CDC Weighs Loosening Guidelines for Some Exposed to Virus

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention is considering changing its guidelines for self-isolation to make it easier for those who have been exposed to someone with the coronavirus to return to work if they are asymptomatic.
The public health agency, in conjunction with the White House coronavirus task force, is considering an announcement as soon as Wednesday, Vice President Mike Pence said on Tuesday.  
Under the proposed guidance, people who are exposed to someone infected would be allowed back on the job if they are asymptomatic, test their temperature twice a day and wear a face mask, said a person familiar with the proposal under consideration. The person described the proposal on the condition of anonymity because the draft had not been finalized.  
The new policy is aimed in particular at workers in critical jobs. But it also comes as the Trump administration is eyeing what it calls a “stabilization” in infection rates and looks toward rolling back some of the restrictive social distancing guidelines and restarting the nation’s stalled economy.
The proposed guidance would follow recommendations made by the CDC that eased self-isolation requirements for front-line medical workers who were exposed to the virus. Under CDC guidance, medical workers who have been exposed to the virus without protective equipment but who have no symptoms can return to work with a mask and temperature checks after 14 days.
Pence on Tuesday said the White House is focusing on the “point of need” for the current situation but also is operating on another track to consider future recommendations for the public.
“Some of the best minds here at the White House are beginning to think about what recommendations will look like that we give to businesses, that we give to states, but it will all, I promise you, be informed on putting the health and well-being of the American people first,” Pence said.
For most people, the new coronavirus causes mild or moderate symptoms, such as fever and cough that clear up in two to three weeks. For some, especially older adults and people with existing health problems, it can cause more severe illness, including pneumonia, and death.
In fashioning the recommendations, the administration appeared to be trying to balance political concerns about wanting to preserve as much normalcy as possible with public health concerns that some infections are being spread by people who seem to be healthy.



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Black Voters Weigh History, Health As They Vote in Wisconsin

