The latest on the coronavirus pandemic around the U.S. and the world.

WASHINGTON — Senate Republicans and the White House reached tentative agreement late Wednesday for more testing funds in the next COVID-19 relief package, but deep disagreements over the scope of the $1 trillion in federal aid have forced a shift in strategy.

Facing a Republican revolt, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell was preparing to roll out a “handful” of COVID-19 aid bills instead of a single package, according to a top lawmaker involved in the negotiations. The legislation is now expected as soon as Thursday.

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Sen. Roy Blunt, R-Mo., left, and Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell leave a news conference after a Republican luncheon Tuesday. Associated Press/Jacquelyn Martin

“Very productive meeting,” Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin said while leaving a late session at the Capitol.

A key holdup remains President Trump’s push for a payroll tax cut, according to a Republican granted anonymity to discuss the private talks. Hardly any GOP senators support the idea. Instead, McConnell and some Republicans prefer another round of direct $1,200 cash payments to Americans.

Mnuchin said the negotiators have agreed to an amount on direct payments, but declined to share details.

The rest of the legislation is taking shape even as key Senate Republicans are rejecting the overall rescue, which is almost certain to grow. There will be no new money for cash-strapped states and cities, which are clamoring for funds, but they will be provided with additional flexibility to tap existing aid funds.

Read the full story on federal relief here.

Ohio governor orders that masks be worn statewide

COLUMBUS, Ohio — A mandatory mask order will be expanded statewide across Ohio to slow the spread of the coronavirus, Gov. Mike DeWine announced Wednesday.

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Ohio Gov. Mike DeWine said Wednesday that more counties are seeing increasing case numbers of coronavirus, and that there are signs the rate of increase has slowed in counties where masks were required. Doral Chenoweth/The Columbus Dispatch via Associated Press

The mask mandate takes effect Thursday evening for everyone age 10 and older when they’re out in public or in places where they can’t follow social distancing rules, DeWine said. It will not be required for children under 10 or anyone who has a medical condition that keeps them from wearing a mask.

The Republican governor’s first try at a statewide requirement for wearing masks inside businesses — back in April — drew backlash that led him to rescind that directive the following day, a stutter among the aggressive moves that had won him early praise in his efforts to curb the virus. Mask-wearing also has been a point of contention at the Statehouse, where many Democratic lawmakers have donned masks while many Republican lawmakers have not.

DeWine had resisted calls for a statewide mask order in favor of a more tailored approach, focusing on the counties considered hot spots. Last week, he’d ordered residents in 19 counties, including almost 60% of the state’s population, to wear masks in public.

But he said Wednesday that more counties are seeing increasing case numbers, and that there are signs the rate of increase has slowed in counties where masks were required.

“It looks like wearing the masks is starting to have an effect,” he said.

The new mandate is to be enforced by state and local authorities, not by businesses.

Indiana Gov. Eric Holcomb, also a Republican, also issued a mask mandate Wednesday that begins next Monday. Ohio and Indiana follow neighboring Kentucky, where Democratic Gov. Steve Beshear’s mask order is being challenged in court.

Ohio has seen a steady increase in hospitalizations over the past two weeks, rising from 908 patients on July 9 to 1,098 as of Wednesday, DeWine said. Ohio also reported 1,527 more probable and confirmed coronavirus cases, its second-highest number so far, for a total of nearly 79,000 cases and about 3,200 deaths in the state.

DeWine issued a travel advisory that anyone coming into Ohio from a state that has a positive virus testing rate of 15% or higher is recommended to self-quarantine for at least 14 days.

He also said health officials are concerned about safety guidelines not being followed at county fairs across the state. An outbreak of 19 cases has been traced back to a county fair, DeWine said.

Biden and Obama troll Trump in video that marks a new pandemic campaign tactic

An unusual video — a teaser for a longer taped conversation between the two men set to be released via social media Thursday — serves both to troll the current president and send a signal that former president Barack Obama will start playing a much more active role in Joe Biden’s campaign.

But it also marks a new tactic for campaigning for the country’s highest office in the midst of a pandemic: Denied an opportunity to appear onstage together before a crowd, they’re instead offering viewers a peek inside their relationship and a taste of their shared sensibilities.

The teaser makes clear that Biden and Obama are following health guidelines about meeting in person — each wears a mask at various points — an implicit contrast to President Trump, who has not embraced social distancing guidance and has largely resisted wearing a mask.

In the video, Obama and Biden can be seen seated far apart from each other in Obama’s office and they aren’t seen embracing. (Instead, in a scene that’s presumably from the end of the encounter, Obama briefly bows his head slightly.)

Obama also focuses on a core feature of Biden’s campaign message — his ability to empathize with others.

“It all starts with being able to relate,” Obama says as Biden listens. “If you can sit down with a family and see your own family in them and the struggles that you’ve gone through or your parents went through or your kids are going through — if you can connect those struggles to somebody else’s struggles, then you are going to work hard for them.”

