coronavirus pandemic

US Coronavirus Updates: Conspiracy-Theory Video Shows Challenges for Tech; Fauci Says Outbreak ‘Not Under Control'

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

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Dr. Anthony Fauci, the nation’s top infectious disease expert, warned bluntly Tuesday of “really serious” consequences of suffering, death and deeper economic damage if state and local officials lift stay-at-home orders too quickly, even as President Donald Trump pushes them to act to right a free-falling economy.

More coronavirus infections are inevitable as people again start gathering, but how prepared communities are to stamp out those sparks will determine how bad the rebound is, Fauci told the Senate Health, Labor and Pensions Committee.

Underscoring the seriousness of the nation's situation, Fauci and other health experts testified by videoconference from their homes. Committee chairman Lamar Alexander chaired the hearing from his cabin in Tennessee.

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

Coronavirus Conspiracy-Theory Video Shows Challenges for Big Tech

One by one, tech companies across Silicon Valley scrambled to take down a slickly produced video of a discredited researcher peddling a variety of conspiracy theories about the coronavirus.

It was all too late.

The 26-minute documentary-style video dubbed “Plandemic,” in which anti-vaccine activist Judy Mikovits promotes a string of questionable, false and potentially dangerous coronavirus theories, had already racked up millions of views over several days and gained a massive audience in Facebook groups that oppose vaccines or are protesting governors’ stay-at-home orders.

Its spread illustrates how easy it is to use social media as a megaphone to swiftly broadcast dubious content to the masses, and how difficult it is for platforms to cut the mic.

Mikovits’ unsupported claims — that the virus was manufactured in a lab, that it's injected into people via flu vaccinations and that wearing a mask could trigger a coronavirus infection — activated a social media army already skeptical of the pandemic’s threat.

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House Dems Unveil New $3T Virus Bill

House Speaker Nancy Pelosi unveiled a more than $3 trillion coronavirus aid package Tuesday, providing nearly $1 trillion for states and cities, “hazard pay” for essential workers and a new round of cash payments to individuals.

The House is expected to vote on the package as soon as Friday, but Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell has said there is no “urgency.” The Senate will wait until after Memorial Day to act.

The so-called Heroes Act is built around nearly $1 trillion for states, cities and tribal governments to avert layoffs, focused chiefly on $375 billion for smaller suburban and rural municipalities largely left out of earlier rounds of aid.

It will offer a fresh round of $1,200 direct cash aid to individuals, increased to up to $6,000 per household, and launches a $175 billion housing assistance fund to help pay rents and mortgages. There is $75 billion more for virus testing.

It would continue, through January, the $600-per-week boost to unemployment benefits. It adds a 15% increase for food stamps and new help for paying employer-backed health coverage. For businesses, there’s an employee retention tax credit.

There’s also $200 billion in “hazard pay” for essential workers on the front lines of the crisis.

Fauci: We Don't Have Virus 'Completely Under Control'

Citing the over 1.3 million infections and more than 80,000 confirmed deaths from the virus, the highest toll in the world by far, Sen. Elizabeth Warren, D-Mass., asked Dr. Anthony Fauci if the U.S. has been able to contain the coronavirus outbreak.

"It depends on what you mean by containment," Dr. Fauci said. "If you think we have it completely under control, we don't. I think we are going in the right direction, but the right direction does not mean we have by any means total control of this outbreak.”

Romney Fact-Checks Trump on Obama’s Record, Testing Czar’s Hyperbole

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.

Sen. Mitt Romney, R-Utah, said the U.S. has done a good job in efforts at developing a vaccine and took issue with President Donald Trump having blamed former President Barack Obama for the lack of one, even though the virus outbreak didn’t happen when he was president.

“Dr. Fauci, is President Obama, or by extension President Trump, did they do something that made the likelihood of creating a vaccine less likely?” Romney asked.

Fauci responded, “No, certainly not at all.”

Romney also criticized the Trump administration for touting its coronavirus testing gains and testing "czar" Adm. Brett Giroir in particular.

“Yesterday, you celebrated that we had done more tests and more tests per capita even than South Korea,” Romney said. “But you ignored the fact that they accomplished theirs at the beginning of the outbreak while we treaded water during February and March. And as a result, by March 6 the U.S. had completed just 2,000 tests whereas South Korea had conducted more than 140,000 tests. So partially as a result of that they have 256 deaths and we have almost 80,0000 deaths. I find our testing record nothing to celebrate whatsoever.”

CDC Director Says Reopening Guidelines to Be Posted ‘Soon’

CDC Director Dr. Robert Redfield did not commit to a timeline for the release of a report by his agency that gives step-by-step advice to local authorities on how and when to reopen restaurants and other public places.

The Associated Press reported last week that the White House had ordered the guidelines buried but that parts of it were later fast-tracked for approval following the AP’s report.

Sen. Chris Murphy, D-Conn., pressed Redfield for details on what happened. Redfield said the recommendations went through an interagency review and have since gone back up to the White House coronavirus task force for “final review.”

