COVID creates shortages of an array of U.S. medical supplies

By Timothy Aeppel

(Reuters) – Shortages of masks and gloves that marked the early days of the COVID-19 pandemic have spread to a host of other items needed at medical facilities in the United States, from exam tables and heart defibrillators to crutches and IV poles.

It can now take up to five months to get some types of exam tables, for instance, compared to three to six weeks before the pandemic, according to CME Corp, a distributor of medical equipment that handles over 2 million products.

“Right now, because of the supply chain stress that’s being caused by COVID, almost everything is delayed,” said Cindy Juhas, CME’s chief strategy officer. “A lot of the stuff we sell is not sitting in a warehouse where you just call and say send it over. It needs to be built.”

But shortages of raw materials, including plastics, metals, glass, and electronics, have hampered production.

In the case of exam tables, tight supplies of electronic controllers, metal, and even the foam padding used to build them are hampering producers, Juhas said.

The shortfalls – which coincides with a hospital staffing squeeze that is forcing some facilities to ration care during the latest surge in COVID cases – are part of a larger supply-chain disruption that has snarled the movement of goods around the world in the wake of the pandemic.

In many cases, U.S. producers are waiting for parts or finished goods produced overseas which are delayed or waiting in jammed seaports. Last week, the Port of Los Angeles/Long Beach announced a record 60 container vessels were waiting offshore to unload their goods.

The auto industry is perhaps the most visible example of how shortages are radiating through the economy and hitting consumers – with car lots outside many factories filled with vehicles waiting for scarce computer chips.

Tight supplies mean higher prices, which has fueled fears of a wave of sustained inflation.

CME, based in Warwick, Rhode Island, closely monitors its 100 largest suppliers and has seen prices on items from those companies increase from 3% to 20% since the start of the year, depending on the item. Some producers have hiked prices three times this year, said Juhas. Normally, price increases occur just once as the start of the year.

Many of the items in short supply have nothing to do with treating COVID. At CME, heart defibrillators that used to take two weeks to deliver now require three months.

“They normally have all the parts, so they put them together and put it on a truck,” she said. “But now they’re just waiting for parts.”

Even mundane items are snagged. Portable plastic toilets – used in hospital rooms so patients don’t have to walk to the bathroom – now are back-ordered three to four months. “That’s an item you usually can order and get right away,” said Juhas, who said she expects the larger array of supply problems to linger well into next year.

“And that’s with a lot of luck,” she added, “and with COVID getting under control.”

To be sure, some backlogs are easing. Early in the pandemic, the sudden surge in demand for the special refrigerators and freezers needed to store vaccines overwhelmed producers like Horizon Scientific Inc, a division of Standex International Corp, which operates a factory in Summerville, South Carolina. The refrigerators are distributed by CME.

Brian Shaffer, the company’s marketing and business development manager, said it takes three months to deliver its larger, 30-cubic-foot vaccine refrigerators – about double what the company would like. “We still struggle a little bit because of the components that go into them,” he said.

But delivery of smaller vaccine refrigerators, which are in demand now for doctor’s offices and pharmacies, are back to normal and can be shipped in five or 10 days.

(Reporting by Timothy Aeppel in New York; Editing by Dan Burns and Andrea Ricci)

NATO allies struggle to keep Kabul airport open for aid after withdrawal

By Stephanie Nebehay and Orhan Coskun

GENEVA/ANKARA (Reuters) – NATO allies are struggling to ensure that Afghanistan’s main gateway, Kabul airport, remains open for urgently needed humanitarian aid flights next week when they end their evacuation airlifts and turn it over to the Taliban.

The airport, a lifeline for tens of thousands of evacuees fleeing victorious Taliban fighters in the last two weeks and for aid arriving to relieve the impact of drought and conflict, was hit by a deadly attack outside its gates on Thursday.

Turkey said it was still talking to the Taliban about providing technical help to operate the airport after the Aug. 31 deadline for troops to leave Afghanistan but said the bombing underlined the need for a Turkish force to protect any experts deployed there.

Turkey has not said whether the Taliban would accept such a condition, and President Tayyip Erdogan said on Friday his country was “not in a rush to start flights” again to Kabul.

But aid groups say there is an urgent need to maintain humanitarian deliveries to a country suffering its second drought in four years and where 18 million people, nearly half the population, depend on life-saving assistance.

The World Food Program said this week that millions of people in Afghanistan were “marching towards starvation” as the COVID-19 pandemic and this month’s upheaval, on top of the existing hardships, drive the country to catastrophe.

