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

March 23, 2020 - 8:05 PM

Testing blunders crippled US response as coronavirus spread

WASHINGTON (AP) — A series of missteps at the nation's top public health agency caused a critical shortage of reliable laboratory tests for the coronavirus, hobbling the federal response as the pandemic spread across the country like wildfire, an Associated Press review found.

President Donald Trump assured Americans early this month that the COVID-19 test developed by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention is “perfect” and that “anyone who wants a test can get a test.” But more than two months after the first U.S. case of the new disease was confirmed, many people still cannot get tested.

In the critical month of February, as the virus began taking root in the U.S. population, CDC data shows government labs processed 352 COVID-19 tests — an average of only a dozen per day.

“You cannot fight a fire blindfolded,” Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, head of the World Health Organization, said at a recent briefing. “We cannot stop this pandemic if we don’t know who is infected.”

The Department of Health and Human Services, which includes the CDC, has begun an internal review to assess its own mistakes. But outside observers and federal health officials have pointed to four primary issues that together hampered the national response — the early decision not to use the test adopted by the World Health Organization, flaws with the more complex test developed by the CDC, government guidelines restricting who could be tested and delays in engaging the private sector to ramp up testing capacity.

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What you need to know today about the virus outbreak

The head of the World Health Organization says the coronavirus outbreak is accelerating but insists “we can change the trajectory of this pandemic.” More than 1.5 billion people — one-fifth of the world’s population — were urged or ordered to stay home Monday to try to blunt the spread of coronavirus. The death toll from the pandemic has surpassed 16,000 people worldwide, and the virus has sickened more than 370,000.

Partisan divisions stalled efforts to pass a colossal aid package in Congress, and stocks fell again on Wall Street even after the Federal Reserve said it will lend to small and large businesses and local governments to help them through the crisis. The Dow Jones Industrial Average lost more than 580 points, or 3%.

In Italy, both new cases and deaths declined for a second consecutive day, providing a faint glimmer of hope, though it is too soon to say whether the crisis is levelling off.

A surge in infections has caused a critical shortage of medical supplies in many places. The hunt for ventilators and other critical items is consuming Europe and the U.S.

Here are some of AP's top stories Monday on the world's coronavirus pandemic. Follow APNews.com/VirusOutbreak for updates through the day and APNews.com/UnderstandingtheOutbreak for stories explaining some of its complexities.

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Trump says he intends to reopen country in weeks, not months

WASHINGTON (AP) — As cases of coronavirus continue to rise, President Donald Trump said Monday that he wants to reopen the country for business in weeks, not months, as he claimed, without evidence, that continued closures could result in more deaths than the pandemic itself.

"We can’t have the cure be worse than the problem," Trump told reporters at a briefing, echoing a midnight Sunday tweet. “We have to open our country because that causes problems that, in my opinion, could be far bigger problems."

Health experts have made clear that unless Americans continue to dramatically limit social interaction — staying home from work and isolating themselves — the number of infections will overwhelm the health care system, as it has in parts of Italy, leading to many more deaths. While the worst outbreaks are concentrated in certain parts of the country, such as New York, experts warn that the highly infectious disease is certain to spread.

But with the economic impact now snapping into focus and millions out of work, businesses shuttered and the markets in free fall — all undermining Trump's reelection message — the chorus of backlash is growing louder, with Trump appearing to side with them.

“Life is fragile and economies are fragile," Trump said, insisting he could protect both.

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In global fight vs. virus, over 1.5 billion told: Stay home

NEW YORK (AP) — With masks, ventilators and political goodwill in desperately short supply, more than one-fifth of the world’s population was ordered or urged to stay in their homes Monday at the start of what could be a pivotal week in the battle to contain the coronavirus in the U.S. and Europe.

Partisan divisions stalled efforts to pass a colossal aid package in Congress, and stocks fell again on Wall Street even after the Federal Reserve said it will lend to small and large businesses and local governments to help them through the crisis.

