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The Latest: US names virus testing czar after test shortages

A CDC laboratory test kit for infection with coronavirus. The kit was found to be flawed, but a replacement has not yet been distributed. (Star Tribune/TNS)
March 14, 2020

The Latest on the world’s coronavirus pandemic:

Responding to numerous complaints about the shortage of coronavirus tests in the U.S, the Trump administration on Friday named a testing “czar” at the Department of Health and Human Services.

Separately, the FDA posted on Twitter that labs having problems getting supplies for collecting patient samples for testing should call the agency’s toll-free information hotline.

And Medicare announced it will pay about $36 for the CDC coronavirus test and around $51 for tests from other providers.

The testing czar is Brett Giroir, assistant secretary for health, and head of the government’s uniformed Public Health Service. He will be responsible for coordinating between CDC and FDA, as well as private labs and state and local governments.

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The United States has tested far few people per capita than other countries like South Korea and Italy.

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Canada’s House of Commons voted Friday to shut down for at least five weeks to help ensure lawmakers do not contribute to the spread of for new coronavirus.

The moves comes after Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s wife tested positive. The prime minister himself has been in self-imposed quarantine.

Trudeau says his government will likely recommend that Canadians avoid travel outside the country except for essential purposes.

Trudeau is spending the day in briefings, phone calls and virtual meetings from home. He spoke with U.S. President Donald Trump and British Prime Minister Boris Johnson on Thursday.

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Spain’s leader says he is declaring a state of emergency for two weeks, a measure that will let him “mobilize all resources,” including the military, to contain sharp rise in coronavirus cases.

Prime Minister Pedro S’nchez made the televised announcement Friday as health authorities confirmed Spain has more than 4,200 infections, with nearly half of those in Madrid. That was an increase by a third compared to one day earlier. So far 120 patients have died.

S’nchez says the special measure allows the government to limit free movement, legally confiscate goods and take control of industries and private facilities, including private hospitals. Authorities can also order measures to ensure food supply and the country’s industrial output.

He says “it’s an emergency that affects the life and health of all. The government is going to protect all citizens,” warning that cases could skyrocket to more than 10,000 next week.

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Sudan’s Heath Ministry says its first confirmed case of the new virus is a man who died in the capital, Khartoum. The man was in his 50s and had recently visited the United Arab Emirates.

So far, 13 of African’s 54 countries have confirmed coronavirus cases.

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Switzerland’s president says the Alpine country is reintroducing controls along its borders, expanding the ban on public events and closing all schools until April 4.

Its minister for justice and police, Karin Keller-Sutter, said Switzerland will ban entry of anybody from a risk areas including a general ban on those coming in from Italy. Exceptions for people who have a valid residency permit or those who have a reason to enter Switzerland for work.

President Simonetta Sommaruga said Friday the government is also urging citizens to avoid using public transport to combat the spread of the new coronavirus.

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Pakistan government on Friday announced it was closing all schools, colleges, universities and seminaries until April 5 as a precaution to avoid the spread of coronavirus.

Shafqt Mahmood, minister for education, went to twitter to announce the move, saying the decision was taken at a meeting of national security committee. So far, 21 people have been tested positive in Pakistan.

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The U.S. Department of Defense says it’s temporarily shutting down all schools on continental European military facilities as a precaution against the spread of the COVID-19 virus, affecting tens of thousands of students.

Department of Defense Schools spokesman Stephen Smith told The Associated Press on Friday the closures as of Monday would affect 63 elementary, middle and high schools in Germany, Belgium, Spain and the Netherlands, and likely Ankara, Turkey.

Three schools in Britain will remain open for the time being, he said.

In all, some 27,000 students attend the Defense Department schools in Europe, Smith said. Schools in Italy, and also Bahrain, have already been closed down.

The schools will be closed through the April break and then the situation will be reassessed, he said.

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The English Premier League has been suspended after three clubs put their entire playing squads in self-isolation because of coronavirus.

The league had expected to continue with a full schedule this weekend with fans, but later decided to suspend all matches until April 3 “at the earliest.”

The same suspension applies for the three lower divisions overseen by the English Football League and to England’s top two women’s divisions.

