Month: September 2020

Trump Announces Plan to Distribute 150 Million Rapid Coronavirus Tests

U.S. President Donald Trump announced plans to distribute 150 million rapid coronavirus tests and urged governors to use them to reopen schools, amid reporting that a member of his coronavirus task force is concerned the president is receiving incorrect information about the pandemic.In a speech at the White House Rose Garden, Trump called the plan a “massive and groundbreaking expansion” of testing capability, “more than double the number of tests already performed.“Fifty million tests will go to protect the most vulnerable communities, which we’ve always promised to do, including 18 million for nursing homes, 15 million for assisted living facilities,10 million for home health and hospice care, hospice care agencies and nearly 1 million for historically black colleges and universities, and also tribal nation colleges,” Trump said.The administration is encouraging schools to use the rapid Abbott Laboratories tests, which deliver results in 15 minutes, to help restart and maintain in-person teaching so that parents can return to work.   “One hundred million rapid, point-of-care tests will be given to states and territories to support efforts to reopen their economies in schools immediately and fast as they can,” Trump said.   Last week Democratic presidential nominee Joe Biden criticized Trump for not having a national standard to safely reopen schools and said that he had released a plan to do so in July.   Biden stressed that reopening schools should only be done with adequate protections including masks and sanitizing and based on health considerations such as the reinfection rate. “If it’s down below one then it’s rational that you can, with those protections, go ahead and open a school but watch it very closely. But it requires testing and tracing to make sure you’re still on course there,” Biden said. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention Director Dr. Robert Redfield speaks during a Senate Appropriations Subcommittee hearing “Review of Coronavirus Response Efforts” on Capitol Hill, Washington, Sept. 16, 2020.‘Everything he says is false’  Trump’s announcement came amid reporting that the director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, Dr. Robert Redfield, suggested in a conversation with a colleague Friday that Dr. Scott Atlas, the newest member of the president’s coronavirus task force, is arming Trump with misleading data about the virus, including on the efficacy of masks and the potential benefits of herd immunity.   “Everything he says is false,” Redfield said during a phone call made in public on a commercial airline and overheard by NBC News.   The CDC did not dispute that Redfield was speaking about Atlas in the overheard conversation. “NBC News is reporting one side of a private phone conversation by CDC Director Dr. Robert Redfield that was overheard on a plane from Atlanta Hartsfield airport. Dr. Redfield was having a private discussion regarding a number of points he has made publicly about COVID-19,” said a CDC spokesman in an email to NBC.   Atlas is a neuroradiologist with no background in infectious diseases or public health who was brought on to the White House task force in August. Before he joined the task force, Atlas was a frequent guest on Fox News, where he pushed to reopen the country and espoused views that more closely align with the president’s opinions on the pandemic. Trump invited Atlas to speak during the coronavirus testing announcement. Redfield was not present at Monday’s event, neither were two other members of the coronavirus task force, Dr. Anthony Fauci and Dr. Deborah Birx. 

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Pelosi Says Democrats Unveil New COVID-19 Aid Bill 

