TOP OF THE HOUR:
— UN Secretary-General urges Africa to prepare for spread of coronavirus
— Australia foreign minister: WHO needs review, but does valuable work
— South Korea reports 22 new cases of coronavirus, marking fourth straight day under 30
— China reports 46 new virus cases, mostly imported, but no deaths
—Trump says data indicates US is ‘past the peak’ for virus
— WHO regrets the U.S. decision to halt funding.
—Group of 20 nations agree to suspend debt payments.
UNITED NATIONS — United Nations Secretary-General Antonio Guterres is urging stepped up efforts to prepare Africa for the expected spread of the coronavirus pandemic, warning that the continent “could end up suffering the greatest impacts.”
The U.N. chief told a video conference with African ambassadors to the United Nations in New York on Wednesday that COVID-19 “is in no way of Africa’s making.” But like the climate crisis, he said, Africa could he hurt most.
Guterres said the United Nations and African countries are working together in the fight against the pandemic, and he commended early efforts by governments to suppress transmission, control the spread of COVID-19 and prepare their economy for the virus’ impact.
As examples, the secretary-general cited Uganda’s rescheduling social security contributions to support businesses, Namibia offering emergency income grants to workers who have lost jobs, and Egypt expanding it social safety net, reducing taxation for industries and postponing taxation on agricultural land.
CANBERRA, Australia — The Australian foreign minister says she has spoken to U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo about the World Health Organization and agrees the international agency needs to be reviewed, but Australia continues to support WHO’s valuable work in the Pacific.
President Donald Trump has directed his administration to freeze WHO funding, claiming the agency didn’t deliver adequate early reports on the coronavirus and cost the U.S. valuable response time.
Foreign Minister Marise Payne told Seven Network television on Thursday: “We share some of the concerns of the United States and I do think there are areas of the operation of WHO that absolutely require review.”
“For example, in declaring coronavirus from our perspective as a pandemic, closing our borders, for example, in relation to travel from Wuhan, Hubei province, from mainland China very early and we were criticized by the WHO for doing that,” Payne said.
“That said, I don’t think that management issues perhaps in Geneva should have a negative impact on some of the very good work that we do in association with WHO in places like the Pacific and in Indonesia. Australia and New Zealand are currently in a very, very strong partnership with WHO in the Pacific out of their office in Suva to deliver support to the Pacific which is really, really important in the midst of a coronavirus pandemic like this and I would not like to see that thrown away.”
Australia contributed $67 million to WHO in the past two years, which is 0.75% of the organization’s total funding.
WELLINGTON, New Zealand — New Zealand reported just 15 new cases of coronavirus on Thursday as Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern began outlining what restrictions imposed during a strict four-week lockdown might be eased from next Wednesday.
Lawmakers will make a final decision on Monday on whether to proceed with easing the restrictions. Under Ardern’s plan, primary schools would reopen but attendance would be voluntary, and some business could reopen, including drive-through and delivery restaurants. Malls and retail stores would remain closed and large gatherings banned.
New Zealand has reported 1401 cases of COVID-19 and nine deaths. The number of new daily cases has dropped significantly over the past 11 days.
SEOUL, South Korea — South Korea has confirmed 22 more cases of the coronavirus over the past 24 hours, raising the country’s total tally to 10,613 with 229 deaths.
The new cases recorded Thursday means that South Korea’s daily increase in virus infections has been below 30 for the fourth consecutive day.
The Koreas Centers for Disease Control and Prevention says in a statement that 7,757 people have been recovered and released from quarantine.
It says 14,268 people were under tests to determine whether they’ve contracted the virus.
Despite the recently slowing caseload, officials have warned about the possibility of a broader “quiet spread” with people easing up on social distancing.
SINGAPORE — Singapore has reported a record 447 new coronavirus cases, it’s third straight day of sharp daily spikes, to raise its tally to 3,699.
The number of infections has jumped by 1,167 since Monday, mostly linked to crowded dormitories that house foreign workers from Bangladesh, India and other poorer Asian countries.