The World Health Organization warned on Friday that medical supplies in Afghanistan would run out in days, with little chance of re-stocking them.

“Right now because of security concerns and several other operational considerations, Kabul airport is not going to be an option for the next week at least,” said WHO regional emergency director Rick Brennan.

Brennan said the organization hoped to operate flights in the next few days into Afghanistan’s northern city of Mazar-i-Sharif with the support of Pakistani authorities.

“One of the challenges we have in Afghanistan right now is there is no civil aviation authority functioning,” he told a briefing from Cairo.

Insurance rates for flying into Afghanistan had “skyrocketed at prices we have never seen before” since Thursday’s attack, he added. “Once we have addressed that we will hopefully be airborne in the next 48 to 72 hours.”

LAST FLIGHTS

The United States says the Islamist Taliban movement had indicated “in no uncertain terms” that it wants to have a functioning commercial airport to avoid international isolation.

“A functioning state, a functioning economy, a government that has some semblance of a relationship with the rest of the world, needs a functioning commercial airport,” U.S. State Department spokesperson Ned Price said. “We are in discussions with the Taliban on this very front.”

On Friday the Pentagon said several nations were willing to work with the Taliban to keep Kabul airport operating.

Still, as aid groups struggle to keep supply routes into the country open after the Aug. 31 departure of foreign troops, Afghans trying to leave the country are finding the few remaining exits slamming shut.

Several European Union countries say they have ended evacuation operations from Kabul, and the United States has said that by Monday it will prioritize the removal of its last troops and military equipment.

Germany ended evacuation flights on Thursday, although its former envoy to Afghanistan, Markus Potzel, has been in talks with the Taliban representative in Doha to keep Kabul airport operating after Aug. 31.

Potzel said on Wednesday he had been assured by the Taliban that Afghans “with legal documents will continue to have the opportunity to travel on commercial flights after 31 August.”

(Additional reporting by Emma Farge in Geneva and Ali Kucukgocmen in Istanbul; Writing by Dominic Evans; Editing by Edmund Blair)

Syrian army and pro-Iranian militias attack rebel enclave in southern city

By Suleiman Al-Khalidi

AMMAN (Reuters) – Syrian army units aided by pro-Iranian militias have staged a major assault on an opposition enclave in the southern border city of Deraa in a bid to retake the last opposition stronghold in southern Syria, residents, army and opposition sources said.

Troops amassed around the sprawling government-held city sought to advance into the area known as Deraa al Balaad, which has particular significance in the Syrian conflict as it was center of the first peaceful protests against Assad family rule in 2011 which were met by deadly force before spreading across the country.

Opposition fighters said they had repulsed the attack from the western side of the enclave, which has been under a two-month siege during which the army has prevented food, medical and fuel supplies coming in but opened a corridor for civilians to leave, residents and local figures said.

Pro-Iranian army units led by the elite Fourth Division who have also encircled the enclave poured in new fighters and set up new checkpoints on the main Damascus highway leading to the Jordanian border crossing, a senior army source said.

Another army source said fighting was continuing, but did not elaborate. State media have in recent days said the army was preparing to end a “state of lawlessness and chaos” and reimpose army control.

There was no indication of casualties in the latest incident.

The Syrian army, aided by Russian air power and Iranian militias, in 2018 retook control of the province of which Deraa is the capital and which borders Jordan and Israel’s Golan Heights.

ROAD MAP

Local negotiators from both sides say Moscow, which plays a leading role in maintaining security in the region, had so far held back the army from a military offensive, which they say Iranian-backed army units who have a major presence in Deraa have been pushing for.

Russian generals who on Aug. 14 presented local leaders and the army with a road map that averts a military showdown are trying to win over the opposition, some of whom fear the plan reneges on a deal brokered by Russia three years ago.

The deal at the time forced thousands of mainstream Western- backed rebels to hand over heavy weapons in 2018 but kept the army from entering Deraa al Balaad.

Moscow’s plan seen by Reuters offers ex-rebels a pardon but allows the army to gradually take over the enclave, while offering safe passage to former rebels who oppose the deal to leave for opposition areas in northwest Syria.

Residents say Russian military police have stepped up their presence in the city and its outskirts, where they often act as mediators between locals in disputes with the army and security forces.

The enclave until recently had a population of some 50,000 but most had fled in the last two weeks, so the area has become a virtual ghost town with several thousand rebels dug in.

The enclave and other towns in southern Syria have, since the state regained control of the province, held sporadic protests against President Bashar al Assad’s authoritarian rule that are rare in areas under state control.

