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Terrence McNally, award-winning playwright, dies from coronavirus complications

43 0 25 Mar 2020

Award-winning playwright Terrence McNally died Tuesday from complications due to coronavirus at Sarasota Memorial Hospital in Florida, according to a representative. He was 81.

McNally, who was a lung cancer survivor with chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, was frequently described as the “bard of American theater.”

His first original work, “And Things That Go Bump in the Night,” ran at the Royale Theater for two weeks in 1965 and was criticized for portraying an openly gay character. From there, McNally went on to write comedies that appeared off-Broadway and on Broadway, including the 1975 play “The Ritz,” which was adapted into a film by Richard Lester the next year. He won the first of four Tony Awards in 1993 for “Kiss of the Spider Woman,” a play about a gay window dresser serving jail time in Argentina.

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In 2018, he was inducted into the American Academy of Arts and Letters — one of the highest accolades celebrating artistic merit in the United States — and in 2019, he received a Tony Award for Lifetime Achievement, the Dramatists Guild Lifetime Achievement Award and the Lucille Lortel Lifetime Achievement Award.

“I think theater teaches us who we are, what our society is, where we are going. I don’t think theater can solve the problems of a society, nor should it be expected to,” McNally said in a speech to members of the League of American Theatres and Producers. “But plays can provide a forum for the ideas and feelings that can lead a society to decide to heal and change itself.”

He is survived by his husband, Tom Kirdahy, and his brother, Peter McNally.

Puerto Ricans are vigilant as coronavirus response, hurricane recovery coincide

39 0 25 Mar 2020

Puerto Ricans are remaining vigilant as the U.S. territory responds to the coronavirus pandemic while dealing with multiple other ongoing crises, including the long recovery from the 2017 Hurricane Maria and January’s multiple earthquakes.

The island pulled from many agencies’ reserve funds to create its own financial stimulus package of $787 million to help alleviate the economic impact of the pandemic — in addition to the $160 million from the emergency reserve fund, created after Maria, already authorized by its federally-appointed financial board.

The package is bigger than any announced so far by any state, as The Associated Press has reported. It includes a 90-day moratorium on car, personal and commercial loans as well as mortgages, leaving people’s credit intact, and bonuses for nurses, police and other emergency and medical workers, Gov. Wanda Vázquez said Monday.

“She announced some stimulus measures that are good for workers and others, so that’s good. But it’s not nearly enough for what the crisis demands,” Federico de Jesús, senior adviser to Power 4 Puerto Rico, a coalition of dozens of organizations and leaders in the mainland who advocate for issues concerning the island. Vázquez said the package also includes $1,500 incentives “for all small and medium-sized companies that have ceased operations in the midst of this crisis” and government-imposed curfews.

But Puerto Rico’s Centro Unido de Detallistas, a nonprofit representing the interests of small-business owners, said in a Facebook post in Spanish that while “we received any aid with open arms, $1,500 for a business that has not been able to open is a small amount.

The island has been struggling through a decadelong recession and a debt restructuring process of $120 billion in public debt and pension obligations as it continues to recover from the damage caused by Maria in 2017 and the series of earthquakes in January, together resulting in billions of dollars in losses.

Against this backdrop, Puerto Rico has 39 confirmed cases of the coronavirus and two people have died on the island, as of Tuesday.

“This is the third, and newest, threat or crisis that Puerto Rico faces. So, in my opinion, all options have to be on the table, including repurposing the debt reserve and the cancellation of the debt,” Erica Gónzalez, executive director of Power 4 Puerto Rico, told NBC News.

A traveler wearing a mask waits in line at a security checkpoint at the Luis Munoz Marin International Airport in San Juan, Puerto Rico on March 18, 2020.Ricardo Arduengo / AFP – Getty Images

After experiencing one of the deadliest disasters in U.S. history — Maria, which killed at least, 2,975 people — Puerto Ricans and groups like Power 4 Puerto Rico are keeping an eye on how officials handle the coronavirus that “could exponentially increase the loss that we experienced through Maria,” González said.

“What makes this so infuriating is that it’s already clear that this president is willing to throw lives under the bus. Puerto Rico already experienced that firsthand. So Puerto Ricans need to be supper aggressive” when advocating for the island, González said, adding that groups are vigilant as the island’s government balances hurricane recovery and the debt restructuring process alongside the coronavirus response.

On behalf of Power 4 Puerto Rico, González wrote a letter to Vázquez asking why her administration has not put in a request to repurpose nearly $9 billion — earmarked to pay bondholders who own Puerto Rico’s debt — that have been accumulating after officials put a hold on all debt payments until the island’s debt restructuring process ends.

The Puerto Rican government needs permission from the island’s federally-appointed financial oversight board to be able to use such funds for other purposes.

Vázquez wrote back to González saying “Puerto Rico must remain faithful to the repayment of debts,” adding that such financial obligations do “not foreclose pursuing recovery” through other available funds.

