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.
He recalled getting emails in late January from Mike Bowen, an executive at a medical supply company called Prestige Ameritech, indicating that our N95 mask supply was “completely decimated.”
“And he said, ‘We’re in deep sh--. The world is. And we need to act,’” Bright said. “And I pushed that forward to the highest levels I could in HHS and got no response. From that moment I knew that we were going to have a crisis for our health care workers because we were not taking action. We were already behind the ball.”
Coronavirus Pandemic Coverage
Here are the latest developments in the coronavirus crisis in the U.S.:
CDC Releases Health Alert on Inflammatory Syndrome in Children Linked to COVID-19
The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention on Thursday released a health alert about the syndrome affecting children linked to the coronavirus pandemic.
The CDC is calling the condition 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.
"It is currently unknown if multisystem inflammatory syndrome is specific to children or if it also occurs in adults," the CDC wrote in a statement. "There is limited information currently available about risk factors, pathogenesis, clinical course, and treatment for MIS-C."
The CDC said it is requesting that health care providers report suspected cases on patients younger than age 21 to public health authorities "to better characterize this newly recognized condition in the pediatric population."
At least 110 cases have been reported in New York, and three young people — ages 5, 7 and 18 — have died. New Jersey has at least 17 cases, and California has six. Other states, such as Connecticut, Georgia, Kentucky, Ohio and Washington, have reported small numbers of cases.
New York Stock Exchange to Reopen May 26
The New York Stock Exchange will reopen on May 26, NYSE President Stacey Cunningham announced Thursday, allowing a "subset" of brokers — who will wear face masks — back onto the famed trading floor.
Even the biggest symbol of American capitalism proved in March it was not immune to the disease, switching to all-electronic trading as of March 23 after an employee and a trader tested positive, despite the introduction of social distancing protocols, restricted access, and temperature checks at entry points.
"Our reopening will bring a “new normal” for the NYSE, hopefully helping chart a path that other businesses in densely populated areas might follow," Cunningham said, announcing the news in an opinion piece in The Wall Street Journal.
No traders or employees will be required to come in, Cunningham said, "but the stream of calls and emails I’ve received suggests it will be hard to keep them away."
CDC Releases Edited Coronavirus Reopening Guidance
U.S. health officials on Thursday released some of their long-delayed guidance that schools, businesses and other organizations can use as states reopen from coronavirus shutdowns.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention posted six one-page “decision tool” documents that use traffic signs and other graphics to tell organizations what they should consider before reopening.
The tools are for schools, workplaces, camps, childcare centers, mass transit systems, and bars and restaurants. The CDC originally also authored a document for churches and other religious facilities, but that wasn't posted Thursday. The agency declined to say why.
Early versions of the documents included detailed information for churches wanting to restart in-person services, with suggestions including maintaining distance between parishioners and limiting the size of gatherings. The faith-related guidance was taken out after the White House raised concerns about the recommended restrictions, according to government emails obtained by the AP and a person inside the agency who didn’t have permission to talk with reporters and spoke on condition of anonymity.
On Thursday, a Trump administration official also speaking on condition of anonymity said there were concerns about the propriety of the government making specific dictates to places of worship.
The CDC drafted the guidance more than a month ago and it was initially shelved by the Trump administration, The Associated Press reported last week.
The agency also had prepared even more extensive guidance — about 57 pages of it — that has not been posted.
Bright Says HHS Wanted to 'Flood' Cities With Unproven Drug
Dr. Rick Bright said Thursday he was removed from his post heading the Biomedical Advanced Research and Development Authority, a unit of Department of Health and Human Services that focuses on countermeasures to infectious diseases and bioterrorism, because he pushed back against widespread use of an unproven drug that President Donald Trump touted as a remedy for the coronavirus.
Bright testified the Trump administration failed to prepare for the pandemic, then sought a quick fix by trying to rush a malaria drug to patients, though its effectiveness for COVID-19 was unproved.
Bright said he was directed by HHS Secretary Azar "to put in place an expanded access protocol that would make chloroquine more freely available to Americans that were not under the close supervision of a physician and may not even be confirmed to be infected with the coronavirus.”
He said there wasn’t sufficient data supporting the antimalarial drug and warned officials of the possibility of adverse and even deadly side effects. He said he preferred a clinical trial, adding that ongoing studies of chloroquine “haven’t shown an overwhelming use or benefit.”
He said his concerns were escalated when he learned that HHS leadership was pushing bring in non-FDA approved chloroquine from Pakistan and India and make it available outside emergency use authorization "to flood New York and New Jersey with this drug."
"When I spoke outside of our government and shared my concerns for the American public, that I believe was the straw that broke the camel's back and escalated my removal," Bright said.
Last month, the FDA warned doctors against prescribing the drug except in hospitals and research studies. In an alert, regulators flagged reports of sometimes fatal heart side effects among coronavirus patients taking chloroquine or the related drug hydroxychloroquine.
Asked by Rep. Doris Matsui, D-Calif., if there are other instances where the administration relied on "politics rather than science" to make responsible decisions, Bright said "there were some attempts to bypass the rigorous scientific review process, which caused great concern and actually increase the tension between myself and the other doctor."
