McConnell unveils economic rescue plan amid virus shutdown; travel restrictions expand

(AP) — Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell has unveiled a sweeping economic rescue plan to pump $1,200 checks directly to taxpayers, $300 billion for small businesses to keep idled workers on payroll and $208 billion in loans to airlines and other industries.

President Donald Trump speaks Thursday at the White House briefing on the coronavirus outbreak. (CNN, Pool)

It’s the initial Republican offer on the biggest package yet to respond to the coronavirus outbreak.

Negotiations with Democrats begin Friday.

The GOP leader’s effort builds on President Donald Trump’s request for Congress to “go big” as lawmakers race to craft a $1 trillion economic aid and stimulus package amid the pandemic crisis and nationwide shutdown that’s hurtling the country toward a likely recession.

The Trump administration has upgraded its already dire warning to Americans against all international travel as the coronavirus outbreak spreads.

The State Department on Thursday issued a new alert urging Americans not to travel abroad.

Until the upgrade, the department’s advice to U.S. citizens had been to “reconsider” all international travel.

The change from the previous “level three” alert to a “level four” alert will likely have little practical effect because it is not mandatory and there are now limited transportation options for international travel.

Mexico's Foreign Relations Minister says he has held talks with U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo about travel restrictions at the border "that won't paralyze economic activity, and leave the border open to commerce and workers."

Marcelo Ebrard said Thursday he would give more details tomorrow.

Pompeo wrote in his Twitter account that he and Ebrard “have been working closely on travel restrictions that balance protecting our citizens from further transmission of #COVID19. Together, we can reduce public health risks and prioritize essential cross-border commerce and trade.”

The death toll in Italy has overtaken China’s, a stark illustration of how the coronavirus pandemic has pivoted toward Europe and the United States.

Italy now has 3,405 registered deaths, roughly 150 more than China - a country with a population more than 20 times larger.

The milestone came the same day that the Chinese city where the virus first emerged recorded no new infections, a sign that China’s draconian lockdowns were a powerful method to stop the virus’ spread.

A visiting Chinese Red Cross team has criticized Italians’ failure to properly quarantine themselves, and and take the national lockdown seriously.

In the U.S., Congress is working urgently to fashion a $1 trillion measure to prop up households and the U.S. economy amid the coronavirus outbreak.

The White House is proposing to send Americans first-round checks — potentially $3,000 for a family of four.

The fast-track effort is underway as the first two lawmakers tested positive for the COVID-19 virus.

Congress is facing calls to change its rules and allow for remote voting.

Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin said Thursday the checks to Americans would be $1,000 per adult and $500 per child.

He told Fox Business Network the payments be direct deposited into people’s accounts.

President Donald Trump said Thursday the government should take an equity stake in companies that need bailouts because of the devastating effects of the coronavirus on the U.S. economy.

He told a briefing he has executive authority to curb the impact on businesses.

Such a move would be an extraordinary reach by government into the private sector.

He said he’d specifically target companies that did stock buybacks, rather than investing in infrastructure.

Trump said he’d back restrictions on executive bonuses and future buybacks from companies receiving federal support.

He also spoke optimistically of therapeutic drugs that are being explored and might be helpful against COVID-19. But he had no announcements of new and imminent treatments at a briefing Thursday.

On the public health and economic fronts, he says: “More help is on the way.”

Trump and FDA commissioner Dr. Stephen Hahn described several drugs being tested. Trump plans to visit the Federal Emergency Management Agency on Thursday.

Also at the briefing, Trump and other officials cited a long-used malaria drug called chloroquine along with remdesivir, an experimental antiviral currently in testing and possibly using plasma from people who have survived infection with the new virus.

Swiss drugmaker Roche announced a new study of an arthritis drug to fight COVID-19, the disease the virus causes.

No drugs are specifically approved for it now. Treatments might ease symptoms but do not stop the virus from spreading.

The pandemic endangering the health of untold millions of Americans is also threatening financial ruin for individuals and businesses.