“In an emergency, you don’t leave $9 billion on the sideline,” De Jesús said. “That money needs to be repurposed and she needs to at least bring it up and try. If the board rejects it, we can always step in to help. We can advocate in Congress, who can order the board to repurpose that money. We also signed a letter with over 70 organizations asking Congress to forgive the debt and it would be helpful to have the government of Puerto Rico join us in those efforts.”

After surviving multiple natural disasters, Puerto Ricans are well aware that certain alternate streams of funds require time-consuming processes and don’t allow those affected to get aid immediately.

For instance, in her letter to González, Vázquez acknowledged that the slow spending of certain federal housing funds available through the Community Development Block Grant-Disaster Recovery Program (CBDG-DR), disbursed after Maria for recovery and reconstruction purposes, can be attributed to lags in capacity building as the island’s housing department was preparing to manage the funds. This and other “prominent shortfalls” regarding the housing funds are well documented by the federal government.

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As New York faces coronavirus bullet train, experts warn of challenges ahead

53 0 24 Mar 2020

With New York in a race against the “bullet train” of the coronavirus sweeping across it, public health experts warned of the challenges ahead to prevent the state from becoming the next Italy.

Gov. Andrew Cuomo painted a dire forecast of the outbreak Tuesday morning, saying spread of the disease was accelerating and the state was in “desperate” need of ventilators and more hospital beds with the projected apex just 14 to 21 days away.

With cases soaring to more than 25,000, New York is the epicenter of the coronavirus in the country, as officials attempt to slow its spread by setting up field hospitals, calling on hospitals to increase their capacity and urging residents to stay home.

“We are not slowing it and it is accelerating on its own,” Cuomo said during a news conference at the Jacob K. Javits Convention Center in New York City. “One of the forecasters said to me we were looking at a freight train coming across the country. We’re now looking at a bullet train because the numbers are going up that quickly.”

Cuomo said there was a “critical and desperate need” for ventilators and the state would require at least 30,000. The state’s hospital system typically has 3,000-4,000 ventilators and had so far managed to procure about an additional 7,000, he said.

The governor strongly urged the Trump administration to provide its 20,000 reserve ventilators to New York and invoke the Defense Production Act to direct companies to make the much-needed machines.

Later Tuesday, Vice President Mike Pence said during an interview with Fox News the federal government was preparing to send 4,000 ventilators within the next two days.

Cuomo said the projected need for hospital beds could be as high as 140,000 in a state that currently has only 53,000.

On Tuesday, White House coronavirus response coordinator Dr. Deborah Birx said part of what could account for the spread in New York was population density and part of it could be spread as people took the subway and touched metal surfaces.

Dr. William Schaffner, an infectious disease specialist at Vanderbilt University, said there were certainly concerns New York could become the next Italy, where the virus quickly spread to more than 60,000 cases and has seen more deaths from the disease than China.

There have been 6,820 deaths in Italy, compared to just over 3,000 in China. In some areas, hospitals have been so overwhelmed they have not been able to accept new patients as the death toll continues at an alarming rate, with 743 deaths in the last day. While Italy currently has some of the strictest public measures in response to the crisis, the country’s initial incremental measures, such as issuing containment zones, proved to be too little to stop the sweeping outbreak.

“Because you have such a concentrated population in New York City, the virus can spread very readily,” Schaffner said.

Despite a strong hospital system in the state, “they could easily get swamped and just be stretched beyond what their capacity would be,” he added.

Another concern was “the exhaustion of health care workers. We have a finite number of health care workers,” he said.

Schaffner added bringing in retired workers was not always easy to accomplish quickly, given potential licensing or insurance issues.

The state has requested four field hospitals, including at the Javits Center where Cuomo spoke Tuesday in front of supplies. The other three are on Long Island and in Westchester county outside the city. Soldiers from the National Guard were present at the center, helping convert it in a process Cuomo has said could take a week to 10 days.

New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio gave a stark warning Tuesday saying the city was “just trying to get through March right now” especially in terms of its health care system.

Even with new supplies coming in, de Blasio warned of shortages especially in terms of ventilators as the crisis could continue in the city for months. The federal government is giving 2,000 ventilators to the city, on top of another 400 that were given, but the city is asking for 15,000.

“That’ll just get us to the first week of April,” he said during a news conference. “Even with this new supply, it doesn’t guarantee we’ll get through that first week.”

Schaffner urged New Yorkers to practice good hygiene habits and take social distancing very seriously and stay home whenever possible to attempt to slow the spread of the virus.

“Keeping us all very separate, I think, that is the key thing we can do at the present time to try to dampen the curve,” he said.

Dr. Nikita Desai, a pulmonary and critical care physician at Cleveland Clinic, said that although we were in “an unprecedented time,” previous outbreaks show how important social distancing is in slowing the spread of a disease in populous places such as New York.

Desai said slowing the spread would leave the health care system better equipped to deal with ongoing cases. She said hospital systems tended to hundreds of thousands of hospitalizations for the flu in the last year, and were able to handle them because “we need them to not all happen in the same week.”

