Peru, with world’s deadliest outbreak, readies to start vaccine tests

By Marco Aquino

LIMA (Reuters) – Peru will start testing coronavirus vaccines from China’s Sinopharm and U.S. drugmaker Johnson & Johnson in September, researchers said, which should help the country gain faster access to inoculations once the vaccines are approved.

Sinopharm began this week to recruit up to 6,000 volunteers in Peru, which Reuters data indicates has the highest number of COVID-19 deaths in relation to its population size. A team of Chinese scientists is expected to arrive in the Andean nation next week to work with local researchers, said Germán Málaga, a doctor and lead vaccine investigator at Lima’s Cayetano Heredia University.

“This is going to happen around Sept. 3, to begin vaccinations on Sept. 8,” he said. Sinopharm’s clinical trials in Peru are being done with Cayetano Heredia and the state-run Universidad Mayor de San Marcos.

Peru has recorded around 622,000 cases of the coronavirus, the fifth highest case load in the world, and 28,277 deaths. It now has the world’s deadliest fatality rate per capita, with 86.67 deaths per 100,000 people, a Reuters tally shows, just ahead of Belgium.

Sinopharm will also do clinical coronavirus vaccine trials elsewhere in Latin America, including in Argentina.

Other Chinese laboratories that will be conducting trials in the region include Sinovac Biotech, which will work in Brazil and Chile, and Walvax Biotechnology Co Ltd and CanSino Biologics Inc, which will test in Mexico, authorities have said.

Johnson & Johnson’s Janssen unit will start tests with some 4,000 volunteers in Peru around Sept. 24, Prime Minister Walter Martos told reporters on Thursday.

“We are contacting other companies, laboratories, from Britain and other countries that are going to help us immunize at least 70% of the local population,” Martos said.

J&J said earlier this week that it would conduct Phase III trials for its vaccine in Chile, Argentina and Peru.

Peru, a country of nearly 33 million people and the world’s no. 2 copper producer, has been particularly hard-hit by the pandemic, both in terms of infections and economic impact. The economy crumbled over 30% in the second quarter of the year.

The death toll could also be higher than official figures suggest. A national registry shows that between April and August there were 68,192 more deaths compared to the same period in 2019. Excess deaths often give a better indication of the true number of fatalities.

Researcher Málaga and Carlos Castillo, the chief adviser for immunizations and vaccines at Peru’s health ministry, said that carrying out clinical trials would help Peru get faster access to vaccines when they were ready.

“There is an unwritten agreement, in the sense that in the country where a clinical trial is being carried out, it has priority access to vaccine availability,” Castillo said.

(Reporting by Marco Aquino and Reuters TV; Editing by Adam Jourdan and Rosalba O’Brien)

New York City ahead of curve on COVID-19, but faces risks going into fall: experts

By Carl O’Donnell

NEW YORK (Reuters) – New York City, once an epicenter of the novel coronavirus outbreak, has managed to contain the virus as it reopens, but faces risks of an uptick in cases in the fall, public health experts told Reuters.

The city’s success comes from a mix of high rates of compliance with local and federal public health guidance and also substantial immunity among the general population, a result of the severity of the outbreak in March and April, according to public health experts based in New York City.

“There was an alignment in New York with the state government, the healthcare system and the media on what to do – namely, lock everything down,” said Mark Jarrett, chief quality officer at Northwell Health. “The lockdown didn’t please everyone but was really well accepted.”

That contrasts with other parts of the country, where political opposition to mask wearing and lockdowns is more widespread, Jarrett added.

The rate of contagion also declined more quickly because the initial outbreak left between 25% and 50% of New Yorkers with some level of immunity, said Maria Lima, associate dean for research at the City University of New York School of Medicine.

New York is at risk for an uptick in cases as schools reopen and cold weather pushes more people indoors, the experts said.

“The big challenge is schools reopening, recreating that density anew,” which had been reduced by social distancing, said Troy Tassier, a professor of economics at Fordham University who specializes in epidemiology.

