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Intelligence Reports Warned Of Coronavirus Pandemic Long Before Trump Admin Took It Seriously

Intelligence reports given to President Donald Trump’s administration in January and February pointed to coronavirus becoming a “globe-encircling pandemic” long before Trump took action to prevent it from spreading in the U.S., the Washington Post reported Saturday.

Members of Congress and the Trump administration were receiving the reports even as high-level members of both the Republican and Democratic parties were downplaying the disease. Critically, however, the reports did not make any estimates of when the virus might spread to the U.S., or make suggestions for how to prepare, according to WaPo. (RELATED: Senators Caught Dumping Stocks After Private Meeting On Coronavirus Impact)

WASHINGTON, DC – MARCH 18: U.S. President Donald Trump is flanked by Vice President Mike Pence while speaking during a news briefing on the latest development of the coronavirus outbreak in the U.S. in the James Brady Press Briefing Room at the White House March 18, 2020 in Washington, DC. President Trump announced on Twitter that the U.S. and Canada will close their border to non-essential traffic to try and stop the spread of the COVID-19 pandemic. (Photo by Alex Wong/Getty Images)

As the reports flowed in through January and February, Trump himself declared that the virus was “contained” and that the U.S. faced only some risk of it spreading.

“It will all work out well,” he tweeted on January 24.

When 15 cases appeared in the U.S. a month later, Trump continued to downplay the threat.

“When you have 15 people, and the 15, within a couple of days, is going to be down to close to zero, that’s a pretty good job we’ve done,” he said February 27th. (RELATED: Trump Makes Big Move To Pressure The Private Sector)

Others echoed his tone.

Republican Maryland Gov. Larry Hogan critiqued the president’s handling of the disease in early March, saying the things he was hearing from Trump “sometimes conflict with the information we’re getting from the rest of the administration.”

“He at times just says whatever comes to mind or tweets, then someone on TV is saying the opposite,” Hogan told the Washington Post. “It’s critically important that the message is straightforward and fact-based for the public.”

The White House soon pushed back on the criticism, however, denying that Trump failed to take action.

“President Trump has taken historic, aggressive measures to protect the health, wealth and safety of the American people — and did so, while the media and Democrats chose to only focus on the stupid politics of a sham illegitimate impeachment,” WH Principle Deputy Press Secretary Hogan Gidley said in a statement. “It’s more than disgusting, despicable and disgraceful for cowardly unnamed sources to attempt to rewrite history — it’s a clear threat to this great country.”

Trump’s administration has already faced heavy criticism for its weeks-long delay in ramping up testing, a delay the administration blames on an Obama-era regulation. The existence of that regulation has been called into question, however.

 

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One dead in Sri Lanka jail clash as South Asia tries to stem virus

COLOMBO/ISLAMABAD, March 21 (Reuters) – One prisoner died and three others were injured when fighting broke out on Saturday in a Sri Lankan jail over rumors of coronavirus, as governments across South Asia tightened restrictions on movement to try to stem infections.

A worker cleans the hand railings at an empty shopping mall amid concerns about the spread of coronavirus disease (COVID-19) outbreak, in Kathmandu, Nepal March 21, 2020. REUTERS/Navesh Chitrakar

The pandemic appears to have been slow to take off in the region, home to 1.9 billion people, but the rate of infections in Pakistan, India, Bangladesh, Nepal, Bhutan, Sri Lanka, Maldives and Afghanistan is increasing.

As a whole, by 1400 GMT on Saturday, the region had registered 957 coronavirus cases and eight deaths.

Instructions to stay indoors are a challenge for millions of day laborers who can scarcely afford to stay at home, and there are fears that the region will prove particularly vulnerable because of its poor health facilities and overcrowded infrastructure.

In Sri Lanka, which has confirmed 76 cases, police arrested 110 people from various parts of the country for violating a weekend curfew, a police spokesman said.