On Sunday, Trump announced that he approved requests to federally fund the National Guard to assist Washington, California and New York, three of the states hit hardest by the coronavirus pandemic.

He also said large quantities of masks, respirators, gowns, face shields and other items were due to arrive in the three states within days. He added that he has ordered the government to set up large federal medical stations in each of the states.

Katherine Baicker, dean of the University of Chicago Harris School of Public Policy, said social distancing and closing businesses in the short term were essential for the economy to bounce back when the crisis is over.

“Clearly in the short term, everything we can do to stem the spread of the disease is of vital importance,” she said, adding the country and companies would need to figure out how to keep necessary production going as safely as possible, such as production of food and medical supplies.

Baicker, a former member of the Council of Economic Advisers under President George W. Bush, said it was also important for the government to provide social insurance and relief for businesses and families in need in order to invest in the economy in the long term.

Such investments and social distancing would eventually pay off both in public health and in “allowing the ramping up of economic activity sooner” once it is safe, she said.

“The health epidemic is a major crisis but if that were to go away, we could resume economic activity,” she said. “The more effective we can be in slowing the spread of the disease, the faster we can get it under control, the faster we can return to normal economic activity.”

FDA will allow doctors to treat critically ill coronavirus patients with blood from survivors

58 0 24 Mar 2020

The Food and Drug Administration will allow doctors across the country to begin using plasma donated by coronavirus survivors to treat patients who are critically ill with the virus, under new emergency protocols approved Tuesday.

The FDA’s decision comes a day after New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo announced that the state’s health department planned to begin treating the sickest coronavirus patients with antibody-rich plasma extracted from the blood of those who’ve recovered.

The treatment, known as convalescent plasma, dates back centuries and was used during the flu pandemic of 1918, in an era before modern vaccines and antiviral drugs. Some experts have argued that it might be the best hope for combating the coronavirus until more sophisticated therapies can be developed, which could take several months.

“The approach definitely has merit, and what’s remarkable about it is it’s not a new idea; it’s been with us for a good hundred years or longer,” said Dr. Jeffrey Henderson, an associate professor of medicine and molecular microbiology at the Washington University School of Medicine in St. Louis. “I think we don’t know until we have experience and case reports with this particular disease whether it will be effective, but just based on its track record with a number of other viruses, I think it has a very good chance of working.”

Henderson is part of a nationwide network of doctors and researchers, led by a team at Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore, who have been working to establish protocols for use of plasma to treat those suffering from COVID-19, the disease caused by the coronavirus.

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The method — essentially harvesting virus-fighting antibodies from the blood of previously infected patients — was associated with milder symptoms and shorter hospital stays for some patients during the 2002 SARS outbreak. And initial reports from China suggest convalescent plasma might also be effective in dulling the effects of COVID-19.

Under the emergency protocols approved by the FDA, doctors can request permission to treat critically ill COVID-19 patients on a case-by-case basis. For now, the experimental treatment will be reserved for patients who are in dire condition and at risk of death. The FDA will respond to most requests within four to eight hours, the agency said. For patients who require treatment faster, doctors can call the FDA’s Office of Emergency Operations to get approval over the phone.

If the treatment is proven safe and effective, experts said it would likely work best if given to patients before symptoms become too severe. And past studies indicate that proactive infusions of convalescent plasma might also be effective in protecting frontline health care workers from becoming seriously ill.

The FDA cautioned that plasma has not been proven effective for COVID-19 and that researchers wishing to test it more broadly should apply for permission to begin a trial.

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“Although promising, convalescent plasma has not been shown to be effective in every disease studied,” the FDA announcement said. “It is therefore important to determine through clinical trials, before routinely administering convalescent plasma to patients with COVID-19, that it is safe and effective to do so.”

Experts said widespread use of convalescent plasma, if approved in the coming weeks, would require significant coordination between hospitals and the nation’s blood banks.

In New York, health officials said they plan to begin recruiting patients this week who have fully recovered from COVID-19. That effort, officials said, would likely start in New Rochelle, the New York City suburb that was the center of the state’s initial outbreak a few weeks ago, because of the concentration of people there who have already recovered.

“It’s only a trial,” Cuomo said Monday. “It’s a trial for people who are in serious condition, but the New York state Department of Health has been working on this with some of New York’s best health care agencies, and we think it shows promise, and we’re going to be starting that this week.”

Coronavirus stimulus and disaster plans reveal cruelty of capitalist and political reality

58 0 24 Mar 2020

In the past few weeks, all notion of what’s politically and economically realistic has gone out the window in the face of the fast-spreading coronavirus and the accompanying economic collapse this pandemic will certainly bring. To protect lives and livelihoods, governments around the world are taking measures that would have been treated as unaffordable or even impossible just last month.

To protect lives and livelihoods, governments around the world are taking measures that would have been treated as unaffordable or even impossible just last month.