Britain became the latest European country to order a near lockdown, imposing its most draconian peacetime restrictions in one of the world's largest economies. It came the same day the head of the World Health Organization warned that the outbreak was accelerating and called on countries to take strong, co-ordinated action.

“We are not helpless bystanders,” Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus said, noting that it took 67 days to reach 100,000 cases worldwide but just four days to go from 200,000 to 300,000. “We can change the trajectory of this pandemic.”

The scramble to marshal public health and political resources intensified in New York, where a statewide lockdown took effect amid worries the city of 8.4 million is becoming one of the world's biggest hot spots. More than 12,000 people have tested positive in the city and almost 100 have died.

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Analysis: Trump struggles to adjust to crisis presidency

WASHINGTON (AP) — President Donald Trump has never been known for his patience or long attention span.

Now, as the coronavirus crisis threatens his presidency, and upends his campaign for reelection, Trump is rapidly losing patience with the medical professionals who have made the case day after day that the only way to prevent a catastrophic loss of life is to essentially shut down the country — to minimize transmission and “flatten the curve” so hospitals aren't overwhelmed with critical patients.

The president also has been furious that his efforts to halt the harrowing drop in the stock market have so far proven ineffective. He has been calling friends and economists at all hours and berated aides and reporters who try to persuade him to recognize the severity of the outbreak.

Beyond the crisis, he has been agitated that he can't run the campaign he wants against Democrat Joe Biden, and he has used daily, hour-long briefings as near proxies for his campaign rallies, guaranteed to attract attention and to maintain the backing of his fervent political case.

This account is based on interviews with a dozen White House aides, former administration officials and Republicans close to the White House granted anonymity to discuss private conversations.

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Tensions rise as $2 trillion virus aid stalls in Washington

WASHINGTON (AP) — Tensions flared Monday as Washington strained to respond to the worsening coronavirus outbreak, with Congress arguing over a nearly $2 trillion economic rescue package and an impatient President Donald Trump musing openly about letting the 15-day shutdown expire.

As the U.S. braces for an onslaught of sick Americans, and millions are forced indoors to avert a spike that risks overwhelming hospitals, the most ambitious federal intervention in modern times is testing whether Washington can act swiftly to deal with the pandemic on the home front. By evening, there were no further votes set for Monday, as talks pushed into the night.

Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin said late Monday that negotiators still hoped to “close it out” as he left Senate Democratic leader Chuck Schumer's office. Near 9 p.m. EDT, Schumer strode to the Senate floor upbeat over “very good discussions.” He said they would keep working.

“It’s time to get with the program, time to pass historic relief,” said an angry Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell earlier in the day as he opened the chamber after a nonstop weekend session that failed to produce a deal. “This is a national emergency.”

Fuming, McConnell warned Democrats — pointedly House Speaker Nancy Pelosi — to quit stalling on “political games,” as he described Democratic efforts to steer more of the aid toward public health and workers.

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US slashes aid to Afghanistan after Pompeo visit to Kabul

WASHINGTON (AP) — The Trump administration is slashing $1 billion in assistance to Afghanistan and threatening further reductions in all forms of co-operation after the country's rival leaders failed to agree on forming a new government.

The decision to cut the aid was made on Monday by Secretary of State Mike Pompeo after he made an unannounced, urgent visit to Kabul to meet with Ashraf Ghani and Abdullah Abdullah, the rival Afghan politicians who have each declared themselves president of the country after disputed elections last year. Pompeo had hoped to break the deadlock but was unable to.

In an unusually harsh statement, Pompeo slammed the two men for being unable to work together and threatening a potential peace deal that could end America's longest-running conflict. The U.S. has been the prime backer of the Afghan government since it invaded the country in 2001 and overthrew the Taliban after the 9-11 attacks.

“The United States deeply regrets that Afghan President Ashraf Ghani and former Chief Executive Abdullah Abdullah have informed Secretary Pompeo that they have been unable to agree on an inclusive government that can meet the challenges of governance, peace, and security, and provide for the health and welfare of Afghan citizens,” he said.

