US Virus Updates: Trump Refuses to Wear Mask in Front of Press; New TSA Procedures

Here are the latest developments in the coronavirus crisis in the U.S.

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Too little too late?

New guidelines from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and research from one of the top universities in the country released Wednesday emphasize the importance of lockdowns in the battle against the coronavirus. However, all 50 states have already begun to ease their stay-at-home orders.

The CDC quietly released a 60-page document with more reopening guidance that was created more than a month ago but initially shelved. The document provides guidance on reopening schools, mass transit and non-essential businesses that had been shut down in an attempt to curb the spread of the coronavirus in the U.S. Not included were guidelines for opening places of worship, which has been a point of contention between the CDC and the White House.

And new research from Columbia University further highlights the importance of lockdowns in curbing the spread of the virus. The data, published Wednesday, finds that 36,000 lives could have been saved had the U.S. implemented lockdowns one week earlier.

Asked about findings from the report Thursday, President Donald Trump attacked Columbia University like he would a political opponent, calling it "an institution that's very liberal."

The U.S. has confirmed 1.5 million cases and nearly 95,000 deaths from the coronavirus, according to Johns Hopkins University.

Here are the latest developments in the coronavirus crisis in the U.S.:

Trump Spotted Wearing Mask, Refuses to Wear It in Front of Press

President Donald Trump has a face covering with the presidential seal on it, but refused to wear it on the public part of his tour of a Ford plant in Michigan on Thursday despite factory policy.

Trump was photographed wearing a mask at the plant, and a source familiar with the matter confirmed the authenticity of that photo. The president was given a mask by Ford.

“I wore one in the back area but I didn’t want to press to get the pleasure of seeing it,” Trump told reporters during an appearance at a Ford plant in Ypsilanti that's making ventilators to combat the coronavirus.

Trump then displayed the black face covering, which has the presidential seal in the corner. He then said he didn't need a mask because he'd been tested earlier in the day, as were the people he was meeting with. He then displayed the black face covering, which has the presidential seal in the corner.

In a statement, the company said executive chairman Bill Ford had "encouraged" Trump to wear a mask when he arrived. "He wore a mask during a private viewing of three Ford GTs from over the years. The president later removed the mask for the remainder of the visit,” the statement said.

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Trump: US Flag Will Be Half-Staff Next 3 Days

President Donald Trump says he will order the U.S. flag to be flown at half-staff over the next three days as the death toll from COVID-19 surpasses 95,000.

Trump tweeted Thursday: “I will be lowering the flags on all Federal Buildings and National Monuments to half-staff over the next three days in memory of the Americans we have lost to the CoronaVirus.”

He said the flags will continue to be flown at half-staff on Memorial Day in honor of those in the military who died serving their country.

The move follows a request from Democratic leaders to do so to recognize a “sad day of reckoning when we reach 100,000 deaths.”

House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer wrote to Trump that an order to fly the U.S. flag at half-staff would “serve as a national expression of grief so needed by everyone in our country.”

Little League Offers ‘Best Practices’ for Return

Little League is offering youth baseball organizations a pathway forward as they eye a restart amid the COVID-19 pandemic, releasing a series of “best practices” guidelines this week.

Little League canceled the 2020 Little League World Series and other championships because of the pandemic last month but remains hopeful a regular season may still be possible.

Little League president Stephen Keener said during a roundtable discussion hosted by Republican Senator Pat Toomey of Pennsylvania on Thursday that it compiled the outline after consulting with medical professionals and receiving guidance from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the World Health Organization, among others.

The recommendations include:

  • Eliminating all non-essential contact and banning the postgame handshake line in favor of lining up along the respective baselines and tipping caps to opponents.
  • Having all players wear masks while in the dugout and coaches and volunteers wear masks and protective medical gloves at all times.
  • Separate players by six feet while in the dugout or in the stands and prohibit the shared use of equipment when possible. Move umpires from behind home plate to behind the pitcher's mound and switch out game balls every two innings.
  • Prohibit concession sales, ballpark staples like sunflower seeds, and spitting.
  • Limit the number of family members allowed into a facility to watch games.

Read the full story here.

McConnell Tells Republicans Unemployment Expansion Won't Be in Next Relief Bill

Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell opposes extending a temporary, $600 boost to weekly unemployment benefits as part of the next coronavirus relief package, NBC News reported.

With funding for the effort set to run out after July, McConnell told GOP House members on a call Wednesday that an extension "will not be in the next bill," according to a readout of the call given to NBC News. A $3 trillion bill passed by the Democratic-controlled House last week would extend the payments through January 2021.

Instead, McConnell was focused on securing liability protections for employers from lawsuits, according to the readout.

Demetra Nightingale, an Institute fellow at the Urban Institute, told CNBC that while “there is some concern” that the federal payments, which supplement state benefits, could discourage people from looking for work, the move could leave millions of people without support in August amid a still slow economic recovery.