U.S. House of Representatives Speaker Nancy Pelosi said on Monday that Democratic lawmakers unveiled a new, $2.2 trillion coronavirus relief bill, which she said was a compromise measure that reduces the costs of the economic aid. In a letter to Democratic lawmakers released by Pelosi’s office, she said the legislation “includes new funding needed to avert catastrophe for schools, small businesses, restaurants, performance spaces, airline workers and others.” “Democrats are making good on our promise to compromise with this updated bill,” she said. “We have been able to make critical additions and reduce the cost of the bill by shortening the time covered for now.” Pelosi in recent days has said she thinks a deal can be reached with the White House on a new coronavirus relief package and that talks were continuing. But she also said that she would offer legislation if the impasse continued with the Trump administration over the size and shape of another relief package. She did not say when there would be a vote on the latest Democratic proposal. Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin and White House chief of staff Mark Meadows, left, walk to House Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s office on Capitol Hill in Washington, Aug. 5, 2020.Formal talks among Pelosi, Senate Democratic leader Chuck Schumer, Mnuchin and White House Chief of Staff Mark Meadows aimed at hammering out a relief package broke down on Aug. 7 with the two sides far apart. Pelosi and Mnuchin spoke by phone on Sunday and again on Monday. They plan to speak again on Tuesday morning, her spokesman said. Pelosi and Schumer initially sought a $3.4 trillion relief package, then said they were willing to scale that back by at least a trillion dollars. But it was not clear whether the White House would consider the $2.2 trillion sum proposed in the new legislation. Meadows has said that Trump would be willing to sign a $1.3 trillion relief package. Pelosi also faces pressure from moderate House Democrats who say they want to see bipartisan aid proposals that have a chance of becoming law. The new proposal included $436 billion for state and local governments, as well as money for education, testing, airline industry workers and for a small business loan program known as the Paycheck Protection Program, a statement from House Democrats said. It would also provide a new round of direct payments to Americans of $1,200 per taxpayer and restore federal unemployment benefits of $600 a week through January. 

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Hot Baths Can Ward Off Cardiovascular Diseases, Study Shows

New research suggests that taking hot baths, soaking in hot tubs or using saunas can prevent cardiovascular diseases such as heart disease, high blood pressure and Type 2 diabetes. The research was presented last week at the Annual Meeting of the European Association for the Study of Diabetes (EASD), held virtually this year. Hisayuki Katsuyama, co-author of the new study, is a physician at Kohnodai Hospital in Ichikawa, Japan. He says that while drug treatments have helped people with Type 2 diabetes live better, longer lives, daily habits such as diet and exercise are still important for these patients.  Katsuyama says he and his colleagues looked at previous research suggesting heat therapy, such as baths, hot tubs or saunas, can lower risks of fatal heart disease and stroke, along with having a lower body fat percentage, and thought it could be promising as a Type 2 diabetes treatment. To test the theory, the researchers recruited 1,297 patients with Type 2 diabetes who regularly visited an outpatient hospital unit in Ichikawa between October 2018 and March 2019. They documented their bathing habits and noted water temperature, frequency and duration of each session, as well as a variety of medical notes.  Across the board, people who bathed more often had lower body mass indexes (BMI), diastolic blood pressure and glycated hemoglobin, a key risk factor for Type 2 diabetes. In their presentation, the researchers say their findings suggest daily heat exposure by hot tub bathing can “contribute to improvements of glycemia, hypertension and obesity, and thus, can be a therapeutic option for patients with Type 2 diabetes.” In an interview, Katsuyama says he suspects patients may benefit from heat therapy in a way similar to the benefit they get from exercise. He says both seem to improve insulin sensitivity and enhance energy expenditure.  Other research suggests bathing increases blood circulation, body temperature and the production of nitric oxide in the body, which appears to confer the positive benefits. Katsuyama says more research is needed before more conclusions can be made. The study has not yet been published or peer reviewed.
 

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Taiwan Tech Firm: Robot Capable of Processing 2,000 Coronavirus Tests Results Per Day

A Taiwan biotech company says it has developed a testing robot that can accurately process more than 2,000 coronavirus test results a day and is marketing the machine as a way for economies to get back up and running while still controlling the spread of the virus.The Taipei-based TCI company says its QVS-96 robot is the first fully automated virus scanner. It uses three robotic arms to manipulate large amounts of test specimens usually handled by multiple laboratory technicians.TCI chief supervisor Arvin Chen says the machine can process an initial round of 96 specimens in three-and-a-half hours, and, thereafter, can process 96 specimens every 60 to 70 minutes. The company says the QVS-96 achieves the same safety and quality standards as any laboratory.Chen suggests the QVS-96 could be deployed in major metropolitan airports, in places such as New York City or Singapore. He says with 100 of the robotic testing machines operating, “These airports can fully resume their flights and let the passengers travel safely and bring back the country’s economy.”TCI says the QVS-96 has also been programmed to detect the flu and differentiate it from the coronavirus which could be crucial in northern hemisphere nations in the coming months.The company recently announced a global distribution agreement to make the QVS-96 available worldwide. Earlier this year, the machine was officially registered with the U.S. Food and Drug AdministrationThe company says QVS-96 is currently being used in a selection of government agencies, the Taiwan Centers for Disease Control and three hospitals in northern and central Taiwan.   

