Anxious WHO implores world to ‘do it all’ in long war on COVID-19

By Michael Shields and Emma Farge

GENEVA (Reuters) – The World Health Organization warned on Monday that there might never be a “silver bullet” for COVID-19 in the form of a perfect vaccine and that the road to normality would be long, with some countries requiring a reset of strategy.

More than 18.14 million people around the world are reported to have been infected with the disease and 688,080​ have died, according to a Reuters tally, with some nations that thought they were over the worst experiencing a resurgence.

WHO Director-General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus and WHO emergencies head Mike Ryan exhorted nations to rigorously enforce health measures such as mask-wearing, social distancing, hand-washing and testing.

“The message to people and governments is clear: ‘Do it all’,” Tedros told a virtual news briefing from the U.N. body’s headquarters in Geneva. He said face masks should become a symbol of solidarity round the world.

“A number of vaccines are now in phase three clinical trials and we all hope to have a number of effective vaccines that can help prevent people from infection. However, there’s no silver bullet at the moment – and there might never be.”

The WHO head said that, while the coronavirus was the biggest health emergency since the early 20th century, the international scramble for a vaccine was also “unprecedented”.

But he underscored uncertainties. “There are concerns that we may not have a vaccine that may work, or its protection could be for just a few months, not more. But until we finish the clinical trials, we will not know.”

“THE WAY OUT IS LONG”

Ryan said countries with high transmission rates, including Brazil and India, needed to brace for a big battle: “The way out is long and requires a sustained commitment,” he said, calling for a “reset” of approach in some places.

“Some countries are really going to have to take a step back now and really take a look at how they are addressing the pandemic within their national borders,” he added.

Asked about the U.S. outbreak, which White House coronavirus experts say is entering a “new phase,” he said officials seemed to have set out the “right path” and it was not the WHO’s job to do so.

The WHO officials said an advance investigation team had concluded its China mission and laid out the groundwork for further efforts to identify the origins of the virus.

The study is one of the demands made by top donor the United States which plans to leave the body next year, accusing it of being too acquiescent to China.

A larger, WHO-led team of Chinese and international experts is planned next, including in the city of Wuhan, although the timing and composition of that was unclear. Ryan said China had already given some information but knowledge gaps remained.

(Reporting by Michael Shields, Emma Farge and Francesco Guarascio; Writing by Andrew Cawthorne; Editing by Kevin Liffey)

Georgia’s Governor withdraws emergency request to stop Atlanta’s mask mandate for COVID-19

By Rich McKay

ATLANTA (Reuters) – Georgia Governor Brian Kemp on Tuesday withdrew his emergency request for a court to stop enforcement of Atlanta’s requirement that faces masks be worn in all public places, while mediation over the state’s legal effort to block the mandate proceeds.

Kemp sued Atlanta Mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms and the city two weeks ago to stop enforcement of the local mandate, aimed at slowing the spread of the coronavirus. The governor argued that the city lacks the authority to override his order encouraging but not requiring face coverings.

In a statement, the Republican governor’s office said that the motion was withdrawn, “to continue productive, good faith negotiations with city officials and prepare for a future hearing on the merits of our legal position.”

Mayor Bottoms, a Democrat, has said that she would continue to defy the governor’s orders, but hoped that the two sides could find a solution.

Bottoms is one of a handful of Georgia mayors and other leaders who have enacted local mask orders in defiance of the governor.

Kemp, one of the first governors to ease statewide stay-at-home orders and business closures, has suggested that mandating masks would be too restrictive.

As Southern U.S. states have seen a spurt of new cases, Georgia has had more than 170,000 coronavirus cases and over 3,500 known fatalities.

(Reporting by Rich McKay in Atlanta; editing by Jonathan Oatis)

U.S. coronavirus cases pass 4 million as infections rapidly accelerate

By Lisa Shumaker

(Reuters) – The total number of coronavirus cases reported in the United States passed 4 million on Thursday, reflecting a rapid acceleration of infections detected in the country since the first case was recorded on Jan. 21, a Reuters tally showed.

It took the country 98 days to reach 1 million cases, but just 16 days to go from 3 million to 4 million, according to the tally. The average number of new U.S. cases is now rising by more than 2,600 every hour, the highest rate in the world.

