President invokes Defense Production Act to get needed medical supplies to country's hospitals

The Associated Press

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The Associated Press 

President Donald Trump has invoked the Defense Production Act to get needed medical supplies on the front lines of the coronavirus outbreak, mobilizing the federal government to marshal the private sector to combat the pandemic.

Trump had said earlier in the week he would tap the act as needed. He said Friday he has put that "in gear."

Senate Democratic Leader Chuck Schumer said he implored Trump during a phone call Friday to invoke the Korean War-era act immediately to order the manufacture of ventilators and other critically needed medical gear. The president told Schumer he would, then could be heard on the telephone making the order. He yelled to someone in his office to do it now, said Schumer's spokesman, Justin Goodman.

Trump also announced an effective closure of the U.S. border with Mexico, prohibiting most travel except for trade. That brings it in line with the restriction on the Canadian border earlier this week.

The president and the Cabinet officials who briefed reporters focused on the border as they moved to restrict the entry of people without documentation to the U.S. This follows a stepped-up State Department travel advisory telling Americans they should not leave the country.

Officials again urged Americans to maintain social distancing while Dr. Anthony Fauci, the nation's top infectious disease expert, applauded strict new measures put in place by the governors of California and New York to limit mobility in an effort to stop the spread of the virus.

The president, addressing reporters at the White House, announced a suspension of interest on federally owned student loans and said the Education Department will not enforce standardized testing requirements for students in elementary through high school for the current year. Under federal education law, states are required to administer standardized tests every school year.

"Americans from every walk of life are coming together," Trump said. "We are winning and we are going to win this war."

The new measures comes as the administration comes under increased scrutiny for its inability to provide the needed masks and ventilators to hospitals on the verge of being overwhelmed by coronavirus patients.

On Capitol Hill, lawmakers have been working urgently toward a $1 trillion aid package to prop up households and the U.S. economy that would put money directly into American's pockets. 

New York joins California in locking down against the virus

New York state moved to join California on Friday in confining nearly all residents to their homes, as governors undertook their most sweeping efforts yet to contain the coronavirus and fend off the kind of onslaught of patients that has caused southern Europe to buckle.

"We're going to close the valve, because the rate of increase in the number of cases portends a total overwhelming of our hospital system," New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo said as cases in the state climbed to more than 7,000 and the death toll reached at least 38.

Cuomo said that starting Sunday, all workers in nonessential businesses must stay home and all gatherings of any size will be banned in the state of more than 19 million people. The move came after California all but confined its 40 million residents in the biggest lockdown in the nation.

The increasingly drastic measures in the U.S. came as gasping patients filled the wards of hospitals in Spain and Italy, and the global death toll surpassed 10,000, with the virus still multiplying and gaining footholds in new corners of the world.

The World Health Organization noted the epidemic's dramatic speed.

"It took over three months to reach the first 10,000 confirmed cases and only 12 days to reach the next 100,000," the U.N. health agency said.

Across the U.S., governors and public health officials watched the crisis from afar with mounting alarm and warned of critical shortages of ventilators, masks and other protective gear.

Countries frantically prepared for a deluge of patients in the coming weeks. 

In Britain, the government asked 65,000 retired nurses and doctors to return to work. A convention center and hotels in Madrid were being turned into field hospitals for nearly 10,000 patients. France's military worked to build a makeshift medical center in the hard-hit town of Mulhouse. The U.S. readied military hospitals for civilian use, and more than 4,000 National Guard members were deployed in 31 states to help distribute food, scrub down surfaces and help in other ways.

The Trump administration warned Americans abroad to return home or risk spending an "indefinite" period away and said cross-border travel would be sharply curtailed, but said trade would not be affected. And the income tax filing deadline was moved from April 15 to July 15.

"We're about to enter into a new way of living here in Los Angeles," Mayor Eric Garcetti said as California went into lockdown, with people told to venture outside only for essential jobs or errands and some exercise. "What we do and how we do it and if we get this right will determine how long this crisis lasts." 

On Friday morning, the streets of downtown Los Angeles were quiet but not desolate. Residents walked their dogs or jogged, hile some homeless people slept. Cars drove along Figueroa Street, but the usual traffic jams were gone. 

 Scott Sorensen, who was walking his boxer, Chewie, said he is limiting how much attention he pays to the news so that he is not overwhelmed. 

"I remember my great-grandmother describing the Depression," said Sorenson, 50. "I'm trying to keep it in focus."