After peaking in early April at a seven day average of more than 5,000 cases per day, New York City has reduced its daily case count to an average of less than 200, according to city data.

The percentage of people tested who turned out to have the virus declined from around 70% in late March to less than 1%, and confirmed deaths have declined from over 500 per day in April to the low single digits.

The United States as a whole continues to struggle to contain the virus, clocking upwards of 45,000 cases per day. Total cases have surpassed 5.5 million and more than 170,000 people have died.

(Reporting by Carl O’Donnell in New York; Editing by Daniel Wallis)

Watchdog chastises federal prison in California for its handling of COVID-19

By Sarah N. Lynch

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – A shortage of medical supplies and flaws in health screening processes contributed to a COVID-19 outbreak at a federal prison in California that sickened more than 1,000 inmates and 23 prison staff, the Justice Department’s internal watchdog has found.

In a report released on Thursday, Inspector General Michael Horowitz said staff at the Federal Correctional Complex Lompoc in Santa Barbara who had tested positive for the novel coronavirus still went to work, and the prison was slow to release inmates into home confinement.

“Lompoc’s initial COVID-19 screening process was not fully effective. We identified two staff members who came to work in late March after experiencing COVID-19 symptoms and whose symptoms were not detected in the screening process,” the report says.

“Lompoc staff did not seek to test or isolate an inmate who reported on March 22 that he began having COVID-19 like symptoms 2 days earlier.”

A Bureau of Prisons spokesperson did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

The BOP has faced criticism for its slow response to the global pandemic, both from the union that represents its staff and from families of prisoners.

Union officials have repeatedly accused the BOP of not having enough protective gear, not providing adequate testing and failing to limit the movement of inmates between facilities to prevent the virus from spreading.

The BOP has also faced scrutiny for changing its rules for determining which non-violent federal inmates could qualify for release into home confinement.

Horowitz contrasted Lompoc’s response to the COVID-19 pandemic with another federal prison – the Federal Correctional Complex in Tucson, Arizona – which his office found has had far fewer cases of COVID-19.

(Reporting by Sarah N. Lynch; Editing by Bernadette Baum)

Explainer: Why COVID-19 can run rife in meatpacking plants

(Reuters) – Meat-processing plants around the world are proving coronavirus infection hotspots, with an outbreak at a factory in Germany leading to Guetersloh becoming on Tuesday the first area in the country to be ordered back into lockdown.

More than 1,500 workers at the Guetersloh plant tested positive for the virus that causes COVID-19, while outbreaks have also hit meat and poultry plants in Britain in recent days.

In many rural parts of the United States, meatpacking plants have been the main source of infection. On April 28, President Donald Trump signed an executive order to keep such factories open, warning of a potential threat to the U.S. food supply.

The meat industry is particularly susceptible to coronavirus infections because of the nature of the work: intense physical labor conducted indoors at close proximity to other workers.

“Their work environments – processing lines and other areas in busy plants where they have close contact with coworkers and supervisors – may contribute substantially to their potential exposures,” the U.S. Centers for Disease Control (CDC) says of meatpacking workers.

The CDC maintains a list of recommendations for factories, including steps to keep workers apart such as staggered arrival times and breaks, supplying workers with masks and hand sanitizer and making sure tools are disinfected.

It says factories should take workers’ temperatures on arrival and send those with fevers home.

Conditions on the factory floor itself are also not the only issue. Meatpacking workers often share transportation and housing once their shifts are over.

In Germany, for example, many are migrants from poorer EU countries such as Bulgaria and Romania, often housed in large dormitories where the virus can spread.

“Some of these factories have on-site or nearby accommodation where there are several people in each dormitory, they may be transported on a bus to the site of work, and they will be indoors together all day,” said Michael Head, an expert in global health at England’s University of Southampton.