As the pandemic has spread widely over the country, moving from the early epicenter of New York to the South and West, federal, state and local officials have clashed over how to fight it, including over how and when to ease social and economic restrictions aimed at curbing the infection rate.

Whether to order the wearing of masks, a common practice in the rest of the world and recommended by the federal government’s own health experts, has become highly politicized, with some Republican governors particularly resistant.

Hostility to the idea appeared to be dwindling this week, however, including from the Republican administration of President Donald Trump, who once dismissed mask-wearing as an effort to be politically correct.

Trump, who faces falling poll numbers over his handling of the health crisis ahead of the November election, has long refused to wear a mask in public but this week encouraged Americans to do so.

While Trump did not issue a national mandate, U.S. Assistant Secretary for Health Brett Giroir on Thursday cited the importance of masks in “turning that tide.”

“We have to do our mitigation steps: wear a mask, avoid the crowds. We won’t see hospitalizations and deaths go down for a couple of weeks because of lagging indicators, but we are turning that tide,” Giroir told Fox News Network.

He also said the time it currently takes to get coronavirus test results back needs to be reduced. The huge surge in infections has created a testing backlog.

Quest Diagnostics Inc., one of the nation’s biggest medical test companies, said on Thursday it expects to cut week-long turnaround times for COVID-19 tests by more than half to get to “acceptable” levels by September.

‘THAT STUFF WORKS’

New Jersey Governor Phil Murphy on Thursday said measures such as wearing masks were helping to lower the numbers of deaths and new cases in his state, once one of the hardest hit.

“What the current data can tell us is that social distancing, wearing that face covering, that stuff works, and it tells us that everyone should go get tested,” the Democratic governor said at an event.

On Thursday, Florida reported a record one-day increase in COVID-19 deaths with 173 lives lost, according to the state health department. Alabama reported a record increase in cases for the fourth time this month.

Another partisan point of contention is whether schools should start fully opening in August despite concerns that doing so could cause infections to spike.

Trump has threatened to withhold federal funding if schools do not reopen, but he told a press briefing on Wednesday the decision would ultimately be up to state governors.

Administration officials have said a quicker re-opening is essential to get the cratering economy moving again, another central plank of Trump’s re-election campaign.

The White House said Trump would discuss the issue again on Thursday at a briefing at 5 p.m. EDT (2100 GMT).

(Additional reporting by Doina Chiacu, Writing by Sonya Hepinstall, Editing by Bill Berkrot)

Minnesota governor mandates use of face coverings in businesses and indoor public settings

(Reuters) – Minnesota Governor Tim Walz signed an executive order on Wednesday requiring the use of face coverings in indoor businesses and indoor public settings in an effort to slow the spread of the coronavirus.

“By combating the spread of COVID-19, masking will help protect our neighbors, keep our businesses open, and get us on track to return to the activities we love,” the Democratic governor said in a statement.

The executive order will take effect on Saturday and excludes individuals with certain conditions as well as children who are 5 years old and under.

The new order covers all indoor spaces and businesses, even when people are waiting outside to enter such places, and also applies to workers in outdoor settings where social distancing is not possible.

Individuals riding on public transportation and using ride-sharing vehicles should also wear a face covering.

(Reporting by Maria Caspani; Editing by Chris Reese and Peter Cooney)

U.S. coronavirus infections, hospitalizations rise, crisis could worsen

(Reuters) – The United States has revisited the grim milestone of recording more than 1,000 COVID-19 deaths in a single day, while infections and hospitalizations are rising in many states, forcing President Donald Trump to acknowledge the crisis could get worse.

More than 142,000 people in the country have died from the illness caused by the novel coronavirus, a toll that public health experts say will likely rise in several states. Florida, Texas, Georgia and California are among about 40 states recording more cases.

Florida reported 9,785 new cases and 140 new deaths on Wednesday, while COVID-19 patients currently hospitalized hit a record high of 9,530. Alabama reported a record 61 new deaths on Wednesday, a day after hospitalizations hit a record high.

