FTA advises on transit cleaning, little guidance on system shutdowns due to virus

NEW YORK (Reuters) – The Federal Transit Administration (FTA) had little new advice to offer transit systems in the event they might have to shut down their commuter networks for the coronavirus outbreak in a conference call on Friday, but told operators they could find sanitation guidance on government websites.

In a conference call on Friday hosted by the U.S. Department of Transportation with more than 1,000 participants, K. Jane Williams, acting administrator of the Federal Transit Administration (FTA), said that while the agency “is carefully obviously monitoring the situation, we have not issued any directives or guidance on system shutdowns.”

As the number of U.S. coronavirus cases has risen, reaching more than 230 in 21 states as of Friday, mass transit agencies are scrambling to find ways to protect their ridership.

But Williams had little to tell transit agencies about cleaning and disinfecting regimens outside of steps taken by transit providers in Washington state, which has had a cluster of cases, and elsewhere.

“FTA does not have specific vehicle cleaning guidelines,” she said.

On the call, an official with the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention encouraged transit agencies to work with local health departments and to clean “high-touch surfaces” once a day using products registered with the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency for their effectiveness against viruses.

On its website, the FTA has directed transit agencies to a CDC webpage that offers interim guidance for businesses. here

This week, New York’s Metropolitan Transportation Authority announced it was “significantly increasing the frequency and intensity of sanitizing procedures at each of its stations and on its full fleet of rolling stock.”

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Using your phone in the toilet increases your chances of getting coronavirus

As the number of cases of coronavirus infections passes the 200 mark in the UK, we are all being encouraged to take extra care with our personal hygiene to prevent the spread of the virus.

Washing your hands thoroughly for at least 20 seconds several times a day is the current government advice.

But a bad habit that over half of us share could undo all that good work.

According to a survey by marketing agency Jellybean, at least 54% of us take our mobile phones into the loo with us.

Scientists currently believe that COVID-19 can survive for nine hours or more on hard surfaces like plastic, metal, or the glass of your mobile phone screen.

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So your phone represents a handy place for the virus to hang out while you’re washing your hands – only to transfer straight back onto your phone the next time you check Twitter, message someone on WhatsApp, or play Candy Crush.

Professor William Keevil, from the University of Southampton told Metro: "You could be washing your hands, but if you start touching your smartphone screen and then touch your face that is a potential route of infection."

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Dr Perpetua Emeagi, a lecturer in Human Biology and Biological Sciences at Liverpool Hope University, added that the virus can almost certainly last for quite a long time in your poo.

And so flushing with the seat up ‘aerosolises’ poo particles, creating an invisible cloud of bacteria, viruses and other nasties that could be propelled onto your phone, your clothes, and your skin.

She said: “It’s not just a case of what you’re transmitting from your hands to the phone. You also have to consider the effects of toilet flushing.

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“When you flush the toilet, you release aerosol particles, which could be viruses or bacteria, she said. :Recent reports have suggested that COVID-19 can be spread through faeces. And so aerosolised particles of poo are a genuine risk when it comes to the spread of Coronavirus.’

The virus is becoming so widespread that it is becoming increasingly difficult to avoid it altogether – no matter how many masks we wear – but by taking sensible precautions like giving up Facebook in the toilet you can slow it’s spread and cut down the chance of passing the infection on to vulnerable people such as the elderly or people with pre-existing medical conditions.

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U.S. pastor tells how Bethlehem trip turned into coronavirus quarantine ordeal

BEIT JALAH, West Bank (Reuters) – Thirteen Americans suspected of being exposed to coronavirus during a trip to the Holy Land are in quarantine near Bethlehem and are coordinating with U.S. and Palestinian authorities to try to get home.

“It was going to be the trip of a lifetime,” Chris Bell, 42, lead pastor of the 3Circle Church in Fairhope, Alabama, said in a video chat with Reuters from the second floor of the Angel Hotel in Beit Jala, which is next to Bethlehem.

“The 13 of us would be what I would call a community of faith,” Bell said.