In Italy, people don’t have to pay their mortgages. In Spain, all private hospitals and health care providers have been nationalized. In France, all taxes, rent, and utility bills are suspended for certain companies and the government announced it’s prepared to nationalize companies that go bankrupt. Even in the United States, cities and states are halting evictions, California is finally planning to at least try to house its 108,000 homeless people and even former GOP House Speaker Newt Gingrich is calling for a World War II-style mobilization.

For the past several years, Americans have been debating whether they should abandon the status quo and embrace a “political revolution,” with centrists and conservatives arguing the radical policies such an approach would entail would cause potentially irreparable harm to the economy. Such policies would necessitate a political and economic shift — but they are not impossible, as we are witnessing now. And beyond the biggest examples, like universal health care, this crisis is also revealing all of the smaller rules, regulations and blind spots that capitalism and bad governance enable for reasons ranging from banal laziness to cruelty.

We must respond to COVID-19 in a way that centers the most vulnerable people in our society, many of whom are also at highest risk from the virus. However, we also need to think about how we come out of this crisis: Do we simply revive the status quo once the virus is cured, or do we take this opportunity to build a society that refocuses on improving the lives of the vulnerable instead of the wealthy, and deals with the threat of the climate crisis barreling toward us?

Democrats and even some Republicans are calling for free COVID-19 testing and treatment, which naturally leads many people to wonder why they should only get free coverage for the coronavirus and not other injuries and ailments. COVID-19 could kill a lot of people, but the existing private insurance system still forces more than 500,000 people into medical bankruptcies every year and kills up to 45,000 people who are unable to access care. Why are those deaths acceptable, while COVID-19 must be stopped at all costs?

Similarly, canceling $1.5 trillion in student loan debt seems a lot more realistic when the Federal Reserve is injecting $1.5 trillion into the stock market, launching new rounds of quantitative easing, and slashing interest rates. The White House and Congress are also preparing an economic stimulus package that’s expected to exceed $1 trillion to respond to the slowing economy.

The response of the private sector has been mixed. Some internet providers are lifting data caps on broadband services and committing not to cut people off who can’t pay their bills, but this only shows how data caps mostly exist to boost profits in the first place. Tech companies are allowing corporate employees to work from home, while Uber drivers, Amazon warehouse workers, Google contractors, and workers like them who often get lower pay and fewer benefits complain they’re being put in danger by the lack of support.

Further, some major corporations are providing sick leave for those who have to self-isolate as a result of COVID-19, but many of these policies are temporary and illustrate the inadequacy of the benefits and support available to the millions of workers they employ, especially the low-wage, front-line workers who are now proving essential all across the country.

Once COVID-19 abates and people can start leaving their homes, many industries may indeed have collapsed or will be surviving on government support — the airline industry being the first. If China and Italy are any indication, carbon emissions and air pollution will have declined. We can choose whether we ramp things back up in a way that continues to threaten our futures and our health by fueling the climate crisis, or we can make the necessary investments and change the regulatory framework to move away from fossil fuels while ensuring that our workers have a future.

When Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, D-N.Y., and Sen. Ed Markey, D-Mass., proposed their Green New Deal in February 2019, the most likely implementation of which would cost $16.3 trillion over 10 years, it was written off as a “green dream” by House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., and ridiculed by Republicans who charged it was too expensive and un-American. Yet its policies would provide a job guarantee for being laid off, support for retraining for many workers, and a mass investment program to not only boost the economy, but move it away from fossil fuels.

We can choose whether we ramp things back up in a way that continues to threaten our futures and our health by fueling the climate crisis, or we can make the necessary investments and change the regulatory framework.

But even while debating those larger scale changes, the crisis is opening our eyes to the needless harm and difficulty created by policies that should have changed long ago. We already know that housing homeless people is cheaper and more effective than leaving them on the streets, so why did it take this long for most governments to do something about it?

Similarly, the United States’ racist criminal justice system jails more people than any other country in the world, and the lack of action to change it is now leading experts to worry that the horrible conditions inside prisons will accelerate the spread of COVID-19. That means prisons should be releasing inmates who are elderly, pregnant and suffering from chronic conditions that make them most vulnerable to the virus, keeping in mind that prisoners are not a monolith; some may still need rehabilitation, but there are many people behind bars who could safely be released without being a threat to the public, including a growing number who are there simply because they can’t afford to pay bail.

We’re also now seeing that some of the most essential workers to keeping society running aren’t the billionaires and CEOs, but grocery clerks, delivery drivers, cleaners and warehouse workers who get paid the least, have few benefits and work in unsafe conditions, and who whenever they try to gain small improvements in their standards of living are met with derision. Minnesota and Vermont have already reclassified grocery store workers as emergency workers so they can get free child care, but don’t they deserve more than that if they’re so essential?