Polls show that Biden has opened a significant lead over Trump in recent weeks as voters have soured on the president’s performance in office, particularly his handling of the novel coronavirus. Biden leads Trump 55 percent to 40 percent among registered voters nationwide in a new Washington Post-ABC News poll.

World virus cases top 15 million as U.S. labs buckle amid testing surge

WASHINGTON — Laboratories across the U.S. are buckling under a surge of coronavirus tests, creating long processing delays that experts say are actually undercutting the pandemic response.

With the U.S. tally of infections at 3.9 million Wednesday and new cases surging, the bottlenecks are creating problems for workers kept off the job while awaiting results, nursing homes struggling to keep the virus out and for the labs themselves, dealing with a crushing workload.

Some labs are taking weeks to return COVID-19 results, exacerbating fears that asymptomatic people could be spreading the virus if they don’t isolate while they wait.

“There’s been this obsession with how many tests are we doing per day” said Dr. Tom Frieden, a former director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. “The question is how many tests are being done with results coming back within a day, where the individual tested is promptly isolated and their contacts are promptly warned.”

Frieden and other public health experts have called on states to publicly report testing turnaround times, calling it an essential metric to measure progress against the virus.

The testing lags in the U.S. come as the number of people confirmed to be infected globally passed a staggering 15 million on Wednesday, according to data compiled by Johns Hopkins University. The U.S. leads the world in cases as well as deaths, which stand at more than 142,000 nationwide. New York, once by far the U.S. leader in infections, has been surpassed by California, though that is partly due to robust testing in a state with more than twice the population of New York.

Guidelines issued by the CDC recommend that states lifting virus restrictions have testing turnaround time under four days. The agency is expected to soon issue new guidelines recommending against retesting COVID-19 patients to confirm they’ve recovered.

Read the full story here.

California surpasses New York state in number of confirmed virus cases

SACRAMENTO, Calif. — California’s confirmed coronavirus cases have topped 409,000, surpassing New York for most in the nation, according to data from John’s Hopkins University showing Wednesday that California now has about 1,200 more cases than New York.

However, New York’s 32,520 deaths are by far the highest total in the country and four times more than California’s tally, and its rate of confirmed infections of about 2,100 per 100,000 people is twice California’s rate.

California is by far the most populous U.S. state, with nearly 40 million people, while New York has about 19.5 million.

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A healthcare worker takes information from a person at a Covid-19 testing center on Tuesday, July 21 in Pleasanton, Calif. AP Photo/Ben Margot

U.S. government data published Tuesday found that reported and confirmed coronavirus cases vastly underestimate the true number of infections, echoing results from a smaller study last month.

The U.S. also has had consistent testing failures that experts say contribute to an undercount of the actual virus rate.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention study said true COVID-19 rates were more than 10 times higher than reported cases in most U.S. regions from late March to early May. It is based on COVID-19 antibody tests performed on routine blood samples in 16,000 people in 10 U.S. regions.

California initially succeeded in slowing the spread of the virus, but the state has had a sharp reversal, with COVID-19 infection rates climbing sharply in recent weeks.

California residents starting in March were urged to stay home as much as possible and state health orders shut down all but essential businesses such as grocery stores.

Throughout May and June, California reopened much of its economy, and people resumed shopping in stores and dining in restaurants.

The extent of reopening was evident in data that showed California’s unemployment rate fell in June as the state added a record 558,000 jobs.

But infections began to surge and a new round of business restrictions were imposed, including a ban on indoor dining in restaurants and bars.

Los Angeles County, the nation’s most populous with 10 million residents, reported that younger people were driving the spread of new infections.

United Airlines extends mask mandate to airport lounges, ticket counters

Passengers wishing to board a United Airlines flight will have to wear face masks at ticket counters and in its airport lounges, or risk a flight ban from the carrier.

United and all other major U.S. carriers require passengers to wear masks during flights. United said Wednesday that it is broadening mask requirements for passengers even before they board the plane.

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In this April 24, 2020 file photo, empty United Airlines ticket machines are shown at the Tampa International Airport in Tampa, Fla. AP Photo/Chris O’Meara, File

As on planes, children under 2 are not required to be masked, nor are passengers who have a health condition that prevents them from wearing a mask.

On Tuesday, United reported a $1.6 billion loss during the normally strong second quarter, as revenue plunged 89% from the same period last year.

Air travel was slowly recovering before it stalled in the last few weeks as the number of confirmed coronavirus cases in the U.S. surged, especially in the South. About 530,000 people went through security checkpoints at U.S. airports on Tuesday, the lowest number in July other than the July 4 holiday.

Falling demand may lead to lower ticket prices. United CEO Scott Kirby told CNBC that he expects fares to decline in the short run.

Kirby and other United executives are expected talk about the company’s outlook and the results from the most recent quarter Wednesday.

Pompeo extended a hand to diplomats in Denmark. They refused or offered an elbow bump instead.

Secretary of State Mike Pompeo is the United States’ top diplomat, representing the country — now the one with the highest count of confirmed coronavirus cases and deaths — around the world.