“They want to stamp out the remaining voice of the revolution in southern Syria,” said Abu Jehad al Hourani, a local civilian leader in the enclave.

(Reporting by Suleiman Al-Khalidi; Editing by David Holmes)

Vital medical supplies reach India as COVID deaths near 200,000

By Shilpa Jamkhandikar, Rupam Jain and Sanjeev Miglani

NEW DELHI (Reuters) – Vital medical supplies began to reach India on Tuesday as hospitals starved of life-saving oxygen and beds turned away coronavirus patients, and a surge in infections pushed the death toll close to 200,000.

A shipment from Britain, including 100 ventilators and 95 oxygen concentrators, arrived in the capital New Delhi, though a spokesman for Prime Minister Boris Johnson said Britain had no surplus COVID-19 vaccine doses to spare.

France is sending eight large oxygen-generating plants this week while Ireland, Germany and Australia are dispatching oxygen concentrators and ventilators, an Indian foreign ministry official said, underlining the crucial need for oxygen.

U.S. President Joe Biden reaffirmed U.S. commitment to helping India, saying he was expecting to send vaccines there while senior officials from his administration warned that the country was still at the “front end” of the crisis.

India’s first “Oxygen Express” train pulled into New Delhi, laden with about 70 tonnes of oxygen from an eastern state, but the crisis has not abated in the city of 20 million people at the epicenter of the world’s deadliest wave of infections.

“The current wave is extremely dangerous and contagious and the hospitals are overloaded,” said Delhi Chief Minister Arvind Kejriwal, adding that a large public area in the capital will be converted into a critical care hospital.

With frustration mounting, relatives of a recently deceased COVID-19 patient assaulted staff with knives at a hospital in the southeast of New Delhi, injuring at least one person, a hospital spokeswoman said.

A video posted on social media showed several people brawling with guards at the same hospital. Delhi High Court has advised local authorities to provide security at hospitals.

The World Health Organization said it was working to deliver 4,000 oxygen concentrators to India, where mass gatherings, more contagious variants of the virus and low vaccination rates have sparked the second major wave of contagion.

With vaccine demand outstripping supply in the country of 1.3 billion people, two U.S. drugmakers have offered support.

Gilead Sciences said on Monday it would give India at least 450,000 vials of its antiviral drug remdesivir. Merck & Co said on Tuesday it was partnering with five Indian generic drugmakers to expand production and access to its experimental COVID-19 drug molnupiravir.

India is also negotiating with the United States, which has said it will share 60 million doses of AstraZeneca’s COVID-19 vaccine with other countries. A senior official participating in the talks said Prime Minister Narendra Modi had been assured of priority for India.

Supply uncertainty could force Maharashtra, India’s hardest-hit state, to postpone inoculations for people aged between 18 and 45, a government official said.

Biden said he had spoken on Monday at length with Modi, including about when the United States would be able to ship vaccines to India, the world’s second most populous country, and said it was his clear intention to do so.

MOUNTING TOLL

India’s 323,144 new cases over the past 24 hours stood below a worldwide peak of 352,991 hit on Monday, and 2,771 new deaths took the toll to 197,894.

But the fewer confirmed infections were largely due to a drop in testing, according to health economist Rijo M John of the Indian Institute of Management in Kerala, a southern state.

“This should not be taken as an indication of falling cases, rather a matter of missing out on too many positive cases,” he said on Twitter.

The U.S. State Department’s coordinator for global COVID-19 response, Gayle Smith, warned India’s challenge will require a sustained effort: “We all need to understand that we are still at the front end of this. This hasn’t peaked yet.”

Dr. K. Preetham, an administrator at the Indian Spinal Injuries Centre, said patients there were having to share oxygen cylinders because of the oxygen shortage.

New Delhi is in lockdown, as are the southern state of Karnataka and Maharashtra, where the country’s financial capital Mumbai is situated.

An uneven patchwork of restrictions, complicated by local elections and mass gatherings such as the weeks-long Kumbh Mela, or pitcher festival, could trigger COVID-19 breakouts elsewhere.

About 20,000 devout Hindus gathered by the Ganges river in the northern city of Haridwar on the last auspicious day of the festival for a bath they believe will wash away their sins.

“We believe Mother Ganga will protect us,” said a woman on the riverbank, where people bathed with few signs of physical distancing measures.

India has turned to its armed forces for help with the pandemic. Even China, which is locked in a military standoff with India along their disputed Himalayan border, said it was trying to get medical supplies to its neighbour.

In some cities, bodies were being cremated in makeshift facilities in parks and parking lots. Television channels showed bodies crammed into an ambulance in the western city of Beed as modes of transport ran short.