CNN reported Thursday there were more than 10,200 people across the country that have tested positive for the virus. At least 152 people have died.

On Wednesday, Congress approved a $100 billion-plus bill to boost testing for the virus and guarantee paid sick leave for millions of workers hit by it. President Donald Trump quickly signed the bill into law.

Trump has also turned to a generations-old law to give the government more power to steer production by private companies. An immediate goal is to overcome shortages in masks, ventilators and other supplies desperately needed as more and more people become sick.

Invoking the 70-year-old Defense Production Act is just one in a series of extraordinary steps Trump is undertaking to steady a nation in the grip of the novel virus. The Canada-U.S. border, the world’s longest, has been effectively closed to anything but commerce and essential travel. Navy hospital ships are being deployed to New York City and the West Coast.

The Federal Reserve has established currency swaps with nine central banks overseas to support dollar lending in global markets that are under pressure from the impact of the virus outbreak.

Under the swap lines, the Fed exchanges dollars for an equal amount of foreign currency.

The move enables foreign banks to provide dollars to their banks that sometimes lend and trade in US currency.

The nine central banks include the Reserve Bank of Australia, the Banco Central do Brasil, and the Banco de Mexico.

Trump calls off June G-7 meeting because of virus

President Donald Trump has called off the G-7 meeting at Camp David scheduled for June, citing the ongoing coronavirus pandemic.

White House spokesman Judd Deere says the leaders will instead huddle by video conference.

Trump spoke with G-7 leaders Monday by video conference in a meeting convened by French President Emmanuel Macron.

Deere says Trump, who takes on the leadership of the group this year, would hold those virtual meetings monthly as the world struggles to response to the virus outbreak and its economic repercussions.

UN official diagnosed with coronavirus

U.N. World Food Programme Executive Director David Beasley says he has been diagnosed with COVID-19.

Beasley says in a statement he began to feel ill after returning from an official visit to Canada and put himself into quarantine at his South Carolina home last Saturday.

Beasley says his symptoms have been mild and he is in good spirits. He says he continues to work from home and his employees are helping him inform anyone he had contact with during his trip.

Beasley has run the program since 2017 that provides food to more than 80 million starving and hungry people around the world.

The 63-year-old Beasley was governor of South Carolina for four years starting in 1995.

Washington state death toll up to 74

The death toll in Washington state from the new coronavirus has increased to 74, and the number of cases has topped 1,300, according to state health officials.

King County reported four new deaths — bringing its total to 60 — while Snohomish, Benton and Island counties each reported one death.

Gov. Jay Inslee issued an order Thursday prohibiting non-urgent medical and dental procedures in an effort to secure protective equipment used by front-line health care workers. The order applies to any procedure that would require someone to wear protective gear.

“We know the health care personal protective equipment supply chain in Washington has been severely disrupted by the significant increased use of such equipment worldwide,” Inslee said in a statement. “We will do all we can to protect the women and men who protect us.”

As virus spreads, VA gets set to back up taxed US hospitals

The Department of Veterans Affairs is rapidly preparing for the possibility it may have to absorb overflow civilian patients if private hospitals are overrun by the coronavirus pandemic.

The government-run hospital system has already been bracing for a potential surge of 1 million veterans infected by coronavirus.

According to a VA document obtained by The Associated Press, the agency is asking Congress for $16.6 billion in emergency money to cover coronavirus care over the next six months.

The money would be used to ramp up COVID-19 testing, cover hospital care and protective masks for 4,500 more veterans, add medical ventilators and boost online telehealth options.

Georgia state legislature, lt. gov. told to self-quarantine

Health officials are asking Georgia’s entire state legislature to self-quarantine for two weeks after a state senator was diagnosed with coronavirus.

And it’s not just the lawmakers: It’s all of their staff members, too.

According to a statement from the Georgia House, the senator who was diagnosed has been identified as Brandon Beach.

The state’s lieutenant governor is also in self-quarantine due to Beach’s diagnosis.

As for Georgia Gov. Brian Kemp, CNN has reached out to to his office about whether he may have been exposed.

