February 26, 2020

Article at Washington Post

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Azar was unaware of decision to put Pence in charge of virus response

Moments after President Trump announced that Vice President Pence will take over the White House’s coronavirus task force, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention confirmed that a northern California person has contracted the coronavirus without traveling outside the United States or coming in contact with another patient known to have the infection — the first sign that the disease may be spreading within a local community.

The president said the risk to Americans is “very low” and that people are being screened coming into the country from infected areas.

Meanwhile, the Dow Jones industrial average endured its worst two-day slump in four years Tuesday. On Wednesday, it was up 300 points shortly after open, but closed down about 124 points.

On European and Asian financial markets, economic alarms continued to flash, however, with cases spreading and little sign that the epidemic was relenting after the CDC warned of the “inevitable” spread in the United States of covid-19, the disease caused by the coronavirus.

France reported the first death of a French citizen from the epidemic as cases grew rapidly across Europe, with Spain confirming eight new cases in the past 24 hours and new infections reported in Germany, Greece, France, Croatia, Austria and Switzerland. A new case in Brazil marks the first known case in Latin America. Although China announced a decline in new confirmed cases on Wednesday, the number of infected people soared in South Korea to more than 1,200, with more expected in the coming days as the country attempts to test 200,000 people.

● A new case of coronavirus was confirmed in the United States on Wednesday, bringing the total number of cases in the country to 60. The CDC later said the northern California person had contracted the virus without traveling outside the United States or coming in contact with another patient known to have the infection.

● France reported the first coronavirus death of a French citizen amid a dramatic uptick in cases within Europe. Most new cases are connected to an outbreak in northern Italy, still the largest on the continent.

● Statistics released by the Chinese government showed a decline in the number of new cases in mainland China; an additional 406 cases were reported Wednesday morning, along with 52 deaths. All but five of the new cases and all of the new deaths were in Hubei province.

● South Korea reported 284 additional cases of the coronavirus Wednesday, raising the national tally to 1,261. That number is expected to rise in coming days as the country begins the mass testing of more than 200,000 members of a messianic religious movement at the center of an outbreak in the city of Daegu.

Asian stocks continue to fall Thursday

The growing fears of a pandemic had already wiped more than $3.6 trillion from global stock markets by Wednesday’s close, Reuters reported.

Pelosi, AOC slam Trump’s coronavirus news conference

House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) and Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-N.Y.) issued separated statements criticizing Donald Trump’s response to coronavirus Wednesday, which the sepaker called “opaque and chaotic.”

“The American people need a well-coordinated, whole-of-government, fully-funded response to keep them safe from the coronavirus threat,” Pelosi wrote. “The Trump Administration has left critical positions in charge of managing pandemics at the National Security Council and the Department of Homeland Security vacant.”

In a tweet, Ocasio-Cortez responded to Trump’s decision to place Vice President Pence in charge of the White House’s coronavirus task force, writing, “Mike Pence literally does not believe in science.”

“It is utterly irresponsible to put him in charge of US coronavirus response as the world sits on the cusp of a pandemic,” she tweeted, citing Pence’s response to HIV as governor of Indiana . “This decision could cost people their lives.”

Health and Human Services Secretary Alex Azar, who has been leading the coronavirus task force, was blindsided by the White House decision to put Vice President Pence in charge of the response to the virus outbreak, according to five people familiar with the situation, who said Azar learned of the decision only moments before the Wednesday evening news conference.

Pence is scheduled to run a coronavirus task force meeting at HHS on Thursday, two sources familiar with the plans said. One senior administration official said Pence was going to HHS to lead the meeting, instead of the White House, “as a show of support to Azar.”

Earlier in the day, Azar pushed back on reports that the administration was considering appointing a czar to run the response. President Trump said he did not consider Pence a czar, but noted that everyone involved in the response would report to the vice president.

State Department issues travel advisory for South Korea

As South Korea’s total number of coronavirus cases continued to grow Thursday, the U.S. Department of State issued a Level 3 travel advisory for the country — urging citizens to “avoid travel due to serious risks to safety and security.”

U.S. and South Korean militaries postpone key joint exercise

SEOUL — The U.S. and South Korean militaries said Thursday they are postponing a key joint military exercise as South Korea reported another jump in coronavirus cases.

“In light of the ROK government’s declaration of the highest alert level ‘severe’ on COVID-19, the ROK-US Alliance made the decision to postpone the combined command post training for the ROK-US Combined Forces Command until further notice,” U.S.-South Korean Combined Forces Command said in a statement.

With 334 new virus cases, South Korea’s national tally of the virus jumped to 1,595, which includes a U.S. soldier stationed in the country.

At a news conference on Wednesday, Trump responded to a question about travel restrictions on Italy and South Korea, saying, “At the right time we may do that. Right now it’s not the right time.”

A person in N. California has tested positive for coronavirus, the first U.S. case with no known link to foreign travel

A northern California person has contracted the coronavirus without traveling outside the United States or coming in contact with another patient known to have the infection, the first sign that the disease may be spreading within a local community, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reported Wednesday night.

“It’s possible this could be an instance of community spread of covid-19, which would be the first time this has happened in the United States,” the CDC said in a statement. The health agency left open the possibility, however “that the patient may have been exposed to a returned traveler who was infected.”

The state of California, however, called the case its first instance of community transmission. The case was first reported by The Washington Post.