“What we’re doing is encouraging each other every day, we are reminding one another that we love each other. We are reminding each other that we trust in God and that he has a plan for it,” he said.

His church works with a school in Bethlehem, part of the reason for their visit to the Holy Land, he said.

The Angel Hotel was the first area of coronavirus concern in the Bethlehem area. After several of its workers tested positive this week, the Palestinian Authority put restrictions on foreign tourist travel and later declared a 30-day state of emergency.

The measures effectively shut down the city, including the Church of the Nativity, believed to be the birthplace of Jesus, and local mosques.

Elsewhere in the West Bank, Palestinian security forces staffed checkpoints and turned foreigners away, while schools, colleges, kindergartens and national parks were ordered closed.

‘WE NEED TO GET HOME’

Things “went bad” for the group from Alabama on Tuesday when they learned they had shared the hotel with a Greek tourist who apparently carried the coronavirus, said pastor Bell.

They left the next morning for a trip but were called back to the hotel the next day and told to go into quarantine.

He said they were awaiting test results and expected to be in quarantine for 14 days, meaning they still had nine to go.

The group has not left its hotel floor and everyone wears gloves and masks when they leave their rooms, said the pastor, adding that his wife Nan was with him and their three children in the United States being looked after by friends and family.

He thanked the Palestinian, Israeli and U.S, officials who were dealing with their care, and said the hotel had made sure they were getting enough food, water and medicine.

“Even if we need to be quarantined, we’re hoping that the United States, our own country, will possibly fly us home,” he said. “And if they need to quarantine us there for a time we understand that. But, you know, we need to get home,” he said.

According to the hotel’s owner, more than 40 workers and visitors were in isolation in the building.

Palestinian security forces wearing masks and gloves were stationed around the hotel on Saturday, as they have been since the first cases were announced

An official from the U.S. embassy in Jerusalem said it was aware of the reports of the group in quarantine. “Due to privacy considerations, we have no further details to share,” she said.

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Coronavirus: Cruise ship on Nile River quarantined over virus cluster

A cruise ship on Egypt’s Nile River with over 150 tourists and local crew was in quarantine Saturday in the southern city of Luxor, after 12 people tested positive for the new coronavirus.

A Taiwanese-American tourist who had previously been on the same ship tested positive when she returned to Taiwan. The World Health Organization informed Egyptian authorities, who tested everyone currently on the ship.

Health authorities found a dozen of the ship’s Egyptian crew members had contracted the fast-spreading virus, but did not show symptoms, according to a statement Friday.

The statement said the 12 will be transferred to isolation in a hospital on Egypt’s north coast. The passengers — who include Americans, French and other nationalities — and the crew will remain quarantined on the ship awaiting further test results.

Egyptian authorities have been tight-lipped about the virus outbreak, previously reporting only three confirmed cases. That’s even as the wider Mideast now has over 6,000 confirmed cases.

In hard-hit Iran, the Health Ministry said Saturday that 21 more people had died from the virus, bringing the death toll to 145. More than 1,000 infections were also confirmed overnight, bringing the total to 5,823 cases nationwide.

Health Ministry spokesman Kianoush Jahanpour said 16,000 cases were hospitalized across the country, with some still being tested or monitored to see if they had contracted the virus. The capital of Tehran had the most infections, with more than 1,500 cases, followed by the Shiite holy city of Qom with 668 and the northern Mazandaran province with 606 cases.

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Trump defends handling of coronavirus; calls Washington governor ‘a snake’

ATLANTA — U.S. President Donald Trump‘s visit to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention on Friday turned into a scattershot defence of his administration’s handling of the coronavirus outbreak, veering into political score-settling, exaggerations and talk harking back to his impeachment.

With financial markets slowing and the virus spreading, Trump tried once more to quell the growing alarm that has prompted travel to be curtailed and events to be cancelled from coast to coast. But Trump, wearing his “Keep America Great” campaign hat while discussing the global worry, repeatedly detoured from his message of reassurance.

Trump called Washington state’s governor, who is dealing with the most serious outbreak in the nation, a “snake.” He said he’d prefer that people exposed to the virus on a cruise ship be left aboard so they wouldn’t be added to the count for the nation’s total number of infections. And he falsely claimed that a test for the virus was available immediately to all who want it.