Crises have been the catalyst for better societies in the past. In Sweden, the Spanish flu of 1918 was part of the justification for the welfare state they’re known for today. In the United Kingdom, the end of World War II brought the election of the Labour Party, which implemented the single-payer, government-run National Health Service. Even in the United States, it was in the aftermath of the Great Depression that President Franklin D. Roosevelt passed the New Deal after being pushed by labor, a surging left and grassroots groups across the country. The same can happen today.

With the restrictions of false political realism out the window, we now need to ask ourselves whether we’re willing to accept the harms and inequities that we’ve become so used to, or seize this opportunity to address them once and for all. The decision should be an easy one.

Mnuchin, Schumer optimistic on coronavirus stimulus package, say deal is close

56 0 24 Mar 2020

WASHINGTON — Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y., and Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin appeared to be nearing a deal Tuesday on a roughly $2 trillion stimulus package to help American workers and businesses survive the coronavirus pandemic.

After Mnuchin and several White House officials arrived on Capitol Hill to meet with Schumer and wrap up the outstanding issues, Schumer said on the floor that there are a few outstanding issues that could be smoothed over “within the next few hours.”

“Last night, I thought we’re on the five-yard line. Right now we’re on the two. As I also said last night at this point of the few outstanding issues. I don’t see any that can’t be overcome,” he said after the meeting, which acting White House chief of staff Mark Meadows also attended.

While the morning negotiations were underway, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., said on the Senate floor, “If we act today, what Americans will remember, and what history will record, is that the Senate did the right thing. That we came together.”

Schumer laid out several of the new additions to the package, including what he described as “unemployment insurance on steroids.”

He said that for anyone who loses their job in this crisis, “The federal government will pay your salary, your full salary, for now four months.” He said these provisions would not only “put money into the hands of those who need it so much,” but it would also pump money into the economy and will keep companies intact.

The latest version of the bill would also include at least $100 billion in assistance for hospitals in the form of loans, grants and other mechanisms, according to two Democratic aides and one Republican aide.

“Our whole healthcare system needs desperately needed dollars they need them fast, and they need them in a very large amount,” Schumer said.

Negotiators also removed the phase-in of direct payments from the original version of the bill, which means that lower-income people would also receive $1,200, according to two Republican sources. The original bill would have given lower-income people less money. Now, individuals making up to $75,000 a year would receive a $1,200 payment and a couple filing jointly could receive $2,400 and $500 per child if they make up to $150,000. Individuals who make up to $99,000 and couples making up to $198,000 would receive a little less.

According to Senate Majority Whip John Thune, R-S.D., the measure would provide $350 billion for small businesses and $240 billion in relief for health care, including $75 billion that would be allocated to hospitals directly; $11 billion for the development of vaccines, treatments and other preparedness needs; and $4.5 billion for the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., also fueled hopes that a deal was imminent Tuesday morning, saying in an interview with CNBC’s “Squawk Box” that there is “real optimism that we could get something done in the next few hours.”

Pelosi said that a number of the Democrats’ requests have been added to the bill, such as provisions that would require both a congressional panel and an inspector general to provide oversight over a $500 billion loan program to corporations.

“I’m optimistic Chuck Schumer and the House Democrats used their leverage to a great extent to make this a much more worker-oriented initiative,” she said. “We think the bill has moved sufficiently to the side of workers.”

Because most House members are back in their districts due to the coronavirus, Pelosi said that it’s her goal to pass the stimulus by unanimous consent so members won’t have to return to Washington to vote in person. If the bill contains what Pelosi described as “poison pills,” however, she added that she would have no choice but to amend the bill and go to conference with the Senate.

Trump urged Congress to approve a deal “without all of the nonsense” on Tuesday, saying, “The longer it takes, the harder it will be to start up our economy.”

After emerging from negotiations just before midnight on Monday, Mnuchin and Schumer told reporters separately that they had made progress and just a few sticking points remained. Staff continued to draft the massive package overnight.

Mnuchin said that he and Schumer had consulted with both Trump and McConnell Monday about the progress made on the legislation. Mnuchin called the president, Schumer said, and told him “we were very, very close to the agreement [and] he seemed very happy with that.” He also added that Trump seemed “very positive” about the status of the talks.

Meanwhile, around the time that both Mnuchin and Schumer spoke, Trump criticized Pelosi and Democrats’ demands. He likely was referring to legislation Pelosi unveiled Monday that is separate from the developing package in the Senate.

He tweeted around 11:30 p.m. ET, “Republicans had a deal until Nancy Pelosi rode into town from her extended vacation. The Democrats want the Virus to win? They are asking for things that have nothing to do with our great workers or companies. They want Open Borders & Green New Deal. Republicans shouldn’t agree!”

Trump also tweeted a link to a National Review story about last-minute demands by Democrats and the president said, “This will never be approved by me, or any other Republican!”

It’s unclear whether Pelosi supports the agreement coming together in the Senate. Schumer said that he talks to her “all the time” but when asked if the speaker is on board, he said, “I’m telling you what I said and that’s it.”