In the United States, by the end of May, the UFCW labor union estimated that at least 44 meatpacking workers had died of COVID-19, and that at least 30 meatpacking plants had to be temporarily shut down, impacting more than 45,000 workers and contributing to a 40% reduction in pork slaughtering capacity.

(Reporting by Peter Graff; Additional reporting by Kate Kelland; Editing by Pravin Char)

COVID-19 cases surging in Alabama, South Carolina and Oklahoma

By Chris Canipe and Lisa Shumaker

(Reuters) – New cases of COVID-19 nearly doubled in Alabama and South Carolina in the second week of June compared to the prior seven days, a Reuters analysis found, as 17 U.S. states reported weekly increases in the spread of the novel coronavirus.

Alabama’s new cases rose 97% to 5,115 for the week ended June 14, with 14% of COVID-19 tests coming back positive compared to 6% in the prior week, according to the analysis of data from The COVID Tracking Project, a volunteer-run effort to track the outbreak.

New cases in South Carolina rose 86% to 4,509, while the positive test rate rose to about 14% from 9% over the same period, according to the analysis and state data.

When asked to comment on the increases, South Carolina and Alabama health officials said some residents were not following recommendations to maintain social distance, avoid large gatherings and wear a mask in public.

In Oklahoma, where President Donald Trump plans to hold an indoor campaign rally on Saturday, new cases rose 68% to 1,081 in the second week of June, while the positive test rate increased to 4%, from 2% the previous week.

Oklahoma officials did not immediately respond to requests for comment.

The three states are among hot spots throughout the South and Southwest that helped push the total number of new infections in the United States up 1% in the week ended June 14, the second increase after five weeks of declines, Reuters found.

(Open https://tmsnrt.rs/2WTOZDR in an external browser for a Reuters interactive)

The state that reported the largest number of new cases was California at 20,043, up 10% from the previous week.

Nationally, the rate of positive tests has hovered around 5% for several weeks, according to the analysis. More than 583,000 tests were reported in a single day last week, a new record.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) has recommended states wait for new COVID-19 cases to fall for 14 days before easing social distancing restrictions.

Seventeen states and the District of Columbia have met that criteria, the analysis showed. Pennsylvania and New York lead with nine straight weeks of declines, followed by Rhode Island and Indiana.

Graphic – Tracking the novel coronavirus in the U.S.:

Graphic – World-focused tracker with country-by-country interactive:

(Reporting by Chris Canipe in Kansas City, Missouri, and Lisa Shumaker in Chicago; Editing by Tiffany Wu)

Mexican funeral homes face ‘horrific’ unseen coronavirus toll

By Drazen Jorgic

MEXICO CITY (Reuters) – Like many people around the world, Mexican funeral home owner Salvador Ascencio did not believe at first the coronavirus outbreak was going to be a big deal.

Then calls from grieving relatives began to pour in.

During the first 11 days of May, his small funeral parlor in a run-down part of Mexico City dealt with 30 bodies, a more than four-fold spike in daily funeral services compared to the same period last May.

“I have never experienced a situation like this,” said Ascencio, 52, encircled by shiny wooden coffins in the cramped parlour of a business his family has operated since 1973.

“The truth is that what we are experiencing is horrific.”

Reuters surveyed 18 funeral homes and crematoriums across the capital, including several belonging to Mexico’s two biggest chains. They also reported rocketing demand for their services during the pandemic.

The findings suggest that official statistics in Mexico may be far underestimating the true death toll from COVID-19, the disease caused by the new coronavirus.

Mexico’s government has acknowledged that the real number of fatalities is higher than the official tally of 5,666 coronavirus deaths nationwide, though it says it has limited tools to measure accurately how much higher because Mexico has the lowest testing rate among OECD countries.

Hugo Lopez-Gatell, Mexico’s coronavirus tsar and deputy health minister, said earlier this month in response to media reports about Mexico undercounting fatalities that people often arrive at hospital too sick for a timely laboratory test.