“The added benefit is an important source of income for many workers and families in this difficult time, with few job options. It may be too soon to end the $600 enhancement,” she told CNBC in an email.

The comments come as senators are prepared to leave town for a weeklong Memorial Day break without having acted on any new relief.

Floor action this week revolved around votes on Trump's nominees for judicial and executive branch positions. Senators confirmed a new Federal Election Commission member and is on track to confirm four federal judges. Trump's nominee for director of national intelligence, John Ratcliffe, was also confirmed.

McConnell has also opposed Democratic calls for nearly $1 trillion in relief for state and local governments.

At least one Republican, Sen. Cory Gardner of Colorado, vowed to try to prevent the Senate from recessing Thursday unless it votes on more aid to states and cities facing layoffs.

"Now is not the time for the Senate to go home,” tweeted Gardner, who is among the most politically endangered GOP senators running for reelection in the fall. He told reporters at the Capitol that he had called President Donald Trump at the White House with his concerns.

The recently-passed HEROES bill in the House would provide nearly $1 trillion in aid to state and local governments. It would also expand coronavirus testing, contract tracing and treatment, offer a $10 billion boost for those seeking food stamps and give support to renters and homeowners with making rent, mortgage and utility payments, NBC News reported.

570 Workers at Tyson Foods Poultry Plant in NC Test Positive for COVID-19

Meat producer Tyson Foods is reporting 570 cases of COVID-19 at a poultry processing complex in North Carolina.

Tyson said in a statement it tested more than 2,000 staff members and contractors who work at its facility in Wilkesboro. Tyson said that most of the 570 didn’t show symptoms.

The company said it is increasing testing and health care options at 30 of its facilities. Tyson said it’s also providing face masks, putting physical barriers between workstations and implementing social distancing.

Tyson had temporarily closed parts of the North Carolina complex that houses multiple plants for deep cleaning, including a multiday closure announced last week.

Surrounding Wilkes County health officials said that as of Thursday the area had about 450 COVID-19 cases, including two deaths and 20 current hospitalizations. Nearby Forsyth County has said that dozens of cases there were linked to the Tyson facility.

Extensive guidance issued last month by the Occupational Safety and Health Administration and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommends that meatpacking companies erect physical barriers, enforce social distancing and install more hand-sanitizing stations, among other steps. But the guidance is not mandatory, fueling anxiety that working conditions could put employees' lives at risk.

The pandemic is “the most massive workers’ safety crisis in many decades, and OSHA is in the closet. OSHA is hiding,” said David Michaels, an epidemiologist who was the agency's assistant secretary of labor under President Barack Obama. Michaels called on OSHA to make the guidelines mandatory and enforceable, which would include the threat of fines.

President Donald Trump is using the Defense Production Act to order meat and poultry plants hit hard by the coronavirus to stay open. More than a dozen plants have closed because of COVID-19 outbreaks among their workers. One union says 20 employees have died.

TSA Makes Changes at Airports for Pandemic

Hold on to your boarding passes -- and scan them too.

The Transportation Security Administration is making changes to the airport screening process to encourage more physical distance and fewer touch points, CNBC reported.

Travelers are encouraged to wear face protection at checkpoints. Here's what else you can expect when traveling over the summer:

  • Scan your own electronic or paper boarding passes on readers instead of handing them over to agents to do.
  • Put personal items like belts, wallets, keys and phones into carry-on bags instead of bins. TSA says it is also allowing one liquid hand sanitizer container, up to 12 ounces per passenger in carry-on bags.
  • Put food in a separate bag for X-ray screening.

Read the TSA's release here

2.4 Million More Applied for Jobless Aid Last Week

More than 2.4 million people applied for U.S. unemployment benefits last week in the latest wave of layoffs from the viral outbreak that triggered widespread business shutdowns two months ago and sent the economy into a deep recession.

Roughly 38.6 million people have now filed for jobless aid since the coronavirus forced millions of businesses to close their doors and shrink their workforces, the Labor Department said Thursday.

Another 2.2 million people sought aid under a new federal program for self-employed, contractor and gig workers, who are now eligible for jobless aid for the first time.

More Than Half of Small Businesses Expect PPP Funds to Be Forgiven, Survey Finds

While government aid initiatives like the Paycheck Protection Program have helped small businesses, frustrations are mounting on Main Street due to a lack of guidance from the Small Business Administration on loan forgiveness and how to use the funds appropriately to avoid being on the hook for repayment, a new survey shows, CNBC reports.

The National Federation of Independent Business reports that 80% of small business owners surveyed applied for a PPP loan, and of those who applied 90% received funding. Most are moving ahead with using the funds, as there is an 8-week window to spend the money from the time of disbursement, with 75% allocated to payroll and 25% to other expenses like rent and utilities in order to be forgiven, according to the survey, which collected data on May 18 from 685 business owners. 