Officials are also asking people who frequent the Capitol to use their best judgment and self quarantine if necessary.

Celebrities get virus tests, raising concerns of inequality

Celebrities, politicians and professional athletes faced a backlash this week as several revealed that they had been tested for the coronavirus, even when they didn’t have a fever or other symptoms.

That’s fueling a perception that the wealthy and famous have been able to jump to the head of the line to get tested while others have been turned away.

But the concerns over preferential treatment underscore a fundamental truth about inequalities baked into the American health care system — those with financial means can often receive a different level of service.

Among those celebrities who have tested positive for coronavirus are Tom Hanks and his wife Rita Wilson, Idris Elba and Rachel Matthews, the voice of Honeymaren in “Frozen 2.” Professional athletes with the disease include Kevin Durant and three other unnamed Brooklyn Nets players.

In addition, at least two members of Congress - Miami Rep. Mario Diaz-Balart, a Republican, and Utah Rep. Ben McAdams, a Democrat - have been diagnosed.

California governor issues statewide order for people to stay at home amid virus outbreak, spend $150 million to protect homeless from virus

California Gov. Gavin Newsom has put the nation’s most populous state on a stay-at-home order.

It expands to nearly 40 million people restrictions he said already applied to about half the state.

He said late Thursday that the statewide restriction on any non-essential movement outside the home is needed to control the spread of the coronavirus that threatens to overwhelm the state’s medical system.

He earlier in the day issued the dire prediction that 56% of California’s population could contract the virus over the next eight weeks.

As worries about the spread of the coronavirus confine millions of Californians to their homes, concern is growing about those who have no homes in which to shelter.

California has more than 150,000 homeless people, the most in the nation, and that population is considered disproportionately at risk from the COVID-19 virus because of their lifestyle and because many have underlying health conditions that make them vulnerable.

Gov. Gavin Newsom on Wednesday said 60,000 homeless people could become infected. The governor announced he’ll spend $150 million on efforts to prevent the virus from sweeping through that population.

Houston pleads for more tests, gear as cars pack hospital

Houston residents are waiting in a line of cars more than a mile long line as drive-thru testing for the new coronavirus begins in the city.

The mayor and county officials on Thursday warned that there aren’t enough kits or protective gear to meet demand.

Texas has reported more than 80 virus cases and three deaths. Public frustrations over the difficulty of getting tested have been building since the first U.S. case was confirmed Jan. 20.

Rep. Sheila Jackson Lee says about 2,500 testing kits are available at the drive-thru at United Memorial Medical Center, and only those showing symptoms will be screened.

Wuhan reports no new virus cases, offering hope to world

The Chinese city of Wuhan where the virus at the heart of the global pandemic was first detected has recorded a second consecutive day with no new confirmed or suspected cases.

Nationwide, a total of 39 cases were recorded Friday, the health ministry said, all of them brought from overseas. Three more deaths were also registered, bringing China's total to 3,248, a figure surpassed on Thursday by Italy as the highest in a single nation.

China still leads in overall cases, with 80,967, more than 71,000 of whom have been declared healthy and sent home.

China has loosened some travel restrictions in Hubei, the province surrounding Wuhan, although its provincial border remains closed and Wuhan itself remains under lockdown. Officials say they will only lift the quarantine after Wuhan goes 14 consecutive days with no new case.

China exonerates doctor reprimanded for warning of virus

China has taken the unusual move of exonerating a doctor who was reprimanded for warning about the coronavirus outbreak and later died of the disease.

The ruling Communist Party’s top disciplinary body said the police force in Wuhan had revoked its admonishment of Dr. Li Wenliang that had included a threat of arrest.

It said a “solemn apology" had been issued to Li’s family and two police officers issued “disciplinary punishments" for the original handling of the matter.

In death, Li became the face of simmering anger at the party’s controls over information and complaints that officials lie about or hide disease outbreaks, industrial accidents, natural disasters and financial frauds, while punishing whistleblowers and independent journalists.