At an afternoon press conference Monday, Pelosi unveiled her own version of a stimulus package that would cost more than $2.5 trillion that she said would require any corporation that takes taxpayer dollars to protect their worker’’ wages and benefits. She said it would also strengthen unemployment insurance “so that it can replace the average wages of our workers who are losing their jobs and hours.”

Fourteen inmates escaped from jail in Washington state, 6 still on the loose

71 0 24 Mar 2020

Half a dozen inmates were on the loose Tuesday after 14 escaped from a county jail in Washington state the night before, officials said.

“ALERT! Several prisoners have escaped from the Yakima County Jail in Downtown Yakima,” said a Facebook post from the city of Yakima on Monday night. The post added that residents in certain areas of the city should remain indoors and call police if they see any suspicious activity.

The inmates were able to escape by breaking open an exterior fire door using a table from inside an annex, authorities shared.

From top left, Tyrone Adam Mulvaney, Andrew Derrick Wolfley, and Neftali Serrano. From bottom left, Fernando Gustavo Casteneda-Sandoval, Hugo Alejandro Amezcua-Hernandez, and Miguel Angel Chavez-Amezcua.Yakima County Sheriff’s Office

“They decided they were going to break down the door and leave,” said Yakima County Sheriff Robert Udell in a video posted on Facebook. “Despite the governor’s shelter-in-place or stay-at-home order, apparently they didn’t want to do that so they are out and about.”

The Yakima County Police Department could not at first say how many inmates had escaped from the jail. “The actual number of inmates unaccounted for is unknown,” said a tweet from the department.

Later, a Facebook post from the county sheriff’s office said 12 inmates had escaped. It was then updated it to say eight had been captured, and six were still on the loose.

Police said the inmates were likely wearing green shirts, imprinted with YCDOC and dark sweatpants. They could be barefoot or wearing orange sandals.

The inmates still on the run have been identified as Neftali Serrano, 27; Hugo Alejandro Amezcua-Hernandez, 28; Fernando Gustavo Casteneda-Sandoval, 31, all from Yakima; Tyrone Adam Mulvaney, 34, and Miguel Angel Chavez-Amezcua, 27, from Moses Lake; and Andrew Derrick Wolfley, 26, from Union Gap.

“We need your help to get these guys back in custody cause we don’t know what they’re going to be doing when we haven’t got our eyes on them,” the sheriff said.

Forty-one people in the county are confirmed or presumed to have the coronavirus, according to the Yakima Health District. The sheriff’s office did not immediately respond to questions regarding if any inmates in the jail had tested positive or were showing symptoms of the virus.

Multiple law enforcement agencies were assisting in the search effort after the inmates escaped just after 7 p.m.

Florida governor takes heat for states slow response to coronavirus crisis

70 0 24 Mar 2020

It was a jarring image from the coronavirus crisis: thousands of people frolicking on Clearwater Beach and seemingly thumbing their collective noses at the deadly pandemic sweeping across Florida and the rest of the country.

And the man who had the power to close the state’s beaches and send everybody packing was refusing to do so.

“These are our neighbors who may need to go out there, clear their head,” Gov. Ron DeSantis declared on March 17 after the sight of sunbathers soaking up rays caused widespread consternation. “Because a lot of people are on edge now.”

DeSantis, a Republican who took office in 2019, added that spring break was coming to an end and the horde of young people who descend on the beaches from out of state would all be clearing out and heading home.

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Since then, most of Florida’s beaches have been closed. But DeSantis’ cautious approach to managing the spread of coronavirus has not gone unnoticed and has been harshly criticized by some of the state’s most powerful voices.

“Coronavirus is killing us in Florida,” read the headline of a Miami Herald editorial on Sunday that blasted DeSantis’ response. “Act like you give a damn.”

Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis talks with members of the Florida National Guard at Hard Rock Stadium in Miami Gardens on Friday, March 22, 2020.Wilfredo Lee / AP

The Herald noted that DeSantis, an outspoken supporter of President Donald Trump, has not joined other Florida lawmakers in appealing to the federal government for more help. That bipartisan group includes the famously pro-Trump Rep. Matt Gaetz, who represents a district in the Florida Panhandle.

“DeSantis must step up, whether he ticks off his benefactor Trump or not,” the editorial stated. “He must add his voice to the bipartisan group of U.S. lawmakers and insist Florida get those ‘vital medical supplies, equipment, and personnel required to protect healthcare professionals, treat patients and combat the spread of COVID-19.’ Otherwise, he’s as derelict as the president.”

Meanwhile, The Tampa Bay Times over the weekend published an exhaustive analysis that found that Florida lagged behind dozens of states in imposing restrictions aimed at slowing the spread of the coronavirus.

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While it credited DeSantis with curtailing St. Patrick’s Day festivities — and the possible spread of the virus — by closing down the bars and nightclubs where young people tend to party, the newspaper noted that 35 other governors were far more pro-active in shuttering gyms and fitness studios, and especially the eateries, malls and movie theaters where the people most vulnerable to the virus tend to congregate — those over 60.

