US Virus Updates: Drugmakers Vow Diversity in Vaccine Trials; Fallen Nurses Honored

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Amid a growing pandemic and sinking poll numbers, President Donald Trump announced Monday that his administration will resume its coronavirus task force briefings at the White House on Tuesday. The briefings, which put the president at the helm of the federal government's virus response, were paused in late April.

And with the first round of U.S. federal relief set to expire, the political stakes of providing more support to the American economy are high and rising ahead of the November election. Congressional Republicans remained at odds with Democrats over how much money is enough to ease the financial burden as businesses endure repeated closures to contain the spread of the virus.

Meanwhile, testing of an experimental vaccine showed it may produce an immune response against the coronavirus. The urgency of such research is rising with the pandemic still gaining momentum in parts of the U.S.

The U.S. has neared 3.9 million coronavirus cases nationwide, with more than 142,000 deaths, according to a tally by NBC News.

Here are the latest updates on the coronavirus pandemic in the U.S.:

2 Judges in Lawsuit Over Atlanta Mask Rule Recuse Themselves

After one judge recused herself at the state’s request from hearing a lawsuit filed by Georgia’s governor over measures taken by Atlanta in response to the COVID-19 pandemic, a second stepped aside because she used to work for the governor.

In the lawsuit filed last week against Atlanta Mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms and the members of the City Council, Kemp argues that local leaders don’t have the legal authority to impose measures that are more or less restrictive than those in his executive orders.

Atlanta is among at least 15 local jurisdictions statewide that has ordered people to wear masks in many public places to prevent the spread of the coronavirus.

Fulton County Superior Court Judge Kelly Ellerbe had scheduled a hearing for 11 a.m. Tuesday on an emergency motion in the case. But in an order filed less than two hours before it was to begin, Ellerbe said she was recusing herself after consulting with the lawyers in the case by telephone conference and email.

The case was reassigned to Fulton County Superior Court Judge Shawn LaGrua. But LaGrua issued an order Tuesday afternoon recusing herself, saying she wanted “to avoid any appearance of impropriety or bias.” She noted that she had worked for Kemp as an inspector general when he was secretary of state and has been and remains under consideration for appointments by Kemp.

Pharma Execs Vow Diversity in Coronavirus Vaccine Trials

Pharmaceutical executives assured lawmakers that their companies would test possible COVID-19 vaccines on a diverse group of volunteers, a critical concern in light of the disproportionate number of African Americans, Latinos and Native Americans who have died or gotten severely ill from the coronavirus.

“As we seek to enroll our future Phase III trials in the United States, we will strive to ensure significant representation of populations have been disproportionately impacted by the pandemic, including Blacks, Hispanic/Latinx and participants over 65 years of age,” Dr. Macaya Douoguih, the head of clinical development and medical affairs at Johnson & Johnson’s Janssen Vaccines and Prevention, said in her prepared remarks for a hearing of the Committee on Energy and Commerce’s Subcommittee on Oversight and Investigation.

Also testifying were executives from AstraZeneca, Moderna Inc, Pfizer Inc, and Merck & Co Inc.

“Ensuring diversity in these trials, including in terms of race, ethnicity, gender, age, and other factors, is a priority in our efforts,” Mene Pangalos, the executive vice president of biopharmaceutical research & development at AstraZeneca, said in his prepared remarks.

AstraZeneca and Oxford University has one of the vaccine candidates that released early promising data on Monday. It generated an immune response in a study of about 1,000 patients without serious side effects.

The Democratic chairman of the Energy and Commerce Committee, Rep. Frank Pallone of New Jersey, said he was worried that the Food and Drug Administration would be under pressure by the Trump administration to approve an ineffective vaccine for political reasons.

President Donald Trump in May said he hoped that a vaccine would be developed quickly.

“When I say “quickly,” we’re looking to get it by the end of the year, if we can,” he said in remarks in the Rose Garden on May 15. “Maybe before. We’re doing tremendously well.”

Republicans pushed back against Pallone’s comments.

Nurses Call for Federal Action to Protect Frontline Workers

The nation's largest nurses union held a memorial Tuesday in Washington, D.C., to honor the dozens of nurses from across the country who have lost their lives to COVID-19, and to demand the U.S. Senate pass the HEROES Act, "which would provide much needed personal protective equipment (PPE) and regulatory protections for frontline health care workers," according to organizers.

Nurses with National Nurses United, an umbrella organization for nurses unions across the country, placed 164 pairs of white nurses' shoes on the lawn of U.S. Capitol to mourn members who died, so far, during the pandemic. They also demanded federal action to protect healthcare workers on the front lines of the pandemic.

“If nurses are not safe, patients are not safe and any one of us can become a patient at any moment,” said Stephanie Simms, a nurse at MedStar Washington Hospital Center.

The personal protective gear that was in dangerously short supply during the early weeks of the coronavirus crisis in the U.S. is running low again, according to nurses, doctors and some lawmakers. The new shortages come as the virus resumes its rapid spread and the number of hospitalized patients climbs.

Simms called on President Donald Trump to order the production of more safety equipment and for the administration to set binding workplace standards for nurses. She also took Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell to task for not taking up the House-passed HEREOS Act before going on vacation last month as "nurses continued to die."

“We urge the Senate to act now to pass this bill, and to make sure that an OSHA emergency standard for frontline workers is promulgated and the Defense Production Act is fully invoked so that PPE can be mass-produced in the volumes required,” said NNU President Zenei Cortez. “Congress must ensure that no other nurse will be put in danger caring for patients without proper protections.”

