coronavirus pandemic

US Virus Updates: House Passes Dem's HEROES Bill; Trump Unveils New Vaccine Effort

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Whistleblower Rick Bright warned on Thursday that the U.S. lacks a plan to produce and fairly distribute a coronavirus vaccine when it becomes available. The nation could face "the darkest winter in modern history" unless leaders act decisively, he told a congressional panel.

Bright alleges he was ousted from a high-level scientific post after warning the Trump administration to prepare for the pandemic.

In another alarming development Thursday, the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention issued a health alert on the condition now called Multisystem Inflammatory Syndrome in Children, or MIS-C.

Symptoms linked to MIS-C include a persistent fever and numerous other symptoms including hypotension and elevated inflammatory markers, according to the CDC, which added that respiratory symptoms were not present in all cases. Some 17 states have reported cases of the syndrome, with New York reporting more than 100 cases.

The U.S. now has more than 1.4 million virus cases and nearly 87,000 deaths, according to a tally from Johns Hopkins University.

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

Democrats Push New $3T Coronavirus Relief Bill Through House

Democrats powered a massive $3 trillion coronavirus relief bill through the House on Friday, an election-year measure designed to brace a U.S. economy in free fall and a health care system struggling to contain a pandemic still pummeling the country.

The 208-199 vote, over strong Republican opposition, advances what boils down to a campaign-season display of Democratic economic and health-care priorities. It has no chance of becoming law as written, but will likely spark difficult negotiations with the White House and Senate Republicans. Any product would probably be the last major COVID-19 response bill before November’s presidential and congressional elections.

The enormous Democratic measure would cost more than the prior four coronavirus bills combined. It would deliver almost $1 trillion for state and local governments, another round of $1,200 direct payments to individuals and help for the unemployed, renters and homeowners, college debt holders and the struggling Postal Service.

“Not to act now is not only irresponsible in a humanitarian way, it is irresponsible because it’s only going to cost more,” warned House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif. “More in terms of lives, livelihood, cost to the budget, cost to our democracy.”

Republicans mocked the bill as a bloated Democratic wish-list that was dead on arrival in the GOP-led Senate and, for good measure, faced a White House veto threat. Party leaders say they want to assess how $3 trillion approved earlier is working and see if some states' partial business reopenings would spark an economic revival that would ease the need for more safety net programs.

Work From Home Congress? House OKs Proxy Votes

Neither Civil War nor Great Depression nor any other national crisis has pushed the House to allow lawmakers to vote by proxy — without being “present,” as the Constitution requires. That's about to change during the coronavirus pandemic.

The House approved Friday a package of historic rules changes so Congress can keep functioning even while it's partly closed. The shift will dramatically change the look, if not the operation, of the legislative branch — launching a 21st century WFH House, like others, “working from home."

"This House must continue legislating," Rep. Jim McGovern, the chairman of the House Rules Committee, said during a lengthy session ahead of the vote. "And we have to do so in a way that is safe for all those around us.”

Debate over the changes has been fierce. As President Donald Trump encourages Americans back to work, the 435-member House has stayed away due to health risks while the smaller Senate has resumed operations.

Democrats argue the House can rely on technology for remote work as the pandemic drags on. But Republicans objected to what they see as a power grab during the crisis. The vote was 217-189.

Trump Names Leaders to Develop COVID-19 Vaccine in 'Warp Speed'

President Donald Trump suggested Friday that a vaccine for the novel coronavirus could be available by the end of the year, an optimistic timeline that most health experts say is unlikely.

Speaking at a White House event to detail the administration's efforts to produce and distribute a coronavirus vaccine, Trump said "we're looking to get it by the end of the year if we can."

“It’s called Operation Warp Speed, that means it’s big and it’s fast,” Trump said about a vaccine timeline, adding that "we’d love to see if we can do it prior to the end of the year. I think we are going to have some very good results very quickly."

Trump said the U.S. will overcome the coronavirus crisis "with or without a vaccine," claiming "it'll go away at some point." He reiterated that he wants to see states move forward with reopening their economies.

Moncep Slaoui, a former pharmaceutical executive who Trump has tapped to serve as the administration’s virus czar, said that early trial data suggests that “a few hundred million doses of vaccine” will be delivered by late 2020. Slaoui will be assisted by Army Gen. Gustave Perna, the commander of United States Army Materiel Command.

Perna acknowledged the "herculean task" of developing a vaccine by year's end, but vowed they will "defeat the enemy."

The administration is aiming to have 300 million doses to distribute to Americans by the end of the year, believing a reliable vaccine is the only way to promote an economic rebound.

But experts say that the development, testing and production of a vaccine for the public is still at least 12 to 18 months off, and that anything less would be a medical miracle.

Trump's own top infectious disease expert, Dr. Anthony Fauci, told the TODAY show last month that January 2021 is the earliest a vaccine could be ready, but cautioned that that timeline is "aspirational" and based on companies producing a vaccine before researchers are sure of its efficacy.

Soft Opening: Lockdown Restrictions Loosened in Parts of New York

After two months of strict limits on business and social distancing, New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo welcomed the first loosening of restrictions in many parts of the state Friday and announced that beaches would be allowed to open in time for the Memorial Day weekend.

State and municipal beaches throughout the state will be allowed to open the Friday before the holiday, but with limits, the Democrat said.

Capacity will be limited to no more than 50 percent of normal, with parking limited to trim crowds. Group activities will not be allowed. Picnic areas and playgrounds will stay closed. Employees need to wear masks.