The federal government has also acknowledged there is sometimes a lag between coronavirus deaths and their inclusion in daily official figures due to delays in certifying deaths and processing information from hospitals and morgues.

Complicating efforts to estimate the true impact of the pandemic, Mexico has no real-time statistics on deaths nationwide: the most recent published mortality data is from 2018.

That makes it difficult to calculate ‘excess mortality’: a term used by epidemiologists to estimate the increase in deaths, versus normal conditions, attributable to a public health crisis.

Based on information from 13 funerals homes in the capital belonging to Mexico’s two biggest chains, the excess mortality rate in the first week of May could be at least 2.5 times higher than the government’s official coronavirus tally during that period, according to Reuters calculations.

While death rates could vary according to neighborhoods and over time, infectious disease specialist Alejandro Macias, an academic and Mexico’s national commissioner for influenza during the H1N1 swine flu pandemic, was explained the news agency’s findings and said a calculation of more than twice the announced number of deaths sounded about right.

“In these times, saying double doesn’t sound too much to me,” said Macias, adding that it may be “even a little bigger.”

One of the funeral home chains, J. Garcia Lopez, told Reuters it had registered a 40% increase in funeral services in early May in Mexico City compared to last year and was handling an average of 50 fatalities per day. The other chain, Grupo Gayosso, saw a 70% spike.

Based on the last three years for which mortality data is available, Mexico City saw an average of 6,048 deaths in May between 2016 and 2018, or a daily rate of 195 deaths.

Taking the more conservative J. Garcia Lopez funeral data as a guideline, a 40% increase in deaths would equate to an average of 273 people dying daily in the capital in the first week of May – equivalent to an additional 78 deaths per day above the average of 2016-2018.

That would be roughly two and a half times the government’s official COVID-19 death tally in Mexico City, published on Monday, of 32 fatalities per day in the first week of May.

Excess mortality figures are a recognized means of determining the impact of a pandemic, he said, adding Mexico’s “severe underestimation” of the death toll did not indicate a conspiracy by the government to suppress numbers. “It’s a consequence of not doing enough tests,” Macias said.

Data from funeral homes and death registries has contradicted official coronavirus death tolls in other nations across the globe, including in Italy and Indonesia.

Although the Reuters estimate was only an approximation, it was broadly in line with a survey of death certificates by Mexican non-profit MCCI published this week that found three times as many confirmed, probable or suspected COVID-19 deaths.

Asked by Reuters about its findings and whether the death toll could be significantly higher than officially reported, a spokesman for the Mexico City government, Ivan Escalante, said a scientific commission established last week by the local authorities to bring more transparency to the pandemic death numbers would seek to determine that, including by examining suspected cases.

Officially, 1,108 people had died from the coronavirus in Mexico City by Monday. Mexico on May 12 reported its most lethal day yet with 353 coronavirus fatalities.

OVERFLOWING MORGUES

In the Izaz Cremaciones crematorium in Iztapalapa, the epicenter of Mexico City’s outbreak, black smoke billowed from chimneys last week whenever a coronavirus victim was cremated. The thicker smoke was due to extra layers of plastic wrapped around the bodies, workers said.

Izaz cremated 239 people in the first 11 days of May, compared with the 188 people it cremated during the whole of May last year. The increase was due in part to the government advising cremation for all suspected coronavirus cases.The company has introduced 24-hour shifts to operate its two crematorium ovens.

More than a third of Izaz’s cremations at the start of the month were confirmed or “probable COVID-19” cases, according to death certificates in the crematorium registry.

Funeral home J. Lopez Garcia also said more than a third of the daily cases in the same period were “COVID and/or atypical pneumonia.”

Workers using hearses to ferry the bodies of coronavirus victims to crematoriums around the capital have taken on the look of astronauts, sheathed in hazmat suits and gas masks.

“We had to call almost seven crematoriums to find a space,” said Francisco Juarez, whose family run a funeral business on the other side of Mexico City from Izaz.