After going to sleep angry and afraid to vote, Xavier Thomas woke up on Election Day in Wisconsin thinking about how hard black people had to fight for the right to cast a ballot.He didn’t want to be deterred despite the coronavirus pandemic and the government’s failure to get him an absentee ballot in time.”We had to be willing to die to get our vote, and the same thing is happening right now,” said Thomas, a 33-year-old director of youth ministry at a Milwaukee church.Across Wisconsin on Tuesday, voters had an impossible decision to make: whether to risk their health and possibly their lives to cast a ballot, or stay away and miss exercising a fundamental right of democracy. The conservative-learning state Supreme Court declined to delay the election, despite a statewide order from the Democratic governor telling people to stay home and avoid crowds to contain the spread of the highly infectious disease.Going forward with the election was especially problematic in the state’s largest city, Milwaukee, where roughly 4 in 10 residents are black. The city of 590,000 has suffered roughly half the state’s coronavirus deaths, many of them minorities. Officials closed all but five of the city’s 180 polling places, forcing thousands of voters to congregate at only a handful of voting sites.Vanessa Wroten-Gassama waited for two hours to cast her ballot at Washington High School in the Sherman Park neighborhood, a predominantly black community where rioting broke out in 2016 over a fatal shooting by police.  The wait was particularly difficult for her because she has a variety of health problems, including the need for dialysis.
“A lot of people aren’t going to go vote, especially the elderly,” said the 59-year-old, who wore a mask and gloves. “A lot of people aren’t going to go because they are desperately scared, especially in my community.”Another problem: Many voters said they requested absentee ballots but had not received them by Election Day.Calena Roberts was trying to figure out how she would tell her 89-year-old mother-in-law, who now lives in a Milwaukee nursing home, that she would not be able to vote because her absentee ballot hadn’t shown up.
“What do I say to her? Other than, ‘Mother, I am so sorry you won’t be able to cast your ballot in 2020, after all the years and all the struggles for African Americans to get the right to vote,'” said Roberts, 67.
She said she could not “in good conscience” take her mother out of the nursing home and bring her to a crowded polling place. More than half of the city’s known infections are within the black community.  
“People should not have to make a choice about being able to cast their ballot or taking a chance on becoming deathly ill or dying,” Roberts said. “There was no reason, no excuse for any human being to think this is OK.”
Tuesday’s election was remarkable in that it happened at all. All other states scheduled to hold primaries in recent weeks have delayed voting by days, weeks or months so election officials can adjust to the coronavirus restrictions and prepare for a dramatic increase in absentee ballot requests. Democratic Gov. Tony Evers tried to postpone the primary but was stopped by the conservative-leaning state Supreme Court, which ordered the election to proceed.
Traditional voter-outreach efforts to push people to the polls were largely abandoned. Concerns over public safety prompted the presidential campaign of Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders to cancel its planned get-out-the-vote activities. The campaign of former Vice President Joe Biden said it began weeks ago shifting all of its voter turnout efforts toward vote-by-mail.
Michael Claus, 66, was among voters who lined up Tuesday morning outside one of Milwaukee’s five polling places.
Claus, who is black, wore a protective mask and a Tuskegee Airmen cap. He said he tried to vote absentee and requested a ballot in March, but it never showed up and his only option was to vote in person. He blamed the Republican-controlled Legislature, saying the election “is more about politics for them than our safety.”
“They could have delayed the election with no problem,” Claus said. “They decided if they can suppress the vote in Milwaukee and Madison, where you have a large minority presence, you can get people elected you want elected. And that’s sad.”
Democrats had accused Republicans of holding to the Tuesday election date in part to benefit from reduced turnout in the state’s most populous cities, which lean Democratic. Reduced turnout there would benefit a conservative Wisconsin Supreme Court justice who is on the ballot for re-election.
Republicans had defended moving ahead with the election, saying it can be done safely and that elections have not been delayed during other times of national crisis. They also argue it’s important to fill thousands of local offices where terms expire later this month.
It was too early to say how much of an effect fears over coronavirus along with all the last-minute confusion about whether the election would happen would reduce turnout. But any decline could have long-term consequences.
“If black voices are not represented in the vote and in decisions that are made by folks that are elected, their communities suffer,” said Ryeshia Farmer with the ACLU of Wisconsin. “They don’t receive the same amount of resources, the same amount of funding in their communities. Long term, this will have a ripple effect.”
Keisha Robinson, 43, of Milwaukee, works to mobilize voters with BLOC — Black Leaders Organizing Communities. Robinson herself requested an absentee ballot from the city on Thursday, a day before the deadline.  
She had her fingers crossed that it would arrive in Tuesday’s mail. When it didn’t, Robinson had to decide whether to go vote in person. With an immune system she said “is not so strong,” and feeling scared, she decided against it.
“Not being able to vote when that’s exactly what I urge and inform my community to do feels like hypocrisy almost,” she said. “It feels like i didn’t complete my end of an important deal or something.” 



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Pandemic Deals Blow to Plastic Bag Bans, Plastic Reduction 