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Italy has welcomed a team of Chinese medical experts and 31 tons of ventilators, protective masks and other medical equipment as its fight against coronavirus turns a nation that usually donates aid into one that receives it.

Foreign Minister Luigi Di Maio and the head of the International Red Cross and Red Crescent, Francesco Rocca, were on hand Friday to welcome the Chinese delegation at Red Cross headquarters in Rome. Di Maio, the only one not wearing a protective mask, said Italy is now reaping the benefits of its solidarity with China.

Italy is the epicenter of the outbreak in Europe, registering more than 15,000 infections and 1,000 dead. Italy has imposed a nationwide lockdown, with stores and restaurants closed and restrictions on individual movement. But the restrictions still pale in comparison to the severe lockdown China imposed in Wuhan.

The Italian public health system in the north is at near capacity, with 400-500 people a day requiring hospitalization in Lombardy alone.

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Austrian Chancellor Sebastian Kurz has announced dramatic measures to try and stem the spread of the COVID-19 virus in the Alpine nation, including quarantining two hard-hit areas of Tirol.

Kurz told reporters in Vienna that the towns of St. Anton am Arlberg and the Paznauntal area would be isolated for 14 days, but added residents and tourists now there will be well taken care of.

In addition, retail businesses are being asked to close as of Monday, outside of those providing essential services such as supermarkets, gas stations, banks, post offices and pharmacies. Bars and cafes will only be allowed to stay open until 3 p.m. Office workers are being asked to work remotely from home if possible.

Austria has 422 confirmed cases of the new coronavirus and one death.

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Germany’s finance minister has taken a swipe at U.S. President Donald Trump over his decision to close American borders to travelers from Europe.

Olaf Scholz, who is also Germany’s vice chancellor said Friday “that was a grotesque performance we experienced from the American president.”

Scholz says “instead of tending to the problems of his country, and to a virus that knows no borders, he thinks that he can fight it with people who have a different citizenship than American.”

“But this is a virus, if I may say so, and it actually shows that solidarity is the only way that we can move forward as human beings,” he said.

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The Trump administration is awarding $1.3 million in federal money to two companies trying to develop rapid COVID-19 tests that could detect whether a person tests positive for the new coronavirus within an hour.

The Department of Health and Human Services says Friday it is awarding $679,000 to DiaSorin Molecular, of Cypress, California, and $598,000 to QIAGEN LLC of Germantown, Maryland, to accelerate development of the tests.

The agency says DiaSorin could potentially be ready within six weeks for consideration by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration, and the QIAGEN test could be ready within 12 weeks for EUA consideration by the FDA.

The Trump administration has been criticized for its lack of testing for the virus, compared to other nations around the world

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U.S. cities are taking more intensive steps to fight the spread of the new coronavirus.

By Monday, more than 1 million of Georgia’s 1.8 million public school students will have been kept home by 50 or more school districts statewide, including every large district in metro Atlanta.

Public schools in Washington D.C. were closed beginning Monday until April 1 affecting some 47,000 students. Fairfax County, Virginia also closed schools on Friday, affecting 180,000 students.

The mayor of Dallas, Texas, has declared a local disaster and the city is banning large gatherings as infections continue to grow.

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Sri Lanka civil aviation authorities on Friday imposed a two-week travel ban on passengers from seven European countries: France, Spain, Germany, Switzerland, Denmark, Netherlands and Sweden.

The ban will be effective until March 29. Separately on Friday, authority imposed a two-week travel ban on passengers from South Korea, Italy and Iran. This will be effective until March 28.

The authority is asking all airlines not to board any passengers from those countries or who visited those countries in the last 14 days.

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France is promising to compensate the virus-related salary losses for “99%” of workers, as travel bans, school closures and other measures take a heavy toll on the economy.

It’s part of tens of billions of euros the government says it will stump up as French financial markets plunge and companies curb activity to try to stem the spread of the virus.

“Nobody with a job will lose a cent,” Finance Minister Bruno Le Maire said.

France is also banning all gatherings of more than 100 people now that the virus has infected more than 2,800 people in the country and is spreading fast.