In Anuradhapura prison, scene of frequent protests against ill-treatment in recent years, inmates fought staff, fearing that the virus had entered the jail.

“Contrary to rumors floating around, no one has tested positive at the Anuradhapura prison,” said lawmaker Namal Rajapaksa.

FLIGHTS SUSPENDED

At Dum Dum, the largest jail in the eastern Indian state of West Bengal, police fired tear gas after prisoners attacked wardens and tried to start a fire after visits were banned because of the virus, a prison official said.

In neighboring Bangladesh, all incoming flights except those from China, Hong Kong and Thailand were to be banned from midnight onwards after 20 people tested positive, a senior civil aviation official said.

At Dhaka airport, authorities started marking the hands of passengers who had been instructed to follow home quarantine.

Pakistan, with 534 confirmed cases and three deaths, suspended all international flights for two weeks. Officials there said a self-quarantine program would continue for at least another 45 days.

In India’s towns and cities, people were scrambling to buy essential commodities ahead of a day-long curfew on Sunday promoted by Prime Minister Narendra Modi as a way of practicing social isolation.

India is also banning all incoming international flights from 2001 GMT on Sunday.

With over 1.3 billion people, India has confirmed 283 cases of coronavirus, but has tested only 15,000 samples in 70 state-run labs, according to a senior health ministry official in New Delhi, one of the lowest testing rates in the world.

“At this point we really don’t know what is the extent of the spread,” the official said, on condition of anonymity.

Indian Railways, which carries more than 25 million passengers every day, said some people had tested positive after traveling by train, forcing officials to try to track down fellow passengers.

Confirmed COVID-19 Cases in South Asia:

Pakistan – 534

India – 283

Sri Lanka – 76

Afghanistan – 24

Bangladesh – 24

Maldives – 13

Nepal – 1

Slideshow (6 Images)

Bhutan – 2

———————————

TOTAL – 957

Additioanl reporting by Rajendra Jadhav in Mumbai, Ruma Paul in Dhaka; Devjyot Ghosal in New Delhi; Editing by Rupam Jain

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Exclusive: Amazon raises overtime pay for warehouse workers

(Reuters) – Amazon.com Inc said on Saturday it is raising overtime pay for associates working in its U.S. warehouses, as the world’s largest online retailer tries to meet the rapidly growing demand for online shopping from consumers stuck at home during the coronavirus outbreak.

FILE PHOTO: Amazon logo is seen in front of diplayed coronavirus disease (COVID-19) in this illustration taken March 19, 2020. REUTERS/Dado Ruvic/Illustration/File Photo

Hourly workers at the warehouses will receive double pay after 40 hours for overtime, up from the 1.5-times rate, from March 15 to May 9, the announcement said.

“We understand the past few weeks has been a very challenging time,” Amazon told employees in an internal announcement on Saturday seen by Reuters. “We want to continue to support you during this time where many services you might depend on are no longer available due to closures.”

This is the second time the e-commerce giant announced an improvement in pay for its workers in a week. On Monday, Amazon hiked the hourly rate for associates to $17 from $15 and announced plans to hire 100,000 warehouse and delivery workers in the United States as the virus outbreak boosts online orders.

Additionally, all part- and full-time hourly team members at Whole Foods Market stores and facilities will receive double their regular hourly base rate of pay for every overtime hour worked in a workweek from March 16 through May 3, 2020, the national food retailer said in an emailed statement on Saturday.

Lawmakers have urged companies to do a better job protecting workers, especially those at warehouses and grocery stores who do not have the luxury of working from home and who are now on the frontlines battling against the further spreading of the virus. They bear a higher risk to their health while continuing to fulfill supplies Americans need to survive while staying indoors.

“We continue to see increased demand from customers to have products delivered to support social distancing in their communities,” Amazon wrote to employees. “Making that possible means that some of us must work to keep good flowing.”

