WHO calls coronavirus a pandemic as Britain, Italy shore up defenses

By Emma Farge and William Schomberg

GENEVA/LONDON (Reuters) – The World Health Organization described the coronavirus outbreak as a pandemic for the first time on Wednesday as Britain and Italy announced multi-billion-dollar war chests to fight the disease.

The United States also said it was considering new steps to battle the virus that emerged in China in December and has spread around the world, halting industry, grounding flights, closing schools and forcing events to be postponed.

“We are deeply concerned both by the alarming levels of spread and severity and by the alarming levels of inaction,” Director General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus told reporters in Geneva.

“We have therefore made the assessment that COVID-19 can be characterized as a pandemic,” he said, using the formal name of the coronavirus.

There are now more than 118,000 infections in 114 countries and 4,291 people have died of the virus, with the numbers expected to climb, Tedros said.

Use of the word pandemic does not change the WHO’s response, said Dr Mike Ryan, the head of the Geneva-based agency’s emergencies program.

WHO officials have signaled for weeks that they may use the word “pandemic” but said it does not carry legal significance. The WHO classified the outbreak as a “public health emergency of international concern” on Jan. 30, triggering an increase in global response coordination.

“The use of this term (pandemic) however highlights the importance of countries throughout the world working cooperatively and openly with one another and coming together as a united front in our efforts to bring this situation under control,” said Nathalie MacDermott, an expert at King’s College London.

Mark Woolhouse, professor of infectious disease epidemiology at Britain’s Edinburgh University, added: “It is now clear that COVID-19 is going to be with us for a considerable length of time and the actions that we take must be actions that we can live with for a prolonged period.”


Before the WHO’s comments, Italy – the European country worst hit by the virus – and Britain announced they were setting aside large sums to fight the flu-like disease.

Britain launched a 30-billion-pound ($38.54 billion) economic stimulus plan as new finance minister Rishi Sunak said the economy faced a “significant impact” from the spread of the virus, even if it was likely to be temporary.

“Up to a fifth of the working-age population could need to be off work at any one time. And business supply chains are being disrupted around the globe,” Sunak said in an annual budget speech to parliament.

He announced a package of measures to help companies facing a cash-flow crunch, including a year-long suspension of a property tax paid by smaller firms. The health system and other public services would receive an extra 5 billion pounds to help counter the spread of the coronavirus.

Last week, Italy’s cabinet said it would need 7.5 billion euros ($8.46 billion) to fight the virus, but since then the emergency has escalated and the nation, already close to recession, is under lockdown, with the death toll now 827.

Prime Minister Giuseppe Conte on Wednesday earmarked $28.3 billion to ease the economic impact. He said that already tough restrictions on movement might be tightened further after the northern region of Lombardy, centered on Italy’s financial capital Milan, asked for all shops to shut and public transport to close.

The United States, where the S&P 500 stock index was down almost 4%, said its steps could include tax relief that could channel hundreds of billions of dollars into the U.S. economy.

“Bottom line, it’s going to get worse,” Anthony Fauci, head of the U.S. National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, told Congress.

The WHO’s Ryan said the situation in Iran was “very serious” and the agency would like to see more surveillance and more care for the sick. Iran has reported 237 deaths from the virus.

German Chancellor Angela Merkel said up to 70% of the population was likely to be infected as the virus spreads around the world in the absence of a cure.

A rebound in stocks ran out of steam on Wednesday despite the Bank of England move. Money markets are fully pricing in a further 10 basis-point cut by the European Central Bank when it meets on Thursday.

As of Tuesday’s close, $8.1 trillion in value had been erased from global stock markets in the recent rout.

But not all the news was bad. Some key industries in Wuhan, the Chinese city at the epicenter of the epidemic and a hub of car manufacturing, were told they could resume work on Wednesday, a day after President Xi Jinping visited the city for the first time since the outbreak began.

‘Do we really want to close schools?’ U.S. authorities resist coronavirus closures

By Andrew Hay and Brendan O’Brien

(Reuters) – Like many Seattle residents, Andrew Davidoff is demanding schools close to slow the country’s deadliest coronavirus outbreak, but as in other U.S. cities school officials are resisting that, saying closures could make things worse.

Davidoff, a Microsoft Corp employee, has been told to work from home to slow the spread of the virus. He thinks his daughter, and other children in Lake Washington School District (LWSD) should do the same after 11 people died in the state from COVID-19.

“LWSD is doing everything they can to get me sick,” said Davidoff, 59, among over 20,000 people to sign an online petition demanding school closures.