“It’s something I’ve never seen, the hospitals are full,” he said. “The areas holding the bodies are now completely filled up.”

The surge in demand for funeral services has coincided with many public hospitals overflowing. By Monday evening, 47 of 64 hospitals in the Mexico City metropolitan areas were full and 13 were near capacity, government data showed.

Figures from Grupo Gayosso, which operates 21 funeral homes in 13 cities, point to rising coronavirus deaths elsewhere in the country too.

In the northern border cities of Tijuana and Mexicali, they more than doubled, said Alejandro Sosa, the chain’s operations director.

Ascencio said he keeps receiving calls from people who suspect their relatives have been killed by the coronavirus.

If the toll keeps rising, he said, he won’t be able to handle them all because the city does not have enough facilities to cremate the bodies of the victims, he said.

“Unfortunately, there are not enough ovens,” Ascencio said.

(This story has been refiled to change to ‘Macias’ from ‘he’ in paragraph 20 to establish who is being quoted)

(Reporting by Drazen Jorgic; Editing by Frank Jack Daniel and Daniel Wallis)

Cyclone kills 14 in India, Bangladesh leaving trail of destruction

By Subrata Nagchoudhary and Ruma Paul

KOLKATA/DHAKA (Reuters) – A powerful cyclone pounded eastern India and Bangladesh on Wednesday, killing at least 14 people and destroying thousands of homes, officials said, leaving authorities struggling to mount relief efforts amid a surging coronavirus outbreak.

The populous Indian state of West Bengal took the brunt of Cyclone Amphan, which barrelled out of the Bay of Bengal with gusting winds of up to 185 km per hour (115 mph) and a storm surge of around five meters.

West Bengal Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee said at least 10 people had died in the state, and two districts been completely battered by one of the strongest storms to hit the region in several years.

“Area after area has been devastated. Communications are disrupted,” Banerjee said, adding that although 500,000 people had been evacuated, state authorities had not entirely anticipated the ferocity of the storm.

With rains continuing, she said the hardest hits areas were not immediately accessible. Federal authorities said they could only make a proper assessment of the destruction on Thursday morning.

“We are facing greater damage and devastation than the CoVID-19,” Banerjee said, referring to the disease caused by the novel coronavirus, which has so far killed 250 people in the state.

Members of National Disaster Rescue Force (NDRF) remove a branch of an uprooted tree after Cyclone Amphan made its landfall, in Digha, near the border between the eastern states of West Bengal and Odisha, India, May 20, 2020. REUTERS/Stringer NO ARCHIVES. NO RESALES.

In West Bengal’s capital city, Kolkata, strong winds upturned cars and felled trees and electricity poles. Parts of the city were plunged into darkness.

An official in the adjoining Hooghly district said thousands of mud homes were damaged by raging winds.

In neighboring Bangladesh, at least four people were killed, officials said, with power supplies cut off in some districts.

Authorities there had shifted around 2.4 million people to more than 15,000 storm shelters this week. Bangladeshi officials also said they had moved hundreds of Rohingya refugees from Myanmar, living on a flood-prone island in the Bay of Bengal, to shelter.

But officials said they feared that standing crops could be damaged and large tracts of fertile land in the densely-populated country washed away.

“Fortunately, the harvesting of the rice crop has almost been completed. Still, it could leave a trail of destruction,” said Mizanur Rahman Khan, a senior official in the Bangladesh agriculture ministry.

Cyclones frequently batter parts of eastern India and Bangladesh between April and December, often forcing the evacuations of tens of thousands and causing widespread damage.

SURGE AND HIGH TIDE

Surging waters broke through embankments surrounding an island in Bangladesh’s Noakhali district, destroying more than 500 homes, local official Rezaul Karim said.

“We could avoid casualties as people were moved to cyclone centers earlier,” Karim said.

Embankments were also breached in West Bengal’s Sundarban delta, where weather authorities had said the surge whipped up by the cyclone could inundate up to 15 km inland.