SUPPLY UNCERTAINTY

India has converted hotels and railway coaches into critical care facilities to make up for the shortage of beds, but experts say the next crisis will be a lack of healthcare professionals.

Companies ranging from conglomerates such as Tata Group and Reliance Industries Ltd to Jindal Steel and Power have stepped forward to help supply medical oxygen.

The U.S. Chamber of Commerce has said India’s economy, the world’s sixth largest, could falter because of the spike in infections, creating a drag for the global economy.

Australia halted direct passenger flights from India until May 15, joining other nations taking steps to keep out more virulent variants of the virus.

India has an official tally of 17.64 million infections, but experts believe the real number runs much higher.

(Reporting by Anuron Kumar Mitra in Bengaluru, Rupam Jain and Shilpa Jamkhandikar in Mumbai, Amlan Chakraborty and Sanjeev Miglani in Delhi, Saurabh Sharma in Lucknow; additional reporting by Rajendra Jadhav in Satara and Sumit Khanna in Ahmedabad, Humeyra Pamuk, Steve Holland and David Brunnstrom in Washington; Writing by Himani Sarkar and Timothy Heritage; Editing by Clarence Fernandez and Mark Heinrich)

Supplies for coronavirus field hospital held up at U.S.-Mexico border

By Julia Love and Mica Rosenberg

(Reuters) – Red tape and rules on exporting medical gear have delayed work on a field hospital for migrants in an asylum camp near Mexico’s border with Texas, undercutting efforts to prepare for the coronavirus pandemic, according to organizers of the project.

Migrants are seen waiting at clinic of Global Response Management at a migrant encampment where more than 2,000 people live while seeking asylum in the U.S., while the spread of Coronavirus disease (COVID-19) continues, in Matamoros, Mexico April 9, 2020. REUTERS/Daniel Becerril

Mexican authorities approved construction of the 20-bed field hospital on April 2. But since then, a trailer laden with supplies for the project has been parked in Brownsville, Texas, less than a block from the U.S.-Mexico border.

Global Response Management, the nonprofit sprearheading the project, said the trailer contains an X-ray machine, cots, heart monitors, medical tents, generators and other equipment. Its staff fear time is running out to prepare for a coronavirus outbreak.

“If we are trying to set up the hospital in the middle of the epidemic, it’s too late,” Andrea Leiner, director of strategic planning for the organization, told Reuters on Tuesday.

“We are in a situation where containment and quarantine are not possible, so we need to be aggressive on prevention.”

There are no confirmed cases yet in the camp on the banks of the Rio Grande that houses about 2,000 migrants, mostly Central Americans seeking asylum in the United States. The camp also holds Cubans, Venezuelans and Mexican asylum seekers along with other nationalities.

But testing has been limited. Health experts say the migrants are exceedingly vulnerable, their immune systems worn down after months living in closely packed tents.

Due to a U.S. order banning the export of key protective medical gear, the nonprofit had to remove equipment such as gloves, surgical masks and N95 masks from the trailer in Brownsville. It is now trying to source what it can from Mexico.

The Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) and U.S. Customs and Border Protection have said they are trying to prevent brokers and intermediaries from diverting critical medical resources overseas.

In a rule issued on Friday, FEMA said it would consider the “totality of the circumstances,” including humanitarian considerations, when determining whether to detain shipments of medical gear.

Global Response said U.S. authorities cleared its remaining supplies on Sunday, but it is now awaiting a letter from the Matamoros mayor’s office certifying the equipment will only be brought into the country for six months, so the shipment can be approved by Mexican customs.

Mexico’s customs agency, the Matamoros mayor’s office and the National Migration Institute (INM) did not respond to requests for comment.

In addition to the trailer, Global Response has collected hundreds of cloth masks sewn by volunteers for the camp, but it has only been able to bring them in three at a time, the quantity deemed for “personal use” and thus not subject to import duties in Mexico.

The group has accumulated 3,500 rapid tests for the coronavirus to use in the camp, said executive director Helen Perry.

Many in the camp are awaiting U.S. hearings under the Trump administration’s Migrant Protection Protocols policy. All hearings under the program have been suspended until May 1.

In Matamoros, which has a population of about half a million people, the five public hospitals have 25 ventilators and 11 intensive care beds between them, according to figures provided to Reuters by the state government last month.

A Mexican government plan to relocate the migrants to a stadium was abandoned, Global Response’s Leiner said.

The nonprofit and INM are now working to fence off the camp and conduct temperature checks as people enter, she said.

