The Latest: US State Department halts routine visa services
The Latest on the coronavirus pandemic, which has infected more than 214,000 people and killed more than 8,700. The COVID-19 illness causes mild or moderate symptoms in most people, but severe symptoms are more likely in the elderly or those with existing health problems. More than 83,000 people have recovered so far, mostly in China.
The U.S. State Department says it is halting visa issuance at its embassies and consulates around the world due to the global coronavirus outbreak.
The announcement Wednesday came as several lawmakers sought explanations from the department about difficulties some of their constituents overseas are having in getting assistance from embassies and consulates.
The department said in a notice that it was temporarily suspending “routine visa services” for non-U.S. citizens at its overseas diplomatic missions “in most countries.” “Routine visa services will resume as soon as possible but we are unable to provide a specific date at this time,” it said.
The department did not provide a list of affected countries but said visa applicants should check with individual embassies to check on their status.
Washington state health officials reported 11 new deaths from the new coronavirus on Wednesday, bringing the state tally of fatalities to 65 —- the highest in the the U.S.
Ten of the deaths were in King County and most were associated with the Life Care Center, a nursing home in Kirkland, Washington.
To date, 35 of the state’s death were linked to that facility.
Clark County also reported a death Wednesday –- the county’s third.
The spiritual leadership of the world’s 250 million Orthodox Christians has declared a two-week suspension of all church services, events and rites due to the coronavirus epidemic.
The Holy Synod of the Istanbul-based Ecumenical Patriarchate said in a statement that churches would remain open for private prayer. Wednesday’s statement said the measure would apply until the end of March and would then be reassessed.
It said the Patriarchate offices would be closed until further notice, while Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew and top clergy would pray “for the whole world and for its speedy relief from this trial.”
Turkey’s health minister reported the country’s second death from the new coronavirus.
Fahrettin Koca on Wednesday also reported 93 new confirmed cases, raising the total number of infections in the country to 191.
Israel’s Health Ministry says it has used controversial surveillance technology for the first time in its fight to stop the spread of the coronavirus.
The ministry said it had sent text messages to around 400 individuals whom it had determined were in contact with coronavirus carriers.
Early this week, the Israeli Cabinet authorized the Shin Bet security agency to use its phone-surveillance technology to identify people who had come into contact with people infected with coronavirus. The technology previously had been used to track Palestinian militants.
The government says the tactic is strictly supervised and meant to save lives. But opposition lawmakers and civil rights advocates say it is a violation of privacy.
The Dutch health care minister has fainted during a parliamentary debate about the government’s efforts to tackle the coronavirus.
Minister Bruno Bruins was on his feet speaking Wednesday evening when he slumped to the floor and had to be helped to stand up again by a Cabinet colleague, Social Affairs Minister Wouter Koolmees.
Bruins, who has been at the forefront of the government’s efforts to tackle the coronavirus, later tweeted that he felt faint due to exhaustion after “intensive weeks” of work.
“I’m going home to rest this evening so that I can get back to work again tomorrow to tackle the (hashtag)coronavirus as well as possible,” Bruins tweeted.
The Illinois Department of Public Health has announced 128 new cases of COVID-19 across the state.
An additional 20 individuals at the long-term care facility in DuPage County experiencing an outbreak have tested positive, bringing the total to 42 (30 residents and 12 staff).
Currently, IDPH is reporting 288 cases in 17 counties in Illinois. Cases have occurred in ages 9 to 91.
U.S. President Donald Trump says he plans to invoke extraordinary powers to immediately turn back to Mexico anyone who crosses the border illegally.
The president says at a White House briefing that he will announce the measure “very soon,” probably later Wednesday.
Trump says he isn’t planning a full shutdown of the U.S. border with Mexico but that the powers he will invoke to respond to a health emergency give him “great latitude.”
Asked about new restrictions on the Canadian border, the president says he only wants to allow travel that is deemed essential, such as movement related to the medical industry, the military or certain industries.
He says some people go back and forth for leisure pursuits, such as going to restaurants, and he wants to end that kind of travel on a temporary basis.
Guatemala has airlifted 87 of its citizens who were trapped in Costa Rica and Colombia after it closed its borders to commercial traffic.