Trump Says He'll Restock Stockpile for Future Pandemics
President Donald Trump said Thursday that he intends to prepare the country for future pandemics by restocking the national stockpile and bringing critical manufacturing back to the U.S. His comments came the same day a whistleblower testified that the Trump administration had failed to properly prepare for the current pandemic.
Bright: National Stockpile Didn't Have Swabs for Testing
Dr. Bright said he was “quite alarmed” to learn that the U.S. would have a shortage of swabs for diagnostic tests just as officials were beginning to discuss ramping up testing for COVID-19 and even more surprised to learn that there weren’t any in the national stockpile.
Bright said he needed HHS Secretary Alex Azar to request help from the Defense Department to fly back swabs and other needed supplies from overseas. But when he raised the issue at a meeting with HHS political leaders, his boss, Robert Kadlec, allegedly said he "didn’t want to talk about swabs right now."
“We were rebuffed,” Bright said.
He said he then contacted White House trade adviser Peter Navarro, who quickly contacted Defense Secretary Mark T. Esper and the flights were authorized "in a matter of minutes" and two days later planes were in the air.
Bright said the lack of testing swabs shows "there is no master coordinated plan on how to respond to this outbreak." He said the U.S. needs a designated agency identifying and sourcing these critical components to make sure "we have those supplies when we need them."
Bright Says Doctors, Nurses Today Are Wearing Substandard Masks Because of Failure to Heed N95 Warnings
Dr. Bright said early on in the pandemic he warned that the U.S. needed more N95 masks for health care workers by passing on “dozens of alerts,” but was repeatedly met with indifference and “a number of excuses” by other officials.
He said pandemic response plans over the years flagged that there would be a need for billions of respirators and he knew going into the current pandemic that critical equipment would be in short supply.
He said industry sources had told him in mid- and late-January that “the supply chain was diminishing rapidly” and so he “pushed those warnings” to the national strategic stockpile team and others.
Among the warnings was that China was trying to buy equipment from U.S. producers, he said.
Weeks later the administration reached out to U.S. producers of masks with a survey, he said.
Rep. Kathy Castor, D-Fla., asked about a Feb. 7 meeting with senior officials known as the Disaster Leadership Group where Bright urged a focus on N95 masks, as described in his whistleblower’s complaint.
Bright said they told him they “didn’t yet see a critical shortage” even as he warned “we need to do something to ramp up production” of masks. Other officials told him that should that the need arise “we will simply change the CDC guidelines to better inform people who should not be wearing those masks so that would save those masks for health care workers.”
“My response was, ’I cannot believe you can sit and say that with a straight face,’” Bright said. “It was absurd.”
Castor noted it would take three months from Bright’s initial warnings for the Trump administration to invoke the Defense Production Act to require the production of millions of more N95 masks, still far fewer than what experts had said were needed.
“Lives were endangered and I believe lives were lost,” Bright said. “And not only that, we were forced to procure these supplies from other countries without the right quality standards.”
As a result doctors and nurses even today are wearing N95-marked masks from other countries that are not providing sufficient protection, some only 30% effective, Bright said.
“Therefore, nurses are rushing into hospitals thinking they are protected and they’re not,” he said.
Bright Says ‘Absolutely’ a Concern That US Isn’t Prepared to Distribute a Vaccine
Dr. Bright warned that the lack of a national strategy for vaccine development means that he anticipates problems with the supply chain and distribution later on.
Rep. Frank Pallone, D-N.J., noted what he called Trump administration “incompetence” over how the country dealt with testing for COVID-19 then asked if he should be concerned with how an eventual vaccine would be distributed.
"Absolutely sir,” Bright said, adding that “we’re already seeing those challenges” with the drug Remdesivir, an experimental drug for treating coronavirus from Gilead Sciences.
“We have limited doses and we haven’t scaled up production and we don’t have a plan how to fairly and equitable distribute that drug,” Bright said.
He said once a vaccine is produced, “there’s no one company that can produce enough for our country or for our world.”
“It’s going to be limited supplies. We need to have a strategy and plan in place now to make sure that can not only fill that vaccine, make it, distribute it, but administer it in a fair and equitable plan,” he said. “We don’t have that yet, and it is a significant concern.”
Bright also expressed concern that the U.S. is rushing "too quickly" to get a vaccine for coronavirus, risking cutting critical steps and not having "a full assessment of the safety of that vaccine."
Bright called the 12 to 18 months timeline an “aggressive schedule,” telling lawmakers he thinks "it will take longer than that."
“It’s critical to note that when we say 12 to 18 months, that doesn’t mean for an FDA-approved vaccine, it means to have sufficient data and information on the safety and immunogenicity, if not efficacy, to be able to use on an emergency basis, and that is the consideration we have in mind when we talk about an accelerated timeline,” he added.
Bright: I Was Told 'My Urgings Were Causing a Commotion'
Dr. Rick Bright testified Thursday that critical steps were not taken in the early stages of the outbreak including ignored requests for virus samples and concerns of a stockpile shortage of personal protective equipment.
