March 26, 2020

Senate and White House negotiators threw together the largest economic rescue bill in modern U.S. history in less than a week, and the final version of the $2.2 trillion package — passed unanimously in the Senate late Wednesday — has a lot of money for a lot of businesses and institutions. The goal of the legislation is to shore up the U.S. economy and civil society during the COVID-19 coronavirus pandemic. Here's where some of that money will go:

Direct cash payments: Most Americans will get checks of up to $1,200 plus $500 per child, at a cost of about $290 billion.

Hospitals: $100 billion is for grants to hospitals and health care providers struggling to purchase critical supplies and losing money from postponed elective surgeries. There's also money for community health centers, Medicare, telehealth, and public health agencies.

Unemployment: The bill sets aside $260 billion to expand unemployment payments to a broader group of workers affected by the pandemic, add 13 weeks of coverage for the unemployed, and boost weekly payments by up to $600.

State and local governments: $150 billion will go to help state and local governments weather the outbreak, including a minimum of $1.5 billion per state and $8 billion for tribal governments. There's another $25 billion in state infrastructure grants.

Small businesses: $377 billion is set aside for zero-interest loans and other payments for businesses with fewer than 500 employees — including nonprofits and individual hotels and restaurants from large chains. The loans will be forgiven if the companies retain their employees and meet other conditions.

Big businesses: The bill has $500 billion for industries hit especially hard by the pandemic. This includes $50 billion for passenger airlines — $25 billion in loans, $25 billion in grants — $8 billion for cargo carriers, and $17 billion for "businesses critical to maintaining national security" (read: Boeing). The other $425 billion is loans allocated through Federal Reserve programs, with some limits on executive compensation and stock buybacks, new oversight mechanisms, and a ban on participation by companies significantly controlled by President Trump, other top administration officials, members of Congress, or their families.

Miscellaneous: The Pentagon receives $10.4 billion, FEMA gets $45 billion, $25 billion goes for food stamps, $25 billion for public transit systems, $31 billion for local schools and colleges, and states get $400 million to prepare for the 2020 elections, including expanding vote-by-mail and polling locations.

Find more details at Politico, The Associated Press, and The Washington Post, and learn more about the fine print at The New York Times. Peter Weber

3:53 a.m.

President Trump has made it pretty clear he doesn't think the federal government has more than an advisory and support role in battling the COVID-19 pandemic, especially when it comes to ensuring U.S. states and health care systems have adequate medical supplies and personal protective equipment (PPE) to fight the coronavirus. State officials have gotten the message. Procuring ventilators and PPE has proved especially tricky, though, with state and local governments forced to bid against each other — and the federal government.

And the bidding isn't fair. Trump has used the Defense Production Act to compel companies to sell medical supplies to the federal government before states or hospitals, Kaiser Health News reports, and Massachusetts Gov. Charlie Baker (R) is the most prominent, but not the only, state official to say federal authorities seized shipments of masks the state had ordered from private wholesalers. It isn't clear what the federal government plans to do with these supplies.

"Our biggest problem is that just about every single order that we have out there for PPE, we get a call right when it's supposed to be shipped and it's typically the federal government has bought it," Kentucky Gov. Andy Beshear (D) said Saturday. New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo (D) has described trying to buy ventilators and masks as "like being on eBay with 50 other states," while Arkansas Gov. Asa Hutchinson said on Sunday's Meet the Press that "it literally is a global jungle that we're competing in now" and he'd "like to see a better way."

California Gov. Gavin Newsom (D) said in a news conference last week that states are starting to band together "to see if we can help procure not only a reduction in costs per unit, but also procure a mindset where we're not playing in the margins of a zero sum where it's us versus them" on buying needed supplies. Cuomo suggested "we need a nationwide buying consortium."

"By delegating significant responsibility to state leaders and the business community, Trump can continue to approach his job as he often has: as a spectator pundit-in-chief, watching events unfold on television with the rest of the nation and weighing in with colorful Twitter commentary," The Associated Press notes. But letting the governors take charge carries political risks, too. Peter Weber

2:02 a.m.

With their lights flashing and sirens blaring, fire trucks, ambulances, and police cars made their way through the streets of Osseo, Wisconsin, on Saturday, putting on a parade for kids celebrating their birthdays inside while in quarantine.

First responders with the Osseo Rural Fire Department, Trempealeau County Sheriff's Department, Osseo Police Department, and Mayo Clinic all participated.

Firefighter Chris Cuddy told WQOW that being in quarantine is "very hard on the children. They can't go to school to see their friends. They're having these birthday parties with just what they have at home and their friends aren't able to come. Maybe what we're doing today will bring some joy to them, make them a little bit happy on their birthday."

This wasn't a one-time only event — parents can request birthday parades for their children through the Osseo Rural Fire Department. Catherine Garcia

1:22 a.m.

Irish Prime Minister Leo Varadkar is going back to his roots, with his office announcing on Sunday that once a week, he will work as a doctor in order to help patients during the coronavirus pandemic.

Varadkar spent seven years as a doctor, leaving the profession in 2013 when he became a politician. His office said he re-registered as a physician in March, and The Irish Times reports he will be assessing people over the phone, talking to them about their symptoms before they go to the hospital.

"Many of his family and friends are working in the health service," Varadkar's spokesman said. "He wanted to help out even in a small way." His father was a general practitioner, his mother was a nurse, and his partner is a cardiologist.

