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AP News in Brief at 11:04 p.m. EDT

March 15, 2020 - 8:04 PM

US moves nearer to shutdown amid coronavirus fears

CHICAGO (AP) — Officials across the country curtailed many elements of American life to fight the coronavirus outbreak on Sunday, with health officials recommending that groups of 50 or more don't get together and a government expert saying a 14-day national shutdown may be needed.

Governors and mayors were closing restaurants, bars, and schools as the nation sank deeper into chaos over the crisis. Travelers returning home from overseas trips were stuck in line for hours at major airports for screenings, causing them to be crammed into just the kind of crowded spaces that public health officials have been urging people to avoid.

In a sign of the impending economic gloom on the horizon, the Federal Reserve slashed its benchmark interest rate to near zero. President Donald Trump sought to calm a jittery nation by declaring that the government has “tremendous control” over the situation and urging people to stop the panic buying of grocery staples that has depleted the shelves of stores around the country. Gun stores started seeing a similar run on weapons and ammunition as the panic intensified.

As Americans struggled to come to terms with how to change their daily habits, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention issued a dramatic recommendation: Because large events can fuel the spread of the disease, it said gatherings of 50 people or more should be cancelled or postponed throughout the country for the next eight weeks. It added that, at any event, proper precautions should be taken, including making sure people are washing their hands and not getting too close.

But in a sign of the difficulty of striking the right balance, the statement from the CDC also said the recommendation does not apply to “the day to day operation of organizations such as schools, institutes of higher learning, or businesses.”

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Government official: Coronavirus vaccine trial starts Monday

WASHINGTON (AP) — The first participant in a clinical trial for a vaccine to protect against the new coronavirus will receive an experimental dose on Monday, according to a government official.

The National Institutes of Health is funding the trial, which is taking place at the Kaiser Permanente Washington Health Research Institute in Seattle. The official who disclosed plans for the first participant spoke on condition of anonymity because the move has not been publicly announced.

Public health officials say it will take a year to 18 months to fully validate any potential vaccine.

Testing will begin with 45 young, healthy volunteers with different doses of shots co-developed by NIH and Moderna Inc. There’s no chance participants could get infected from the shots, because they don’t contain the virus itself. The goal is purely to check that the vaccines show no worrisome side effects, setting the stage for larger tests.

Dozens of research groups around the world are racing to create a vaccine as COVID-19 cases continue to grow. Importantly, they’re pursuing different types of vaccines — shots developed from new technologies that not only are faster to produce than traditional inoculations but might prove more potent. Some researchers even aim for temporary vaccines, such as shots that might guard people’s health a month or two at a time while longer-lasting protection is developed.

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Fed takes emergency steps to slash rates and ease bank rules

WASHINGTON (AP) — The Federal Reserve took massive emergency action Sunday to try to help the economy withstand the coronavirus by slashing its benchmark interest rate to near zero and saying it would buy $700 billion in Treasury and mortgage bonds.

The Fed’s surprise announcement signalled its rising concern that the viral outbreak will depress economic growth in coming months, likely causing a recession, and that it's poised to do whatever it can to counter the risks. It cut its key rate by a full percentage point to a range between zero and 0.25%.

The central bank said it will keep its rate there until it is “confident that the economy has weathered recent events."

The Fed will buy at least $500 billion of Treasury securities and at least $200 billion of mortgage-backed securities. This amounts to an effort to ease market disruptions that have made it harder for banks and large investors to sell Treasuries as well as to keep longer-term borrowing rates down.

All told, the Fed's aggressive actions are intended to keep financial markets functioning and lending flowing to businesses and consumers. Otherwise, as revenue dries up for countless small businesses that have suddenly lost customers, these employers could be forced to lay off workers or even seek bankruptcy protection in some cases.

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'Bigger than any one of us': Biden, Sanders take on pandemic

WASHINGTON (AP) — Former Vice-President Joe Biden and Sen. Bernie Sanders sought in Sunday's Democratic debate to cast themselves as best-positioned to lead the nation through a global pandemic, uniting in their criticism of President Donald Trump's response to the fast-moving coronavirus but diverging in how they would confront the spiraling public health and economic crisis.

Biden pledged to deploy the United States military to help with recovery efforts and warned that a federal financial bailout may be necessary to stabilize the economy. Sanders leaned into the same domestic policy proposals that have dominated his campaign, arguing that the government-run health insurance system he has long championed would allow the U.S. to respond faster to a health crisis.

The coronavirus outbreak has rapidly reshaped nearly all aspects of American life, shuttering schools across the country and significantly curtailing travel. Virus fears have also halted campaign rallies and prompted some states to delay upcoming primaries because of warnings from public health officials against large gatherings.

“This is bigger than any one of us — this calls for a national rallying for one another," Biden said.

Indeed, the stakes in the race for the Democratic presidential nomination have shifted dramatically since Biden and Sanders last debated less than three weeks ago — as have the contours of the contest. After a sluggish start to the primary season, Biden has surged to the front of the field, drawing overwhelming support from black voters and consolidating the backing of several more moderate rivals who have dropped out of the race. He's also actively courting the endorsement of Sen. Elizabeth Warren, a liberal ally of Sanders who dropped out without throwing her support behind him.

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AP FACT CHECK: The Dems on pandemic, Social Security, more

WASHINGTON (AP) — Former Vice-President Joe Biden and Sen. Bernie Sanders sparred one-on-one Sunday in a Democratic debate held without a live audience in the shadow of the coronavirus pandemic. The growing crisis prompted some questionable statements from the presidential rivals, as did issues they argued about for months on once-crowded stages.

A look at how some of their claims compare with the facts:

SANDERS: “We're the only major country on earth not to guarantee health (care for) all people. We're spending so much money and yet we are not even prepared for this pandemic.”