On Thursday, President Emmanuel Macron ordered all schools closed and asked companies to allow workers to stay home. France is going ahead with nationwide local elections on Sunday but is ordering special measures to keep people at a safe distance.

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The government of Romania, including all ministers, as well as the leadership of the ruling National Liberal Party and all its senators, have been asked to self-isolate because of the coronavirus.

Friday’s decision comes after a governing party senator, who took part in high-level meetings, was confirmed to be infected.

Prime Minister Ludovic Orban told reporters during a news conference that he will be quarantined in a state-owned villa and the government will still continue to carry out its duties.

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The Germany government is pledging at least 460 billion euros ($513 billion) in guarantees to cope with the economic impact of the coronavirus outbreak.

Germany’s economy minister, Peter Altmaier, said there was no limit to the amount the government was willing to use to support everyone from individuals, such as taxi drivers, to large companies, to prevent the coronavirus pandemic from causing permanent harm to the economy.

Finance Minister Olaf Scholz said the 2008 financial crisis offered lessons for the current situation. “We will use all means at our disposal,” he said Friday at a joint press conference with Altmaier

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Czech citizens coming home from 15 countries that are considered risky due to the virus outbreak will have to stay under quarantine for two weeks.

The announcement Friday by the Czech Republic’s government listed the following countries: China, Iran, Korea, Belgium, Denmark, France, Italy, Germany, Netherlands, Austria, Spain, Sweden, Norway, Switzerland and Britain.

Foreigners from those countries are barred from traveling to the Czech Republic and Czechs are not allowed to travel to those countries. Those measures become effective Friday midnight when the country renews border checks with Austria and Germany.

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Spain’s has ordered its first mandatory lockdown, confining over 60,000 people to four towns as infections for the new coronavirus increase sharply.

The rise is straining health services and putting more pressure on the government to act faster to fight the pandemic.

The country had more than 3,800 cases by Friday morning and at least 84 deaths. The Spanish capital, Madrid, has nearly 2,000 cases alone, many linked to nursing homes.

The government has closed museums and sports centers, sent home nearly 10 million students, asked people to work remotely and limited crowds at public events in high risk areas. But questions are rising whether the measures are enough.

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Australian Home Affairs Minister Peter Dutton is in isolation at a hospital after testing positive for the coronavirus. He returned to Australia on Sunday from Washington, D.C., where he met U.S. Attorney-General William Barr and President Donald Trump’s daughter, Ivanka, last week.

Dutton also attended a conference with other representatives of the Five Eyes intelligence network, which includes the U.S., Canada, Britain, Australia and New Zealand.

Australia has more than 120 confirmed cases.

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Thailand’s health minister has ignited controversy by warning about the possible spread of the coronavirus from vacationing Europeans who wear dirty clothes and don’t shower.

Tweets posted Thursday night by the account linked to Anutin Charnvirakul lashed out at Western visitors for not wearing face masks to protect against the virus, and warned his fellow Thais that they should be more careful in dealing with Westerners than with Asians.

Thailand’s government has come under criticism for confusing and inconsistent handling of the health crisis.

The tweets, along with the entire account, disappeared from Twitter by Friday afternoon.

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South Korea plans to limit the amount of information it releases about coronavirus patients amid criticism that the details currently shared reveal too much personal information and exacerbate panic.

The director of South Korea’s Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, Jung Eun-kyeong, said Friday her agency is drafting a new guideline for local governments to prevent them from releasing details that are unnecessary.

South Korean health authorities have been actively using personal information — including immigration, public transportation, credit card and smartphone GPS data — to track patients and their contacts.

Some people have used the information to identify the patients and have publicly condemned them.

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Chinese President Xi Jinping has told the U.N. that his nation wants to conduct joint research on drugs and vaccines and offer “as much assistance as it can” to countries where the novel coronavirus is spreading.

State media reported Friday that Xi told U.N. Secretary-General Antonio Guterres by phone that economic and daily life are gradually returning to normal in China thanks to “arduous endeavors” at prevention and control.

He was also quoted as saying that the Chinese people’s “hard work has won precious time for and made important contributions to other countries’ epidemic prevention and control.”

China, where the virus was first discovered, recorded just eight new infections on Friday.

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© 2020 Observer-Dispatch