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Union tells Trump administration to take coronavirus seriously for government workers

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – A union representing U.S. government employees called on the Trump administration on Friday “to take the coronavirus seriously” for federal workers, especially those working in areas directly impacted by the outbreak.

The American Federation of Government Employees, which says it represents 700,000 workers, also urged the immediate wider use of teleworking for federal employees across the United States, saying current basic guidelines from agencies are “insufficient and inadequate.” The union said some federal agencies have made a concerted effort to cut back on telework.

“Many federal employees are in direct contact with the public, in some cases working in areas where people have tested positive for the coronavirus or been quarantined, yet they have been provided no protective equipment or specific information on how to avoid infection,” AFGE President Everett Kelley said in a statement.

The union sent letters to the Senate and House of Representatives urging members of Congress to help ensure that agency leaders meet with its representatives to discuss safety, training and communications issues raised by the coronavirus.

“We need the support of prominent members of Congress in order to prompt agency officials to recognize the risks facing the federal workforce,” one letter said.

AFGE said the coronavirus poses a particular threat to federal workers at military bases and Veterans Administration (VA) facilities that are used in public health emergencies.

Civilian Defense Department workers failed to receive adequate training for minimizing the infection risk at military bases in California and Texas that housed Americans expatriated from coronavirus hot zones overseas, according to the union.

“The 8,000 veterans who reside in the VA’s own skilled nursing facilities are not only at risk for contracting the virus, they are at risk if the homes’ staff become infected and are unable to care for them,” Kelley said in a letter to Congress.

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Americans divided on party lines over risk from coronavirus: Reuters/Ipsos poll

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – Americans who now find themselves politically divided over seemingly everything are now forming two very different views of another major issue: the dangers of the new coronavirus.

Democrats are about twice as likely as Republicans to say the coronavirus poses an imminent threat to the United States, according to a Reuters/Ipsos poll conducted this week.

And more Democrats than Republicans say they are taking steps to be prepared, including washing their hands more often or limiting their travel plans.

Poll respondents who described themselves as Republicans and did not see the coronavirus as a threat said it still felt remote because cases had not been detected close to home and their friends and neighbors did not seem to be worried, either.

“I haven’t changed a single thing,” Cindi Hogue, who lives outside Little Rock, Arkansas, told Reuters. “It’s not a reality to me yet. It hasn’t become a threat enough yet in my world.”

Many of the U.S. cases that have been reported so far have been in Washington state and California, more than 1,000 miles away from Arkansas.

Politics was not a factor in her view of the seriousness of the virus, Hogue said. Other Republican respondents interviewed echoed that sentiment.

But the political divide is nonetheless significant: About four of every 10 Democrats said they thought the new coronavirus poses an imminent threat, compared to about two of every 10 Republicans.

Part of the explanation, said Robert Talisse, a Vanderbilt University philosophy professor who studies political polarization, is that political divisiveness often works in subtle ways.

Americans increasingly surround themselves with people who share the same political views, so partisan perceptions echo not just through the television channels people watch and websites and social media they consume, but through their friends and neighbors, too.

“This partisan-sort stuff is real; it just doesn’t feel like that’s what’s going on because our partisan selves just feel like ourselves,” Talisse said.

A `FALSE NUMBER’

Americans, who often consume news based on their political preferences, have received two different views of the virus’s potential impact.

Amid tumbling stock markets, President Donald Trump has sought to portray himself as on top of the health crisis, but he has been criticized for being overly optimistic about its potential impact and for sometimes incorrect statements on the science of the virus.

Trump has accused the media and his political adversaries of trying to derail his re-election campaign by amping up alarm over the dangers posed by the virus. He has largely sought to cast it as a comparatively minor threat, comparing its risk to the less deadly seasonal flu.

Conservative radio host Rush Limbaugh told listeners last week that, “The coronavirus is the common cold” and was merely being “weaponized as yet another element to bring down Donald Trump.”