(Reporting by Julia Love in Mexico City and Mica Rosenberg in New York, additional reporting by Verónica G. Cárdenas and Daniel Becerril in Matamoros,; Writing by Julia Love; Editing by Tom Brown)

Russian plane takes off for U.S. with coronavirus help onboard: state TV

By Andrew Osborn and Polina Devitt

MOSCOW (Reuters) – A Russian military transport plane took off from an airfield outside Moscow early on Wednesday and headed for the United States with a load of medical equipment and masks to help Washington fight coronavirus, Russian state TV reported.

President Vladimir Putin offered Russian help in a phone conversation with President Donald Trump on Monday, when the two leaders discussed how best to respond to the virus.

The flight, which was organised by the Russian Defence Ministry, is likely to be unpopular with some critics of Trump who have urged him to keep his distance from Putin and who argue that Moscow uses such aid as a geopolitical and propaganda tool to advance its influence, something the Kremlin denies.

“Trump gratefully accepted this humanitarian aid,” Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov was cited as saying by the Interfax news agency on Tuesday night. Trump himself spoke enthusiastically about the Russian help after his call with Putin.

Russia’s Rossiya 24 channel on Wednesday morning showed the plane taking off from a military air base outside Moscow in darkness. Its cargo hold was filled with cardboard boxes and other packages.

Confirmed U.S. cases have surged to 187,000 and nearly 3,900 people have already died there from COVID-19, the illness caused by the coronavirus.

In Russia, where some doctors have questioned the accuracy of official data, the official tally of confirmed cases is 2,337 cases with 17 deaths.

Relations between Moscow and Washington have been strained in recent years by everything from Syria to Ukraine to election interference, something Russia denies.

Peskov, Putin’s spokesman, said Moscow hoped the United States might also be able to provide medical help to Russia if necessary when the time came.

“It is important to note that when offering assistance to U.S. colleagues, the president (Putin) assumes that when U.S. manufacturers of medical equipment and materials gain momentum, they will also be able to reciprocate if necessary,” Peskov was cited as saying.

Peskov, who complained about difficulties expediting the aid to the United States thrown up by some U.S. officials, was quoted as saying that Russia and China cooperated in a similar way because “at a time when the current situation affects everyone without exception … there is no alternative to working together in a spirit of partnership and mutual assistance”.

Russia has also used its military to send planeloads of aid to Italy to combat the spread of coronavirus, exposing the European Union’s failure to provide swift help to a member in crisis and handing Putin a publicity coup at home and abroad.

(Editing by Chizu Nomiyama, Alison Williams and Andrew Heavens)

U.S. could face 200,000 coronavirus deaths, millions of cases, Fauci warns

By Doina Chiacu and Tom Polansek

WASHINGTON/CHICAGO (Reuters) – U.S. deaths from coronavirus could reach 200,000 with millions of cases, the government’s top infectious diseases expert warned on Sunday as New York, New Orleans and other major cities pleaded for more medical supplies.

Dr. Anthony Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, estimated in an interview with CNN that the pandemic could cause between 100,000 and 200,000 deaths in the United States.

Since 2010, the flu has killed between 12,000 and 61,000 Americans a year, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. The 1918-19 flu pandemic killed 675,000 in the United States, according to the CDC https://www.cdc.gov/flu/pandemic-resources/1918-commemoration/pandemic-preparedness.htm.

The U.S. coronavirus death toll topped 2,400 on Sunday, after deaths on Saturday more than doubled from the level two days prior. The United States has now recorded more than 137,000 cases of COVID-19, the disease caused by the virus, the most of any country in the world.

Click https://graphics.reuters.com/HEALTH-CORONAVIRUS-USA/0100B5K8423/index.html for a GRAPHIC on U.S. coronavirus cases

Jason Brown, who was laid off from his job in digital media due to the pandemic, said Fauci’s estimate was scary.

“I feel like it’s just growing, growing, growing,” said Brown, who is 27 and lives in Los Angeles, one of the epicenters of the outbreak. “There’s no vaccine. It seems like a lot of people don’t take it seriously in the U.S. so it makes me believe that this would become more drastic and drastic.”

Erika Andrade, a teacher who lives in Trumbull, Connecticut, said she was already expecting widespread deaths from the virus before Fauci’s estimate on Sunday.

“I wasn’t surprised that he said the numbers were coming. They were lower than what I actually expected,” said Andrade, 49. “I’m worried for my mother. I’m worried for the people I love.”

In New York, the usually bustling city was quiet except for the sound of ambulance sirens.