It will be up to local governments, Cuomo said, to decide whether to allow municipal beaches to reopen. If they do, they must follow the state’s rules.

“If there is a problem, and the locals do not enforce those regulations, we will close those beaches,” Cuomo said.

Beaches in New Jersey and Connecticut will also be open for the holiday weekend, and Cuomo said part of the rationale for reopening was to prevent New Yorkers from flocking to those states as the weather warms.

NIH Director: Large-Scale Vaccine Testing Expected by July

Having a COVID-19 vaccine by January is “a stretch goal,” but the head of the National Institutes of Health is gearing up for a master experiment to rapidly tell if any really work.

At least four or five possible vaccines “look pretty promising” and one or two will be ready to begin large-scale testing by July with others to follow soon, NIH Director Francis Collins told The Associated Press.

“Your big challenge now is to go big and everybody is about ready for that. And we want to be sure that happens in a coordinated way,” Collins said

Research groups worldwide are racing to test different vaccines in a pandemic. About a dozen vaccine candidates are in the first stages of human testing or poised to begin. Separately, the Trump administration is working on how to produce possible vaccines now, a huge gamble before anyone knows which ones will pan out. The goal is to have 300 million doses available to distribute to Americans by January.

Collins called it a “very bold plan ... a stretch goal if there ever was one,” but one he's optimistic the science side can help speed.

FDA Warns COVID-19 Test Used By White House Could Be Inaccurate

The head of the Food and Drug Administration said Friday his agency has provided new guidance to the White House after data suggested that a rapid COVID-19 test used by President Donald Trump and others every day may provide inaccuracies and false negatives.

Commissioner Steve Hahn said that if a person is suspected of having the disease caused by the coronavirus, “it might be worth, if the test is negative, getting a second confirmatory test. That’s what our guidance is about.”

The test, by Abbott Laboratories, is used daily at the White House to test Trump and key members of his staff, including the coronavirus task force. The FDA said late Thursday it was investigating preliminary data suggesting the 15-minute test can miss COVID-19 cases, falsely clearing infected patients.

Hahn, asked on CBS on Friday whether he'd continue to recommend using the test at the White House, said, “That will be a White House decision.” But he said the test is on the market and the FDA continues to “recommend its use or to have it available for use.”

Federal health officials have been alerting doctors to the potential inaccuracy in the test, which is used at thousands of hospitals, clinics and testing sites across the United States.

The FDA warning came a day after researchers at New York University reported results suggesting Abbott's test can miss up to half the infections caught by a rival test made by Cepheid. The research has not been peer-reviewed or published in a medical journal and was based on about 100 patients.

Asked Friday about reports that the Abbott test was returning false negatives, Health and Human Services Secretary Alex Azar told FOX Business the test could be missing infections because of "user error," adding the White House still had "confidence in the test or we wouldn't have it on the market."

Sen. Mitt Romney, R-Utah, used his time during a Senate hearing on the coronavirus response to chide Admiral Brett Giroir for praising U.S. testing rates as infection rates continue to climb.

Navy Hospital Ship For Non-Coronavirus Patients, USNS Mercy, Leaves LA

A Navy hospital ship temporarily docked in Los Angeles Harbor to help during the coronavirus crisis will depart on Friday, California officials said.

The Mercy arrived at the end of March to provide beds for non-coronavirus cases to take the load off regional medical centers expecting a surge of COVID-19 patients.

“Having successfully decompressed the health care delivery system in the Los Angeles region,” the Mercy will return to its home port in San Diego, said a statement by the Governor’s Office of Emergency Services.

According to NBC LA, medical personnel from the ship will remain in the Los Angeles area to continue to help with the virus response — including four teams that will help out at skilled nursing facilities.

The Department of Defense released footage from inside the USNS Mercy, the Navy hospital ship docked in Los Angeles to help during the coronavirus pandemic.

House to Vote on More Virus Aid, Despite GOP Skeptics

The Democratic-controlled House is pressing ahead Friday with votes on another massive rescue bill that would pump almost $1 trillion to state and local governments, renew $1,200 cash payments for individuals, and extend a $600 weekly supplemental federal unemployment benefit.

The first four coronavirus response bills were bipartisan measures that passed by sweeping votes, but Friday's measure — with a $3 trillion-plus price tag that exceeds the prior bills combined — promises to pass largely along party lines.

House Speaker Nancy Pelosi has loaded the 1,815-page measure with a slew of Democratic priorities, including funding to cover rent payments and utility bills, “hazard pay" for essential workers, and grants to thousands of municipal governments grappling with sagging revenues.

But it's earned a White House veto threat and a scathing assessment from top Republicans like Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., who called it “a totally unserious effort." Few Republicans are expected to vote for the bill Friday despite popular provisions like help for the Postal Service and local schools, $1,200 payments to most Americans, and $175 billion to help homeowners and renters stay in their homes.

The legislation comes as the country continues to struggle with the health and economic crisis caused by the highly contagious virus, which has claimed more than 85,000 lives in the U.S. and caused at least 36 million people to lose their jobs. Just Thursday, the government reported that almost 3 million people filed jobless claims last week.

Republicans are now calling for a “pause” before considering more aid, reflecting disunity between conservatives who feel enough has been done and more pragmatic lawmakers who favor steps like rescuing the Postal Service from looming insolvency, while delivering cash to revenue-starved state and local governments.

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Staff, AP
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