Amid Dire Warnings of Immense U.S. Death Toll from Coronavirus, States and Trump Administration Step Up Defensive Measures

Coronavirus here: As of  mid-day Tuesday, at least 5,145 people in 49 states (every one, except West Virginia), D.C., and three U.S. territories have tested positive for the virus, and at least 91 have died, according to a real-time tracker at Johns Hopkins University. The majority of cases are in Washington State, California and New York. At least 33 states have closed schools, and across the country restaurants, gyms, libraries, and other public spaces have shut down or moved to limit operations (like switching to delivery-only menus). In response to a report from researchers in London, which estimates that, without drastic measures, 2.2 million people in the U.S. could die, the White House  advised avoiding gatherings of more than 10 people, Sheri Fink reports for The New York Times. That is significantly stricter than the previous recommendation from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention to avoid gatherings of 50 or more people, and shows how quickly the virus scourge and related public health measures are evolving. Trump said that restrictions on travel and group gatherings could stretch well into summer. Global markets have been ravaged by virus fears and the plunge in economic activity, with the likelihood of millions of people being thrown out of work. On Monday, according to Vox, the Dow Jones Industrial Average suffered a record one-day drop of 2,997 points, or nearly 13 percent.

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Coronavirus there: Coronavirus cases and deaths outside China have far surpassed those inside the country. The Johns Hopkins tracker shows that more than 4,000 of 7,505 global deaths from the virus have been outside China, primarily in Italy, Iran, and Spain. President Trump and Treasury Secretary Steve Mnuchin said they are considering support for stimulus legislation that would include mailing checks to Americans to help them manage the economic impact, reports USA Today. “We’re looking at sending checks to Americans immediately,” Treasury Secretary Steve Mnuchin said at a news conference. Italy suspended mortgage payments for individuals and households to help alleviate the financial burden of the crisis, the BBC reported; Denmark is compensating organizers whose major events were canceled, Politico reports; and Ireland has earmarked €2.4 billion for income support for those in self-isolation or who are diagnosed with the virus.

  • Also: Americans returning from abroad after new health screenings were imposed found themselves corralled like cattle, made to stand shoulder to shoulder in interminable lines, waiting for up to eight hours to be questioned and screened, The Washington Post reports. “It is critically important that before you announce that you are going to ramp up that type of screening, that you develop a plan and work out all the operational details,” John Cohen, a former acting undersecretary for intelligence at the Department of Homeland Security during the Obama administration, told The New York Times. “They may have potentially placed a significant number of inbound travelers at risk of being exposed to the virus.”

 

  • Also: The New Yorker’s Robert P. Baird went deep on the root causes for the delay in testing in the United States, which largely boiled down to how ill-equipped our national system is if it hinges on a single point of failure: “As for the delay in scaling up COVID-19 testing capacity during those crucial weeks in February,” Baird writes, “the underlying problem had far less to do with the faulty tests produced by the CDC. than it did with a system that could not contemplate, let alone manage, the possibility that the CDC. might end up producing faulty tests.” But this is the kind of thing that might have been caught or addressed by, say, a White House office on pandemic preparedness. Of course, the Trump administration disbanded that office in 2018, a decision that Beth Cameron, the former senior director for global health security and biodefense on the White House National Security Council, says left the White House unprepared to tackle the current crisis. “Its absence now is all too evident,” Cameron writes in The Washington Post. “[It could have] been responsible for coordinating the efforts of multiple federal agencies to make sure the government was backstopping testing capacity, devising approaches to manufacture and avoid shortages of personal protective equipment, strengthening U.S. lab capacity to process COVID-19 tests, and expanding the health-care workforce.”

Coronavirus everywhere: The restructuring of social and work life as a result of the coronavirus crisis is taking a toll on scientific research. A climate research expedition in the Arctic has been canceled due to flight restrictions, Henry Fountain reports for The New York Times. The flights were going to collect data on the atmosphere and sea-ice thickness to complement research being conducted on the icebreaker, Polarstern, which has been drifting with the pack ice in the Arctic Ocean for the past six months. NASA has postponed two airborne missions to study Earth’s climate and the effects of climate change, and another tasked with understanding extreme weather, Becky Ferreira reports for Vice.

  • Also: Muckraking doesn’t stop during a crisis, but the impacts of the coronavirus crisis could slow government response times to public records requests, Peter Newbatt Smith writes for the Center for Public Integrity. The backlog of pending FOIA requests has already grown 80 percent between 2012 to 2018, according to a new Government Accountability Office report, largely due to an increase in the volume of requests.

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Superworm to the rescue: Researchers from the School of Life Science at the Beijing Institute of Technology in China have found that the larvae of Zophobas atratus—nicknamed superworms for their larger size and appetite—can digest polystyrene (the generic class of plastic materials better known as Styrofoam) and convert the complicated substance into carbon dioxide, Nayanah Siva writes in The Scientist. Their findings could contribute to possible solutions for dealing with the plastic crisis, according to Yu Yang, who led the Beijing group. “Now we are isolating a few bacteria from the gut of superworms and testing their plastic-degrading capability,” he told The Scientist.

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Ghostbuster: A federal judge in Seattle blocked an effort by the Trump Administration to allow instructions for 3D-printed firearms—so-called “ghost guns”—to be published online, Joel Connelly reports for seattlepi.com. 3D-printed guns are unregulated, untraceable, unlicensed, and difficult to detect even with a metal detector. They are also becoming more common: Phildelphia police recovered 95 in 2019, more than 7 times as many as in 2018, Mensah M. Dean reports for the Philadelphia Inquirer.

  • Also: Looking for better uses for 3D printers? A hospital in Italy was running out of valves for ventilators for coronavirus patients, so a 3D printer stepped up to make them for less than €1 per piece, Zoe Kleinman reports for BBC. Anticipating a dearth of ventilators in the U.S., makers are circulating open-source designs for 3D printed ventilators, Maddie Bender reports for Vice.

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Worker wins: The California Labor Commissioner’s Office has ordered the owners of Genwa Korean BBQ to pay more than $2 million in back pay and penalties to the 325 servers, dishwashers, and cooks the agency says were victims of wage theft. Nearly half of the workers at the upscale eatery, which has two locations in Los Angeles and Beverly Hills, were not paid the required minimum hourly wage, while more than half were shorted on overtime pay and not provided proper itemized wage statements, according to the Commissioner’s Office. Servers were also forced to attend quarterly meetings without pay, even on their scheduled days off. Still, the operators, Jay and Jin Kwon, are appealing the order and it could be a long time before employees see the money, if they ever do. In 2019, some of the restaurant’s employees spoke to Los Angeles Times columnist Frank Shyong about their working conditions, describing “blatant wage theft, racial discrimination, constant stress, exploitation and job insecurity.” As Jack Katzanek reports for the Los Angeles Daily News, wage theft is all too common in Los Angeles, where, according to one estimate, 80 percent of low-wage workers don’t receive the overtime they earned.

  • Also: The U.S. Department of Labor’s Wage and Hour Division found the Georgia restaurant chain La Abuela violated overtime and minimum wage rules. The operators will pay $411,010 in back wages to 157 employees at locations in Doraville and Duluth, Georgia.

Jessica McKenzie is an independent journalist. Find more of her work at jessicastarmckenzie.com.

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