US Virus Updates: States Accused of Fudging, Bungling Testing Data; Pence Not Taking Malaria Drug

Here are the latest developments in the coronavirus crisis in the U.S.

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President Donald Trump on Monday said he is taking the malaria drug hydroxychloroquine to protect against the coronavirus, despite warnings from his own government that it should only be administered for COVID-19 in a hospital or research setting due to potentially fatal side effects.

Vice President Mike Pence said Tuesday in an interview with FOX News that he is not taking hydroxychloroquine, but "wouldn't hesitate" to if his physician recommended it. Trump said his doctor did not recommend the drug to him, but he requested it from the White House physician.

The U.S. has 1.5 million cases and nearly 92,000 deaths from the coronavirus, according to Johns Hopkins University. However, in a hopeful sign, an experimental vaccine showed encouraging results in very early testing with hoped-for immune responses triggered in eight healthy, middle-aged volunteers.

Study volunteers given either a low or medium dose of the vaccine by Cambridge, Massachusetts-based Moderna Inc. had antibodies similar to those seen in people who have recovered from COVID-19.

The results have not been published and are only from the first of three stages of testing that vaccines and drugs normally undergo. U.S. government officials have launched a project called "Operation Warp Speed" to develop a vaccine and hopefully have 300 million doses by January.

Here are the latest developments in the coronavirus crisis in the U.S.:

States Accused of Fudging or Bungling COVID-19 Testing Data

As large parts of the U.S. ease their lockdowns against the coronavirus, public health officials in some states are being accused of bungling infection statistics or even deliberately using a little sleight of hand to make things look better than they are.

The result is that politicians, business owners and ordinary Americans who are making decisions about reopenings and other day-to-day matters risk being left with the impression that the virus is under more control than it actually is.

In Virginia, Texas and Vermont, for example, officials said they have been combining the results of viral tests, which show an active infection, with antibody tests, which show a past infection. Public health experts say that can make for impressive-looking testing totals but does not give a true picture of how the virus is spreading.

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Fact Check: Are Front-Line Workers Taking Hydroxychloroquine to Prevent COVID-19?

Medical professionals say they do not have any evidence to back up President Donald Trump’s repeated claim that “many” and “thousands” of front-line workers are taking hydroxychloroquine as a prophylactic for COVID-19.

The American Medical Association, the country’s largest medical association, tells NBC News: "The AMA does not know of any tracking or surveys examining HCQ use among health care workers.”

While hydroxychloroquine was widely used in March in New York City hospitals on Covid-19 patients, but doctors immediately stopped prescribing it as soon as warnings about its potential side effects — some of them fatal — came to light. An ICU doctor at a New York hospital who did not want to be identified as speaking without authorization told NBC News that hydroxychloroquine was “absolutely not“ used by front-line workers as a prophylaxis at his hospital at any time, but said he thinks the drug might have killed some patients during the time it was given as standard care.

Anesthesiologist AJ Rai, who came to New York City from California to treat Covid-19 patients, said doctors initially might have taken it as a prophylaxis but the “data debunked [the use of the drug] weeks ago. 

“There is zero evidence for it as prophylaxis [and] questionable evidence for taking it very very early in the course of an infection, but that’s a stretch now based on what we’ve learned,” Rai said.

Unlike Trump, Pence Says He's Not Taking Hydroxychloroquine

Vice President Mike Pence said Tuesday he's not taking hydroxychloroquine, an unproven treatment for COVID-19 that President Donald Trump has vigorously promoted and claims to be taking himself.

"My physician hasn’t recommended that but I wouldn’t hesitate to take the counsel of my doctor," Pence told Fox News in an interview from NASA headquarters in Washington, D.C. "I would never begrudge any American taking the advice of their physician."

Trump announced Monday that he's been taking the drug for about 10 days, despite warnings from the Food and Drug Administration that it can cause potential heart problems and initial studies that have shown the antimalarial drug is not an effective treatment for the coronavirus.

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US, Canada, Mexico Extend Border Restrictions

The U.S., Canada and Mexico have extended their agreements to keep their shared borders closed to non-essential travel to June 21 because of the coronavirus pandemic.

Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau says the border is a source of vulnerability, so the agreement will be extended by another 30 days. The Canada restrictions were announced on March 18 and were extended in April.

Trudeau said Canada’s provincial leaders clearly wanted to continue the measures.

“This will keep people in both of our countries safe,” Trudeau said.

U.S. President Donald Trump also confirmed the extension, but looked forward to its eventual end, saying, “everything we want to get back to normal.”

Mexico’s Foreign Affairs ministry said via Twitter that after reviewing the spread of COVID-19 in Mexico and the United States the governments had decided to leave the restrictions implemented March 21 unchanged.

Texas Church Closes After 5 Leaders Test Positive for COVID-19

A Catholic church in Houston has closed its doors after five of its leaders tested positive for COVID-19, including two priests who helped celebrate public Masses after they resumed earlier this month.

The closure and positive tests come after a priest from Holy Ghost parish, 79-year-old Donnell Kirchner, died last week. He was diagnosed with pneumonia, but officials are determining whether he might have contracted the virus before he died May 13.

Kirchner went to an urgent care clinic and later to a hospital emergency room. But after being released, he went back to the home he shared with members of his religious order, the Archdiocese of Galveston-Houston said.

The members of Kirchner’s religious order are asymptomatic but are being quarantined.

The diocese encouraged anyone who attended masses at Holy Ghost to get tested as a precaution.

Sen. Brown: Reopening Economy Too Quickly Puts Workers' Lives at Risk

Sen. Sherrod Brown, D-Ohio, and Secretary of the Treasury Steve Mnuchin went back and forth on the Trump administration's desire to reopen the American economy and what precautions are in place to help protect workers as they get back to work.

The top Democrat on the Senate Banking Committee assailed the Trump administration's economic response to the coronavirus crisis and pressed Treasury Secretary Steve Mnuchin on the White House's push to reopen the economy without first implementing a national program to provide workers safety.

Sen. Sherrod Brown, D-Ohio, pointed to President Donald Trump mandating meat processing plants to stay open despite deadly outbreaks that have forced many of the country's pork and poultry facilities to close. Brown also noted that health experts have urged more caution in reopening the economy because it could lead to more deaths.

“How many workers should give their lives to increase our G.D.P. by a half percent?" Brown asked Mnuchin, who was testifying about the Treasury's role in the government's emergency relief programs.

“No workers should give their lives to do that, Mr. Senator, and I think your characterization is unfair,” Mnuchin responded.

Brown asked Mnuchin whether it was "fair" to force these essential workers, who are often in the lowest-paying jobs, back to work without protections. Mnuchin avoided answering the question directly, saying "some of those people are paid less than others…I don't know what specific workers you're referring to."

Later, Mnuchin also came under sharp questioning from Sen. Elizabeth Warren, D-Mass., who charged that he wasn't doing enough to force companies that receive aid from the joint Fed-Treasury program to keep workers on their payrolls.

Sen. Elizabeth Warren, D-Mass., spars with Treasury Secretary Steve Mnuchin over the rules for companies taking money through the CARES Act and how they are held accountable for maintaining jobs.

“Will you require companies that receive money from this half-a-trillion-dollar slush fund to keep people on the payroll?” Warren asked the treasury secretary.

The senator pressed Mnuchin to ensure that the loans include that requirement. When Mnuchin declined to commit to that change, Warren said, “You're boosting your Wall Street buddies.”

Mnuchin told Warren that the legislation that provides the government aid includes restrictions on top executive pay and on company dividends and stock buybacks.

Federal Reserve Chair Jerome Powell also testified Tuesday before the Senate oversight hearing on the $2 trillion federal relief package approved in late March. Powell told lawmakers that the Fed's lending programs for medium-sized businesses and state and local governments would begin operating by the end of this month.

Powell said that while the Fed has received a “good deal of interest” in those programs, if not enough companies or state and local governments seek to borrow, the Fed would consider changes to them. That could include expanding their eligibility.