Just hours before Amazon’s Saturday announcement, four Democratic U.S. senators, including Cory Booker and Bernie Sanders on Friday expressed concern in a letter to Amazon’s Chief Executive Jeff Bezos that the world’s largest online retailer has not taken enough measures to protect its warehouse staff. They specifically asked if the company would provide “time-and-a-half” hazard pay for its workers.

Other businesses have also acted. HEB, a Texas-based grocery chain with 140,000 employees in Texas and New Mexico on Friday said it raised workers’ pay by $2 an hour through April 12 that went into effect on Monday.

Amazon has offered unlimited unpaid time off to encourage employees to stay home if they don’t feel well, which could contribute to higher-than-usual absence rate in the warehouses. It has also staggered workers shifts and prohibited them from sitting next to each other in the lunchroom to limit contact.

Amazon on Thursday reported its first warehouse employee in the United States tested positive for the virus, forcing the company to temporarily shutter a warehouse in New York.

As the virus spreads across the United States, several clothing retailers and department-store chains have shut stores and cafe and restaurant operators have closed down or limited services to delivery and take-away.

Online retailers and grocery stores are trying to capture rising demand as more Americans are ordered to stay at home to reduce the spread of the outbreak.

Rival retailer Walmart Inc said on Thursday it plans to hire 150,000 hourly associates in the U.S. and announced $550 million in cash bonuses to reward workers.

The highly contagious coronavirus has infected more than 274,800 people across the world and led to more than 11,300 deaths globally forcing governments across the world to issue mass lockdowns of people in an attempt to slow the spread of the virus.

Reporting by Krystal Hu in New York and Rebekah Mathew in Bengaluru; Editing by Kenneth Li and Diane Craft

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Push for Cash in Rescue Package Came From Unlikely Source: Conservatives

But as it became clear there was bipartisan opposition to President Trump’s push for a payroll tax holiday, Mr. Mnuchin got onboard and the cash idea quickly transformed from pipe dream to reality, to the centerpiece of Senate Republicans’ roughly $1 trillion rescue plan. The optics were jarring, since it is Republicans who usually accuse Democrats of being too quick to throw taxpayer money around.

“Senate Republicans want to put cash in Americans’ hands,” Senator Mitch McConnell, the Kentucky Republican and majority leader, said on the Senate floor as colleagues of both parties worked behind closed doors to hammer out the details of an economic stabilization plan that Mr. McConnell insisted must win Senate approval by Monday.

Not everyone was as enthusiastic about the cash payments. Some Republican colleagues balked, Democrats had reservations about the scope and distribution of the payments and conservative fiscal watchdog groups were aghast.

David McIntosh, the head of the free-market Club for Growth, said Republicans seemed to have borrowed the idea from Andrew Yang, the former Democratic presidential candidate who proposed a $1,000 universal monthly income — an idea that, Mr. McIntosh noted, was subjected to ridicule by Republicans just a few weeks ago.

“It is panic-driven — panic on Capitol Hill,” Mr. McIntosh said. “There is no indication it would work or make a difference. They are throwing up any idea.”

Under the Senate Republicans’ original bill, individuals could receive one-time checks of a maximum of $1,200 or $2,400 for married couples, plus $500 per child. Those earning more money would get a bigger check, and the payment would phase out for those earning more than $75,000, ending entirely for taxpayers with more than $99,000 in income or families earning $198,000. The initial Senate measure would also reduce the payments to $600 for people with no income tax liability but at least $2,500 in earnings.

But those provisions came under attack from lawmakers in both parties and were quickly overhauled in the bipartisan negotiations, in favor of a program that would send the full amount to those at lower income levels. Senator Josh Hawley, Republican of Missouri and another ultraconservative, was among those pushing for that change.

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Will spring breakers become super-spreaders?

Indeed, researchers at the University of Texas at Austin have found that the virus also spreads quickly even among people who are asymptomatic. Ten percent of patients are infected by someone who has no symptoms.

