The Latest: NATO military leader to work on virus response

The Latest on the coronavirus pandemic. The new coronavirus causes mild or moderate symptoms for most people. For some, especially older adults and people with existing health problems, it can cause more severe illness or death.


— U.S. calls for governments to release people jailed for practicing religion.

— Louisiana has 42% spike in virus cases as backlogged test results pour in.

— Italy adds 760 to death toll as new infections continue leveling off.


BRUSSELS — NATO foreign ministers have tasked the organization’s top military officer to help improve the 30-nation military alliance’s response to the coronavirus pandemic.

NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg said Thursday the ministers had asked General Tod D. Wolters “to coordinate the necessary military support to combat the crisis, to speed up and step up assistance.”

Wolters’ job will be to locate the right aircraft to help deliver medical supplies, coordinate the use of any surplus stocks and equipment among members and ensure they reach countries most in need quickly.

While the disease is hitting all its member countries and could yet raise security concerns, NATO itself has no front-line role to play against its spread, apart from supporting national efforts with logistical, transportation and communications help.


LONDON — The British government has written off 13.4 billion pounds ($16.5 billion) of historic debt that hospitals owe in order to free up resources in the fight against the coronavirus pandemic.

Health Secretary Matt Hancock said at the government’s daily news conference that it was a “landmark step” for the National Health Service.

Following days of criticism, Hancock also spelled out a five-point plan to ratchet up tests for the virus from 10,000 a day to 100,000 by the end of the month.

U.K. figures earlier showed that the number of people who have died from the virus had risen by a daily 569 to 2,921.


WASHINGTON — Army soldiers are setting up a military hospital at Seattle’s CenturyLink Field and it will include 250 beds for non-coronavirus patients.

Lt. Col. Jason Hughes, from the Army’s 10th Field Hospital out of Fort Carson, Colorado, said there will be about 500 medical professionals at the hospital, and they will be ready to take patients early next week.

He told Pentagon reporters that the soldiers are putting up barriers in the tents to add privacy for the patients, and they are working on abating the noise from power generators and oxygen systems.

Col. Hope Williamson-Younce, from the 627th Hospital Center, also from Fort Carson, said they have 60 ventilators. Asked why those aren’t being sent to hospitals that need them for their more critically ill coronavirus patients, she said the field hospital will need them for the seriously ill or injured patients that they will have to see.


WASHINGTON — The Trump administration is calling on governments around the world to immediately release hundreds of thousands if not millions of prisoners who have been jailed for peacefully practicing their religion.

The U.S. special envoy for religious freedom Sam Brownback said Thursday that the coronavirus pandemic had made the situation more urgent, particularly in authoritarian countries known for repression of religious minorities. He cited China, Indonesia, Iran, Eritrea, North Korea, Russia and Vietnam as having significant numbers of prisoners of religious conscience in jails.

“These are people who should not be in jail on the first place,” Brownback told reporters. “In this time of pandemic religious prisoners should be released. It’s good health practice and the right thing to do.”

Brownback also called for governments to push back on allegations from some quarters that religious minorities are to blame for the spread of the COVID-19 virus.


ANKARA, Turkey — Turkey has reported 79 more deaths from the coronavirus outbreak, increasing the death toll in the country to 356.

Figures posted by Health Minister Fahrettin Koca on Twitter Thursday also showed that 2,456 more people tested positive for COVID-19 in the past 24 hours, bringing the total number of confirmed infections to 18,135.

So far, a total of 415 people have recovered, the figures show.

Koca said 82% of Thursday’s fatalities were people above the age of 60.


BATON ROUGE, La. — Louisiana’s confirmed number of coronavirus cases spiked 42% higher Thursday as a backlog of test results poured in.

The spike in cases confirmed Gov. John Bel Edwards’ message that the virus’s footprint across the state is much wider than limited testing has been able to document so far.

Nearly 9,200 people have tested positive for the virus that causes COVID-19, according to the latest figures released by the Louisiana Department of Health. That’s a jump of more than 2,700 confirmed cases from a day earlier and the largest single-day increase reported so far.

Edwards said many of the tests were done days ago, and he emphasized that most of those infected are self-isolating at home, not requiring a hospital bed.

The number of deaths attributed to COVID-19 did not show a similar jump. Louisiana’s death toll from the coronavirus disease grew to 310 in Thursday’s figures, 14% higher than the day before, recording an additional 37 people whose deaths from the virus have been confirmed.


WASHINGTON — Melania Trump has offered well wishes to Sophie Grégroire of Canada following her recovery from COVID-19.

The White House says the first lady expressed “deep appreciation” during Thursday’s conversation with the wife of Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau for continued cooperation between the U.S. and Canada as they address the coronavirus pandemic.

Mrs. Trump stressed the importance of maintaining strong economic ties following a joint agreement between the countries to ban nonessential travel across their shared border.

She and Grégoire also discussed efforts to repatriate Americans and Canadians who have been stranded on cruise ships around the world.

Trudeau’s office announced March 13 that his wife had tested positive for the coronavirus after she returned from a trip to London. The prime minister continues to self-isolate at home in Ottawa.


PRAGUE — The Czechs — the biggest beer drinkers per capita in the world — have been trying to save their beloved beer and bars amid the coronavirus pandemic.

