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Coronavirus: U.S. Navy Hospital Ships To Deploy To New York, West Coast

The USNS Comfort, seen in 2017, is one of two U.S. Navy hospital ships, along with the USNS Mercy, that are preparing to deploy to assist medical workers expecting to grapple with an influx of patients in the weeks to come.
Alex Wong
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The USNS Comfort, seen in 2017, is one of two U.S. Navy hospital ships, along with the USNS Mercy, that are preparing to deploy to assist medical workers expecting to grapple with an influx of patients in the weeks to come.

Updated at 2:27 p.m. ET

A pair of U.S. Navy hospital ships will be deployed to New York and the West Coast, where medical workers are anxiously expecting a major influx of patients as the coronavirus spreads.

President Trump announced the plans for deployment during a news conference Wednesday, and New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo confirmed that he expects one of those ships — the USNS Comfort — to take up a position in New York Harbor, adjacent to New York City.

The USNS Mercy, meanwhile, is based on the West Coast and is expected to deploy to coastal regions on that side of the United States.

The Comfort "has about 1,000 rooms on it. It has operating rooms," Cuomo told reporters at a news conference Wednesday.

He said the ship's presence will help take pressure off facilities and staff in New York state, which is expecting to need more than 50,000 new hospital beds and more than 30,000 new ventilators as the coronavirus spreads. New York has reported more than 2,300 confirmed cases across the state and expects that number to spike significantly in the coming days.

"It's an extraordinary step, obviously," Cuomo added, referring to the Comfort's expected deployment. "It's literally a floating hospital, which will add capacity."

A U.S. defense official, who was not authorized to speak on the matter, told NPR's Tom Bowman that the Mercy will need several days to deploy, while the Comfort — based in Norfolk, Va. — could take weeks to prepare for its assignment.

"Both ships are currently working to complete scheduled maintenance cycles and identify necessary medical staffing to deploy as soon as possible," the official said.

"The Comfort and Mercy will not deploy to treat COVID patients but will be made available to assist with treatment of other patients in coastal locations where local health professionals are necessarily focused on a large number of COVID cases."

A restaurant worker cleans up this month in Columbus, Ohio, after the state's governor, Mike DeWine, announced an order closing all bars and restaurants statewide.
Matthew Hatcher / Getty Images
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A restaurant worker cleans up this month in Columbus, Ohio, after the state's governor, Mike DeWine, announced an order closing all bars and restaurants statewide.

Ohio sees a massive jump in unemployment claims

"We had 78,000 people file for unemployment during the first three days of this week. That includes Sunday, Monday, Tuesday," the state's lieutenant governor, Jon Husted, told NPR's All Things Considered, noting that the tally includes 29,000 claims from Tuesday alone.

"Just to put this in perspective," he added, "the week before we had about 6,500."

He said that so far those claims have come mostly from workers in the service and hospitality industries but added that by the end of the week he expects "major global manufacturers" to suspend operations, setting off another wave of layoffs.

The dramatic increase in unemployment claims comes as Ohio has ordered all bars, restaurant dining rooms, movie theaters and gyms to close temporarily, while many hotel chains and other businesses have laid off staff in anticipation of dramatically decreased business as the coronavirus outbreak continues.

Ohio also postponed its presidential primary, which had been scheduled for this past Tuesday.

"We were telling elderly people to stay home, that it was dangerous for them to go out, and then we were asking them to go vote," Husted said. "It just wouldn't be right for us to ask people to risk their health to exercise their constitutional right to vote."

Dozens of malls are closing throughout the U.S.

The Simon Property Group announced Wednesday that it is closing its retail properties throughout the U.S. — a massive collection that includes around 200 malls and outlets in several dozen states and Puerto Rico.

The company said the decision, which shutters malls from Wednesday evening through at least March 29, was made "after extensive discussions with federal, state and local officials."

"The health and safety of our shoppers, retailers and employees is of paramount importance and we are taking this step to help reduce the spread of COVID-19 in our communities," said company CEO David Simon said in a statement released Wednesday.

Major automakers suspend production at North American plants

Honda, Ford and General Motors all announced Wednesday that they are temporarily halting production at their plants in the U.S., Canada and Mexico.