“It feels very apocalyptic,” said Quentin Hill, 27, of New York City, who works for a Jewish nonprofit. “It almost feels like we’re in wartime.”

New York state reported nearly 60,000 cases and a total of 965 deaths on Sunday, up 237 in the past 24 hours with one person dying in the state every six minutes. The number of patients hospitalized is slowing, doubling every six days instead of every four, Governor Andrew Cuomo said.

Stephanie Garrido, 36, a tech worker from Manhattan, said she has not left her home in 15 days, receiving her groceries by delivery. Too many New Yorkers have underestimated the aggressiveness of the virus as many people continue to socialize and congregate, Garrido said.

“Those people are in denial or just don’t think it will affect them. It’s extremely inconsiderate,” Garrido said. “People need to consider that this will be much longer term.”

The governors of at least 21 states, representing more than half the U.S. population of 330 million, have told residents to stay home and closed non-essential businesses.

Maryland arrested a man who repeatedly violated the ban on large gatherings by hosting a bonfire party with 60 guests, Governor Larry Hogan said on Sunday.

One bright spot on Sunday was Florida reporting about 200 more cases but no new deaths, with its toll staying at 56.

President Donald Trump has talked about reopening the country by Easter Sunday, April 12, despite many states such as New York ordering residents to stay home past that date. On Saturday, he seemed to play down those expectations, saying only “We’ll see what happens.”

Tests to track the disease’s progress also remain in short supply, despite repeated White House promises that they would be widely available.

Trump, who is due to hold a news conference at 5 p.m. ET (2100 GMT), bragged on Twitter about the millions of Americans tuning in to watch the daily briefings.

VENTILATOR SHORTAGE

Michigan Governor Gretchen Whitmer, whose state has become one the fastest growing areas for the virus, especially in the county that includes Detroit, called the rapid spread “gut-wrenching.”

“We have nurses wearing the same mask from the beginning of their shift until the end, masks that are supposed to for one patient at one point in your shift. We need some assistance and we’re going to need thousands of ventilators,” Whitmer told CNN.

New York City will need hundreds more ventilators in a few days and more masks, gowns and other supplies by April 5, Mayor Bill de Blasio said to CNN.

New Orleans will run out of ventilators around April 4, John Bel Edwards told CBS.

Ventilators are breathing machines needed by many of those suffering from the pneumonia-like respiratory ailment and many hospitals fear they will not have enough.

Dr. Arabia Mollette, an emergency medicine physician at Brookdale and St. Barnabas Hospital in the Bronx, say she now works in a “medical warzone.”

“We’re trying to keep our heads above water without drowning,” Mollette said. “We are scared. We’re trying to fight for everyone else’s life, but we also fight for our lives as well.”

Click https://graphics.reuters.com/CHINA-HEALTH-MAP/0100B59S39E/index.html for a GRAPHIC tracking the spread of the global coronavirus

(Reporting by Sarah N. Lynch, Doina Chiacu and Chris Sanders in Washington, Karen Freifeld in New York, Tom Polansek in Chicago and Dan Trotta; Writing by Lisa Shumaker; Editing by Daniel Wallis)

White House-led airlift of urgently needed medical supplies arrives in New York

By Steve Holland

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – A planeload of desperately needed medical supplies arrived in New York from China on Sunday, the first in a series of flights over the next 30 days organized by the White House to help fight the coronavirus, a White House official said.

A commercial carrier landed at John F. Kennedy airport carrying gloves, gowns and masks for distribution in New York, New Jersey and Connecticut, three hard-hit states battling to care for a crush of coronavirus patients.

The airlift is a product of a team led by White House senior adviser Jared Kushner, which formed “Project Airbridge,” a partnership between large U.S. healthcare distributors such as McKesson Corp, Cardinal, Owens & Minor, Medline and Henry Schein Inc, and the federal government.

Representatives of those companies were to attend a White House meeting later on Sunday with President Donald Trump to discuss the effort, the official said.

The goal is to expedite the arrival of critical medical supplies purchased by the companies over the next 30 days, using planes instead of ships to reduce the shipping time.

“At President Trump’s direction we formed an unprecedented public-private partnership to ensure that massive amounts of masks, gear and other PPE will be brought to the United States immediately to better equip our health care workers on the front lines and to better serve the American people,” Kushner said in a statement.

Trump, accused of initially playing down the threat from the virus, has been searching for supplies to fill the mounting need for equipment to protect healthcare workers caring for COVID-19 patients.

Medical workers across the country are clamoring for equipment to protect themselves from infection as they deal with the flood of virus victims.