Major brewers, including the Pilsner Urquell and Budweiser Budvar, are launching a campaign to help the establishments and watering holes struggling to survive a period of tough restrictions imposed to contain the outbreak.

The brewers say “the current situation is really critical.” They say some 250,000 jobs in the industry are under threat and “nobody knows how long it might take.”

The bars and restaurants have been ordered to shut down. Only some serve meals and drinks to go.

As part of the “Save a Bar” campaign, people can send money to their favorite bar or restaurant in exchange for vouchers they can use there once the crisis is over.


LAREDO, Texas — Residents in one Texas city are being required to wear something that covers their nose and mouth when they’re out in public during the coronavirus outbreak — or else face a fine of up to $1,000.

Starting on Thursday, all people over the age of 5 in Laredo will have to wear some kind of covering, such as a homemade mask, scarf, bandanna or handkerchief when entering a building open to the public. Residents will also have to cover their mouth and nose when using public transportation, taxis, ride shares or when pumping gas.

The new rule doesn’t apply to people riding in their own vehicles or if they are outside for exercise and following social distancing guidelines.

The mandate for wearing the covering was issued on Tuesday by Laredo’s city council. The South Texas city of more than 261,000 residents along the U.S.-Mexico border is about 155 miles (250 kilometers) southwest of San Antonio.


THE HAGUE, Netherlands — Dutch Prime Minister Mark Rutte is appealing to German and Belgian tourists not to visit the Netherlands over the Easter weekend.

Rutte said Thursday that the Dutch foreign ministry will be spreading the stay-away message in neighboring Germany and Belgium via social media in an effort to tackle the spread of the coronavirus.

He says cross-border traffic has already largely dried up and many campsites and vacation parks in the Netherlands will be closed over the long weekend, when large numbers of Germans and Belgians traditionally visit the Netherlands.

The Dutch government has not imposed a full lockdown to battle the spread of the virus, but has shut bars, restaurants museums, schools and universities and appealed to people to remain home as much as possible, exercise social distancing and not gather in public places.


LONDON — A union representing thousands of workers at British Airways says a deal has been reached that will mean no one is fired in the coming weeks and months while the airline is largely grounded during the coronavirus pandemic.

In a statement, Unite said British Airways will introduce a modified version of the British government’s job retention scheme. Workers, such as cabin crew, ground staff, engineers and head office staff, will be retained rather than dismissed.

The agreement applies to more than 30,000 workers and will mean that the government pays 2,500 pounds ($3,100) of a worker’s monthly salary with British Airways paying the balance up to 80% of employees’ pay.

British Airways said it has also reached agreement with its 4,000 pilots to take four weeks of unpaid leave in April and May.


ROME — Italy added another 760 dead to its coronavirus toll, bringing the count in the country with the most deaths to 13,915. But new infections continued to level off three weeks into the West’s first nationwide shutdown, with 4,668 new infections for a total official caseload of 115,242.

Pressure on hospitals in hard-hit Lombardy continued to ease, with more than 800 people recovered and 165 fewer people hospitalized with COVID-19 compared to a day earlier. Intensive care units are still saturated, but overall, Lombardy added just under 1,300 new positive cases, with about half of those infected being treated at home.

More than 10,000 medical personnel have been infected nationwide and 69 doctors have died, according to the National Institutes of Health and the Italian association of doctors.


TORONTO — Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau says he’s very concerned about reports that medical supplies destined for Canada have been diverted to the U.S.

Trudeau has asked his public safety minister and transport minister to look into the reports. He says they need to make sure the personal protective equipment that was ordered in Canada makes it to Canada.

The prime minister says he’s working with the U.S. and is following up on this specific issue. He says he knows the needs are great in the U.S. but says it’s the same in Canada.

He also says the government has ordered hundreds of thousands of face shields from Bauer, the company that normally makes hockey equipment.


ATHENS, Greece — Greek authorities say a total of 119 people aboard a passenger ship have been confirmed as positive for the new coronavirus.

The ferry with 380 people on board was chartered to house workers from various countries who were to work on a shipbuilding project in Spain. It has been anchored outside Greece’s main port of Piraeus for several days.

Civil Protection Deputy Minister Nikos Hardalias says everyone on board the ship had been tested after an initial positive case was confirmed last week. Results came back negative for 259 people, positive for 119 and tests for two people need to be repeated. He says all on board did not present any symptoms.

The ship is to be allowed to dock at a pier set aside in Piraeus and those who have tested negative will be allowed to disembark. They will be transported to hotels before being repatriated to their countries.

Those who have tested positive will be quarantined for 14 days on board the ship, he said.

Those on board were from Greece, Belarus, Cuba, Bulgaria, Egypt, Indonesia, Kazakhstan, the Philippines, Switzerland, Turkey, Ukraine and the United States, the shipping ministry said.


WASHINGTON — The District of Columbia has announced 67 new positive infections from the new coronavirus. That brings the total to 653 positive cases with 12 deaths.

Mayor Muriel Bowser has issued a stay-home order for Washington’s approximately 700,000 residents. Neighboring Maryland and Virginia have done the same.

Bowser has declared a state of emergency, shuttered all schools and ordered all non-essential businesses to close. White House and Capitol tours have been canceled and the National Zoo, Smithsonian museum network and Kennedy Center have closed.


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