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Coronavirus Global Death Tally Approaches 1 Million

The World Health organization says 120 million rapid diagnostic tests for the coronavirus will be made available to low- and middle-income countries as the world approaches a death toll of 1 million. WHO Director-General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus told a news conference in Geneva on Monday that the tests would cost less than $5.  He said manufacturers Abbott and SD Biosensor are working in partnership with the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation to “make 120 million of these new, highly portable and easy-to-use rapid COVID-19 diagnostic tests available over a period of six months.” COVID-19 is the disease caused by the coronavirus. The Johns Hopkins Coronavirus Resource Center reported Monday that there were close to 1 million deaths worldwide. It said there are more than 33 million infections around the globe.  In India, the country’s confirmed coronavirus infection tally reached 6 million Monday, behind only the United States, where infections passed 7 million last week. India’s Health Ministry on Monday reported 82,170 new coronavirus cases over a 24-hour period, as well as 1,039 new confirmed deaths, taking total fatalities in the country to 95,542.  Surge expected in USIn the United States, Dr. Robert Redfield, director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, told NBC, “We’re nowhere near the end” of the coronavirus pandemic.FILE – Dr. Robert Redfield, director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, at a hearing on the federal government response to COVID-19, Capitol Hill, Washington, Sept. 23, 2020.Redfield also repeated his argument that wearing a mask can be just as effective as a vaccine. “If every one of us did it, this pandemic would be over in eight to 12 weeks,” Redfield said. A CNN investigation of Johns Hopkins data reveals the number of cases has increased by at least 10% from the previous week in 21 U.S. states.   Dr. Chris Murray, director of the Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation at the University of Washington, told CNN an expected “huge surge” in coronavirus infections in October in the United States is also expected to continue in November and December.   European countries debate next stepsMeanwhile, Europe is experiencing a new wave of coronavirus infections, leading some governments across the continent to reimpose restrictions on residents and businesses.FILE – A sign is placed across a closed road in London, Sept. 24, 2020, after British Prime Minister Boris Johnson announced a range of new restrictions to combat the rise in coronavirus cases in England.British Prime Minister Boris Johnson is warning that his country could see a “second wave.” He said Sunday that “swift and decisive action” must be taken to battle the virus.  Britain reported 4,044 new cases on Monday. The number of confirmed cases in the country now stands at more than 437,000, according to Johns Hopkins. In France, Finance Minister Bruno Le Maire said the government has no plan to order a new nationwide lockdown, despite a rising number of coronavirus cases.  Patrick Bouet, head of France’s National Council of the Order of Doctors, told Journal du Dimanche Sunday “if nothing changes, France will face a widespread outbreak across its whole territory for several long autumn and winter months,” and the health system would crumble under the demands.    In Spain, Madrid authorities and the national government are clashing over the extent of the steps needed to control the outbreak of new infections in the capital region.  Spain’s Health Ministry Monday reported 31,785 new cases since Friday. 

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Australia’s COVID-19 Hotspot, Victoria State Reports 5 New Cases