The first plane, funded by the Federal Emergency Management Agency, carried 130,000 N-95 masks; nearly 1.8 million surgical masks and gowns, more than 10.3 million gloves; and more than 70,000 thermometers.

FEMA will distribute most of the supplies to New York, New Jersey, and Connecticut with the rest going to nursing homes in the area and other high-risk areas across the country.

The flight from Shanghai, China, was the first of about 20 flights to arrive between now and early April, the official said. Additional flights will carry similar gear from China, Malaysia and Vietnam, the official said.

“It will be allocated based on need,” the White House official said.

Involved in the effort are the FEMA transportation task force as well as officials at both the U.S. embassy in China as well as the State Department’s East-Asia Pacific team, the official said.

(Reporting by Steve Holland; Editing by Lisa Shumaker and Daniel Wallis)

3M taps regional suppliers to meet soaring demand for masks

By Karl Plume

MAPLEWOOD, Minn. (Reuters) – Diversified manufacturer 3M Co has avoided major supply chain disruptions from the coronavirus outbreak by sourcing materials for its protective face masks from regional suppliers instead of far-flung locations, a company official told Reuters.

More than 3,200 people have died from the fast-spreading coronavirus, which has reached more than 80 nations. It has spurred buying sprees on medical supplies like face masks, even as world health officials have warned that citizens generally do not need to buy such supplies, and that stockpiling by the public can put healthcare workers, who do need them, at risk.

3M has ramped up testing and production of single-use N95 respirator masks, designed to filter 95% of airborne particles, along with more robust respiratory protective gear amid the coronavirus outbreak.

So far, the company has not seen disruptions in production, Nikki McCullough, global lead for occupational health and safety at 3M, told Reuters at its global testing lab outside of Minneapolis,

“If we start to see disruptions, we’ll certainly work to alert our customers. At this point in time, we are able to manufacture and we are continuing at capacity for respirators,” she said.

U.S. Vice President Mike Pence, who is heading the coronavirus response team in the United States, said on Sunday that the U.S. government is seeking 35 million additional masks per month from 3M. Pence will visit the 3M facility on Thursday.

3M produces all of the components of the filters in its N95 respirator masks in house but sources other materials from regional suppliers, including the straps and metal nose clips that hold the masks in pace, McCullough said.

“Since we have this regional manufacturing model, many of our items are coming regionally. And we’re working with our supply partners very closely to monitor the situation,” McCullough told Reuters.

The company is not currently under contract to produce the masks and is preparing to respond to the government’s request, 3M spokeswoman Jennifer Ehrlich said.

Demand for masks like the ones produced by 3M has outpaced supply as the coronavirus outbreak, which originated in China, has spread. The outbreak has riled markets and disrupted global supply chains, largely in export-dependent China.

“The demand is outstripping capacity right now, and we’re working 24/7 to ramp up and be able to meet as much of that demand as we can,” CEO Michael Roman told investors at an industry conference last month.

The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services intends to buy 500 million N95 respirators over the next 18 months for the Strategic National Stockpile (SNS), the nation’s supply of pharmaceuticals and medical supplies.

(Reporting by Karl Plume; Editing by Chizu Nomiyama)

Talks with rebels in no-man’s land as Russia eyes post-war role in Syria

A man is seen near rubble of damaged buildings after an airstrike on the Eastern Ghouta town of Misraba, Syria, January 4, 2018.

By Ellen Francis

BEIRUT (Reuters) – Syrian rebels under siege near Damascus have resorted to talks with the government’s ally Russia, sometimes meeting in no-man’s land, as they seek to hang on to their enclave.

The meetings on eastern Ghouta – the only major rebel bastion around the capital – underline Moscow’s deepening role in trying to shape Syria’s future after the conflict, which broke out in 2011.

The rebels have won almost nothing from the negotiations so far, but they say they have little choice.

They believe the Russians, whose air force all but won the war for the government, will have the final say on Syria’s fate.

The two main rebel forces in the suburbs signed ceasefires with Russia in the summer, but fighting has carried on. Both said they have been talking to Russian officials regularly for several months.

“It’s better to negotiate with the one calling the shots, which is Russia, than with the regime,” said Wael Olwan, spokesman for the Failaq al-Rahman insurgents. “So the factions are forced to sit down with them. This is the reality.”

The Russian defense and foreign ministries did not respond to requests for comment on the talks. Moscow says the reconciliation center at its air base in Syria routinely holds peace talks with armed factions across the country.

The Syrian government’s minister for national reconciliation has said the state intends to get all militants out of eastern Ghouta and restore its full control.