“When are we gonna get this expertise?” Murphy asked, noting that his state opens up next week. Redfield said the guidance would be posted “soon” but that officials could reach out to the CDC for help.

“Soon isn’t terribly helpful,” Murphy said.

CDC Reconsiders Guidelines That Limit Dental Visits

Sen. Susan Collins, R-Maine, advocated for dentists to go back to work in her state, citing growing health problems she’s heard from the industry.

"Those with cavities that could have been filled are now going to need root canals, and teeth that needed root canals will now need extractions," she said.

The CDC website now recommends “services should be limited to emergency visits only during this period of the pandemic.”

“Caring for patients requiring Airborne Precautions is not possible in most dental settings as they are not designed for or equipped to provide this standard of care,” the CDC’s website says. “For example, most dental settings do not have airborne infection isolation rooms or single-patient rooms, do not have a respiratory protection program, and do not routinely stock N95 respirators.”

Collins asked CDC Director Redfield that if dentists follow American Dental Association guidelines, and if cases are on the decline in their county, could those be reasonable factors for states to consider in reopening dental facilities?

Redfield said the CDC was reconsidering its guidelines.

Sen. Bernie Sanders Presses for Vaccine to Be Free

Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., asked a pair of health officials about what the future coronavirus vaccine will cost and if it will be available free of charge to those who need it. FDA Commissioner Dr. Stephen Hahn and Adm. Brett Giroir, the coronavirus “testing czar,” could not definitely say it would be free, but said they would bring the issue up with the coronavirus task force.

Sen. Bernie Sanders pressed FDA Commissioner Dr. Stephen Hahn and Adm. Brett Giroir, the coronavirus “testing czar,” to guarantee that poor and working people wouldn’t be the “last in line” to receive an eventual coronavirus vaccine.

Hahn, asked whether it would be distributed to all free of charge, said he hoped so but that payments were not under his responsibility. Giroir eventually said he would advocate to others in the administration “that everyone will receive the vaccine regardless of income.”

Sanders also asked Fauci about official statistics of more than 80,000 Americans dead and whether the true toll could be 50% higher.

“I think you are correct that the number is likely higher. I don’t what percent higher,” Fauci said.

He cited deaths in New York City, in particular those who died at their homes and not counted as part of the COVID toll.

Asked about whether a new wave of infections in the fall or winter could be worse than what has been experienced so far, Fauci said, “the possibility does exist.” He said he hoped that testing, contact tracing and the stocking up of personal protective equipment would prevent that.

Fauci: Schools Safely Reopening in the Fall 'Is a Bridge Too Far'

Dr. Anthony Fauci responds to Sen. Rand Paul, R-Ky., about the idea of opening schools in the fall and why he believes science should lead the way.

Dr. Anthony Fauci said the U.S. will not have a COVID-19 vaccine or treatment available in time for schools to reopen in the fall, calling the prospect "a bit of a bridge too far."

“The idea of having treatments available or a vaccine to facilitate the re-entry of students into the fall term would be something that would be a bit of a bridge too far,” Fauci told Sen. Lamar Alexander. “Even at the top speed we’re going, we don’t see a vaccine playing in the ability of individuals going back to school this term.”

But Fauci said the government is working on several potential vaccines for COVID-19 and hopes to one in advanced trials by late fall or early winter. He said there are at least eight vaccines in development and hoped to have “multiple winners” from “multiple shots on goal.”

He pointed to one that is now in a phase one clinal trial and said that if it is successful that will be known in late fall and early winter.“ The big unknown is efficacy,” he said, cautioning that certain vaccines could “enhance the negative effects of the virus.”

Dr. Anthony Fauci said during a Senate hearing there are at least eight coronavirus vaccines in development and he hoped to have “multiple winners.”

Fauci also said in kicking off his testimony that success treating coronavirus patients with remdesivir was “modest” and that researchers hoped to build on that.

Sen. Rand Paul challenged Fauci's suggestion that students face health threats if they return to school before a treatment is available, pointing to lower mortality rates among children and saying the disease expert isn't the "end all" on knowledge about the coronavirus.

While agreeing that children, on the whole, do much better than adults with COVID-19, Fauci warned, "we don't know everything about this virus." He pointed to the recent discovery of a new pediatric multi-system inflammatory syndrome affecting coronavirus-infected kids.

“I am very careful and hopefully humble in knowing that I don’t know everything about this disease, and that’s why I’m very reserved in making broad predictions,” Fauci said. “I think we better be careful (that) we are not cavalier in thinking that children are completely immune from the deleterious effects.”

GOP, Democratic Senators Say More Testing Is Needed for People to Return to Work

Sen. Lamar Alexander, R-Tenn., stressed the importance of testing in safely reopening America, while Sen. Patty Murray, D-Wash., stressed the importance of accurate information and the president’s apparent disregard for the truth as the Senate coronavirus hearing got underway.

Sen. Lamar Alexander, R-Tenn, chairman of the Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee, said in his opening statement he believes testing for COVID-19 in the U.S. has been “impressive but not nearly enough.”