The ecologically-fragile region straddling the Indian-Bangladesh border is best known for thick mangrove forests that are a critical tiger habitat and is home to around 4 million people in India.

On the Sundarbans’ Ghoramara island, resident Sanjib Sagar said several embankments surrounding settlements had been damaged, and some flooding had started.

“A lot of houses have been damaged,” he told Reuters by phone.

Anamitra Anurag Danda, a senior fellow at the Observer Research Foundation think-tank who has extensively studied the Sundarbans, said that embankments across the area may have been breached.

“The cyclone surge coincided with the new moon high tides. It is devastation in the coastal belt,” he said.

(Additional reporting by Jatindra Dash in BHUBANESHWAR, Writing by Rupam Jain and Devjyot Ghoshal; Editing by Sanjeev Miglani, Nick Macfie, Alex Richardson and Nick Zieminski)

Where U.S. coronavirus cases are on the rise

By Chris Canipe and Lisa Shumaker

(Reuters) – Most U.S. states reported a drop in new cases of COVID-19 for the week ended May 17, with only 13 states seeing a rise in infections compared to the previous week, according to a Reuters analysis.

Tennessee had the biggest weekly increase with 33%. Louisiana’s new cases rose 25%, and Texas reported 22% more cases than in the first week of May, according to the Reuters analysis of data from The COVID Tracking Project, a volunteer-run effort to track the outbreak.

(Open https://tmsnrt.rs/2WTOZDR in an external browser for a Reuters interactive)

Michigan saw new cases rise 18% after five weeks of declines. Michigan was hit hard early in the outbreak and has seen more than 4,800 deaths.

Nationally, new cases of COVID-19 are down 8% in the last week, helped by continued declines in New York and New Jersey. Nearly all 50 U.S. states, however, have allowed some businesses to reopen and residents to move more freely, raising fears among some health officials of a second wave of outbreaks.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) has recommended states wait for their daily number of new COVID-19 cases to fall for 14 days before easing social distancing restrictions.

As of May 17, 13 states had met that criteria, down from 14 states in the prior week, according to the Reuters analysis.

WHERE NEW CASES ARE FALLING

Kansas and Missouri saw the biggest declines in new cases from the previous week, after an outbreak at a St. Joseph, Missouri meatpacking plant resulted in over 400 cases in the first week of May. St. Joseph sits on the Kansas-Missouri border, just north of Kansas City.

Washington D.C. saw a 32% decline after several weeks of growth.

Georgia, one of the first states to reopen, saw new cases fall 12% in the past week and now has two consecutive weeks of declining cases.

Globally, coronavirus cases top 4.5 million since the outbreak began in China late last year. On a per-capita basis, the United States has the third-highest number of cases, with about 45 for every 10,000 people, according to a Reuters analysis.

(Reporting by Chris Canipe in Kansas City, Missouri, and Lisa Shumaker in Chicago)

‘There is a real risk’ of new outbreak if U.S. states reopen too soon: Fauci

By Makini Brice and Richard Cowan

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – Leading U.S. infectious disease expert Anthony Fauci on Tuesday warned Congress that a premature lifting of lockdowns could lead to additional outbreaks of the deadly coronavirus, which has killed 80,000 Americans and brought the economy to its knees.

Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, told a U.S. Senate panel that states should follow health experts’ recommendations to wait for signs including a declining number of new infections before reopening.

President Donald Trump has been encouraging states to end a weeks-long shuttering of major components of their economies. But senators heard a sobering assessment from Fauci, when asked by Democrats about a premature opening of the economy.

“There is a real risk that you will trigger an outbreak that you may not be able to control and, in fact paradoxically, will set you back, not only leading to some suffering and death that could be avoided but could even set you back on the road to try to get economic recovery,” Fauci said.

The COVID-19 respiratory disease caused by the new coronavirus has infected more than 1.3 million Americans and killed more than 80,600.