But the insurgents want their enemies to observe the truce, which they say includes lifting the siege, opening crossings, and letting dying patients out. It would also involve evacuating the few hundred fighters of al Qaeda’s former Syria branch.

Both factions accuse Moscow of not honoring the deals, or turning a blind eye to Syrian army violations.

Damascus and Moscow say they only target militants.

“We send them documentation of how the aircraft drops missiles on residential areas,” said Hamza Birqdar, a military spokesman for the Jaish al-Islam rebels.

“Either there is silence … or baseless excuses,” he said. “They say government authorities denied bombing. Then these planes flying over the Ghouta, who do they belong to?”

(Graphic: Syria areas of control http://tmsnrt.rs/2xTrjp1)

TRUCE PROCESS

The conflict has killed hundreds of thousands of people and created the world’s worst refugee crisis. Monitors and opposition activists blame Russian bombing for thousands of civilian deaths and much of the destruction – allegations Moscow denies.

After turning the war in favor of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, Russia has seized the reins of international diplomacy in the past year. It has sought to build a political process outside of failed U.N. peace talks in Geneva.

Other countries including the United States, meanwhile, have wound down support for the array of mostly Sunni rebels.

Russian President Vladimir Putin, who first sent warplanes to help Assad in 2015, is pushing for a congress of national dialogue between Syria’s many combatants.

With the map of Syria’s conflict redrawn, Russia wants to convert military gains into a settlement that stabilizes the shattered nation and secures its interests in the region.

To this end, Moscow has been negotiating behind the scenes with armed factions across Syria.

“We communicate exclusively with them,” said Birqdar. “Because in reality, when it comes to Assad and his government, they have become toys in the hands of the Russians. They make no decisions … except under Russian orders.”

With official and secret talks, Russia has built ties to local groups partly to gain influence on the ground, said Yury Barmin, an expert with the Russian International Affairs Council, a think-tank close to the foreign ministry.

“There’s one goal. Their inclusion in the truce process,” he said. “All this is done with the aim of populating these Russian processes, ones led by Russia, with such opposition groups.”

NO MAN’S LAND

Since 2013, Syrian government forces and their allies have blockaded eastern Ghouta, a densely populated pocket of satellite towns and farms.

The military has suppressed opposition enclaves across western Syria, with the help of Russian air power and Iran-backed Shi’ite militias. Nearly seven years into the war, Assad has repeatedly vowed to take back every inch of Syria.

The Ghouta remains the only big rebel enclave near the heavily fortified capital.

“Our communications with the Russian side are through (their) official in Damascus in charge of this file, by phone and in meetings,” said Yasser Delwan, a local Jaish al-Islam political official.

They meet Russian forces in no-man’s land, the abandoned farmland between rebel and government territory, at the edge of the nearby Wafideen camp.

“We talk about the deal we signed … implementing it from paper into something practical,” he said.

Both rebel forces said Russia instigated the talks. They said Russian officials sometimes blame Iran-backed forces for breaking the truce or use jihadists as a pretext for attacks against the Ghouta.

Failaq al-Rahman only negotiates with Russian officials outside Syria, said Olwan, their spokesman.

“In reality, Russia has never been honest in its support of the political track,” he said. “But with the failure of the international community … the factions were forced to negotiate with the enemy.”

DE-ESCALATION DEALS

Eastern Ghouta falls under ceasefire plans for rebel territory that Russia has brokered across Syria in the past year, with help from Turkey and Iran.

When the insurgents signed the “de-escalation” deal with Russia last summer, residents and aid workers hoped food would flow into the suburbs, home to around 400,000 people. But they say it has brought no relief.

Despite lulls in air strikes, the siege got harsher. In some frontline districts, fierce battles rage on. Food, fuel, and medicine have dwindled, especially after the shutdown of smuggling tunnels.

A Syrian official in Damascus said the army has only retaliated to militants in the suburbs shelling districts of the capital. “As for the Russian allies, every action takes place on Syrian land in full and total coordination with the Syrian government,” the official said. “They have a big role.”

The Ghouta’s rebel factions, which have long been at odds, say they have no direct contacts with Assad’s government.

“In its communications, Russia has always tried to present itself as the solution,” Olwan said. “We don’t see them as mediators. We see them as the final commander in the regime’s ranks.”

The Damascus government mostly does not play a role in the talks, said Barmin, the Russia analyst. “Damascus is presented with a fait accompli and must either accept it or not.”

(Additional reporting by Moscow bureau; Editing by Giles Elgood and Anna Willard)