Just weeks ago, cities and even states across the U.S. were busy banning straws, limiting takeout containers and mandating that shoppers bring reusable bags or pay a small fee as the movement to eliminate single-use plastics took hold in mainstream America. What a difference a pandemic makes.  In a matter of days, hard-won bans to reduce the use of plastics — and particularly plastic shopping sacks — across the U.S. have come under fire amid worries about the virus clinging to reusable bags, cups and straws.  Governors in Massachusetts and Illinois have banned or strongly discouraged the use of reusable grocery bags. Oregon suspended its brand-new ban on plastic bags this week, and cities from Bellingham, Washington, to Albuquerque, New Mexico, have announced a hiatus on plastic bag bans as the coronavirus rages. Add to that a rise in takeout and a ban on reusable cups and straws at the few coffee stores that remain open, and environmentalists worry COVID-19 could set back their efforts to tackle plastic pollution for years.  “People are scared for their lives, their livelihood, the economy, feeding their loved ones, so the environment is taking a back seat,” said Glen Quadros, owner of the Great American Diner & Bar in Seattle. Quadros has laid off 15 employees and seen a 60% decline in business since Seattle all but shut down to slow the pandemic. For now, he’s using biodegradable containers for takeout and delivery, but those products cost up to three times more than plastic — and they’re getting hard to find because of the surge in takeout, he said. “The problem is, we don’t know what’s in store,” Quadros said. “Everyone is in the same situation.” In this March 29, 2020, photo, a sign posted at an entrance to a 365 Whole Foods store advises customers not to use their own bags while shopping in Lake Oswego, Ore.The plastics industry has seized the moment and is lobbying hard to overturn bans on single-use plastics by arguing disposable plastics are the safest option amid the crisis. California, Connecticut, Delaware, Hawaii, Maine, New York, Oregon and Vermont have statewide bans on plastic bags, and Oregon and California have laws limiting the use of plastic straws. New York’s statewide plastic bag ban is on hold because of a lawsuit.  The Plastics Industry Association recently sent a letter to Alex Azar, head of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, and asked him to speak out against plastic bag bans because they put consumers and workers at risk. And the American Recyclable Plastic Bag Alliance is doubling down on its opposition to plastic bag bans under a preexisting campaign titled Bag the Ban. Grocery worker unions, too, have joined the chorus. The union that represents Oregon supermarket workers is lobbying for a ban on reusable bags, and a Chicago union called for an “end to the disease-transmitting bag tax.” Critics argue people with reusable bags don’t regularly wash them. “If those bags coming into the store are contaminated with anything, they get put on the conveyor belt, the counter, and you’re putting yourself in a bad spot,” said Matt Seaholm, executive director of the American Recyclable Plastic Bag Alliance. “It’s an unnecessary risk.” A study by the U.S. National Institutes of Health found the novel coronavirus can remain on plastics and stainless steel for up to three days, and on cardboard for up to one day. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention says it appears possible for a person to get COVID-19 by touching a surface that has the virus on it and then touching their mouth, nose or eyes — but it’s not thought that’s the main way the virus spreads. More studies are needed to fully assess the dangers posed by reusable bags, which are mostly made of fabric, said Dr. Jennifer Vines, lead health officer for the Portland metropolitan area. “It’s not clear that a virus that you can find on a surface — whether it’s cloth or something else — is viable and can actually make you sick,” she said. For most people, the new coronavirus causes mild or moderate symptoms, such as fever and cough that clear up in two to three weeks. For some, especially older adults and people with existing health problems, it can cause more severe illness, including pneumonia and death.  Some stores such as Trader Joe’s and Target are letting customers use their own bags if they sack their groceries themselves, while others are banning them. In Oregon, temporary rules now allow disposable “T-shirt” plastic bags with no fee to customers. Many stores ran out of paper bags amid a run on groceries, accelerating the move to ease plastic restrictions, said Joe Gilliam, president of the Northwest Grocery Association, which represents 1,000 retail locations in Oregon, Washington and Idaho.  “There are some stores out there that are saying, ‘For the time being, please don’t bring those in.’ Other stores are allowing them, but … right now we’re asking that only freshly laundered ones come in,” he said. Environmental groups, well aware of the nation’s current priorities, were at first unusually silent on moves to temporarily roll back plastic bag bans. But they responded forcefully after the plastics industry asserted bag bans could worsen the pandemic’s toll. “The fear-driven gains the industry was able to win this month are likely to be extremely short-lived,” said John Hocevar, of Greenpeace USA. “The movement away from throwaway plastic is the kind of awakening that is not going to be that easy for the plastic industry to stop.” In the meantime, some consumers are getting taken by surprise. Paul McNamara, who has used his own bags for a decade, said he was stopped at the entrance of his regular market in Hopkinton, Massachusetts, after the state enacted a temporary ban on reusable shopping sacks. His ratty bags have corners reinforced with duct tape from years of use; he instead left with his groceries in plastic bags. “My question would be, will it become permanent?” McNamara said. “I’m fine with the restrictions on reusable plastics. It makes a lot of sense, and that’s the way to go for the environment. But if it’s a public health issue, we’ve got to figure out some way to deal with it.” 



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Outbreak Poses Dilemma for Palestinians Working in Israel