So far, there’s no sign of a spring break surge in Florida’s safety net hospitals, which would potentially be more likely to take in a struggling spring breaker. But it’s also too early. Infected Florida spring breakers are still incubating the illness, spreading the disease. And, state officials don’t know if there will be a surge in other parts of the country because they’re not tracking anyone who has left Florida without symptoms.

“There’s the strong possibility that we could start to see cases popping up after the incubation period. And if it’s not the spring breakers, their parents and grandparents are at high risk as well,” said Nitesh Paryani, an oncologist in Lakeland, who said his cancer specialty doesn’t mean anything amid the public health crisis. “Everybody is treating coronavirus, whether we want to or not. All physicians are being pulled into this fight. It’s an all hands on deck situation.”

Ironically, the risk of returning spring breakers carrying the virus has already manifested itself in Florida. In the city of Gainesville, home to the University of Florida, four students have tested positive. One of the students had returned from Portugal while on spring break, according to local media. The Gainesville Sun reported that one student was a dentistry student who worked in a clinic after returning.

The revelation that there was positive tests among university students played into the university system’s decision to scrap in-person classes for the rest of the semester. Initially, schools planned to delay opening campuses after spring break and resume classes in early April. DeSantis admonished university students this week for returning to fraternity houses to party instead of going home.

Florida State University President John Thrasher, whose college was on spring break this past week, said that he is hopeful that many of the school’s 41,000 plus students will stay away, even those who live off-campus locally.

“We are doing everything we can to discourage them from going back,” Thrasher said.

But while Florida schools contribute to the spring break crowds, students also stream in from the rest of the South and even the Midwest. And it’s not quite clear how many came to the state – and where they are going now that the bars, restaurants and many of the beaches have shut down.

“I would think it next to impossible to track that many people and potential exposures,” said Craig Fugate, the former head of the Federal Emergency Management Agency who also led Florida’s emergency management agency when the state dealt with back-to-back hurricanes. “This may end up being tracked by spring breakers if they get sick here or once they get home and working backwards.”

Visit Florida, the state’s tourism marketing arm, does not have figures for this year, but says that more than 32 million visitors come to the state in March through May. An average of 2.7 million students come to Florida each year, the group estimates.

DeSantis acknowledged Thursday — at the opening of a South Florida mobile testing site — the unintended consequences of a March 11 directive that he and the State University System Board of Governors worked together on. They told students to delay returning to campus from spring break for two weeks.

“We were thinking, don’t come back yet,” DeSantis said. “Instead, they all went back, and they were drinking at the bars every night.”

Despite the clear risks, experts said that several factors might mitigate the threat posed by the spring breakers.

“It certainly has the potential to cause spread, but it may not be as dramatic as some people might think,” said Lessler, the Johns Hopkins professor. Young people are more likely to be asymptomatic, and might therefore be less contagious, he said.
Lessler also cited the short duration of spring break, which lasts about a week for most revelers. The generation time of the virus ranges from four to eight days, weighted towards the higher end, he said. That means that infected spring breakers could spread the virus to one other person, but there might not be enough time to pass the virus on again before heading home.

Still, all public-health officials who were interviewed warned that returning spring breakers could easily bring the virus to new parts of the country, as the disease continues its relentless spread.

“Students on spring break are likely to introduce [coronavirus] into communities that have not yet been exposed to the virus, especially in quieter less well-connected parts of the country,” said William Hanage, professor of epidemiology at Harvard’s T.H. Chan School of Public Health, in an emailed statement. “However this does not change the fact that the virus is well established and community transmission is widespread. Once this has happened, limits on travel become much less important.”

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Coronavirus Live Updates : NPR

A Holocaust survivor is the first reported fatality in Israel from COVID-19.

Israeli media report that 88-year-old Arie Even moved from Hungary to Israel in 1949. He died Friday.

He was one of several residents and staff at a retirement home in Jerusalem to catch the coronavirus, after a social worker reportedly caught the virus from a French visitor at a wedding.