But in a controversy like ones playing out in New York and Los Angeles, the Seattle school district is staying open.

“School closures can be disruptive and costly for families,” LWSD said in a statement, recommending schools not shut unless there were COVID-19 exposure risks.

The dilemma over whether to close schools has rolled into the United States as U.S. coronavirus cases top 200. The outbreak has had an unprecedented impact on schools worldwide, the education of over 290 million students affected in 13 countries, according to the United Nations.

Closures have long been a U.S. response to influenza, a dangerous and highly contagious disease for students. But health authorities are rethinking their approach for coronavirus, shown to have limited effects on children.

“Do we really want to close schools or do we want to keep schools open so faculty can continue to come in and serve children?” said Jeffrey Duchin, health officer for Seattle and King County.

Not all of Seattle’s schools are staying open.

Northshore School District closed on Thursday, citing possible exposure of staff to COVID-19 and a student absentee rate of 20 percent. It said children’s education would continue online.

Davidoff said other districts should follow suit.

“Kids will have mild exposure but they will be spreading it to vulnerable parents,” said the Redmond software engineer.


Having a large portion of the more than 56 million school children in the United States stay home for weeks or even months could have unwelcome societal and economic impacts.

Schools offer much more than education, providing meals to over 30 million students, according to the Food Research & Action Center. They give free child care to working families, with around a quarter of the U.S. workforce having no paid sick leave if forced to stay home with kids.

School closures could have a paradoxical effect on coronavirus spread.

If children are carrying the infection but not showing symptoms, they could be an invisible reservoir for community spread, said Michael Osterholm, director of the Center for Infectious Disease Research and Policy at the University of Minnesota.

Duchin said sending students home to grandparents or older caregivers could expose them to the virus. And students sent home often gather together at places like malls, risking community spread.

“If kids are not getting infected and they’re not getting sick, then the last thing you want to do is shut down a school,” said Osterholm, citing data that only 2.1 percent of China coronavirus cases were among those 19 or younger.

Closure proponent Satya Ananthu expected children to spread COVID-19 to their families if schools did not shut.

“Having kids in school will make them carriers of the virus to older people,” said Ananthu, a tech worker who started an online petition for a shutdown in Everett, Washington.

Parents like Alicia Aguirre, in Los Angeles are taking matters into their own hands, keeping children home.

“I am going to go by the week and the numbers,” said Aguirre, 27.

Others such as Jamilah Mabruk, 36, are conflicted.

She lives 10 minutes from the Kirkland area of Seattle where nearly all the state’s deaths have been reported among nursing home residents.

Her 15-year-old daughter is opposed to missing school, conscious of grades, but suffers from asthma and could be vulnerable.

“My anxiety is out the roof. I am very concerned because every day there is something new … a new death,” said Mabruk, who sends her daughter off with a pack of Clorox travel wipes.

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

(Reporting by Andrew Hay in New Mexico and Brendan O’Brien in Chicago, additional reporting by Maria Caspani in New York; Editing by Bill Tarrant and Christopher Cushing)

Arizona governor signs bill to boost teachers’ wages amid strike

The U.S. and Arizona flags flutter in the wind in Fountain Hills, Arizona, U.S. on September 30, 2016. REUTERS/Ricardo Arduengo

By David Schwartz

PHOENIX (Reuters) – Arizona’s governor signed a budget bill on Thursday that will boost teachers’ wages by 20 percent over the next three years, after dozens of the state’s school districts canceled classes as part of a strike to demand pay raises.

Tens of thousands of Arizona teachers, whose pay is more than $10,000 below the national average of $59,000 per year, have held a week-long walkout that has been the largest teachers’ strike in U.S. history and has kept most of state’s 1.1 million public school students out of class.

Lawmakers in the Republican-controlled state legislature worked through the night to pass the $10.4 billion budget. Outside, hundreds of red-clad teachers held a overnight rally, local media reported.

The bill allocates more than $600 million for salary increases, meaning teachers would get raises of nearly 10 percent this year and about five percent in each of the following two years.

“Arizona teachers have earned a raise, and this plan delivers,” Ducey said in a statement issued as he signed the bill. “This plan not only provides our teachers with a 20 percent increase in pay by school year 2020, it also provides millions in flexible dollars to improve our public education system,” added Ducey, a Republican.

The budget also includes about $371 million over five years to restore cuts imposed on education spending during the U.S. recession that ended in 2009, starting with $100 million this fiscal year, according to state officials. This figure is far less than the $1.1 billion teachers say has been cut from their budgets since the recession.