The foreign ministry says all had their temperature taken and will have to home quarantine back home to avoid potentially spreading
Also Wednesday, President Alejandro Giammattei asked lawmakers for a $1 billion budget package to stimulate the Central American nation’s economy.
Oregon Gov. Kate Brown says the state will open a temporary 250-bed hospital by Friday on the Oregon State Fairgrounds in Salem.
Oregon purchased the pop-up hospital several years ago for a crisis situation such as this, she said Wednesday. Meanwhile, Oregon officials are working to identify 1,000 temporary beds around the state and patients in hospitals who do not have the new coronavirus, and who are in recovery from other illnesses and procedures, will start to be moved to those beds, Brown said.
The state has contracted with a private company for 20,000 test kits and the first batch of 5,000 should arrive soon, said Brown’s chief-of-staff, Nic Blosser. The tests will first be used on frontline healthcare workers, first responders and those living in community-style nursing homes.
Brown did not directly address whether or not she would order a shelter-in-place order for the Portland metropolitan area similar to the one underway in San Francisco.
Poland’s biggest laboratory that is testing for coronavirus infections says it has suspended activity after one of its scientific employees tested positive for the virus. The employee was not involved in the diagnostic process.
The head of the PZH laboratory in Warsaw, Grzegorz Juszczyk said in a statement Wednesday that people who recently had contact with the employee are being submitted to a quarantine and are waiting for the results of their own tests.
Juszczyk said that three other laboratories in Warsaw are ensuring continuous testing, and there are other laboratories elsewhere in the country. The PZH laboratory will resume work as soon as possible, he said.
A nation of 38 million, Poland has confirmed 287 cases of infection with coronavirus. Five of the patients have died.
Portugal’s president is set to declare a state of emergency, granting authorities exceptional powers to help fight the spread of COVID-19.
The measure allows the government to place temporary limits on civil liberties, such as freedom of movement and the right to protest, and grants it special powers, including requisitioning private property.
The government can also fix prices and stipulate what goods are manufactured. The armed forces can be deployed to enforce the measures.
President Marcelo Rebelo de Sousa was due to announce the move in a nationally televised address Wednesday evening. The government and parliament have given their blessing.
Portugal on Wednesday reported a total of 642 cases, 194 higher than the previous day, and two deaths.
The country has close ties with its neighbor Spain, which is one of the countries most affected by the outbreak.
The U.S. Transportation Security Administration reports a ninth case of an airport security screening officer testing positive for the new coronavirus.
The ageny said Tuesday that a checked baggage screener at Newark-Liberty International Airport in New Jersey is the most recent. The officer’s last shift was Saturday.
The other officers who previously tested positive worked at airports in San Jose, California; Fort Lauderdale and Orlando in Florida; Cleveland and Atlanta.
Conservative Republican legislators in Kansas are moving to limit Democratic Gov. Laura Kelly’s power to address the coronavirus pandemic after she closed the state’s K-12 schools for the rest of the spring semester.
Conservatives said Wednesday that Kelly’s action was an overreaction. Kansas has at least 18 confirmed coronavirus cases and one COVID-19-related death. Most infected people recover but some can develop serious problems.
They included language from GOP conservatives in a resolution that would extend a state of emergency declared by Kelly last week to prevent her from invoking a state law giving the governor broad powers to act to “promote and secure the safety and protection of the civilian population.”
And at the urging of conservative Republican Sen. Dennis Pyle, of Hiawatha, senators added a provision to prohibit Kelly from confiscating guns.
The House must consider the language, but some Republicans there also grumbled about Kelly’s order to close schools
Britain is closing all its primary and secondary schools because of the new coronavirus, one of the last countries in Europe to do so.
Education Secretary Gavin Williamson says schools across England will close after Friday until further notice.
The governments of Scotland and Wales have already announced that schools there will close Friday, and schools in Northern Ireland on Wednesday.
Prime Minister Boris Johnson said closing schools is of “limited value” in slowing the spread of the virus but that now is the right time to do it.
He said there would be measures to ensure that health care workers and other key staff who are parents can still go to work.
The U.N. cultural organization, UNESCO, says that as of late Tuesday, over 850 million children and youth – roughly half of the world’s student population – has to stay away from schools and universities because of the pandemic.
Casinos throughout Nevada were closed Wednesday, along with other nonessential businesses, following under an order from Gov. Steve Sisolak. He urged residents to stay home to help curtail the spread of the new coronavirus.