Ireland's health minister has asked former health care professionals to re-register and help staff up Ireland's Health Service Executive, and 70,000 people have responded, Reuters reports. Catherine Garcia

12:40 a.m.

They've made full recoveries, and now it's time for koalas rescued during last year's devastating Australian bushfires to go back into the wild.

Science for Wildlife, a conservation organization in Sydney, released the first 12 koalas back into the Blue Mountains on March 25 and 27. Those koalas were saved in December and spent the last few months recovering at Sydney's Taronga Zoo. Dr. Kellie Leigh, Science for Wildlife's executive director, said in a statement that her team made sure conditions had improved enough to sustain the koalas.

"The recent rains have helped and there is now plenty of new growth for them to eat, so the time is right," Leigh said. "We will be radio-tracking them and keeping a close eye on them to make sure that they settle in okay."

On April 2, Port Macquarie Koala Hospital released a koala it rescued in October, and has plans to set 25 more koalas free in the next few days, The Independent reports. Sue Ashton, the hospital's president, said not only will the koalas go back to their home habitats, but in some cases, they will be returned "to their original tree." Catherine Garcia

12:37 a.m.

U.S. officials and intelligence agencies started warning the White House in mid-January that the coronavirus outbreak in China could spread through the U.S. and around the world, but "the Trump administration squandered nearly two months that could have been used to bolster the federal stockpile of critically needed medical supplies and equipment," The Associated Press reported Sunday night. "A review of federal purchasing contracts by The Associated Press shows federal agencies largely waited until mid-March to begin placing bulk orders of N95 respirator masks, mechanical ventilators, and other equipment needed by front-line health care workers."

By mid-March, U.S. hospitals in hard-hit areas were treating a rising number of COVID-19 patients without adequate equipment, states were bidding against each other for masks and ventilators on the open market, and Trump was telling states the role of the U.S. stockpile was supplier of last resort. "The notion of the federal stockpile was it's supposed to be our stockpile," Jared Kushner, Trump's son-in-law and senior adviser in charge of coronavirus supply chains, said Thursday. "It's not supposed to be state stockpiles that they then use."

An AP reporter asked Trump about the federal supply shortfall at Sunday night's briefing, Trump dismissed the question and ended the briefing.

The federal emergency stockpile was created in 1999 to prepare for the Y2K issue, then was expanded after the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks and stocked up with pandemic response supplies in 2006. Greg Burel, director of the federal stockpile from 2007 until his retirement in January, told AP that based on budget allocations, it was intended only as a "bridge stock."

"States do not have the purchasing power of the federal government," said former Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius, who also served as governor of Kansas. "They do not have the ability to run a deficit like the federal government. They do not have the logistical power of the federal government." Now, she added, "we basically wasted two months." Read more at The Associated Press. Peter Weber

April 5, 2020

Public health experts and government officials agree that the U.S. government's coronavirus death toll almost certainly understates how many Americans have actually died from the virus.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention only counts deaths where the presence of the coronavirus is confirmed in a lab test, The Washington Post reports, and "we know that it is an underestimation," CDC spokeswoman Kristen Nordlund said.

There are many reasons why the numbers are underreported. Strict criteria in the beginning of the outbreak kept many people from getting tested for coronavirus, and it's still difficult to get tested in some areas, for example. There's also the matter of false positives, and not all medical examiners have tests or believe they should conduct postmortem testing, even on people who died at home or in nursing homes where there were outbreaks. Experts also believe some February and early March deaths that were attributed to influenza or pneumonia were likely due to coronavirus.

The official death count is based on reports sent by states, and as of Sunday night, the CDC reports 304,826 confirmed U.S. cases and 7,616 deaths. The Post, other media outlets, and university researchers update their numbers more frequently, with the Post reporting on Sunday night that 9,633 people have died from coronavirus in the U.S., and at least 337,000 cases have been confirmed. Catherine Garcia

April 5, 2020

A fight broke out in the White House Situation Room on Saturday, after President Trump's economic adviser Peter Navarro clashed with Dr. Anthony Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, over an unproven COVID-19 coronavirus treatment, Axios reports.

Four people with knowledge of the matter told Axios' Jonathan Swan the argument took place near the end of a White House coronavirus task force meeting, after Food and Drug Administration Commissioner Stephen Hahn brought up hydroxychloroquine, an antimalarial drug Trump has touted as a possible "game-changer" in the fight against coronavirus. When Hahn was finished giving updates on drug trials, Navarro put folders down on the table where Hahn, Fauci, Vice President Mike Pence, and others were sitting.

One person familiar with the conversation told Swan the "first words out of his mouth are that the studies that he's seen, I believe they're mostly overseas, show 'clear therapeutic efficacy.' Those are the exact words out of his mouth." Fauci responded that this was anecdotal evidence, and this "just set Peter off," Swan reports. Navarro pointed to the folders and said, "That's science, not anecdote," a source said, and as his voice continued to get louder, Pence tried to intervene. "It was pretty clear that everyone was just trying to get Peter to sit down and stop being so confrontational," another person told Swan.

Fauci and other public health officials have said more data is needed before anyone can say the drug is effective against COVID-19, but based on things he's read, Navarro is convinced it works, Swan reports. The task force ultimately decided that publicly, the White House needs to say that use of hydroxychloroquine is between doctors and patients. Read more at Axios. Catherine Garcia

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