More than half of business owners expect all expenses to be forgiven, and another 27% say they expect three-quarters of the loan to be forgiven under current guidelines, as understood.

Borrowers report requirements are challenging to either comply with or to meet in order to qualify for maximum loan forgiveness. Nearly half they say using the loan within the 8-week window is somewhat or very difficult, and the same amount find it very or somewhat difficult to get employee headcount back to pre-crisis levels.

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AstraZeneca Gets $1 Billion From US for COVID-19 Vaccine

Drug maker AstraZeneca secured its first agreements Thursday for 400 million doses of a COVID-19 vaccine, bolstered by an investment from the U.S. vaccine agency.

The Anglo-Swedish company reported it had received more than $1 billion from the U.S. Biomedical Advanced Research and Development Authority for the development, production and delivery of the vaccine, starting this fall.

The investment will accelerate the development and production of the vaccine, AstraZeneca Chief Executive Pascal Soriot said. It had already joined forces with the British government.

“We will do everything in our power to make this vaccine quickly and widely available,” he said.

In a statement as markets opened, AstraZeneca said it has now secured manufacturing capacity for 1 billion doses and aims to secure further agreements to expand capacity further over the next months “to ensure the delivery of a globally accessible vaccine.''

Read the full story here.

U.S. Immunologist Dr. Rick Bright testified that the country should be concerned with the supply chain once a vaccine for coronavirus is developed.

36K Lives Could Have Been Saved If Lockdowns Were Announced Earlier, Research Finds

Thousands upon thousands of lives lost to the coronavirus could have been saved had the United States implemented a lockdown just a week before it did, according to new data by Columbia University researchers.

As of Wednesday, May 20, more than 91,000 Americans died from COVID-19 but researchers estimate that nearly 36,000 fewer people would have died by early May if social distancing rules were in place a week earlier, and that number increased to nearly 54,000 if measures were taken two weeks earlier, the New York Times first reported.

"These dramatic reductions of morbidity and mortality due to more timely deployment of control measures highlights the critical need for aggressive, early response to the COVID-19 pandemic," researchers wrote. They say they used coronavirus transmission data from New York, New Orleans, Los Angeles, Chicago, Boston and Miami to calculate the numbers.

While the researchers acknowledged that the estimates are "based on idealized hypothetical assumptions" and that an earlier lockdown in the U.S. is complicated by factors such as economic concerns and logistics, they also noted that other countries like South Korea and Italy were already responding aggressively to the virus by the end of February.

Read the full story here.

The Ebb and Flow of New Coronavirus Cases and Deaths

The graphs below illustrate the distribution of new coronavirus cases and deaths in the U.S. While New York accounted for the lion’s share of new cases and deaths in March and April, its numbers have declined in May as some states have increased. Hover or tap to see new daily cases and deaths across the country. States with the most are ordered top to bottom.

Source: The COVID Tracking Project
Credit: Amy O’Kruk/NBC

Guidance on Church Reopening Held Up in Dispute Between CDC, White House

Guidance on reopening houses of worship has been put on hold after a disagreement between the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the White House, a senior administration official confirmed.

The news was first reported by The Washington Post, which stated that the White House was resistant to putting limits on religious institutions.

"The CDC sometimes views things in an overly bureaucratic way. What we are trying to do is encourage a more federalist approach where each state is able to make decisions based on their own circumstances and individually tailored needs," the senior administration official told NBC News.

There has been an ongoing struggle between the CDC and the White House over guidelines for reopening, with the White House expressing concerns that the CDC’s guidelines are too restrictive.

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How Coronavirus Has Grown in Each State — in 1 Chart

New York has quickly become the epicenter of the American coronavirus outbreak. This chart shows the cumulative number of cases per state by number of days since the 10th case.

Source: Johns Hopkins University
Credit: Amy O’Kruk/NBC

Illinois Lawmaker Removed From Meeting After Refusing to Wear Mask

A member of the Illinois General Assembly was removed from the first gathering in 10 weeks after refusing to wear a face covering.

Republican Rep. Darren Bailey of Xenia, 250 miles (400 kilometers) south of Chicago, voted "no" on a face-covering rule to help prevent the spread of COVID-19, which was adopted 97-12. Bailey said he was speaking for Illinois residents who feel “captive” and “burdened” by state-ordered restrictions on movement.

Bailey, who filed a legal challenge to Democratic Gov. J.B. Pritzker’s stay-at-home order, in effect since March 21, represents growing dissent to stay-at-home rules in central and southern parts of the state, which have had far fewer coronavirus infections than Chicago.

Pritzker, who later announced another 147 Illinois deaths related to COVID-19 at his daily briefing, said, "The representative has shown callous disregard for life, callous disregard for people’s health .... The representative has no interest in protecting others."

The Associated Press/NBC
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