Community spread would represent a significant turn for the worse in the battle against the virus. To date, the United States has 60 known cases of the infection, with 59 among people who traveled to Asia or were spouses of people who went there. The vast majority, 42, picked up the virus while quarantined on the Diamond Princess cruise ship off Japan.

The CDC said the case “was detected through the U.S. public health system — picked up by astute clinicians.” The agency said only that the person lived in California.

If the infection is confirmed to be a case of “community spread,” said Jennifer Nuzzo, epidemiologist and senior scholar at the Johns Hopkins Center for Health Security, “it would confirm what we have long suspected — that there is a good chance there already are people infected in this country and that the virus is circulating undetected. It points to the need for expanded surveillance so we know how many more are out there and how to respond.”

The individual is a resident of Solano County, according to the California Department of Public Health. The patient is being treated at UC Davis Medical Center, according to a person familiar with the case who spoke on the condition of anonymity because the details are not public.

Trump says Pence will lead response, risk to Americans ‘very low’

The president said the risk to Americans is “very low” and that people are being screened coming into the country from infected areas.

Trump said he’ll leave it up to Congress to decide how much money to allocate in emergency funding, that he’s willing “to spend whatever is appropriate” and “be satisfied with whatever” amount.

He also said the United States is “rapidly developing a vaccine,” but did not provide any more details. Anthony Fauci, the director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, contradicted the president, saying a vaccine won’t be ready for more than a year.

Trump sought to play down the impact on Americans focusing instead on the first 15 U.S. cases, referring to them as “the original 15.”

Saudi Arabia temporarily suspends pilgrimage travel over coronavirus

Saudi Arabia suspended religious visits to the holy cities of Mecca and Medina on Thursday because of concerns about coronavirus, its Ministry of Foreign Affairs announced.

The decision, which will affect those seeking to perform pilgrimage travel to the country, such as the Umrah pilgrimage, was aimed at forestalling the spread of the disease, according to the Saudi-owned Al Arabiya news channel. The suspension will also affect those seeking to visit the Prohpet’s Mosque in Medina.

ROME — For nearly a week, he has been one of the most visible political figures in Italy, the president of the region at the center of the country’s coronavirus outbreak.

But Wednesday night, Lombardy regional President Attilio Fontana said he would be voluntarily placing himself in quarantine for the next 14 days.

Fontana said he is taking the precaution after a “close collaborator” of his was found to have contracted the virus. Fontana underwent testing — causing the cancellation of his scheduled news conference — and though his tests were negative, he said he would follow the same protocol that health officials were asking of other Italians.

“So for two weeks I’ll try to live in a kind of self-isolation so as to chiefly protect those around me,” Fontana said in a Facebook video, in which he strapped on a sea-green face mask as he spoke.

Microsoft lowers earnings expectations, cites coronavirus outbreak

The Redmond, Wash., software giant said Wednesday that it would not meet the fiscal third-quarter guidance it offered in January for the unit that includes its Windows operating system sales. At the time, Microsoft said it expected $10.75 billion to $11.15 billion in quarterly revenue for its More Personal Computing segment.

While demand from personal computer makers for Windows remains strong, the company said the supply chain for the business is “returning to normal operations at a slower pace than anticipated” because of the coronavirus outbreak. As a result, the company believes it will not meet its earlier guidance for the segment.

Microsoft did not provide an updated forecast. But Stifel Nicolaus & Co. analyst Brad Reback, who had expected Microsoft to generate between $3 billion and $4 billion in sales of Windows to PC makers in the quarter, said it is not “absurd to think half of that could be impacted.” And “several hundred million dollars” of sales from Microsoft’s Surface PC business also could be at risk, he said.

Last week, Apple warned that it expects to miss revenue goals in the current quarter because of the coronavirus outbreak.

Romania’s health minister on Wednesday confirmed the first case of coronavirus in the country, Reuters reported. The man was reportedly from the county of Gorj, but additional information about him was not immediately available.

“The man had been in direct contact with an Italian citizen who traveled to Romania earlier this month,” Health Minister Victor Costache told reporters, according to Reuters. “He is in a good condition and will be transferred to a Bucharest infectious hospital.”

Rep. Donna Shalala (D-Fla.), who served as the health and human services secretary in Bill Clinton’s administration, chastised Trump over his planned news briefing this evening, arguing that only medical professionals and scientists should be speaking to the public about the coronavirus.

“This is an anti-science administration,” she said. “The last person the American people trust is the president of the United States talking about science.”

Millions of Christians around the world marked Ash Wednesday, the start of the 40-day Lent period ahead of Easter — even as the coronavirus led to some unconventional observances.

Some attending Pope Francis’s mass in St. Peter’s Square donned face masks, while other churches in Italy declined to hold mass at all as the coronavirus outbreak there continues to grow. In Asia, some congregations broadcast services online. In the Philippines, Catholic nuns sprinkled ash on congregants’ heads rather than rubbing it in with their fingers, after Catholic leaders there recommended the alternative practice to minimize physical contact. In Singapore, where nearly 100 people have been diagnosed with the virus, churches broadcast services online to prevent people from crowding together.

Hong Kong banned Catholic masses as a preventive measure earlier this month. And in South Korea, where two churches have been identified as key conduits for the spread of the virus, churches remained closed Wednesday. It was the first time since Catholic churches were established there more than 200 years ago that they were closed, the Associated Press reported.