The virus has struck at the very identities of many countries: closing down cafes, restaurants and boulevard life in France, ending la dolce vita in Italy, forcing the cancellation of the ceremonial changing of the guard at England's Buckingham Palace, wrecking sales of tulips in Holland and closing the Statue of Liberty in the U.S.

Governments are trying to balance locking down residents with the need to keep food, medicine and other essentials flowing. 

US and Mexico to curb border travel 

Mexico and the U.S. announced plans Friday to sharply limit travel over their busy shared border as part of efforts to control the spread of the coronavirus. 

President Donald Trump and Mexican Foreign Secretary Marcelo Ebrard said the two governments agreed to prohibit recreational and tourist travel, similar to the restrictions put in place earlier this week along the U.S. and Canadian border.

Trump said the actions with the country's North American partners "will save countless lives."

There would be no ban on people traveling for work or other essential activities and there would be no halt to commercial traffic, Ebrard said. 

"Everyone else is not expected to have any difficulties," he said. "We're not talking about closing it." 

Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said the restrictions would take effect at midnight Friday.

The U.S., Mexico and Canada have also worked out a new agreement to immediately return people trying to illegally cross the borders, citing the potential health risk of detaining migrants amid the outbreak. 

In Britain, the category of vital workers includes doctors, nurses and paramedics — and also vicars, truckers, garbage collectors and journalists. In New York, people will allowed out for solitary exercise for their mental health, but Cuomo said they will have stay at least 6 feet away from one another.

In Bergamo, the epicenter of the Italian outbreak, cemeteries were overwhelmed. Patients at the city's main hospital lined up in a narrow ward, struggling for breath as doctors and nurses moved swiftly from one beeping machine to the next. 

"When the virus arrived here, there was no containment and it spread through the valleys very quickly. ... Some said it was the normal flu. We doctors knew it was not," said Dr. Luca Lorini, head of intensive care at the hospital, where nearly 500 beds were dedicated to people suffering severe virus symptoms. Eighty patients were in intensive care. 

In the Italian farm town of Fondi, home to a wholesale produce market serving Rome and Naples, a new ordinance banned all but essential people from entering or leaving after 40 elderly residents became infected.

At a convent on the outskirts of Rome, 19 of 21 nuns were infected, according to the Italian daily Il Messaggero. A Vatican decree absolved the sins of the faithful who were sick or in quarantine, as well as those of their caregivers, if they met certain conditions.

"Certain medical centers are suffering stress that is reaching the limit," said Fernando Simón, director of Spain's center for health alerts and emergencies. "The difficult days in which we must bear down are coming now. We must keep our focus." 

Although the illness is mild in most people, the elderly are particularly susceptible to serious symptoms. Italy has the world's second-oldest population, and the vast majority of its dead — 87 percent — were over 70.

Some of the only good news came from Wuhan, the Chinese city where the outbreak began and were hospitals were struggling just weeks ago. For the second day in a row, no new infections were reported and only 39 cases were recorded nationwide — all brought from the outside, the government said. 

With the crisis waning, China has begun sending medical supplies to Europe.

The effects of the global economy grinding to a halt took their toll, from millions of unsold flowers rotting in piles in Kenya to the slow emptying of the world's skies. 

In the U.S., Congress worked to put together a $1 trillion emergency package to prop up industry and small businesses and dispense relief checks of $1,200 for adults and $500 per child.

Scientists advising the British government warned that restrictions on daily life may have to be in place for a year, with periods of less stringent and more stringent measures.

French President Emmanuel Macron urged employees to keep working in supermarkets, production sites and other necessary businesses amid stringent movement restrictions.

"We need to keep the country running," Macron said.

Worldwide, the number of infections exceeded 244,000, according to a Johns Hopkins University tally. 

Italy, with 60 million citizens, recorded at least 3,405 deaths, exceeding the 3,248 in China, a country with a population over 20 times larger. Spain, second behind Italy in Europe, reported 1,002 deaths and 19,980 infections. The U.S. death toll rose to at least 206.

More than 86,000 people have recovered, mostly in China. 

Iran's official toll of more than 1,400 dead was rising quickly as well amid fears it is underreporting its cases. Tehran accused Washington of helping spread the virus by retaining sanctions that prevent it importing desperately needed medicine and medical equipment.

As the virus strengthened its foothold in Africa, the continent's busiest airport, in Johannesburg, announced that foreigners will no longer be allowed to disembark. 

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The Associated Press receives support for health and science coverage from the Howard Hughes Medical Institute's Department of Science Education. The AP is solely responsible for all content.

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