Fauci, a member of Trump’s coronavirus task force, told the Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee that the nation’s efforts to battle the deadly virus and the COVID-19 disease it triggers should be “focused on the proven public health practices of containment and mitigation.”

Fauci, 79, testified remotely in a room lined with books as he self-quarantines after he may have come into contact with either of two members of the White House staff who were diagnosed with COVID-19. He noted that he may go to the White House if needed.

“All roads back to work and back to school run through testing and that what our country has done so far on testing is impressive, but not nearly enough,” Lamar Alexander, the Republican chairman of the Senate committee, said in an opening statement to Tuesday’s hearing.

Alexander is also self-quarantining in his home state of Tennessee for 14 days after a member of his staff tested positive. Alexander chaired the hearing virtually.

Democrats on the health committee largely concentrated on the risks of opening the U.S. economy too soon, while Republicans downplayed that notion, saying a prolonged shutdown could have serious negative impacts on people’s health and the health of the economy.

Trump, who previously made the strength of the economy central to his pitch for his November re-election, has encouraged states to reopen businesses that had been deemed non-essential amid the pandemic.

His administration has largely left it to states to decide whether and how to reopen. State governors are taking varying approaches, with a growing number relaxing tough restrictions enacted to slow the outbreak, even as opinion polls show most Americans are concerned about reopening too soon.

Senator Patty Murray, the senior committee Democrat, criticizing aspects of the administration’s response to the pandemic, said Americans “need leadership, they need a plan, they need honesty and they need it now, before we reopen.”

Others testifying on Tuesday included U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention Director Robert Redfield, Assistant Secretary for Health Brett Giroir and Food and Drug Administration Commissioner Stephen Hahn. Each testified remotely.

Meanwhile, House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer, a Democrat, told reporters that a Democratic bill to provide significant new federal aid in response to the coronavirus pandemic could be unveiled later on Tuesday, with a possible House of Representatives votes on it on Friday.

(GRAPHIC: Tracking the novel coronavirus in the U.S. – https://graphics.reuters.com/HEALTH-CORONAVIRUS-USA/0100B5K8423/index.html)

(Reporting by Richard Cowan, Makini Brice, Doina Chiacu and Tim Ahmann; Editing by Scott Malone and Alistair Bell)

Trump says coronavirus task force to work ‘indefinitely,’ shift focus

By Susan Heavey and Doina Chiacu

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – U.S. President Donald Trump said on Wednesday his White House coronavirus task force would remain in place but with a focus on medical treatments and easing restrictions on businesses and social life and perhaps with different advisers.

On Tuesday, Trump had said he planned to wind down the task force and replace it with “something in a different form” as the country shifts into a new phase focusing on the aftermath of the outbreak. He also acknowledged then that “some people” might be hit hard by a resurgence of the virus.

“Will some people be affected? Yes. Will some people be affected badly? Yes. But we have to get our country open, and we have to get it open soon,” Trump told reporters on Tuesday as he toured a face-mask factory in Arizona, where he defied infection-control guidelines by not wearing a mask himself.

In a series of tweets on Wednesday, Trump said that because of its success, “the Task Force will continue on indefinitely with its focus on SAFETY & OPENING UP OUR COUNTRY AGAIN. We may add or subtract people to it, as appropriate. The Task Force will also be very focused on Vaccines & Therapeutics.”

The task force to date has included medical professionals focused on battling the pandemic, some of whom have at times offered guidance at odds with Trump’s.

Trump told reporters on Tuesday: “We’re now looking at a little bit of a different form, and that form is safety and opening. And we’ll – we’ll have a different group probably set up for that.”

Trump praised the task force, headed by Vice President Mike Pence, for having brought together resources including a supply of ventilators. Pence was scheduled to lead the group’s meeting at 4 p.m. ET (2000 GMT) at the White House.

(Reporting and writing by Susan Heavey and Doina Chiacu; Editing by Howard Goller)