Officials in Australia’s Victoria state – considered the nation’s COVID-19 hotspot – reported five new cases Monday, the lowest case number in more than three months. At a news conference, Victoria State Premier Daniel Andrews told reporters the state would immediately lift an overnight curfew that has been in place for the past month. He said beginning in October, most children will return to school, and many businesses, including manufacturing, construction and food processors can reopen, sending more that 125,00 people back to work.Andrews acknowledged the sacrifices people had made and said clearly their strategy had worked. As recently as early August new daily COVID-19 cases peaked at 725. But Andrews stressed the need to remain vigilant. “If we start doing things that we know deep down are not the right thing to do, then we can put at risk everything that we’ve built, everything that Victorians have given. I don’t want that to happen and I’m confident it won’t,” he said.Melbourne, Australia’s second largest city, and surrounding parts of rural Victoria state were placed under strict “Level 4” lockdowns on Aug. 2, closing schools and non-essential businesses, imposing a nighttime curfew and prohibiting public gatherings.Many restrictions remain in place. Public gatherings of no more than five people from a maximum of two households will be allowed, and masks are still mandatory in public. But Andrews said a further easing could take place on October 19 if the average falls below five new cases per day.Overall, Australia has been one of the more successful nations in controlling the outbreak, with 27,000 total cases in a population of 25 million. Andrews said there are 359 active cases in Victoria.

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Rabbis Ponder COVID-19 Queries of Ultra-Orthodox Jewish Life

Must an observant Jew who has lost his sense of taste and smell because of COVID-19 recite blessings for food and drink? Can one bend the metal nosepiece of a surgical face mask on the Sabbath? May one participate in communal prayers held in a courtyard from a nearby balcony?
 
Months into the coronavirus pandemic, ultra-Orthodox rabbis in Israel are addressing questions like these as their legions of followers seek advice on how to maintain proper Jewish observance under the restrictions of the outbreak.
 
Social distancing and nationwide lockdowns have become a reality around the globe in 2020, but for religious Jews they can further complicate rites and customs that form the fabric of daily life in Orthodox communities. Many of these customs are performed in groups and public gatherings, making it especially challenging for the religious public to maintain its lifestyle.  
 
One religious publisher in Jerusalem released a book in July with over 600 pages of guidance from 46 prominent rabbis. Topics range from socially distanced circumcisions (allowed) to Passover Seders over Zoom (forbidden) to praying with a quorum from a balcony (it’s complicated).
 
One rabbi responded to a query about blessings on food for those who lost their sense of taste and smell due to the coronavirus. His ruling? Prayers are still required, for “even though one does not sense the flavor of the food, his intestines nonetheless benefit and are satisfied by the food and its nutrition.” He then launched into a two-page legal argument citing rabbinic sources from the Talmud on down.
 
The collection — titled “Havieni Hadarav,” Hebrew for “Bring me to his chambers” — is one of many pamphlets, books, radio and social media Q&As published in recent months addressing matters of halacha, or Jewish religious law, during the pandemic.
 
Ultra-Orthodox Jews make up a little over 10% of Israel’s 9 million citizens and adhere to a close observance of Jewish law. The foundations of halacha are built on the Torah’s commandments and prohibitions, and the Talmud, a codification of Jewish law written down over the course of the early centuries of the first millennium.
 
Orthodox Jewish practice is the byproduct of generations of rabbis issuing legal arguments and rulings. Their decisions, known as responsa, can sometimes be lenient and other times strict.  
 
“Every time a rabbi is asked a question, he has to essentially do what a judge would do, and bring up previous cases which he builds upon to come to his decision in this particular case,” said Issamar Ginzberg, a Jerusalem-based Hassidic rabbi. The method of questions and responses has underpinned centuries of the Jewish legal code.
 
There’s no way to say for sure how many people will follow this particular book’s rulings. But there are hundreds of thousands of ultra-Orthodox Jews, and opinions by prominent rabbis often carry great significance in daily life within the community.  
 
“It’s more like a law textbook than a novel on the bestseller list,” said Ginzberg.
Rabbi Natan Feldman, head of the Tzuf Publishing House and editor of “Havieni Hadarav,” said the company has sold around 3,000 copies of the book, which meets “the need of the hour.”
 
“If people didn’t have it, they would err in all kinds of ways,” Feldman said. “It’s something with a lot of utility.”  
 
Israel’s ultra-Orthodox minority has been disproportionately affected by the coronavirus pandemic, with cities and neighborhoods where they live among the country’s current hot zones. Overall, Israel has recorded around 200,000 cases of the novel coronavirus and more than 1,300 deaths. The Health Ministry does not break down those numbers by population groups.  
 