Trump told Sean Hannity’s Fox News show on Wednesday that he thought World Health Organization estimates of the virus’ death rate were a “false number,” that he had a hunch the rate was much lower, “a fraction of 1 percent.” The WHO said this week that the coronavirus killed about 3.4% of the people who contracted it worldwide.

House of Representatives Speaker Nancy Pelosi accused Trump on Thursday of spreading misinformation about coronavirus’ death rate, saying the “reality is in the public domain.”

The outbreak has killed more than 3,400 people and spread across more than 90 nations. Eleven people in the United States have died from the coronavirus, the CDC said Friday.

National media and other cable news channels have been filled with accounts of a spreading sickness and the U.S. deaths. Public health authorities have sent increasingly urgent warnings about the need to be ready for quarantines and school closures.

Exactly how big a role these divergent messages have driven Americans’ perception of the danger they face is difficult to measure, but experts said they could only fuel the political divisions that are so vast that they long ago started having an impact on everything from how Americans vote to where they buy coffee.

“Our hyper-polarization is so strong that we don’t even assess a potential health crisis in the same way. And so it impedes our ability to address it,” said Jennifer McCoy, a Georgia State political science professor who studies polarization.

About half of Democrats said they are washing their hands more often now because of the virus, compared to about four in 10 Republicans, according to the poll. About 8% of Democrats said they had changed their travel plans, compared to about 3% of Republicans.

More than half of Republicans, about 54%, said they had not altered their daily routines because of the virus, compared to about 40% of Democrats.

The Reuters/Ipsos poll was conducted online, in English, from March 2-3 in the United States. It gathered responses from 1,115 American adults, including 527 Democrats and 396 Republicans. The poll has a credibility interval, a measure of precision, of about 3 percentage points.

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U.S. excludes Chinese face masks, medical gear from tariffs as coronavirus spreads

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – The U.S. Trade Representative’s office in recent days granted exclusions from import tariffs for dozens of medical products imported from China, including face masks, hand sanitizing wipes and examination gloves, filings with the agency showed on Friday.

Many of the exclusion requests for medical products appear to have been expedited amid the rapidly spreading coronavirus outbreak, with approvals granted just over one month past a Jan. 31 application deadline.

Requests to exclude other products from President Donald Trump’s Section 301 tariffs on Chinese goods have taken months. Apple Inc’s requests for exclusions on products from AirPod headphones to the HomePod smart speaker filed on Oct. 31 are still pending.

Medline International Inc has already received exclusions on 30 products ranging from surgical gowns to face masks and medicine cups, most of which the company applied for at the end of January. A number of the exclusions were granted on Thursday, USTR documents showed.

The products were included in a fourth round of tariffs on Chinese goods imposed by Trump on Sept. 1, 2019, amid heated U.S.-China trade negotiations.

The tariff rate on the medical products was initially set at 15%, but was lowered to 7.5% on Feb. 15 as part of the Phase 1 U.S.-China trade agreement. The deal leaves in place tariffs on about $370 billion worth of imports from China, including 25% duties on goods valued at around $250 billion.

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Canada Post says no risk after Peterborough, Ont., workers refuse to enter building amid coronavirus concern

More than two dozen Canada Post workers in Peterborough refused to enter their work building Friday citing health concerns possibly linked to COVID-19.

However, Canada Post says there is no health risk.

On Friday morning, 25 day-shift mail carriers invoked their right not to enter the Rye Street postal station.

An employee — who asked not to be identified — claims a manager was sent home on Wednesday after allegedly beginning to exhibit signs and symptoms of being sick. The employee says the manager had been back to work for two weeks after returning from an overseas vacation at a “hotspot” for the deadly virus.

The employees serve most of the region ranging east of Peterborough in Hastings, west to Lindsay and north of Haliburton. The employee says they have a “social responsibility” to protect the community.

The employee said they requested more information from management.

In a statement to Global News, Canada Post says there is no safety risk at the facility.

“We understand the concerns raised by employees,” the statement reads. “To ensure we are doing everything possible to keep our employees safe, we follow the guidance of the Public Health Agency of Canada.