BIDEN: “It has nothing to do with ‘Medicare for All’ — that wouldn’t solve the problem at all.”

THE FACTS: Biden has a point. The coronavirus pandemic has taken countries by surprise regardless of the type of health care system that they have. Spain has a single-payer system, known as “social security” in that country. Italy guarantees coverage for all through a regionally based system. But both countries have struggled to get control of the outbreak, and their governments have been forced to take stringent measures not yet seen in this country.

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Daily life near a standstill as nations try to halt pandemic

ROME (AP) — Meeting with friends, dining out, worshiping and other daily routines have nearly halted as nations take drastic steps to try to stop the coronavirus pandemic.

Religious leaders gave sermons to empty pews or to the faithful watching online Sunday after public worship was curtailed in many places. The Al-Aqsa Mosque in Jerusalem's Old City was being closed indefinitely, and the Vatican closed off next month's Holy Week services to the public. Still, the 83-year-old Pope Francis ventured out of the Vatican to visit two churches in Rome to pray for the sick.

In the United States, health officials recommended a limit to groups of 50 or more people and a government expert said a 14-day national shutdown may be needed. Americans returning from abroad encountered chaotic airport health screenings and closed-down communities.

In a sign of how much the pandemic has grown, China now accounts for less than half of the world's 168,000 cases, according to a tally by Johns Hopkins University.

The country where the virus was first detected in December had long been the epicenter of the COVID-19 illness, but a shutdown of public gatherings and a quarantine of the hardest-hit central region has steadied its caseload as the virus spreads rapidly elsewhere. Most of the world's 77,000 recovered patients are in China.

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Arc of Trump's coronavirus comments defies reality on ground

WASHINGTON (AP) — In the course of a few weeks, President Donald Trump veered from confidently assuring Americans his administration had the coronavirus outbreak “very well under control” to declaring a national emergency and tweeting ALL CAPS caution about the pandemic that has upended every facet of American life.

Trump meandered from denial to grudging acceptance, and in his words, he seeded conflicting, inaccurate and eyebrow-raising commentary to a country desperate for unvarnished, even shock-to-the-system guidance.

Throughout the global coronavirus crisis, Trump’s statements have been colored by baseless optimism. Sometimes, his commentary has been flatly wrong. Frequently, it’s been amplified by aides and allies with the help of conservative media.

As he confronts the most serious national crisis of his presidency, the lack of precision has cut into Trump’s credibility at a moment when he needs it more than ever, analysts say.

“It started out with really what can only be described as full-blown denial,” said Brian Ott, a communications studies professor at Texas Tech University who has done extensive research on the president’s social media rhetoric. “Then as the crisis spread and as it became a pandemic ... it just wasn't viable rhetoric anymore because it wasn't at all where the American public was at.”

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New York City schools to close Monday to fight coronavirus

NEW YORK (AP) — New York City will close the nation's largest public school system on Monday, sending over 1.1 million children home in hopes of curbing the spread of coronavirus, the city's mayor announced Sunday, calling it a “very troubling moment” as he suggested ominously that more restrictions were inevitable.

A sombre Mayor Bill de Blasio announced the decision to close schools through at least April 20 and possibly for the school year as school closures occurred in communities and entire states nationwide and pressure mounted in New York from residents, City Council members and others.

“I have no words for how horrible it is, but it has become necessary," de Blasio said. “As of now, school is cancelled for tomorrow."

The mayor called it a “very troubling moment, a moment when I’m just distraught at having to take this action, but I became convinced over the course of today that there is no other choice.”

He also announced that there were now five deaths in New York City and that he was ordering the end of elective surgeries.

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CDC's latest guidance could mean no sports for much longer

The already-delayed professional sports seasons in North America could be on hiatus for significantly longer than first planned after federal officials said Sunday that they recommend all in-person events involving 50 people or more be called off for the next eight weeks.

That’s twice as long as the 30-day shutdowns that the NBA, NHL and Major League Soccer decided to put into place last week in response to the global coronavirus pandemic that has already made a deep impact on the U.S. financial markets and has been blamed for at least 64 deaths in this country.

Major League Baseball also was going with what essentially was a 30-day shutdown after cancelling the rest of spring training and pushing back the start of regular season play for two weeks; opening day was to have been March 26.

But new recommendations from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention on Sunday night seem to suggest that sports in this country could for all intents and purposes be gone until May, if not later.

“CDC, in accordance with its guidance for large events and mass gatherings, recommends that for the next 8 weeks, organizers ... cancel or postpone in-person events that consist of 50 people or more throughout the United States,” it said. “Events of any size should only be continued if they can be carried out with adherence to guidelines for protecting vulnerable populations, hand hygiene, and social distancing.”

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Hospitals fear any surge of virus cases, supply shortages

TOLEDO, Ohio (AP) — Government and hospital leaders are increasingly sounding the alarm about the health care system in the U.S. and its readiness to absorb waves of patients in the worst-case scenario involving the new coronavirus outbreak.

Authorities nationwide already are taking major steps to expand capacity with each passing day, building tents and outfitting unused spaces to house patients. They also are urging people to postpone elective surgeries, dental work and even veterinarian care. New York's governor called for using military bases or college dorms as makeshift care centres.

Among the biggest concerns is whether there will be enough beds, equipment and staff to handle several large outbreaks simultaneously in multiple cities.

Dr. Anthony Fauci, the National Institutes of Health's infectious diseases chief, said it's critical that steps be taken now to prevent the virus from spreading quickly.

“The job is to put a full-court press on not allowing the worst-case scenario to occur,” said Fauci, who appeared Sunday on several network news shows.

News from © The Associated Press, 2020
The Associated Press

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