Despite successfully managing the first wave of infections, Singapore has overlooked this vast population of foreign workers who live in dormitories that typically house up to 20 men in a room with shared kitchen, toilets and other facilities. Tens of thousands of workers have been quarantined in their dormitories, while some were moved to alternative sites to reduce crowding.
The health ministry said in a statement late Wednesday that the significant rise in cases among foreign workers, that now account for about half of total infections, were expected partly due to ongoing tests at the dormitories. About a fifth of total cases were detected in one single dormitory.
The city-state of nearly six million people has imposed a partial lockdown until May 4, and made it mandatory for people to wear masks outside of their homes to curb the virus transmission. Ten people have died so far from the virus. (edited)
BEIJING — China reported 46 new virus cases on Thursday, 34 of them brought from outside the country, but no new deaths from the outbreak.
Of the domestic cases, three were recorded in the capital Beijing, which has been enforcing strict quarantine and social distancing measures. Four others were reported in the northeastern province of Heilongjiang, where authorities have been rushing to stem a new flare-up among Chinese citizens crossing the border from Russia.
China has now reported a total of 3,342 deaths from the virus among 82,341 cases. Around 3,000 people remain hospitalized with COVID-19 or under isolation and monitoring for showing signs of the illness or testing positive but not displaying symptoms.
SANTA FE, N.M. — New Mexico’s governor says the state has accepted an invitation from the White House to participate in a pilot program to improve detection and contact tracing for coronavirus infections in efforts to better isolate outbreaks.
Democratic Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham says the offer came up in a Wednesday conversation with the White House, and that it was unclear whether other states would be involved. She says the nascent effort appears to involve the CDC and the U.S. Health and Human Services Department, along with coronavirus task force adviser Debbie Birx.
New Mexico has consistently been among the top U.S. states in testing per capita for COVID-19, while aggressively tracing infection sources and developing a customized forecast model in cooperation with two national laboratories in the state.
TALLAHASSEE, Fla. — Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis has assigned a troubleshooter to take over the state’s flat-footed response to the explosion in unemployment claims that followed mandatory business closings brought on by the coronavirus pandemic.
DeSantis announced at a news conference that he was tapping Management Services Secretary Jonathan Satter to take over the Department of Economic Opportunity’s response to the COVID-19 pandemic.
“His mission is very simple: Get assistance out as quickly as you can,” DeSantis said.
DeSantis said he was disappointed by the state’s website and phone system for receiving claims after an initial spike last month. Hundreds of thousands of Floridians who sought jobless aid encountered an online portal that crashed and phone systems that kept them on hold for hours.
DeSantis also announced he wanted to form a task force to look at ways to restart the state’s economy. He said he plans to announce members by the end of the week.
MINNEAPOLIS — The U.S. Food and Drug Administration has approved a low-cost ventilator developed by the University of Minnesota and aimed at helping COVID-19 patients breathe.
The FDA authorized use of the compact device, known as the Coventor, that was quickly developed and designed by a team of university researchers, a medical school resident and an engineer.
The developers hope the Coventor will be used in clinical settings where traditional ventilators are unavailable.
SEATTLE — The Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation has announced an additional $150 million in grant funding to help fight the coronavirus outbreak with diagnostics, therapeutics, and vaccines.
In a statement, the Seattle-based philanthropy also said it would use resources from the foundation’s $2.5 billion Strategic Investment Fund. These could be used to quickly get essential medical supplies to poorer nations and to help companies get financing to produce products in the fight against COVID-19.
Gates Foundation co-chair Melinda Gates said world leaders must unite to make sure diagnostics, vaccines and treatments are available in a fair way. The Gates Foundation previously committed $100 million to help deal with the pandemic.
WASHINGTON — President Donald Trump is threatening to use what he says is his constitutional authority to adjourn both chambers of Congress to clear the way for recess appointments to his administration.
Trump said lawmakers have made it difficult to run the federal government, saying “every week, they put up roadblocks.” He says that the current practice of conducting “phony, pro-forma” sessions of Congress so that he can’t make recess appointments is a dereliction of duty that the American people cannot afford during the coronavirus crisis.