Although the budget bill was passed, districts in Phoenix, Tucson and Tempe, along with more than three dozen districts throughout the state, had already notified parents and local media that classes were canceled on Thursday, according to the Arizona Republic newspaper.

The protests are part of a national teacher action that began in West Virginia and spread to other Republican-controlled states, including Kentucky and Oklahoma.

Walkout organizers in Arizona had previously said they could not support the budget, but recognized it was likely the best offer they would get.

(Reporting by David Schwartz and Andrew Hay; Additional reporting by Gina Cherelus in New York; Editing by Frances Kerry)

Blizzard bears down on New England, knocking out power

A tractor stands covered in snow during a snowstorm in Huntington, New York, U.S., March 13, 2018. REUTERS/Shannon Stapleton

By Scott Malone

BOSTON (Reuters) – Driving snow enveloped the U.S. Northeast on Tuesday in its third winter storm in two weeks, closing schools, canceling flights and knocking out power to about 140,000 homes and businesses.

The nor’easter was forecast to drop up to 20 inches (51 cm) of snow. It followed two storms that rumbled up the East Coast this month, killing at least nine people and knocking out power to about 2.4 million homes and businesses at their peak.

The storm stretched from New York state to Connecticut, Vermont, New Hampshire, Massachusetts, Rhode Island and Maine. Forecasters warned of blizzard conditions, where high winds make travel dangerous, from coastal Massachusetts through Maine.

“We’re anticipating that we’ll be seeing through the mid- to late morning and probably into midafternoon snowfall rates of 1 to 3 inches per hour (up to 7.6 cm),” said Bob Thompson, a meteorologist with the National Weather Service in Taunton, Massachusetts.

About 140,000 homes and businesses in Massachusetts, Rhode Island and New Jersey lost power as the storm downed trees and power lines.

“As soon as the snow stops and the wind stops blowing, we will be pushing the utilities to give people a sense of when the power will come back on,” Massachusetts Governor Charlie Baker told reporters on Tuesday. “They will move quickly and aggressively to deal with this once the snow stops.”

Schools in Boston and Providence, Rhode Island, were shut on Tuesday, Maine’s state legislature canceled its session, Connecticut Governor Dannel Malloy closed all government offices and the Amtrak passenger rail line halted service between Boston and New York.

More than 1,500 U.S. flights were canceled, according to tracking service FlightAware. The hardest-hit airport was Boston Logan, where about four out of five flights were called off.

Nor’easters are storms that typically bring strong winds from the northeast, and they tend to occur most often and most violently between September and April along the East Coast, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration says.

Some nor’easters carry hurricane-force winds. Winds were expected to reach 65 miles (105 km) per hour, forecasters said.

This storm’s heavy snow could down trees weakened by the last two storms and bring a fresh wave of power outages, officials warned.

Lower tides meant the storm would probably not bring a repeat of the flooding that sent icy water pouring into the streets of Boston during a storm early this month, forecasters and officials said.

(Reporting by Scott Malone; additional reporting by Scott DiSavino in New York; editing by Bill Rigby and Jonathan Oatis)

Colorado school cancels classes over threat after Trump piñata incident

By Keith Coffman

DENVER (Reuters) – A Colorado high school canceled classes on Monday following an unspecified online threat, authorities said, days after a Spanish teacher there was suspended over allegations he allowed students to strike a piñata depicting President Donald Trump.

Activities at Roosevelt High School in the town of Johnstown, about 40 miles north of Denver, were put on hold out of an abundance of caution, Martin Foster, superintendent of the Johnstown-Milliken school district, said in a statement.

“Recent tragedies around the country and in our own state have heightened everyone’s concern for the safety of students,” Foster said. He did not say if the threat was related to the piñata incident.

Colorado has been the scene of several school shootings and threats, most notably the 1999 massacre at Columbine High School, where two students fatally shot a teacher and 12 students before committing suicide.

Foster said he became aware last Friday of social media posts of a Cinco De Mayo event at the school where a photograph of Trump was affixed to a piñata. Cinco De Mayo is an annual celebration commemorating the Mexican army’s defeat of French forces at the Battle of Puebla in 1862.

“This was an incredibly disrespectful act that does not reflect the values of Roosevelt High School or the school district,” Foster said.

The teacher, whom the district has not publicly identified, has been placed on paid administrative leave while the incident is investigated, Foster said.

Classes and other activities will resume on Tuesday with an increased police presence at the school, Assistant Superintendent Jason Seybert said by telephone.

(Reporting by Keith Coffman; Editing by Ben Klayman and Peter Cooney)