of the Chinese government, with whom tensions have run extremely high,” a U.S. diplomat, speaking on the condition of anonymity, told Reuters while preparing to return to work in China.

“We are in a situation where officers are being forced to decide between being separated from their families or bringing them into a potentially dangerous situation,” the diplomat said.

The experiences of diplomats taking the first and so far only flight back to China, to Tianjin in late May, had concerned some others planning to return, several diplomatic sources said.

Around 60 passengers of ‘Flight One’ were met by more than 150 Chinese officials in HAZMAT suits who directed them for COVID-19 testing, according to a newsletter for China Mission staff, a copy of which was seen by Reuters.

Swabs were taken by U.S. medical officials, with the tests conducted by Chinese labs.

Diplomats were questioned about their activities prior to the 18-hour journey in a cargo plane from Washington.

“Have you been to any parties? Have you eaten in a restaurant? Do you feel good?” Chinese officials asked before the American diplomats were ushered into a VIP lounge to wait some 10 hours for their test results before they could leave.

Uncertainty about returning has been magnified by regulations that cap the amount of time the State Department can cover the expenses of diplomats evacuated from their posts.

“A lot of people don’t feel like going back, but after 180 days, you’re out of options,” said another foreign service officer familiar with the matter. “Basically your choice is to curtail your job and choose a different assignment.”

A State Department spokeswoman acknowledged that 180 days was the limit for evacuees to receive allowances, and said the agency continued to “assess options on how best to protect and support employees and family members in China and across the globe.”

(Reporting by Humeyra Pamuk; Additional reporting by David Brunnstrom in Washington and Tony Munroe in Beijing; Editing by Lincoln Feast and Alex Richardson)

U.S. coronavirus cases rise by 47,000, biggest one-day spike of pandemic

By Paul Simao and Carl O’Donnell

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – New U.S. COVID-19 cases rose by more than 47,000 on Tuesday according to a Reuters tally, the biggest one-day spike since the start of the pandemic, as the government’s top infectious disease expert warned that number could soon double.

California, Texas and Arizona have emerged as new U.S. epicenters of the pandemic, reporting record increases in COVID-19 cases.

“Clearly we are not in total control right now,” Dr. Anthony Fauci, head of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, told a U.S. Senate committee. “I am very concerned because it could get very bad.”

Fauci said the daily increase in new cases could reach 100,000 unless a nationwide push was made to tamp down the resurgent virus.

“We can’t just focus on those areas that are having the surge. It puts the entire country at risk,” he said.

Fauci said there was no guarantee of a vaccine, although early data had been promising: “Hopefully there will be doses available by the beginning of next year,” he said.

COVID-19 cases more than doubled in June in at least 10 states, including Texas and Florida, a Reuters tally showed. In parts of Texas and Arizona, hospital intensive care beds for COVID-19 patients are in short supply.

More than 126,000 Americans have died from COVID-19 and millions have lost their jobs as states and major cities ordered residents to stay home and businesses closed. The economy contracted sharply in the first quarter and is expected to crater in the second.

‘TRUMP FAILED US’

The European Union has excluded Americans from its “safe list” of countries from which the block will allow non-essential travel beginning on Wednesday.

The fresh rise in cases and hospitalizations has dimmed hopes that the worst of the human and economic pain had passed, prompting renewed criticism of U.S. President Donald Trump as he seeks re-election on Nov. 3.

His rival, Democrat Joe Biden, on Tuesday said that Trump’s “historic mismanagement” of the pandemic cost lives and inflicted more damage than necessary to the U.S. economy.

“It didn’t have to be this way. Donald Trump failed us,” the 77-year-old former vice president said in a speech in Delaware, where he unveiled an updated plan to tackle the pandemic calling for more testing and the hiring of 100,000 contract tracers.

In the past week California, Texas and Florida have moved to close recently reopened bars, which public health officials believe are likely one of the larger contributors to the recent spikes.

On Tuesday, New York, New Jersey and Connecticut added travelers from California and seven other states to those who must self-quarantine for 14 days upon arrival. Texas and Florida were named last week.

South Carolina also has also emerged as a hot spot, reporting a record single-day increase of 1,755 cases on Tuesday.

In Texas, where the number of new cases jumped to a one-day record of 6,975 on Tuesday, Houston hospitals said beds were quickly filling up with COVID-19 patients.

Dr. Marc Boom, chief executive of Houston Methodist Hospital, told CNN on Tuesday that his hospital beds have seen a “very significant” increase in COVID-19 patients, although the death rate has lowered.

Boom said he was worried about Independence Day celebrations this weekend, when Americans traditionally flock to beaches and campgrounds to watch fireworks displays.

“Frankly it scares me,” he said.

 

(Reporting by Carl O’Donnell, Trevor Hunnicutt, Simon Lewis, Saumya Joseph, Brad Brooks, Susan Heavey, Maria Caspani and Paul Simao; Writing by Nathan Layne and Dan Whitcomb; Editing by Bill Berkrot and Richard Pullin)

U.S. FDA releases guidance for COVID-19 vaccine approval

(Reuters) – The U.S. Food and Drug Administration on Tuesday released guidance on its conditions for approving a vaccine for the coronavirus, saying a vaccine has to prevent or decrease disease severity in at least 50% of people who are vaccinated.

More than 100 vaccines are being tested worldwide against the virus, which has claimed over 126,100 lives in the country, according to a Reuters tally.

The Trump administration in May announced a program called “Operation Warp Speed” to speed up the development of COVID-19 therapeutics and vaccines, as the country has none approved for the respiratory illness.