Walmart to Spend $428 Million on New Round of Worker Bonuses

Walmart said Tuesday that it will give another round of bonuses to hourly employees and close its stores on Thanksgiving Day, CNBC reports.

The big-box retailer said in a news release that it will spend about $428 million on the bonuses to thank employees for working during the pandemic. Full-time hourly employees will receive $300 and part-time and temporary workers will get $150. The company will pay the bonuses on Aug. 20.

As Americans stay at home, they’ve turned to the big-box retailer for groceries, toilet paper and a wide range of items, from bikes to hair color. The retailer’s sales have shot up. Same-store sales jumped by 10% and e-commerce sales in the U.S. rose by 74% in the first quarter, ended April 30. Walmart hired more than 200,000 employees to help the company stock shelves, clean stores and keep up with online orders.

During the pandemic, employees have had to work to keep up with the demand and have put their health at risk. Some Walmart employees have gotten sick and died from Covid-19. A family of a longtime employee in Illinois filed a wrongful death lawsuit in April.

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LinkedIn Laying Off Nearly 1,000 Amid Hiring Slowdown

Professional networking company LinkedIn is laying off nearly 1,000 employees, or approximately 6% of its global workforce, as a slowdown in hiring amid the coronavirus pandemic pressures its business.

In a note to employees, CEO Ryan Roslansky said that the positions that will be eliminated are in its global sales and talent acquisition organizations.

Roslansky said it’s the only layoffs LinkedIn is planning. Impacted U.S. employees will receive at least 10 weeks of severance pay and a year of continuing health coverage through COBRA.

Those being laid off will continue in their roles through Aug. 21. 

Two Promising Vaccine Trials Still Have a Major Hurdle to Overcome

Two potential coronavirus vaccines have shown promising results in early trials, and while experts say it's encouraging news, they warn that some of the biggest hurdles still lie ahead, NBC News reports.

The early trial results for the two vaccine candidates — one developed by the University of Oxford and AstraZeneca and the other by the Chinese company CanSino Biologics — showed that both were safe and could induce immune responses in participants.

The next step in testing is known as phase three of human clinical trials. It's in this stage that scientists will be able to see whether a potential vaccine truly works to prevent coronavirus infections. While it's not common for vaccine candidates that have delivered good results in early stages to fail in subsequent phases, it can happen, said Dr. Carlos del Rio, executive associate dean of the Emory University School of Medicine in Atlanta.

"I can tell you that in the world of HIV, we've seen a ton of vaccines be immunogenic — they produce immune responses — and then you take them to phase three and they don't protect you," he said.

So far, vaccine development efforts have proceeded at an exceptional pace because of the urgency of the pandemic. Typically, it takes roughly a decade for a new vaccine to go through the various stages of development and testing.

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Mnuchin to Meet With Republicans, Top Democrats on Deal for New Virus Aid

President Donald Trump acknowledged a “big flareup” of COVID-19 cases, but divisions between the White House and Senate Republicans and differences with Democrats posed fresh challenges for a new federal aid package with the U.S. crisis worsening and emergency relief about to expire.

Trump convened GOP leaders at the White House on Monday as Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell prepared to roll out his $1 trillion package in days. But the administration criticized the legislation's money for more virus testing and insisted on a full payroll tax repeal that could complicate quick passage. The timeline appeared to quickly shift.

House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., said any attempt by the White House to block money for testing “goes beyond ignorance.”

Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin and acting chief of staff Mark Meadows will meet privately Tuesday with Pelosi and Senate Democratic leader Chuck Schumer.

Mnuchin vowed passage by month's end, as a $600 boost in jobless aid is set to expire, and said he expected a fresh $1 trillion jolt of business tax breaks and other aid would have a “big impact” on the struggling economy.

Should Your State Reopen?

For states considering lifting quarantine measures, the official guidelines propose either a downward trajectory of COVID-19 cases within two weeks or a downward trajectory of positive tests as a percent of total tests.

As shown below, when you compare yesterday’s new case count with that of two weeks ago, the number is often lower, simply because the counts fluctuate. Critics call the measures vague and ultimately because they aren’t binding, some states are choosing to reopen whether they meet the criteria or not.

Source: The COVID Tracking Project
Credit: Amy O’Kruk/NBC

Chicago Shuts Down Indoor Bar Service, Heightens Other Restrictions

Indoor service at bars in Chicago will be forced to shut down and other restrictions will be heightened once again as the city sees an increase in its average daily cases, NBC Chicago reported.

Chicago's top public health official had warned that roll backs were possible if the city reached an average daily case rate above 200.

"We have made so much progress here in Chicago in containing the spread of the virus, protecting our health system and saving lives, and in general, the virus remains under control locally. But we are again seeing a steady increase in new cases," Chicago Mayor Lori Lightfoot said in a statement Monday. "While we aren’t near the peak of the pandemic from earlier this year, none of us wants to go back there, and we feel these restrictions will help limit further community spread."

The city topped 200 daily cases on Friday and as of Monday, that average sat at 233. The positivity rate as of Monday morning sat at 5.1%, according to the city's health department.

California Issues Guidance for Salons, Barbershops to Operate Outdoors

California on Monday issued new guidance for barbershops, hair salons and nail salons to operate outdoors amid the ongoing coronavirus pandemic, NBC Bay Area reported.

The guidance from Gov. Gavin Newsom applies to counties that have been on the state’s monitoring list for three consecutive days. San Mateo County is the only Bay Area county not on the list. 

While the state has given the green light for these personal care businesses to serve customers outdoors, the final decision will come from each county's health officer. Bay Area counties on the state's watch list have yet to announce if they will carry out the new guidelines.

The Associated Press/NBC
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