Honda was the first to do so — saying that it plans to suspend production for a span of six days beginning Monday. In a statement explaining the decision, Honda cited "an anticipated decline in market demand" because of the global pandemic.

Honda promised to continue to fully pay more than 27,000 employees who will be affected by the suspension at plants in Ohio, Georgia, Indiana and Alabama, along with sites in Mexico and Canada. Honda also intends to perform a "deep cleaning" of its production facilities during that time.

"This production adjustment also will allow Honda associates to better prepare and adjust family plans in relation to regional directives to close schools to stop the spread of the COVID-19 virus," the automaker said.

"This will enable working parents to determine how best to manage the needs of children staying home from school and other required lifestyle adjustments."

Just hours later, Ford announced a suspension of its own, saying that it is halting work at its production plants across North America — beginning at the end of workers' shifts Thursday and continuing through March 30.

The company plans to use the lull to "thoroughly clean its facilities to protect its workforce and boost containment efforts for the COVID-19 coronavirus."

GM followed suit shortly afterward, noting that because of "market conditions" and the need for a deep clean, it is suspending operations until March 30 and will reevaluate the situation "week-to-week" after that. It is unclear when, exactly, the suspension will begin.

"We have been taking extraordinary precautions around the world to keep our plant environments safe and recent developments in North America make it clear this is the right thing to do now," said GM Chairman and CEO Mary Barra.

Bonnaroo postpones until September

Bonnaroo, the massive music festival based in Manchester, Tenn., has joined the many major events that have announced postponements because of the coronavirus. Organizers announced the delay Wednesday, saying they plan to reschedule the four-day festival for Sept. 24 to 27 from its original dates in late June.

"Please continue to radiate positivity through this uncharted time in our world," organizers said on the festival's website, adding that they look forward to seeing attendees this coming fall.

The sold-out festival is just the latest to postpone, after the California-based Coachella announced that it was bumping its usual April festivities to October. Other major musical events have not been quite so hopeful about resuming their plans this year, as South by Southwest in Austin, Texas, and the 50-year-old Glastonbury Festival in the U.K. recently announced outright cancellation.

Kansas Gov. Laura Kelly addresses a news conference Tuesday in Topeka, Kan., after announcing the closure of K-12 schools throughout the state for the rest of the school year.
John Hanna / AP
Kansas Gov. Laura Kelly addresses a news conference Tuesday in Topeka, Kan., after announcing the closure of K-12 schools throughout the state for the rest of the school year.

Kansas becomes the first state to end formal classes for the year

In-person classes have come to an abrupt end for students across Kansas.

Gov. Laura Kelly announced that she has ordered K-12 school buildings to be closed for the remainder of the 2019-2020 school year, citing fears about the spread of the coronavirus disease COVID-19 and the "unprecedented emergency" it presents.

"This was not an easy decision to make," Kelly said in a statement issued Tuesday.

"It came after close consultation with the education professionals who represent local school boards, school administrators and local teachers," she explained. "These unprecedented circumstances threaten the safety of our students and the professionals who work with them every day and we must respond accordingly."

Kelly's executive order makes Kansas the first state to shut down its public schools for the remainder of the school year — an extraordinary step that other states so far have been reluctant to take, despite a raft of temporary class closures across the United States.

The Kansas State Department of Education says it intends to keep classes going remotely, however. Officials there say they've assembled a task force to develop plans for alternatives that do not include in-person classes.

All told, three-quarters of K-12 students in the U.S. — including those in Michigan, Massachusetts and Kentucky — have seen their schools shuttered for a span of several weeks, though officials hope students will still be able to return before summer sets in. It's worth noting that the school year in Kansas begins and ends several weeks earlier than it does in most other states.

Governors in Ohio and California, however, suggested that it might be just a matter of time before their states follow Kansas' lead. California Gov. Gavin Newsom has stopped short of making it official, but at a news conference Tuesday, he told reporters that "it's unlikely that many of these schools — few if any — will open before the summer break."

"This is a very sobering thing to say," Newsom added. "I don't want to mislead you."

Temporary closure of U.S.-Canada border

President Trump has announced that the border between the U.S. and Canada will be closed in an attempt to stem the spread of the novel coronavirus. The president announced the closure in a tweet posted Wednesday.