He complains that some of his nominees have waited years for approval, though previous presidents have leveled similar complaints.
SAN FRANCISCO — San Francisco’s public health director said that a month into a stay-in-place order that has California’s 40 million people trapped indoors, they still have problems getting a reliable supply of virus test swabs and the liquid used to transport the specimen. The ability to test widely is critical to re-open the state to business and recreation.
WASHINGTON — President Donald Trump says data indicates the U.S. is “past the peak” of the COVID-19 epidemic, clearing the way for his plans to roll out guidelines to begin to “reopen” the country.
Speaking during his daily press briefing, Trump called the latest data “encouraging,” saying they have “put us in a very strong position to finalize guidelines for states on reopening the country.” Trump said those guidelines will be unveiled Thursday at the White House.
The guidelines are expected to clear the way for an easing of social distancing guidelines in areas with low transmission of the coronavirus, while keeping them in place in harder-hit places. The ultimate decisions will remain with governors.
ORLANDO, Fla. — U.S. train horns can deliver an ear-splitting jolt to drivers sitting in traffic or people drifting off to sleep at home, but they’ll be put to another use Thursday.
At 3 p.m. EDT, led by Amtrak, trains across the U.S. will sound their horns to honor the transportation employees who are considered essential workers during the new coronavirus crisis.
Amtrak trains, along with regional partner trains across the U.S., plan to give two blasts of their horns in a salute to transportation workers, as well as health care workers, first-responders, child care workers, grocery store employees and other workers providing essential services during the pandemic.
BERLIN — Automaker Volkswagen says it will resume production at passenger car plants in Europe next week, starting at plants in Zwickau, Germany and Bratislava, Slovakia.
The Wolfsburg, Germany-based company says other plants in Germany and in the U.S., Portugal, Spain and Russia will resume production in the week starting April 27. Factories in South Africa, Argentina, Brazil and Mexico will follow in May.
The Volkswagen brand’s chief operating officer, Ralf Brandstaetter, says decisions by various governments to loosen restrictions imposed because of the coronavirus outbreak mean “conditions have been established for the gradual resumption of production.”
He says the company has developed a “comprehensive catalog of measures” to protect employees’ health.
Most plants in China already have resumed production, as has Volkswagen’s components division.
PARIS — The French defense ministry says 668 members of the crew of the aircraft carrier Charles de Gaulle and accompanying vessels have tested positive for the coronavirus.
The Charles de Gaulle returned to its base in the southern port of Toulon on Sunday after the outbreak broke out.
The French Defense Ministry said Wednesday that 1,767 Navy troops had been tested, a majority of them sailors from the Charles de Gaulle. Amid those infected with the virus, 31 are at a hospital, including one in intensive care.
Results of about 30% of the tests are not known yet.
The Charles de Gaulle crew members have been placed into quarantine in the military base of Toulon. The carrier and other vessels have started being disinfected.
The Charles de Gaulle cut short by about 10 days a nearly three-month mission in the central Mediterranean then in the Atlantic and North Sea.
BERLIN — The German military says it has given dozens of ventilators to its British NATO allies to help them tackle the coronavirus outbreak in the UK.
The Bundeswehr medical corps says it provided 60 ‘Life-Base III’ portable ventilators following a request last month from Air Vice-Marshal Alastair Reid, the acting surgeon general of the British armed forces.
Ventilators are used to provide seriously ill patients with COVID-19, the respiratory disease caused by coronavirus, with sufficient oxygen.
Britain has had more than twice as many coronavirus deaths as Germany, despite having fewer confirmed infections.
CAIRO — Libya’s U.N.-backed government based in the capital, Tripoli, announced a lockdown that will last 10 days starting on Friday to slow the spread of the coronavirus in the war-torn country.
The besieged Tripoli administration ordered the shutdown of all large markets and non-essential shops in its territory, and banned cars from the roads. Citizens wearing masks may venture out by foot from 8 a.m. to 2 p.m., the statement said. Banks, a main source of crowding in recent weeks, would also close.