At the construction site in Tel Aviv, Jamal Salman and the other Palestinian workers wore gloves and masks, and their employer provided apartments for them to stay overnight.But his wife, alarmed by the news about the coronavirus outbreak in Israel, called him every night from the West Bank, begging him to come home. He came back early this week.Now he sits alone in his basement all day, quarantined from his wife and five children and wondering how he’ll make ends meet. In Tel Aviv he earned $1,500 a month, enough to support his family. Now he’s unemployed.”Coronavirus is like an all-out war,” he said. “Everyone is suffering.”The coronavirus outbreak poses a dilemma for tens of thousands of Palestinian laborers working inside Israel who are now barred from traveling back and forth. They can stay in Israel, where wages are much higher but the outbreak is more severe, or they can return home to quarantine and unemployment in the West Bank.
Authorities on both sides are wrestling with similar trade-offs as they confront a virus that blithely ignores the barriers erected over the course of the decades-old conflict.Both Israel and the Palestinian Authority imposed sweeping lockdowns in mid-March, largely sealing off the occupied West Bank and heavily restricting travel within the territory.
But the laborers were allowed to remain in Israel, where many work in construction and agriculture — sectors deemed essential to the economy.Palestinians can earn much higher wages in Israel than in the West Bank, where economic development has been hindered by more than a half-century of Israeli military rule. Many support extended families, and their income is vital to the local economy.Israel and the Palestinian Authority initially agreed that the workers could remain in Israel for up to two months as long as they didn’t travel back and forth.It was left to Israeli employers to provide living facilities for the workers, some of whom were largely left to fend for themselves. The Associated Press spoke to workers last month who left their construction site after several days of living in close quarters, with little if any protective equipment.Many have chosen to go back to the West Bank, including thousands who returned ahead of the Passover holiday in Israel, when work grinds to a halt. Palestinian Labor Minister Nasri Abu Jaish told local media that 8,000 workers came back on Tuesday alone.  Their return to the West Bank poses a risk, both to public health and to the Palestinian economy.
The Palestinian Authority, which has reported around 250 cases and one fatality, says 73% of the infections have been linked to workers returning from Israel, which is battling a much larger outbreak. Israel has more than 9,200 confirmed cases, including at least 65 fatalities.Last week, Israel sent around 250 Palestinian workers back to the West Bank after a virus outbreak at a chicken slaughterhouse near Jerusalem, where nine workers tested positive.”With the borders closed, and no tourists or travelers, the only remaining source for coronavirus infections is Israel, where the outbreak is huge,” said Dr. Kamal al-Shakhra, an official in the Palestinian Health Ministry.The Palestinian Authority is stopping workers after they cross through Israeli checkpoints and taking their temperatures. Those with fever or other symptoms are taken to hospitals while the rest are ordered into 14-day home quarantine.All workers are barred from returning to Israel, and security forces posted at the entrances to towns and villages are confiscating work permits.”We cannot test all the workers returning from Israel because we have limited capabilities,” said Dr. Ali Abed Rabu, another Health Ministry official. Labs in Ramallah and Bethlehem can only process around 600 tests per day, he said.Gerald Rockenschaub, the head of the World Health Organization for the Palestinian territories, praised the Palestinian Authority’s response to the pandemic. But he acknowledged that screening and quarantining the returning workers was “easier said than done,” especially since many are unregistered.A major outbreak in the West Bank would overwhelm the local health system. West Bank hospitals have around 213 intensive care unit beds with ventilators, according to the WHO. That’s for a population of around 2.5 million.The situation in Gaza, which has been under an Israeli and Egyptian blockade since the Palestinian militant group Hamas seized power there in 2007, is even more dire.The virus causes mild to moderate symptoms in most patients, who recover within a few weeks. But it is highly contagious and can be spread by those who appear healthy. It can cause severe illness and death in some patients, particularly the sick and elderly.Mohammed Falah, a 24-year-old day laborer from the West Bank, returned from Israel on Tuesday after working on a construction site in Tel Aviv for the last three weeks.”If I had more work, I would have stayed,” said Falah, who is engaged and hopes to get married this summer. He makes around $70 a day in Israel, twice the going rate in the West Bank.
“I’m building a home myself. I cannot afford to stay in with no income,” he said.After he passed through the Israeli checkpoint, Palestinian medics sprayed him down with disinfectant from head to toe. “They even disinfected my shoes,” he said.After taking his temperature and finding no sign of fever, they ordered him to go into home quarantine for 14 days.”I will definitely follow the instructions,” he said. “I have parents and brothers and sisters, and I want to protect them.”



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Wisconsin Voters Brave Coronavirus

Amid coronavirus fears, Wisconsin voters went to the polls Tuesday after the state supreme court reversed the Democratic governor’s postponement of the election.  Mike O’Sullivan reports, disputes over the voting process foreshadow battles ahead of the presidential election in November.



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Smart Thermometer Shows Fevers Dropping in Areas with Sheltering Measure

In the fight against the COVID-19 pandemic, one sign that social distancing measures may be working is that people’s temperatures — a symptom of the virus — are dropping in some cities in the U.S., according to a smart thermometer company. The data could give health officials an early look into how the virus is progressing. Michelle Quinn takes a look.



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