“In this instance we followed the proper process and have informed our employees this morning that there is no safety risk.”

Global News has also reached out to the Canadian Union of Postal Workers for comment.

Upon receiving the new information, some employees returned inside the postal station while others chose to go home.

Canada Post says it will be requesting those employees to return to work.

In a statement, Peterborough Public Health says to date there have been no positive cases of COVID-19 in its jurisdiction, which includes the city, Peterborough County, Curve Lake First Nation and Hiawatha First Nation.

The health unit says it can’t comment on specific health cases, but notes COVID-19 is a reportable disease that will be followed if a health-care provider suspects a case.

“If they test positive, we conduct contact tracing of people the case may have been in contact with,” stated the health unit. “So far there have been no local positive cases of COVID-19.”

The health unit encourages people to contact them if they think they might be infected with the new coronavirus.

“Our nurses will provide guidance to determine if testing is required, or people can call Telehealth after hours for the same care,” a statement reads. “We are following ‘persons under investigation’ as they are referred to us and have been doing so all the way along, as we do for all reportable diseases.

“If someone calls and thinks another person might have COVID-19, all we can do is ask the caller to recommend the individual in question call us so we can care for them directly.”

More to come.

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Coronavirus wreaks financial havoc as infections near 100,000

LONDON/LOS ANGELES (Reuters) – Business districts around the world began to empty and stock markets tumbled on Friday as the number of coronavirus infections neared 100,000 and the economic damage wrought by the outbreak intensified.

An increasing number of people faced a new reality as many were asked to stay home from work, schools were closed, large gatherings and events canceled, stores emptied of staples like toiletries and water, and face masks a common sight.

In London, Europe’s financial capital, the Canary Wharf district was unusually quiet. S&P Global’s large office stood empty after the company sent its 1,200 staff home, while HSBC has asked around 100 people to work from home after a worker tested positive for the illness. 

In New York, meanwhile, JPMorgan divided its team between central locations and a secondary site in New Jersey while Goldman Sachs sent some traders to nearby secondary offices in Greenwich, Connecticut and Jersey City.

The outbreak has radiated across the United States, surfacing in at least four new states plus San Francisco.

More than 2,000 people were stranded on the Grand Princess cruise ship after it was barred from returning to port in San Francisco because at least 35 people aboard developed flu-like symptoms. Test kits were delivered at sea to the vessel.

Moves by some major economies including the United States to cut interest rates and pledge billions of dollars to fight the epidemic have done little to allay fears about the spread of the virus and the widening economic fallout.

SINKING MARKETS

European stocks continued their slide after the Japanese market dropped to a six-month low, with 97% of shares on the Tokyo exchange’s main board in the red.

Airline and travel stocks have been among the worst hit as people canceled non-essential travel.

“If this really ramps up, we could see a lot more kitchen- sinking updates from the travel industry and airlines,” said Chris Beauchamp, chief market analyst at IG. “What’s impressive about the current move is it probably understates the degree of disruption we could be facing across the U.S. and Europe.”

The yield on benchmark 10-year Treasury notes US10YT=RR fell to a record low of 0.7650% as investors sought safe havens.

More than 98,000 people have been infected in over 85 countries and over 3,300 people have died, according to a Reuters tally. Mainland China, where the outbreak began, has accounted for more than 3,000 deaths, while the toll in Italy stood at 148.

At current rates, the number of confirmed cases of the virus will surpass 100,000 on Friday.

In the United States, the world’s economic powerhouse, at least 57 new cases of coronavirus were confirmed as the virus struck for the first time in Colorado, Maryland, Tennessee and Texas, as well as San Francisco in California. Some 230 people have been infected in total, and 12 have died.

Google (GOOGL.O), Facebook, Amazon (AMZN.O), and Microsoft (MSFT.O) advised employees in the Seattle area to work from home, after some caught the virus. The companies’ work-from-home recommendation will affect more than 100,000 people in the area.

The U.S. Senate on Thursday passed an $8.3 billion bill to combat the outbreak, joining a slew of countries including China and South Korea in bolstering their war chests.

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