The government, which rules a shrinking corner of the country’s west, had initially left it to local officials to impose most of the restrictive orders. But as confirmed infections rose to 35, including one death, it accepted a proposal from the National Center for Disease Control to take harsher steps.
LAS VEGAS — Las Vegas is withering with tourists staying home and conventions and businesses closed due to the coronavirus pandemic, according to the city’s outspoken mayor .
“This shutdown has become one of total insanity,” Mayor Carolyn Goodman said the day after Nevada Gov. Steve Sisolak declared he was nowhere near reopening parts of the state’s idled economy.
“I am asking: Open the city. Open Clark County. Open the state,” said Goodman, reading a statement at the start of weekly online City Council meeting.
“For heaven’s sake,” Goodman said, “being closed is killing us already, and killing Las Vegas, our industry, our convention and tourism business that we have all worked so hard to build. The longer we wait to do this, the more impossible it will become to recover.”
State health officials reported Wednesday that more than 3,200 people have been diagnosed with the virus, and 131 have died.
ANKARA, Turkey — Turkey’s parliament has approved legislation that increases punishment for violence, threats or insults against medical staff while they are on duty.
The long-awaited bill was passed as a gesture to medical professionals battling the coronavirus outbreak.
The measure also allows medical personnel to refuse to treat aggressive or disrespectful patients as long as other personnel are available to step in.
PARIS — For the first time since the virus outbreak began in the country, France reported a decrease in numbers of COVID-19 patients at hospitals.
National health agency chief Jerome Salomon says there were about 500 fewer people infected with the virus at hospitals than the day before.
Numbers of COVID-19 patients in intensive care units dropped for the seventh straight day, he added.
The overall death toll from the disease in France has risen to 17,167, including 10,643 at hospitals and 6,524 in nursing homes.
Salomon urged the French to keep enforcing strict confinement rules with the lockdown of the country extended to May 11. “We must remain vigilant,” he said.
TORONTO — Prime Minister Justin Trudeau says Canada's lockdown will last “many more weeks” and warned Canadians if the economy is reopened too soon all the sacrifices they are making now might be for nothing as the country could see another peak in coronavirus cases.
Trudeau says Canada is still “a number of weeks away” from being able to start to reopen and urged Canadians to be patient.
He says once there is some reopening there is going to be a need for rapid testing on a wide scale and extensive contact tracing for those who test positive. He says once Canada is past the first wave government needs to have the capacity to stamp out any future outbreaks.
His remarks are his strongest yet against loosening economic restrictions too soon.
Canada has more than 27,557 confirmed cases including 954 deaths.
LONDON — The head of the World Health Organization says it regrets the U.S. decision to halt funding.
Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus says the U.S. has been “a longstanding and generous friend to WHO and we hope it will continue to be so.”
He made the comments after President Donald Trump announced a halt to U.S. funding, temporarily suspending millions of dollars from the U.N health agency’s biggest funder.
Tedros says WHO remained committed to slowing the spread of the COVID-19 pandemic and it would work with its partners to ensure that any funding shortfall could be met.
“COVID-19 does not discriminate between rich nations and poor, large nations and small,” Tedros said. “This is a time for all of us to be united in our common struggle against a common threat, a dangerous enemy. When we’re divided, the virus exploits the cracks between us."
Tedros says WHO’s member countries and independent organizations will assess the U.N. health agency’s performance at a later day. But the focus must remain on ending the outbreak.
DUBAI — The world’s wealthiest countries have agreed to immediately suspend billions of dollars in debt payments for the world’s poorest countries as nations race to spend money on health care and workers impacted by the pandemic.
The Group of 20 nations, which include the U.S., China, India, Germany, France and others, agreed unanimously Wednesday on the suspension of debt payments at a virtual summit of finance ministers that was presided over by Saudi Arabia.
Saudi Finance Minister Mohammed al-Jadaan said after the meeting, “All bilateral official creditors will participate in this initiative, which is an important milestone for the G-20.”
The G-20 didn’t say how many countries would be impacted, but French Finance minister Bruno Le Maire says 76 countries were eligible to the moratorium.
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