His family said they were saddened not to be able to be with him during his final days. They were asked to stay away in order to not catch the virus.

“He was a beloved and dear man, lived a full life, was dedicated to his family, and showed strength until his very last moments,” his son said in a statement published by the Israeli daily Haaretz. “We lament that he had to spend his last moment without his family by his side.”

Coronavirus cases in Israel have spiked in recent days to more than 800 by Saturday. Israelis are required to stay at home, with some exceptions.

But many Israelis went outside to enjoy good weather Saturday. Health ministry officials threatened stricter lockdown measures if crowds don’t comply.

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Pence says he and wife will be tested for coronavirus

“Given the unique position that I have as vice president and as the leader of the White House coronavirus task force, both I and my wife will be tested for the coronavirus later this afternoon,” Pence said during a news conference at the White House.

His office announced Friday that one of its members tested positive for the coronavirus — the closest confirmed case to Pence that is publicly known.

Pence told reporters Saturday that his staffer who tested positive for coronavirus is “doing well.”

He reiterated neither President Donald Trump nor himself had direct contact with the staff member, and said that health authorities have traced his contacts.

The person had “mild” cold-like symptoms for a day and a half and has not been at the White House since Monday, according to Pence.

195,000 Americans tested

Pence also announced that more than 195,000 Americans have been tested for the virus.

He noted that the number does not include county hospitals or health care labs around the country. Currently, only 19,343 tests have come back positive, Pence said.

Trump also told reporters on Saturday that Congress is close to reaching a deal on a proposal for the next stimulus bill to deal with the pandemic.

On Saturday, congressional and administration negotiators entered a crucial day in the effort to deploy more than $1 trillion in emergency stimulus to a staggering economy, with a growing consensus on a final agreement, but a handful of significant hang-ups still needed to be resolved.

Bipartisan groups of senators worked late into Friday night with top officials from Trump’s administration to lock in a final agreement — a deal that people directly involved in the negotiations tell CNN could top a cost of $1.5 trillion — before falling short of a midnight deadline imposed by Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell.

Larry Kudlow, a top economic adviser to Trump, went even further on the overall scope of the package Saturday, telling reporters it could top $2 trillion.

This is a breaking news story and will be updated.

CNN’s Nicky Robertson and Kevin Bohn contributed to this report.

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U.S. Attorney for Colorado to lead federal coronavirus fraud investigations

The United States Attorney for Colorado is leading the charge against a growing threat of coronavirus-related fraud.

At the direction of U.S. Attorney General William Barr, Jason Dunn will prioritize the investigation and prosecution of any fraud related to the COVID-19 crisis, the U.S. Attorney’s Office said in a news release.

Dunn also appointed Executive U.S. Attorney J. Chris Larson to serve as the office’s coronavirus fraud coordinator, the release said.

The U.S. Attorney’s Office outlined several schemes which could take advantage of people during this uneasy period:

  • Individuals and businesses selling fake cures for COVID-19 online
  • Phishing emails from entities posing as the World Health Organization or the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention
  • Malicious websites and apps that appear to share coronavirus-related information to gain and lock access to your devices until payment is received
  • Seeking donations for illegitimate or non-existent charitable organizations
  • Medical providers fraudulently billing or overcharging for tests and procedures
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Stimulus package could top $2 trillion as negotiators look to clear final major hurdles

Bipartisan groups of senators worked late into Friday night with top officials from President Donald Trump’s administration to lock in a final agreement — a deal that people directly involved in the negotiations tell CNN could top a cost of $1.5 trillion — before falling short of a midnight deadline imposed by Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell.

Larry Kudlow, a top economic adviser to Trump, went even further on the overall scope the package Saturday, telling reporters it could top $2 trillion.

“The package is coming in about 10% of GDP, it’s a very large package,” Kudlow, the director of the National Economic Council, said. Ten percent of gross domestic product is roughly $2 trillion.