Nationally, coronavirus deaths rose by 1,141 on Tuesday, according to a Reuters tally. It was the first time since June 10 that the daily toll surpassed 1,000.

Nineteen states have reported a record number of currently hospitalized COVID patients so far in July. Thirty-two states have reported record increases in cases in July and 16 states have reported record increases in deaths during the month.

The U.S. government moved to secure 100 million doses of vaccine, U.S. Health and Human Services Secretary Alex Azar said on Wednesday.

The government will pay $1.95 billion to buy the doses of Pfizer Inc and German biotech firm BioNTech SE’s COVID-19 vaccine candidate if they are able to successfully develop one, the companies said.

Pfizer said it would not receive any money from the government unless the vaccine is deemed to be safe and effective and is successfully manufactured.

Trump, who played down the extent of the health crisis and the importance of face coverings, changed his tone on Tuesday, and encouraged Americans to wear a mask if they cannot maintain social distance.

Trump also said that the spread of the virus “will probably, unfortunately, get worse before it gets better – something I don’t like saying about things, but that’s the way it is.”

Mandatory mask wearing, which health officials say can slow the spread of the virus, is a political issue among Americans, with many conservatives calling such rules a violation of their constitutional rights.

Coronavirus infections are increasing in some politically important states including Florida, Texas, Pennsylvania and Ohio.

(Reporting by Peter Szekely, Alexandra Alper, Jeff Mason, Michael Erman and Ankur Banerjee; Writing by Grant McCool; editing by Lisa Shumaker)

Second Georgia judge recuses herself before hearing on Atlanta’s face mask mandate

By Rich McKay

ATLANTA (Reuters) – Two Georgia judges recused themselves Tuesday before a hearing on Governor Brian Kemp’s lawsuit seeking to stop Atlanta’s mayor from enforcing a requirement that people in the state’s largest city wear masks in public.

First, Fulton County Superior Court Judge Kelly Ellerbe recused herself about an hour before the hearing, but did not provide a reason in a one-page court filing except to describe it as a “voluntary recusal.”

The Atlanta Journal-Constitution reported that Ellerbe told court officials she had discussed the case with another judge prior to the hearing.

The second Fulton County Superior Court Judge, Shawn Ellen LaGrua, was then appointed, but also quickly recused herself.

In a two-page court filing, she wrote that she had once worked for Governor Kemp when he was Georgia’s secretary of state and did not want “any appearance of impropriety or bias.”

A spokesman for the court said a statement was expected later in the day. There was no immediate comment from the governor’s office or the office of Atlanta Mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms.

Earlier this month, Kemp barred local leaders from requiring people to wear masks to slow the spread of the novel coronavirus. Even so, several Georgia cities, including Democratic-led Atlanta, Savannah and Athens, have defied the governor’s order and kept local mandates in place.

The governor’s office filed a lawsuit on Thursday against Bottoms and the Atlanta city council, arguing that local officials lack the legal authority to override Kemp’s orders.

“Kemp must be allowed, as the chief executive of this state, to manage a public health emergency without Mayor Bottoms issuing void and unenforceable orders which only serve to confuse the public,” the 16-page complaint reads.

Tuesday’s hearing was on an emergency motion by the governor’s office to have the court lift Atlanta’s mask requirement while the lawsuit works its way through the court system.

Kemp has not filed lawsuits against the other cities with mask orders.

Americans are divided over the use of masks even as the number of COVID-19 cases and deaths continues to rise in many parts of the country, including Georgia. The divide is largely along political lines, with conservatives more likely than liberals to call the rules a violation of their constitutional rights.

(Reporting by Rich McKay in Atlanta; Editing by Franklin Paul, Dan Grebler and Jonathan Oatis)

U.S. state, local leaders should be as forceful as possible on masks, Fauci says

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – Top U.S. infectious disease expert Anthony Fauci on Friday said state and local leaders should be as forceful as possible on wearing masks to prevent spreading the deadly coronavirus, as the state of Georgia and its major cities tussle over masks.

“I would urge the leaders -the local political leaders in states and cities and towns – to be as forceful as possible in getting your citizenry to wear masks,” Fauci, the director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, said in an interview with the Chamber of Commerce Foundation.