Mnuchin said his department would accept losses from any Fed loans that would come out of that $454 billion. Mnuchin had previously said that the administration expected to recover all those funds. That observation had raised concerns that the Fed would adopt a cautious approach that would provide less financial support.

Inside Hospital Cleaners' Coronavirus Fight: 'I Know I'm Needed'

Like doctors and nurses, who are often the most prominently celebrated essential workers, housekeepers, janitors and other cleaning service workers are on the front line of the fight against COVID-19, the disease caused by the novel coronavirus that has killed more than 5,800 people in Massachusetts, the fourth-highest death toll in the United States.

"I don't think a lot of people think about housekeepers and [Environmental Services Department] staff," says Kurt Curry, one of 321 housekeepers in the Cardiovascular Intensive Care Unit of Boston's Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center. "We seem to be kind of in the background, but we're not, we're up in the front. We're working with the staff. We're working with the nurses and the patient care technicians. Right along with them."

Hospital custodial staff is exposed every day to any kind of airborne illness the same way the medical staff is, says Kristine Viale, operations manager of the department.

"The medical staffs aren't the only ones risking their lives," Viale says. "Environmental Services workers are beyond important, they are essential. If our environment isn't properly disinfected and cleaned, then the virus could run rampant in our facility and get not only ourselves but our patients."

To show what that work is like, NBC Boston spoke with five people who do custodial work at four Beth Israel Lahey Health hospitals around Massachusetts. Read their stories here.

Notre Dame Announces Classes to Begin in August

University of Notre Dame officials announced Monday the school’s campus will reopen to students on Aug. 10, with social distancing, a mask requirement, testing and contact tracing to prevent the spread of the coronavirus.

Notre Dame president, the Rev. John Jenkins, said the university will open to students two weeks earlier than originally scheduled. He says there won’t be a fall break and the semester will end before Thanksgiving.

“Bringing our students back is in effect assembling a small city of people from many parts of the nation and the world, who may bring with them pathogens to which they have been exposed,” Jenkins said in a statement. ``We recognize the challenge, but we believe it is one we can meet.”

In announcing plans to reopen, the university did not address plans for athletics programs, including the football season, The university says it consulted with experts on its faculty, infectious disease specialists and a team from the Cleveland Clinic before deciding to reopen.

As part of the plan to reopen, the university identified facilities to isolate students who test positive for COVID-19 and quarantine students who have been in close contact, said spokesman Paul Browne, adding details on those procedures will be announced in coming weeks.

The Ebb and Flow of New Coronavirus Cases and Deaths

The graphs below illustrate the distribution of new coronavirus cases and deaths in the U.S. While New York accounted for the lion’s share of new cases and deaths in March and April, its numbers have declined in May as some states have increased. Hover or tap to see new daily cases and deaths across the country. States with the most are ordered top to bottom.

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

Navy Carrier Sidelined by Coronavirus Will Head Back to Sea

The USS Theodore Roosevelt will return to sea later this week, nearly two months after the ship was sidelined in Guam with a rapidly growing coronavirus outbreak, U.S. officials said as the crew finished final preparations to depart.

In an interview from the aircraft carrier, Navy Capt. Carlos Sardiello said Monday the ship will sail with a scaled-back crew of about 3,000, leaving about 1,800 sailors on shore who are still in quarantine. Those include up to 14 sailors who recently tested positive again, just days after getting cleared to return to the carrier. The puzzling COVID-19 reappearance in the sailors adds to the difficulty in getting the ship's crew healthy again, and fuels questions about the quality of the testing and just how long sailors may remain infected or contagious.

Sardiello would not discuss timelines or planned operations. But other U.S. officials said the ship is expected to leave in the next few days, and if all goes well it will conduct naval operations in the Pacific region for some period of time before heading home to San Diego. The officials spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss military operations.

The Roosevelt has been at the center of a widening controversy that led to the firing of the ship's previous captain, the resignation of the Navy secretary and an expanded investigation into what triggered the outbreak and how well top naval commanders handled it. More than 1,000 sailors on the ship have tested positive over the past two months, and the entire crew has had to cycle through quarantine on shore before being allowed to reboard.

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