The expanding price tag of the package was matched only by the expanding crisis it is being drafted to try and blunt. The negotiations are expected to continue toward a final agreement through the day, with both sides acknowledging failure at this point isn’t an option.

“There’s been a lot of near consensus throughout all the working groups,” Eric Ueland, the White House director of legislative affairs, told reporters as he departed Capitol Hill Friday night, making clear “nothing is agreed to until everything is agreed to.”

The urgency of the moment was apparent throughout the day and night Friday, with senators assigned to specific subject areas cloistered in a web of hearing rooms in a Senate office building, as Kudlow, Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin and Labor Secretary Eugene Scalia shuffling between rooms in an effort to make progress across a sweeping range of stimulus and emergency aid options.

Supply chain woes hit health care workers in need of gowns, masks and other protective equipment
Negotiators are expected to continue that throughout Saturday as they look to clinch a final agreement. McConnell, a Kentucky Republican, has set a deadline for drafting the legislative text by Saturday afternoon, adding pressure to negotiators in the midst of working through a massive package designed to surge aid to individuals, small businesses and distressed larger industries facing economic devastation as the spread of coronavirus continues to accelerate nationwide.

McConnell also set up a procedural vote to move forward on the legislation for Sunday, laying the groundwork for a possible final vote to pass a deal by Monday — an urgent timeline requested by Mnuchin.

Senate Democratic Minority Leader Chuck Schumer said Friday he was hopeful a global agreement could be reached on the package by Saturday, acknowledging its “a big, complicated, huge bill.”

Nancy Pelosi-Steve Mnuchin relationship key to federal government's coronavirus response
Schumer has remained in close contact with his House counterpart, Speaker Nancy Pelosi, as has Mnuchin, who held two conference calls with Schumer and Pelosi as the negotiations progressed on Friday. The sign off from Pelosi, who instructed her House committee chairs to send proposals to be included in the Senate talks to her policy team, is crucial to any final agreement.

The major outstanding issues as the four working groups reconvene Saturday are centered on two Democratic priorities — one to expand and enhance unemployment insurance benefits and a second to create a stabilization fund to address revenue shortfalls in states.

The unemployment insurance proposal has been by far the most significant hurdle to the talks, people involved say, with Democrats seeking to expand both the duration and size of benefits. Republicans have balked over whether the state-by-state system is capable of handling such an influx and the Labor Department sought to create a work around proposal to address the issue on Friday.

As senators broke for the night, Senator Ron Wyden, the top Democrat on the Senate Finance Committee, said Republicans and Democrats planned to take proposals from the night’s talks back to their respective sides to see if they could be agreed to before proceeding.

“I think we made good progress. But both sides now have issues that they have to go back and check,” Wyden told reporters.

Trump will be judged on one thing now -- and it won't be impeachment

Negotiators are also working to finalize details of direct payments to individuals and families, a central plank of the Trump administration’s proposal, with both sides nearing agreement to expand both the size of the rebate checks and the scope of those eligible to receive them, people involved in the talks told CNN. Specifically, the negotiators have agreed to expand the size of the direct assistance to lower-income individuals and families, the people said.

The way the bill is set to be structured, the combination of the unemployment insurance piece and the direct payments piece are closely intertwined, with both still open for negotiators to work through. Senators appeared close to an agreement on matching the amount of money deployed through direct assistance with the same amount to expand unemployment insurance — a number set at roughly $250 billion each, the people said.

As a final agreement in principle remained out of reach, the details also remained fluid. “There are still some issues outstanding on the tax and relief to the American people piece,” Ueland told reporters.

Work on more than $200 billion for airlines and other distressed large industries, a $300 billion proposal to provide forgivable loans of up to $10 million to small businesses and a surge in spending to aid health care providers all appeared to be close to consensus.

CNN’s Ted Barrett, Manu Raju and Clare Foran contributed to this story.