Italy passes China in coronavirus-related deaths

Italy has become the country with the most coronavirus-related deaths, surpassing China by registering 3,405 dead.

Italy reached the gruesome milestone on the same day the epicenter of the pandemic, Wuhan, China, recorded no new infections. Overall, China on Thursday counted 3,249 dead, 156 fewer than Italy, according to the Johns Hopkins University virus map.

Both Italy’s death toll and its new infections shot up again, adding 427 more dead and 5,322 more infections. Overall, Italy has recorded 41,035 infections, more than half of the world’s positive cases.

Italy’s health care system has been overwhelmed by the virus, and on Thursday a visiting Chinese Red Cross team criticized the failure of Italians to fully quarantine and take the national lockdown seriously.

U.N. and Italian health authorities have cited a variety of reasons for Italy’s high toll, key among them its large elderly population, who are particularly susceptible to developing serious complications from the virus.

Italy has the world’s second oldest population after Japan’s and the vast majority of Italy’s dead were over age 70. In addition, virtually all of Italy’s dead had one or more underlying medical condition, such as diabetes, cancer, hypertension or renal insufficiency.

UN official diagnosed with coronavirus

U.N. World Food Programme Executive Director David Beasley says he has been diagnosed with COVID-19.

Beasley says in a statement he began to feel ill after returning from an official visit to Canada and put himself into quarantine at his South Carolina home last Saturday.

Beasley says his symptoms have been mild and he is in good spirits. He says he continues to work from home and his employees are helping him inform anyone he had contact with during his trip.

Beasley has run the program since 2017 that provides food to more than 80 million starving and hungry people around the world.

The 63-year-old Beasley was governor of South Carolina for four years starting in 1995.

EU Brexit negotitator Barnier has coronavirus

Michel Barnier, the European Commission’s chief negotiator for the future relationship with Britain after Brexit, says he has been infected with the coronavirus.

Barnier said in a Twitter message on Thursday that he is doing well with a good morale.

“I am following all the necessary instructions, as is my team,” Barnier said. “For all those affected already, and for all those currently in isolation, we will get through this together.”

Though Britain left the political institutions of the EU on Jan. 31, it remains part of the bloc’s tariff-free single market and customs union until the end of this year. The talks began this month in Brussels, and are due to alternate between there and London.

Iran state TV: Khamenei to pardon 10,000 more prisoners

State TV in Iran is reporting that the country’s top leader will pardon 10,000 more prisoners in an apparent effort to combat the coronavirus.

As part of steps taken to try to curb the spread of the new virus that has killed more than 1,100 people in Iran, the country has already released 85,000 prisoners on temporary leave.

State TV quoted a judiciary spokesman saying that the prisoners — among them an unknown number of inmates whose cases are political and related to activism or speech — would be granted amnesty under a decree by Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei on the occasion of the Iranian new year, called Nowruz.

Iran seeks lift on sanctions for medical help

Iran’s Mission to the United Nations is urging the international community to call on the United States to lift sanctions against the country immediately so it can import medicine and medical equipment desperately needed to fight the coronavirus pandemic.

Iran is one of the hardest-hit countries in the world in the COVID-19 pandemic. Nine out of 10 cases in the Middle East come from the Islamic Republic, and fears remain that it may be under reporting its cases.

Iran’s U.N. Mission said in a statement late Thursday that “the inhuman and unlawful” U.S. sanctions are hampering efforts to prevent further spread of COVID-19 to other nations and are harming the health and lives of Iranians.

“In other words, while the U.S. is trying to curb the virus internally, it is helping the spread of virus externally by undermining the professional capabilities of certain affected countries who try to combat its pandemic,” the mission said.

The mission called the U.S. sanctions “tantamount to crimes against humanity,” saying they “make it virtually impossible for Iranians to import needed medicine and medical equipment.”

It said a special mechanism allowing Iran to import medicine is very difficult to use because of sanctions-related “impediments” including extreme difficulty for Iran to use its financial resources abroad.

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