Pompeo said the U.S. was “disappointed” in both men and their conduct, which he said had “harmed U.S.-Afghan relations and, sadly, dishonours those Afghan, Americans, and coalition partners who have sacrificed their lives and treasure in the struggle to build a new future for this country.”

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PG&E to plead guilty to lethal crimes in 2018 wildfires

SAN FRANCISCO (AP) — Pacific Gas & Electric will plead guilty to 84 counts of involuntary manslaughter for a swath of death and destruction left behind after its fraying electrical grid ignited a 2018 wildfire that destroyed three Northern California towns and drove the nation's largest utility into bankruptcy.

The plea agreement announced Monday resolves the charges facing PG&E as part of a previously sealed indictment in Butte County. It marks the second time this decade that the company's neglect has culminated in it being deemed a criminal. PG&E already is serving a five-year criminal probation imposed after it was convicted of six felony counts for falsifying records and other safety violations underlying a natural gas explosion that blew up a neighbourhood in 2010 and killed eight people in San Bruno, California.

As with its prior criminal conviction, no one from PG&E will go to prison for the company's felony crimes. Instead, its plea agreement with the Butte County District Attorney's office calls for PG&E to pay a $4 million fine, the maximum allowed. It will also help pay for efforts to restore access to water for residents affected by the loss of a canal destroyed by what became known as the Camp Fire.

“We cannot replace all that the fire destroyed, but our hope is that this plea agreement, along with our rebuilding efforts, will help the community move forward from this tragic incident,” PG&E Corp. CEO Bill Johnson said.

In a statement, Butte County District Attorney Mike Ramsey said he hopes the plea agreement will bring “a bit of a sense of justice done" for the fire.

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Networks face decision: How long to stick with Trump?

NEW YORK (AP) — Six television networks began showing President Donald Trump's briefing on the coronavirus outbreak late Monday, but only Fox News Channel stuck it out to the end nearly two hours later.

It was a notable turning point in coverage of the president's now-daily briefings. Networks had been starting to hear criticism of how much time they have been showing the president answering questions live, reminiscent of a similar debate in the past about showing Trump's campaign rallies.

Still, there's a difference between political rallies and a White House discussion of a national emergency.

ABC, CBS and NBC all covered Trump at the beginning of Monday's briefing, which began about 6:10 p.m. Eastern. After 20 minutes, they switched to the network evening newscasts, never to return to Trump. The president spoke until shortly after 8 p.m.

The cable news networks have given Trump blanket coverage for his briefings, but CNN cut away Monday at around 7:20 p.m. MSNBC followed within five minutes.

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All signs point to Tokyo Olympics being postponed

IOC members, national Olympic committees and athletes were all racing toward the same conclusion Monday: The Tokyo Olympics are not going to take place this summer.

Craig Reedie, a longtime member of the International Olympic Committee, told The Associated Press that everyone can see where things are headed, with the coronavirus pandemic spreading and Olympic hopefuls around the world unable to train.

"In the balance of probabilities, the information known about conditions in Japan and the COVID-19's effect on the rest of world clearly indicates the likelihood of postponement,” Reedie said. “The length of postponement is the major challenge for the IOC.”

Earlier in the day, IOC member Dick Pound told USA Today that he had reached the same conclusion about the games, which are scheduled to start July 24. A tweet put out by the newspaper read: “The 2020 Summer Olympics Have Been Postponed Over Coronavirus Concerns.”

The IOC said no decision had been made, and Reedie was quick to acknowledge that he was speaking only for himself and not because of any insight provided to him by IOC president Thomas Bach, who will guide the final decision. Pound did not return a message left by AP. Earlier in the day, after Pound’s pronouncement, an IOC spokesman said, “It is the right of every IOC member to interpret the decision of the IOC (executive board) from Sunday.”

News from © The Associated Press, 2020
The Associated Press

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