Religious areas have been hard hit in part because they tend to be poorer and crowded, but also because of the tight-knit communal lifestyles, in which synagogues and seminaries play a central role. Some ultra-Orthodox schools have remained open in defiance of a nationwide lockdown imposed earlier this month to help clamp down on the country’s surge in new cases. While some rabbis have resisted orders to limit crowd sizes at prayers, especially for the current High Holiday season and this week’s gatherings for Yom Kippur, or the Day of Atonement, the government has tried to work with religious leaders to spread the word on promoting public health regulations and restricting the sizes of prayer gatherings.
 
Many of the responsa contend with the complications of holding prayers — which traditionally require a quorum of 10 adult men — outdoors and in a manner that complies with social distance regulations. The rabbis offered differing opinions on what the law allows regarding participating in a minyan held in a communal courtyard from a balcony above.  
 
Innovation has helped overcome some of the challenges of the lockdown but has also raised additional concerns for observant Jews. For example, can one enter a hospital on the Jewish Sabbath if there is a thermal camera at the entrance that takes visitors’ temperatures?  
 
Activating such an electronic device could violate multiple prohibitions, so Rabbi Asher Weiss — a prominent ultra-Orthodox legal scholar involved in “Havieni Hadarav” — advised refraining from entering if only visiting a patient, but those in need of medical care ought not “avoid entering the hospital and endanger their lives.”
 
But the bottom line, written by Weiss in the book’s introduction, is that people must “take extra care to adhere to the instructions of qualified medical officials and the regulations of the Health Ministry and not violate them.”  
 
Weiss did not respond to interview requests.
 
For Feldman, the publishing head, the tome of coronavirus laws not only helps those who desire to adhere to halacha, it’s a reminder for the future of the tribulations Jews faced during this outbreak.
 
“If there should be, God forbid, another pandemic in the century to come, there will at least be a memory, some kind of necessity for the coming generations,” he said. 

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Why Facebook Suddenly Closed 155 Accounts Targeting the Philippines

Facebook’s deletion of accounts targeting the Philippines from bases in China shows that the U.S. internet giant wants a better reputation in Southeast Asia after letting things slide in the past, say analysts who follow the case. On September 22, Facebook said it had removed 155 of its own accounts and six Instagram accounts for violating an internal policy against “foreign or government interference which is coordinated inauthentic behavior on behalf of a foreign or government entity.” The accounts originated in China and focused “primarily on the Philippines and Southeast Asia more broadly” as well as on the United States, Facebook says. Facebook’s move will endear it to Filipinos, who use the service so fervently that it has become a de facto official homepage for businesses and government agencies but who also worry that it has become too permissive, scholars say.    For Facebook, “it’s more from a kind of a PR point of view – I do this at a particular time, somehow, it’s seen as positive and I can say, ‘look, I have done this,’” said James Gomez, regional director at the Bangkok-based think tank Asia Center. Operators of the deleted accounts had posted in Chinese, English and Tagalog about naval activity in the South China Sea as well as Philippine politics and tried to cover up their identities, Facebook said.  China and the Philippines dispute sovereignty over a tract of the sea that’s rich in fisheries as well as undersea energy reserves. China has the upper hand militarily, frustrating officials in Manila and fanning debate there over whether the Philippines should ask Washington for more help. The connection to Facebook goes back to 2015, when the California-based service joined domestic mobile service provider Smart Communications to offer an app that allowed free access to 24 heavily used mobile sites.The thumbs-up Like logo is shown on a sign at Facebook headquarters in Menlo Park, Calif., April 14, 2020. Facebook’s long-awaited oversight board is set to launch in October 2020.But Facebook has made eyes roll in the Philippines and other Southeast Asian countries by allowing relatively unfettered access by politicians, hate-speech spreaders and purveyors of fake news, Gomez said.   “We would welcome that there is self-governance on the part of Facebook,” said Ramon Casiple, executive director of the Metro Manila-based advocacy group Institute for Political and Electoral Reform. “There was a lot of that [problematic material] in the past up till now.”’ Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte maintains an “online army” that was reportedly paid to pack Facebook with supportive material in the name of “grassroots activists”, Southeast Asian news outlet New Mandala reported in 2017, a year after Duterte took office.   Filipinos are starting now to eye the 2022 presidential election, motivating Facebook to clean up so it can avoid criticism, said Eduardo Araral, a Filipino and associate professor at the National University of Singapore’s public policy school.  Some of the shuttered accounts carried “content supportive of President Rodrigo Duterte and Sara Duterte’s potential run in the 2022 Presidential election,” Facebook said, referring to the current leader’s daughter. Presidents can serve just one term in the Philippines. “They have to be active in showing Facebook is no longer used or can no longer be used as a platform for inauthentic behavior,” Araral said. Duterte has pursued friendship with China despite the maritime dispute, but common Filipinos remain leery of Beijing’s designs for the surrounding seas. About 74 million people use Facebook in the Philippines, where the total population stands near 109 million. Facebook’s statement says 276,000 accounts followed one or more or 11 deleted Facebook Pages belonging to businesses. The service took down those pages along with the 155 non-business accounts. Facebook said that about 5,500 people followed one of more of the closed-down Instagram accounts. Facebook has removed accounts in Singapore and Myanmar as well, as both countries approached political milestones, Gomez said.  In 2018, for example, a U.N. Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights mission found that Facebook had helped spread “hate” speech against the Rohingya, a Muslim minority in Myanmar that has struggled to get along with the country’s government. Facebook took down a page authored by senior Myanmar military officials — a long-time nemesis of the Rohingya — after the U.N. findings appeared. 