But during a trip on Wednesday to Copenhagen for meetings with the foreign ministers of Denmark, Greenland and the Faroe Islands, Pompeo was notably not wearing a face mask. This was despite President Trump saying for the first time on Monday that wearing one is a “patriotic” act.

Pompeo also encountered an awkward diplomatic dance of sorts when he extended a hand to greet Danish Foreign Affairs Minister Jeppe Kofod, who, in keeping with social distancing measures, refused to shake back.

Undeterred, Pompeo tried again with the foreign minister of the Faroe Islands, who similarly declined to shake hands. The third time was the charm when Pompeo and the foreign minister of Greenland successfully navigated an elbow bump.

Mask wearing in Denmark is neither mandatory nor common. The country has relatively successfully contained its outbreak, confirming around 1,500 infections and 611 deaths related to the novel coronavirus.

Trump had repeatedly belittled the accepted benefits of wearing masks and refused to don one in public. On Monday, he tweeted out a photo of himself wearing a mask, a notable shift in messaging.

Under Trump’s leadership, mask wearing in the United States has become a politicized issue. But around the world, it is increasingly mandatory or recommended, with many countries that adopted the practice early on faring better against the coronavirus than those that delayed or resisted.

U.S. government reaches deal with drug companies to distribute millions of doses of potential coronavirus vaccine

Biotechnical companies Pfizer and BioNTech announced an agreement with the U.S. government Wednesday morning to distribute up to 600 million doses of a jointly produced vaccine for the novel coronavirus starting in December, through 2021.

Through the deal, the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services and the Defense Department will pay $1.95 billion for the first 100 million doses of BNT162, the covid-19 vaccine candidate, once Pfizer manufactures it and the Food and Drug Administration approves it. The United States could get up to 500 million more doses.

“Expanding Operation Warp Speed’s diverse portfolio by adding a vaccine from Pfizer and BioNTech increases the odds that we will have a safe, effective vaccine as soon as the end of this year,” said HHS Secretary Alex Azar. “Depending on success in clinical trials, today’s agreement will enable the delivery of approximately 100 million doses of this vaccine to the American people.” Americans will receive the vaccine for free, the release said.

Nobel committee cancels traditional banquet

STOCKHOLM — The Nobel Foundation, which manages the prestigious Nobel Prizes, says it has canceled the traditional December banquet at the Stockholm City Hall due to the coronavirus pandemic.

Lars Heikensten, CEO of the Nobel Foundation, said it is not possible to gather up to 1,300 banquet guests and let them sit next to each other amid the current COVID-19 restrictions. He said the pandemic also makes it uncertain whether prize winners can travel to Sweden.

The Nobel Prizes are announced in October but the festivities in December will be severely limited due to the pandemic. The foundation said it was not completely clear yet how and in what form the award ceremonies will take place.

The Nobel Peace Prize is announced in Oslo, Norway, while the others are awarded in Stockholm.

Heikensten said in a statement: “Nobel Week will not be as usual due to the current pandemic. This is a very special year when everyone has to make sacrifices and adapt to completely new circumstances but we will pay different attention to the prize winners, their discoveries and works.”

Days after South Korea announced virus coming under control, new cases arise

SEOUL, South Korea — Just days after South Korean officials hopefully declared the country’s COVID-19 epidemic was coming under control, health authorities reported 63 newly confirmed cases.

South Korea’s Centers for Disease Control and Prevention on Wednesday said at least 36 of the new cases came from the densely populated Seoul metropolitan area, where about half of the country’s 51 million people live.

The KCDC didn’t immediately confirm whether the numbers included a new cluster of infections discovered at a frontline army unit in Pocheon, north of Seoul, where at least 13 troops have reportedly tested positive.

The KCDC said 29 of the new cases were local transmissions and tied the other 34 to international arrivals as the virus continues to spread in Asia, the United States and beyond. The government also plans to send to send two military planes to Iraq on Wednesday to evacuate around 300 South Korean construction workers amid the spread of the virus there.

The national caseload is now at 13,879, including 297 deaths.

The country had reported four local transmissions on Monday, which was the lowest in two months, prompting a celebratory tweet from President Moon Jae-in who said the nation as winning its fight against COVID-19.

Texas official says some counties “close to losing the situation”

AUSTIN, Texas — While some big cities in Texas are reporting signs that an alarming surge in cases of the coronavirus may be leveling off, officials in counties along the border with Mexico said the outlook there remains bleak.

Dallas County officials said the number of hospitalized coronavirus patients dropped below 1,000 on Tuesday for the first time in more than two weeks, and officials in Houston are seeing signs of optimism.

But along the border in Starr County, Judge Eloy Vera said “we’re very close to losing the situation” and plans to issue voluntary stay-at-home recommendations this week.

He said it would be similar to one issued Monday in Hidalgo County, which set a curfew and recommends that all nonessential businesses cease any activity that can’t be provided at curbside or by takeout.

The orders, however, are not enforceable under Republican Gov. Greg Abbott’s past mandates that do not allow local officials to set their own stay-at-home restrictions. Texas on Tuesday reported more than 9,300 confirmed new cases and 131 deaths, the state’s second deadliest day of the pandemic.


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