The last time casinos closed in Las Vegas was for John F. Kennedy’s funeral on Nov. 25, 1963. Michael Green, a history professor at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas, said he believes this is the first time all Nevada casinos have been closed statewide.
On the Las Vegas Strip, vehicle traffic was busy as usual despite gambling having halted at midnight, but pedestrians were scarce. Large orange barricades were placed in front of driveways to the Wynn and Encore casinos, while gates blocked walkways and padlocks and entrances to a nearby shopping mall had been chained and padlocked. Across the street, a chain link fence had been placed in front of the Circus Circus resort.
German Chancellor Angela Merkel says not since World War II has the country faced a challenge like the current outbreak of the coronavirus.
Merkel on Wednesday night made her first direct TV address to the nation in over 14 years in power, other than her annual New Year’s speech. She called on every person in Germany to help protect those who are the most vulnerable to COVID-19.
“Let me tell you: This is serious. Take it seriously too,” Merkel said in her speech that was to be aired on several public and private TV stations starting at 19:15 local time (1818 GMT). An embargoed copy of her speech was given to news agencies for earlier release.
Merkel, who is a physicist by training, said that while researchers were working under high pressure to develop a vaccine and medication to treat the new respiratory illness, currently, the slowdown of virus was the only to deal with it.
“Germany has an excellent health system, perhaps one of the best in the world,” she said. “But our hospitals, too, would be completely overwhelmed if too many patients would be delivered in too short a time.”
China has sent medical supplies to France to help health workers dealing with patients infected by the coronavirus and in need of masks and other protective material.
The Chinese Embassy in France tweeted on Wednesday that a batch of supplies has arrived. The supplies include face masks, medical gloves and protective suits. “United we will vanquish,” the tweet concluded.
China has sent supplies to Italy, the hardest hit among European countries, and to Spain. France took early action to help China, sending 17 tons of similar supplies in mid-February to Wuhan, where the COVID-19 was first detected. What French officials called a “solidarity” shipment has taken some criticism recently in France, where masks are available with difficulty for the general population.
French authorities ordered citizens into confinement this week in an effort to control the virus. As of Tuesday, France registered 7,730 positive cases and 175 deaths.
Hungary’s prime minister has announced a series of measures meant to protect jobs and ease the effects of the coronavirus epidemic on the country’s economy.
Viktor Orban said Wednesday that employers’ payroll taxes would be eliminated until June 30 in sectors already hard hit by the crisis, including tourism, hotels, entertainment, sports and taxi services. Payroll taxes for employees in those sectors also will be cut significantly.
Orban also announced that all existing personal and company loans will be exempt from making principal and interest payments until the end of the year, while interest rates on new consumption loans will be capped .
Labor laws will be loosened so “employers and employees can more easily reach agreements,” Orban said.
Hungary has 58 confirmed cases of people infected with the new virus, with only one death linked so far to COVID-19, a 75-year-old man who was being treated for pneumonia.
Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan has announced a 100 billion Turkish lira (US $15.4 billion) relief package in a bid to mitigate the blow from the new coronavirus outbreak.
The “Economic Stability Shield” package announced Wednesday includes delaying debt payments, assisting businesses by deferring tax and social security payments and increasing the lowest pensions.
Erdogan also urged citizens to adhere to government guidance and to stay at home saying: “we can limit the period of home isolation to three weeks if everyone complies to the measures with sensibility.”
Turkey has reported one COVID-19 death and 98 confirmed infections.
The country has suspended flights from 20 countries, closed schools and universities and shut down bars, night clubs, cafes, cinemas and gyms among other measures to contain the virus’ spread.
Barring a miracle, Italy will surpass China in the number of coronavirus deaths in just one more day.
On Wednesday, Italy saw a record new high in the numbers of infections and deaths reported, adding more than 4,200 new cases for a total of 35,713 infections. Another 475 people died, bringing Italy’s death toll to 2,978.
China, where the COVID-19 pandemic first emerged late last year, has seen 3,241 deaths, most in the hard-hit central province of Hubei.
Italy has an older population than China’s, but only has 60 million people to China’s 1.4 billion people. Medical experts say the new virus is killing people over 65 at a much higher rate than other age groups.
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