Nonetheless, Fauci said he was cautiously optimistic that the country is on the road to getting the pandemic under control, noting that a promising candidate for a vaccine will go into an “advanced phase three trial by the end of this month.”

(Reporting by Lisa Lambert and Makini Brice; Editing by Chizu Nomiyama)

Georgia governor urges people to wear masks but opposes a mandate

(Reuters) – Georgia Governor Brian Kemp on Friday urged all people in his state to wear masks for four weeks to halt the spread of the coronavirus but refused to back down on his position banning state and local authorities from mandating the wearing of masks.

With the state experiencing a spike in COVID-19 infections, Kemp issued an executive order on Wednesday suspending local regulations requiring masks, then sued the city of Atlanta on Thursday to stop it from enforcing its mask mandate.

“While we all agree that wearing a mask is effective, I’m confident that Georgians don’t need a mandate to do the right thing. I know that Georgians can rise to this challenge and they will,” Kemp told a news conference.

The state’s lawsuit alleges Atlanta Mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms lacked the authority to require masks and contended she must follow Kemp’s executive orders.

“Mayor Bottoms’ mask mandate cannot be enforced, but her decision to shutter businesses and undermine economic growth is devastating,” Kemp said. “Atlanta businesses are hurt, violent crime is up and families are rightfully worried.”

The Georgia conflict played out amid a wider cultural divide in the United States, in which public health experts have pleaded with politicians and the public to cover their faces to help stop the spread of infections, while President Donald Trump and his supporters have been calling for a return to normal economic activity and have played down the urgency for masks.

(Reporting by Daniel Trotta and Peter Szekely; Editing by Chizu Nomiyama and Howard Goller)

Target, CVS, Walgreens to require customers wear masks at U.S. stores

(Reuters) – Target Corp, CVS Health Corp and Walgreens Boots Alliance Inc said on Thursday they would require customers wear face coverings while shopping at their U.S. stores, adopting a widely accepted way to curb the spread of the coronavirus.

The move by consumer-facing companies comes as virus cases continue to surge in the United States and deaths exceed 137,000.

On Wednesday, Walmart Inc, Kroger Co and Kohls Corp had decided to implement the policy at all their outlets.

Target said it would launch the policy from August 1, with an exception for those with underlying medical conditions and young children.

Local and state regulations already require shoppers at over 80% of its stores to wear face masks, the retailer said.

Walgreens’ policy will come into effect on Monday, with the company saying it will add store signage and intercom messages to remind shoppers of the new rule.

CVS will also launch the rule at its pharmacies from Monday, but said it was not asking its employees to act as enforcers.

While many companies have recommended masks for months, they were hesitant to make it a requirement over fears of drawing the ire of shoppers, especially after several videos posted online showed confrontations between customers and store staff.

“What we are asking is that customers help protect themselves,” CVS said in a statement.

(Reporting by Uday Sampath in Bengaluru; Editing by Anil D’Silva and Arun Koyyur)

Oklahoma governor becomes first U.S. state governor to test positive for coronavirus

(Reuters) – Oklahoma Governor Kevin Stitt announced on Wednesday that he had tested positive for the coronavirus, believed to be the first governor of a U.S. state to do so.

“I got tested yesterday for COVID-19 and the results came back positive,” Stitt said in a video conference call with reporters. “I feel fine, really, I mean you might say I’m asymptomatic or just slightly kind of a little bit achy.”

Stitt was one of the guests at President Donald Trump’s rally in Tulsa, Oklahoma on June 20.

The first-term Republican governor said he had worked with contact tracers on when his symptoms developed and they believed he would not have been contagious before Saturday.

Oklahoma is among a number of U.S. sunbelt states suffering a surge in COVID-19. On Wednesday, it reported a daily record increase in positive cases for the second day in a row, rising by 1,075 to over 22,000.

Stitt, 47, encourages Oklahomans to wear masks but rarely wears one in public and has not issued a statewide mask mandate.

He said he would be isolating away from his family and working from home until it was safe to “get back to normal.”

(Reporting by Karen Pierog in Chicago and Andrew Hay in Taos, New Mexico, Editing by Chizu Nomiyama and Rosalba O’Brien)