"We will be, by mutual consent, temporarily closing our Northern Border with Canada to non-essential traffic," Trump said, adding that "Trade will not be affected."

Trump gave no further details on the border closure. The announcement came just hours after the U.S. death toll from COVID-19 crossed a sobering threshold, topping 100 deaths.

Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau confirmed the decision during a news conference at his home in Ottawa on Wednesday.

"Travelers will no longer be permitted to cross the border for recreation and tourism," Trudeau said. "In both our countries, we are encouraging people to stay home. We're telling our citizens not to visit their neighbors if they don't absolutely have to. This collaborative and reciprocal measure is an extension of that prudent approach."

The move is just the latest of a series of border shutdowns announced recently across the world, as countries seek to tamp down on travel in an effort to slow the spread of the global pandemic.

Trump administration asks for tens of billions in emergency funds

The request to Congress, which asks for an additional $45.8 billion, is intended to support the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, states' public health response and research resources at the National Institutes of Health. It is in addition to a House-approved relief package that's expected to go before the Senate on Wednesday.

"The aim of this request is to maintain that capacity and ensure that resource needs created by the pandemic response are met," Russ Vought, acting director of the Office of Management and Budget, said in a letter to Vice President Pence.

Vought noted that his office is "currently in active dialogue" with lawmakers about the additional proposal, which is separate from a massive stimulus package that's expected to include payments to individuals, families and businesses affected by the outbreak.

"It is not intended as a broad-based solution to the major economic dislocation wrought by the virus, nor is it the primary means by which the Federal Government plans to address the hardships of families, individuals, and communities who have been touched by the disease."

President Trump leads a meeting with travel and tourism industry executives at the White House on Tuesday to discuss the federal economic response to the coronavirus outbreak.
Drew Angerer / Getty Images
Getty Images
President Trump leads a meeting with travel and tourism industry executives at the White House on Tuesday to discuss the federal economic response to the coronavirus outbreak.

U.S. and China ratchet up fight over which deserves blame

As countries across the globe grapple with the pandemic, tensions between the U.S. and China have escalated.

The Trump administration is accusing China — where the coronavirus was first reported — of mishandling the initial outbreak, saying it kept valuable data from its people and global health experts. And officials have increasingly attempted to tie the virus to China when describing it publicly.

Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, for one, referred to it as the "Wuhan virus" — in a reference to the epicenter of the outbreak in China — no fewer than six times during a news conference Tuesday. The State Department repeated this phrasing in posts on its official Twitter and Facebook accounts.

And on Wednesday, President Trump referred to the coronavirus in a tweet as the "Chinese Virus," as he has several times before — despite international guidelines advising against linking geographical names, animal species or people's names to disease names, because it is stigmatizing.

Trump, in comments Tuesday, defended his right to blame China: "I had to call it where it came from. It did come from China," he said. "So I think it is a very accurate term."

Beijing has lashed out at the Trump administration, accusing it of racism and claiming that the virus originated in the U.S. and was spread to China by the U.S. military.

Despite all of this, Pompeo said Tuesday, "Now is not the time for recrimination. Now is the time to solve this global pandemic."

— by NPR international affairs correspondent Jackie Northam

Puerto Rico asks the FAA to halt flights to the island

Puerto Rico Gov. Wanda Vázquez revealed that she has asked the Federal Aviation Administration to suspend domestic and international flights to the U.S. territory, as local authorities seek to contain the virus.

Vázquez said the requested ban would exempt emergency services. Puerto Rico has already imposed some of the strictest restrictions in the U.S., including a curfew and the two-week closure of most businesses across the island.

"Until a few days ago, we had no cases of COVID-19 coronavirus, and now, due to the arrival of tourists, both by boat and by plane, we have five positive cases," she said in a statement Wednesday.

"We do not want more cases in Puerto Rico, and the only way to prevent more people infected with this virus from arriving is by taking greater controls regarding the arrival of travelers. We need assistance from the federal government to allow us to control air travel."

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Colin Dwyer covers breaking news for NPR. He reports on a wide array of subjects — from politics in Latin America and the Middle East, to the latest developments in sports and scientific research.