“While the FDA is committed to expediting this work, we will not cut corners in our decisions,” the agency said in a statement on Tuesday.

Vaccine developers have also been asked to provide data to support use of their vaccines during pregnancy and to show safety and effectiveness in children, the agency said.

Experts have suggested that it could take a minimum of 12 to 18 months to guarantee a vaccine through clinical trials.

(Reporting by Manojna Maddipatla in Bengaluru; Editing by Shinjini Ganguli)

Air Canada to suspend flights on 30 domestic routes due to pandemic hit

(Reuters) – Air Canada said on Tuesday it would suspend flights on 30 domestic routes hit by persistent weak travel demand due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

The carrier forecast third-quarter capacity would decline at least 75% from a year ago and warned that travel restrictions and border closures were dimming prospects for a near-to-mid- term recovery.

The company said it has reduced its workforce by about 20,000 employees, which represents more than 50% of its staff, and has permanently removed 79 aircraft from its fleet as it struggles with the fallout from the coronavirus outbreak.

Air Canada added that it was closing eight stations at regional airports in Canada.

As part of a cost reduction and capital deferral program, Air Canada said it has identified around $1.1 billion in savings to date.

(Reporting by Sanjana Shivdas in Bengaluru; Editing by Amy Caren Daniel)

First coronavirus case found in sprawling migrant camp at U.S. border

By Julia Love

MEXICO CITY (Reuters) – An asylum seeker has tested positive for coronavirus in a sprawling encampment steps from the U.S. border in Matamoros, Mexico, underscoring the challenges migrants face in protecting themselves from the pandemic.

After showing symptoms of the virus last Thursday, the migrant and three family members were placed in isolation and tested, Global Response Management (GRM), a nonprofit providing medical services in the camp, said in a statement.

When results came back Monday, the migrant who had displayed symptoms tested positive and the relatives had negative results.

Two others with symptoms of the virus are also in isolation, GRM said.

Since cases of coronavirus in Mexico began to rise in March, advocates and government officials have been intensely worried about the potential for an outbreak in the camp, where an estimated 2,000 migrants live in tents on the banks of the Rio Grande river.

“The presence of COVID-19 in an already vulnerable population exposed to the elements could potentially be catastrophic,” GRM said in a statement.

U.S. Customs and Border Protection did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

Many migrants living in the camp are U.S. asylum seekers who were sent back to Mexico to await the outcome of their cases under a controversial Trump administration policy known as “Migrant Protection Protocols.”

To prepare for the virus, GRM sought to improve sanitation in the camp by setting up 88 “handwashing stations,” distributed multivitamins to boost migrants’ immune systems and built a 20-bed field hospital.

Luz, a 42-year-old asylum seeker from Peru who asked that her last name not be used due to safety concerns, said she has tried to isolate as much as possible, though she sometimes ventures out of her tent to seek some relief from the fierce Matamoros heat.

“I truly am not afraid, though I try to be cautious,” she said. “But you can’t stay in your tent all the time… It’s too hot.”

(Reporting by Julia Love; Additional reporting for Ted Hesson and Kristina Cooke; Editing by Chris Reese)

Eight states added to New York governor’s quarantine order

NEW YORK (Reuters) – People arriving in New York from an additional eight states must quarantine themselves for 14 days amid the coronavirus pandemic, New York Governor Andrew Cuomo ordered on Tuesday.

The eight additional states are California, Georgia, Iowa, Idaho, Louisiana, Mississippi, Nevada and Tennessee, all of which are contending with growing caseloads, Cuomo said in a statement.

The order, first issued last week, was already in place for Alabama, Arkansas, Arizona, Florida, North Carolina, South Carolina, Utah and Texas.

All the affected states have “growing community spread,” Cuomo said in a statement, which the state’s Health Department has defined as 10 or more people testing positive per 100,000 residents.

The order applies both to visitors and New Yorkers returning home from one of the listed states. Those found breaching the quarantine order could face fines, Cuomo has said.

(Reporting by Jonathan Allen in New York; Editing by Chizu Nomiyama and Marguerita Choy)

NY Fed’s Williams says full recovery will likely take years

(Reuters) – The U.S. economy is showing signs of a turnaround as businesses reopen, but the pace of the recovery is being slowed by large-scale outbreaks in some states and it could be years before the economy is back at full strength, New York Federal Reserve Bank President John Williams said Tuesday.

Increases in consumer spending and in building permits suggest that economic activity is improving in some areas and that the “low point” of the downturn may have passed, Williams said. Manufacturing activity and small business revenues in hard-hit areas such as New York are picking up, he said.

“People have been getting back to work and the unemployment rate has started to edge down,” Williams said according to remarks prepared for a virtual event focused on central banking during the pandemic. “Although this improvement is welcome, the economy is still far from healthy and a full recovery will likely take years to achieve.”

The Fed moved aggressively in March to support the U.S. economy by cutting rates to near zero, buying up trillions of dollars in bonds and launching a slate of emergency lending tools to keep credit flowing to households and businesses.

On Monday the Fed opened a facility that it can use to purchase corporate bonds directly from companies, setting up the last of the several programs created to stabilize financial markets disrupted by the pandemic.

Williams said he believes it’s possible for the U.S. labor market to return to the levels seen before the pandemic, but cautioned that the large-scale outbreaks happening in some states could slow the pace of the economic recovery.

“This is a valuable reminder that the economy’s fate is inextricably linked to the path of the virus,” he said. “A strong economic recovery depends on effective and sustained containment of COVID-19.”

(Reporting by Jonnelle Marte; Editing by Chizu Nomiyama)