“We have a very vulnerable population in the state of Florida — almost a quarter of the people that live here are over 60 years old,” Rep. Debbie Mucarsel-Powell, a Democrat whose district stretches from Miami to the Florida Keys, said Monday on MSNBC’s “Morning Joe.” “I am just concerned that the governor is not taking appropriate action.”

NBC News reached out to DeSantis for comment via his spokeswoman, Helen Aguirre Ferre. There was no immediate response.

But Aubrey Jewett, a longtime Florida politics watcher and an associate professor of political science at the University of Central Florida, said fealty to Trump did not drive DeSantis to make the decisions he did.

“DeSantis took a more moderate approach to the virus at the beginning – I think somewhat more active and worried than President Trump but not nearly active enough for a number of critics,” Jewett wrote in an email to NBC News.

Florida’s economy relies heavily on tourism, Jewett said, and “he did not want to spook visitors and destroy the Florida economy unless it was absolutely clear that it was necessary to do so.”

Instead, DeSantis waited for the private sector and tourist magnets like Disney World and Universal to act and once they shut down “his position changed to a more aggressive approach,” Jewett said.

As for the beaches, Jewett said, DeSantis’ position was to allow local governments to decide if they wanted to close them. But from the start the governor insisted that they should enforce the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s rules on social distancing and not allow groups larger than 10 on the sand.

Jewett’s assessment of DeSantis’ performance thus far appears to be somewhat in line with the results of the latest Florida Politics poll that found that the state’s residents are, for now, giving the governor relatively high marks and have more confidence in him than they have in Trump.

DeSantis has also been keeping his family out of harm’s way. His wife, Casey DeSantis, an Emmy Award-winning former TV news reporter and local talk show host, is pregnant with the couple’s third child.

A 41-year-old Florida native and Harvard Law grad, DeSantis also holds a bachelor’s degree in history from Yale. He is an Iraq War vet who served a year-long stint there in 2007 as a lawyer assigned to the Navy SEAL commander in Fallujah.

DeSantis was also something of a baseball phenom as a child and helped lead his team in the St. Petersburg suburb of Dunedin to the 1991 Little League World Series, which was won by a team from Taiwan.

But even then DeSantis had his eye on a much bigger prize.

“I always knew he was going into politics,” Brady Willian, then one of DeSantis’ closest friends and now manager of one of the Tampa Bay Rays’ farm teams, told The Tampa Bay Times. “His goal was to be the president of the United States.”

It was as a staunch opponent of one president, Barack Obama, and as a staunch defender of another, Trump, that DeSantis made his mark on the national stage after he was first elected to Congress in 2012. He was also a founding member of the conservative Freedom Caucus and in 2013 he was one of several lawmakers who pledged not to sign onto any anti-global warming legislation that would raise taxes.

“Ideologically DeSantis is conservative, but is part of the newer younger conservative movement that believes the environment should be protected,” Jewett said.

DeSantis also was one of the first prominent Republicans to hitch his wagon to Trump, and during his 2018 campaign for governor he released a well-known ad showing him reading Trump’s “The Art of the Deal” to one of his toddlers and building a wall out of toy bricks.

Trump rewarded that loyalty by providing an endorsement that enabled DeSantis to win the GOP primary for governor in 2018. He then went on to barely defeat Democrat Andrew Gillum in a general election that required a recount.

White House coronavirus coordinator says fine line to balance economy, public health

67 0 24 Mar 2020

The White House coronavirus response coordinator on Tuesday suggested that “there’s a fine line” between balancing the economic needs of Americans and the fight against the pandemic.

Dr. Deborah Birx in an interview on “TODAY” on Tuesday responded to questions about President Donald Trump’s assertion at a press conference Monday that the shutdown of many businesses around the country would last weeks, not months. “America will again and soon be open for business,” he said.

Birx, who spoke as the number of U.S. coronavirus cases approached 45,000, with at least 550 deaths, said officials are carefully evaluating data, including from Italy where after two weeks of a national lockdown the number of deaths has begun to decline.

The question is, Birx said, “Can we be laser-focused rather than generic across the country” in the fight against the spread of virus?

“TODAY” co-anchor Savannah Guthrie asked if it is feasible to “isolate hot spots” in the U.S.?

“We’re getting critical information from all of the front lines,” Birx said, adding that officials are looking at data in a granular way including to determine who is at risk.

“We’ve never really confronted this type of epidemic before,” she said.

Asked about Trump’s remark that “we can’t let the cure be worse than the problem itself,” Birx said, “There’s a fine line and a place to go that balances the needs of the America people both today and tomorrow with the reality of the epidemic.”

“The president has been very focused on what all Americans need both economically and public health-wise,” she said.

Birx also stressed that Americans should continue to heed guidelines on social distancing to guard against spread of the virus.

She was also asked about the rapid increase in coronavirus cases in New York, where the statewide number now tops 20,000.