Alexander, who appeared via video after going into self-quarantine when an aide tested positive, said the country still needs “widespread testing” and millions of additional tests are necessary for people to safely return to work.

“Staying at home indefinitely is not a solution to this pandemic. There is not enough money available to help all of those by hurt, by a closed economy,” Alexander said, adding “all roads back to work leads through testing" and vaccines.

In a rare bipartisan agreement, Sen. Patty Murray, the ranking Democrat, reiterated Alexander's appeal for "dramatically more testing" and called on the Trump administration to submit a specific plan on testing.

"And when I say a plan, I don't mean a PR plan," Murray added.

Alexander advised against looking back at the Trump administration’s response, saying all countries underestimated the virus. But Murray called the administration’s  response a disaster and said Trump was more focused on “fighting against the truth than fighting this virus.”

An unpublished White House report obtained by NBC News shows COVID-19 cases rising dramatically in several areas across the country, including one rural Kentucky town that saw a 650 percent increase in just one week.

Dr. Fauci to Testify Reopening Too Early Risks 'Needless Suffering and Death' From Coronavirus

Dr. Fauci, the nation’s leading infectious disease specialist and a key member of Trump’s White House coronavirus task force, reportedly plans to publicly warn states Tuesday that prematurely reopening their economies will cause "needless suffering and death."

On Monday night, The New York Times’ Sheryl Gay Stolberg reported that Fauci had sent her an email ahead of his public testimony the following day at a hearing of the Senate’s Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee. 

"The major message that I wish to convey to the Senate HLP committee tomorrow is the danger of trying to open the country prematurely," Fauci wrote in the email, which Stolberg posted on Twitter.

"If we skip over the checkpoints in the guidelines to: ‘Open America Again,’ then we risk the danger of multiple outbreaks throughout the country. This will not only result in needless suffering and death, but would actually set us back on our quest to return to normal," wrote Fauci, the director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases.

The email appears to put Fauci at odds with Trump, who has encouraged states to reopen as soon as it was possible to safely do so. A White House spokesman did not immediately respond to an email late Monday night about Fauci’s remarks.

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United Airlines Announces Policy Changes After Social Media Images Show Packed Flight

After social media images of crowded flights went viral, United Airlines has announced changes to help customers maintain social distancing amid the ongoing coronavirus pandemic, NBC Chicago reports.

The airline made the announcement on social media Monday, saying that customers will be allowed to rebook flights if their flight is too crowded to maintain proper social distancing.

"Starting next week, customers on flights that are expected to be closer to full capacity can rebook on a different flight or receive a travel credit," the company said. "We’ll do our best to reach out about 24 hours before departure and we’ll also provide options at the gate."

The policy change comes after Ethan Weiss, a doctor from San Francisco, tweeted a photo showing doctors, nurses and medical staff returning to the West Coast on a packed United flight after caring for coronavirus patients in New York.

Major airlines have cut back on the number of flights they’re offering due to decreased demand amid the pandemic. Those cutbacks have resulted in more full flights, even with stay-at-home orders largely still in effect throughout the U.S.

Sheriff: California Inmates Tried to Infect Themselves in Hopes of Release

A group of Los Angeles County inmates deliberately tried to infect themselves with the coronavirus in a mistaken belief they would be released if they were sick, the sheriff said Monday.

Video released Monday by Los Angeles County Sheriff Alex Villanueva appeared to show inmates at North County Correctional Facility in Castaic drinking from the same bottle of hot water and taking turns breathing through the same mask.

Villanueva called the behavior disturbing.

"As a direct result of the behavior seen in the video, 21 men tested positive for COVID-19 within a week," he said in a statement.

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Virus Unleashes Wave of Fraud in US Amid Fear and Scarcity

A 39-year-old former investment manager in Georgia was already facing federal federal charges that he robbed hundreds of retirees of their savings through a Ponzi scheme when the rapid spread of COVID-19 presented an opportunity.

Christopher A. Parris started pitching himself as a broker of surgical masks amid the nationwide scramble for protective equipment in those first desperate weeks of the outbreak, federal authorities said. Within weeks, Parris was making millions of dollars on sales orders.

Except there were no masks.

Law enforcement officials say Parris is part of what they are calling a wave of fraud tied to the outbreak.

Homeland Security Investigations, an arm of the Department of Homeland Security, is leading a nationwide crackdown. It has opened over 370 cases and so far arrested 11 people, as part of “Operation Stolen Promise,” according to Matthew Albence, acting director of U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement.

“It’s incredibly rampant and it’s growing by the day,” Albence said. “We’re just scratching the surface of this criminal activity. ”

Parris has not yet entered a plea to fraud charges and his lawyers did not respond to requests for comment from The Associated Press.

Nationwide, investigators have turned up more than false purveyors of PPE. They have uncovered an array of counterfeit or adulterated products, from COVID-19 tests kits and treatments to masks and cleaning products.

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

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