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Local Developer Creates Air Monitoring App

There are all kinds of apps that rate the air quality of your home inside and outside. But one young programmer has created one that has taken off in his native Macedonia. Now it’s also expanding worldwide. VOA`s Jane Bojadzievski reports.

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US Judge Halts Government Ban on TikTok

A U.S. federal judge has temporarily halted a Trump administration order to ban the popular video app TikTok from U.S. app stores. The ban was due to go into effect at the end of the day Sunday by order of the U.S. Commerce Department, the latest move targeting what administration officials have said are security concerns with Chinese companies. The judge gave lawyers for TikTok and the administration until Wednesday to meet and propose a schedule for further proceedings in the case.  TikTok lawyers argued at a Sunday hearing that banning the app would infringe on the free speech rights of its users, while also bringing irreparable harm to the company’s business. “We will continue defending our rights for the benefit of our community and employees,” the company said in a statement welcoming the judge’s decision. The U.S. head office of TikTok is seen in Culver City, California, Sept. 15, 2020.The Commerce Department said after the ruling that an executive order President Donald Trump issued in August outlining concerns that TikTok collects a wide range of data that could end up in the hands of the Chinese government “is fully consistent with the law and promotes legitimate national security interests.”   The statement said the government is complying with the injunction but intends to “vigorously defend” the executive order and its implementation from legal challenges. The Trump administration also sought to shut another popular app, WeChat, out of U.S. app stores, before a judge issued an injunction a week ago stopping that ban as well.   China has rejected the U.S. allegations that the apps present security concerns, while accusing the United States of bullying Chinese companies. The Justice Department asked Friday for the WeChat ban to be allowed to go into effect while that legal case plays out, arguing that allowing the app to continue to be available to U.S. users will cause the country harm. TikTok has sought to alleviate U.S. concerns by forming a partnership with two U.S. companies, Oracle and WalMart.  The deal has not been finalized, and there have been conflicting statements among the parties about how much of the new venture each would own. Trump initially said he gave his blessing to the arrangement, before stating it would not go forward if TikTok’s parent company had any ownership stake in the new company. TikTok said after Sunday’s ruling that it will “maintain our ongoing dialogue with the government to turn our proposal, which the President gave his preliminary approval to last weekend, into an agreement.” 

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