“To everyone in New York, you are in a very difficult place and if any city should be adhering to the presidential guidelines … it’s New York and the New York metro area right now,” Birx said.

The high rate of increase in New York now reflects at least in part a backlog in test results, she said.

“Many of the positives you’re seeing in this surge are people whose tests came in three or four days ago,” Birx said. Those who are now hospitalized most likely were exposed two or three weeks ago, she said.

The impact of social distancing in New York won’t be apparent for another several days at least, she said.

Her comments Tuesday came as more officials were questioning the need for the shutdown of large numbers of businesses to fight the virus.

Texas Lt. Governor Dan Patrick suggested on Monday that some elderly people might be willing to die to get the economy moving again.

“Those of us who are 70-plus, we’ll take care of ourselves. But don’t sacrifice the country,” Patrick said on Fox News’ “Tucker Carlson Tonight.”

Patrick, who said he will turn 70 next week, said he feared that stay-at-home orders and economic upheaval would destroy the American way of life.

New York will be first state to test treatment of coronavirus with blood from recovered patients

61 0 24 Mar 2020

Hoping to stem the toll of the state’s surging coronavirus outbreak, New York health officials plan to begin collecting plasma from people who have recovered and injecting the antibody-rich fluid into patients still fighting the virus.

Gov. Andrew Cuomo announced the plans during a news briefing Monday. The treatment, known as convalescent plasma, dates back centuries and was used during the flu epidemic of 1918 — in an era before modern vaccines and antiviral drugs.

Some experts say the treatment, although somewhat primitive, might be the best hope for combating the coronavirus until more sophisticated therapies can be developed, which could take several months.

“There have been tests that show when a person is injected with the antibodies, that then stimulates and promotes their immune system against that disease,” Cuomo said. “It’s only a trial. It’s a trial for people who are in serious condition, but the New York State Department of Health has been working on this with some of New York’s best health care agencies, and we think it shows promise, and we’re going to be starting that this week.”

New York has seen a dramatic rise in coronavirus cases in recent days, with about 20,000 confirmed cases and more than 150 deaths as of Monday afternoon, more than in any other state.

State health officials said they expect to get approval from the Food and Drug Administration to begin the plasma trial in the coming days. A spokesman for the FDA confirmed to NBC News that the agency is “working expeditiously to facilitate the development and availability” of convalescent plasma. And at a White House briefing last week, FDA Commissioner Stephen Hahn singled out the treatment as a promising option to fight the disease in the near term.

“That’s great news,” said Dr. Arturo Casadevall, an infectious disease expert at the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health, who has been calling for widespread use of convalescent plasma. “When we started talking about this a few weeks ago, it was just an idea, and now it seems it’s going to become a reality.”

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The method — essentially harvesting virus-fighting antibodies from the blood of previously infected patients — dates back more than a century, but it has not been used widely in the United States in decades. Infusions of convalescent plasma were associated with milder symptoms and shorter hospital stays for some patients during the 2002 SARS outbreak, and initial reports from China suggest convalescent plasma might also be effective in dulling the effects of COVID-19, the disease caused by the coronavirus.

The treatment is not without risks. There is danger in giving a patient the wrong type of blood or inadvertently transmitting other pathogens in a transfusion, but safety advancements over the past two decades have made adverse outcomes rare.

In New York, health officials said they plan to begin recruiting patients who have fully recovered from COVID-19 in the coming days. That effort, officials said, would likely start in New Rochelle, the New York City suburb that was the center of the state’s initial outbreak a few weeks ago, because of the concentration of people there who have already recovered.

Potential donors would first need to undergo tests to ensure that they are no longer contagious and to confirm that their blood contains the antibodies needed to fight the disease, state health officials said. After that, donors would go to a local blood bank to give plasma — the liquid part of blood left once cells and platelets have been removed — although the state is still working out logistical details.

New York will begin by offering the treatment only to critically ill patients. But, experts said, once it is proven safe and effective, the treatment will likely work best if given to patients before symptoms become too severe. Casadevall said past studies indicate that proactive infusions of convalescent plasma might also be effective in protecting front-line health care workers from becoming seriously ill.

Similar efforts are underway across the country as hospitals scramble to prepare for an onslaught of critically ill COVID-19 patients, similar to what’s happened in New York and Seattle.

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Doctors from nearly two dozen hospitals have joined the Johns Hopkins-led effort, Casadevall said, including researchers at the Mayo Clinic in Minnesota, the Stanford University Medical Center in California and the Albert Einstein College of Medicine in New York. The researchers have been in contact with the FDA through the weekend, he said, and they hope to launch clinical trials similar to the one in New York in the coming weeks.

Michael Felberbaum, an FDA spokesman, said the agency could not comment on specific COVID-19 clinical trials. But he confirmed that the agency was working to facilitate the use of convalescent plasma.

“The agency is actively engaging with researchers to discuss the possibility of collaboration on the development of a master protocol for the use of convalescent plasma, with the goal of reducing duplicative efforts,” Felberbaum said.