"We've known for quite some time that our [national] stockpile was insufficient," Bright told lawmakers. “Those alarms were not responded to with action.”
Bright said he pushed to ramp up production of masks, respirators and other supplies, and had requested as early as January for virus samples, but was met with push back. He said he was cut out of meetings because "my urgings were causing a commotion."
Bright said the window is closing to address the pandemic because the nation still lacks a "standard, centralized coordinated plan to take this nation through this response.”
"While it is terrifying to acknowledge the extent of the challenge that we currently confront, the undeniable fact is there will be a resurgence of the COVID19 this fall, greatly compounding the challenges of seasonal influenza and putting an unprecedented strain on our health care system," Bright said.
3 Million More Workers Applied for Jobless Aid
Nearly 3 million laid-off workers applied for U.S. unemployment benefits last week as the viral outbreak led more companies to slash jobs even though most states have begun to let some businesses reopen under certain restrictions.
Roughly 36 million people have now filed for jobless aid in the two months since the coronavirus first forced millions of businesses to close their doors and shrink their workforces, the Labor Department said Thursday.
Still, the number of first-time applications has now declined for six straight weeks, suggesting that a dwindling number of companies are reducing their payrolls.
Coronavirus Hot Spot in Minnesota Connected to Surge of Cases at Meatpacking Plant
Workers and residents in a small Minnesota town who protested outside a meatpacking plant this week are demanding that it be temporarily closed for cleaning and sanitizing to protect the 1,100 people who work there.
They also demand coronavirus testing for workers — a request that came after the plant said the 83 cases it reported on May 8 had ballooned to 194 cases by May 11.
The plant in Cold Spring, owned by Pilgrim's Pride, is able to maintain its operations because of the Defense Production Act, which President Donald Trump invoked at the end of April. But now, St. Cloud, a neighboring small town northwest of Minneapolis, is experiencing a massive spike in COVID-19 cases, according to documents obtained by NBC News, probably because of the meatpacking plant itself.
Minnesota had nearly 4,000 new coronavirus cases over the first week of May, about a 95.5 percent increase, according to the White House documents, while cases in Stearns County — where St. Cloud and Cold Spring are located — jumped by 454 percent, to 809 new cases, during the same period.
Read the full story on NBCNews.com
Rare Child Illness Linked to Coronavirus Detected in States Not Considered Hot Spots
Some 17 states are now reporting cases of a rare child illness that has been linked to the coronavirus.
Pediatric inflammatory multisystem syndrome has been reported in states with many coronavirus cases, including California, Connecticut, Georgia, Illinois, Louisiana, Massachusetts, New York and New Jersey. But the illness is now appearing in states with fewer coronavirus cases, including Delaware, Kentucky, Mississippi, Ohio, Pennsylvania, Utah, Washington, Missouri and Oregon, as well as Washington, D.C.
Symptoms of the illness include prolonged fever, severe abdominal pain, diarrhea or vomiting, bloodshot eyes, skin rash, difficulty feeding (infants), trouble breathing or fast breathing, racing heart or chest pain, and lethargy, irritability or confusion.
In New York, some 100 children have been diagnosed with the syndrome and three have died from it. New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo announced that the state's health department will hold a webinar to educate health care providers on the illness Thursday.
Amazon to End Wage Increases and Double Overtime Pay in June
Amazon is once again extending wage increases and double overtime pay for its workers through May 30, but both policies will come to an end in June.
In March, Amazon said it would raise hourly wages and provide double overtime for warehouse and delivery workers. It later extended those benefits through May 16. However, Amazon won’t be extending those policies beyond May 30, the company said.
“We are grateful to associates supporting customers during a time of increased demand, and are returning to our regular pay and overtime wages at the end of the month,” a company spokesperson said. News of the extension and end date was previously reported by Recode.
Workers can earn an extra $2 per hour in the U.S., £2 ($2.47) per hour in the U.K., and approximately 2 euros ($2.16) per hour in many EU countries. Amazon currently pays $15 per hour or more in some areas of the U.S. for warehouse and delivery jobs. Any employees working overtime at its U.S. warehouses will earn double their hourly wages.
While Amazon has extended hazard pay for workers, it continues to face criticism for its decision to end its unlimited unpaid time off policy. Warehouse workers previously told CNBC that the policy was a valuable resource for them during the pandemic, since it allowed them to stay home without pay and not face any penalties for missing their shift.
Read the full story here.
Another Assault Over Mask Rule, This Time in Indiana
Police in Mishawaka, Indiana, are looking for a man who beat a 7-Eleven employee after being refused service for not wearing a mask.
Police said in a statement that the aggravated assault happened around 9 a.m. Wednesday when a customer with a cup of coffee was refused service because he wasn't wearing a mask, NBC affiliate WNDU of South Bend reported.
The suspect threw the coffee on the worker and left. He returned, was asked to leave and then punched the worker and knocked her to the ground. He punched and kicked her, police said.
It was one of at least two incidents across the country this week in which people were accused of assaulting others over mask rules.
Read the full story on NBCNews.com
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