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Thursday May 28th, 2020 8:48AM

The Latest: South Korea reports 20 new virus cases, China 4

By The Associated Press
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The Latest on the coronavirus pandemic. The new coronavirus causes mild or moderate symptoms for most people. For some, especially older adults and people with existing health problems, it can cause more severe illness or death.

TOP OF THE HOUR:

— South Korea reports 20 new coronavirus cases, China announces 4.

— Denver mail distribution center closed after employees test positive.

— Trump to order U.S. flag flown at half-staff over next 3 days as COVID-19 deaths approach 100,000.

— Michigan governor wins legal fight with lawmakers over virus.

— Official: Washington state has lost hundreds of millions of dollars to fraudulent jobless claims.

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SEOUL, South Korea — South Korea has reported 20 new coronavirus cases, including nine in the Seoul metropolitan area, as authorities scramble to stem transmissions while proceeding with a phased reopening of schools.

The figures announced Friday by the Korea Centers for Disease Control and Prevention brought national totals to 11,142 cases and 264 deaths. Nine other new cases were linked to international arrivals.

South Korea was reporting around 500 new cases a day in early March but has since managed to stabilize infections with aggressive tracing and testing. Officials have eased social distancing measures and began reopening schools, starting with high school seniors on Wednesday.

But students at dozens of schools in Incheon, near Seoul, were sent back home after some tested positive after visiting a karaoke room or taking private classes from a virus carrier.

Health Minister Park Neung-hoo pleaded with people Friday to avoid visiting karaoke rooms or computer gaming centers near schools to lower infection risks for students.

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BEIJING — China has reported four new confirmed cases of the coronavirus.

Another 372 people are in isolation and undergoing monitoring for being suspected cases or after testing positive without showing symptoms, and 82 remain in the hospital for treatment of COVID-19.

The new cases come as China opens the annual session of its ceremonial parliament, the National People’s Congress, which is being held largely behind closed doors in Beijing to avoid cross-infections as the country looks to avoid a second wave of cases.

China has reported 4,634 deaths among 82,971 cases since the virus was first detected late last year in Wuhan. The central Chinese industrial city moved this week to completely ban the raising and sale for human consumption of wild animals that are considered a key vector for transmission of the virus from bats to people.

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CANBERRA, Australia — Australia has extended its ban on cruise ship visits for three months until Sept. 17 in response to the coronavirus pandemic.

Australian Border Force on Friday announced the extension of the ban, which has been in place since March 27 when there were 28 cruise ships in Australian waters.

Any cruise ship capable of carrying more than 100 passengers is prohibited from operating cruises in the country.

Outbreaks linked to cruise ships and aged care homes have proven the most deadly in Australia.

The country recorded its first coronavirus death on March 1 when 78-year-old James Kwan died in a Perth hospital. He had been a passenger on the Diamond Princess cruise ship off Japan.

Australia has reported 7,081 cases of COVID-19, and 100 patients have died.

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DENVER — Denver health officials have ordered the closure of a United States Postal Service distribution center that handles all mail for Colorado and Wyoming, saying the facility has multiple confirmed cases of the coronavirus among its employees.

KUSA-TV reports state health officials confirmed five workers have tested positive for the virus at a facility that employs about 1,800. The Denver Department of Public Health and Environment issued the order Thursday, the day after investigators said they were denied full access to the facility.

The USPS said in a statement the closure notice did not cite any adverse findings and could affect the delivery of stimulus checks, prescription medications, personal correspondence and other vital goods delivered to more than 6.5 million customers in Colorado and Wyoming.

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WASHINGTON — President Donald Trump says he will order the U.S. flag to be flown at half-staff over the next three days as the death toll from COVID-19 surpasses 95,000.

Trump tweeted Thursday: “I will be lowering the flags on all Federal Buildings and National Monuments to half-staff over the next three days in memory of the Americans we have lost to the CoronaVirus.”

He said the flags will continue to be flown at half-staff on Memorial Day in honor of those in the military who died serving their country.

The move follows a request from Democratic leaders to do so to recognize a “sad day of reckoning when we reach 100,000 deaths.”

House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer wrote to Trump that an order to fly the U.S. flag at half-staff would “serve as a national expression of grief so needed by everyone in our country.”

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DETROIT — Gov. Gretchen Whitmer prevailed Thursday in a high-stakes challenge from Republican lawmakers who sued over her authority to declare emergencies and order sweeping restrictions during the coronavirus outbreak.

A 1945 law cited by Whitmer, a Democrat, is not limited to local and regional emergencies only and can have no end date, said Judge Cynthia Stephens of the Court of Claims.

The lawsuit by the House and Senate grew out of frustration with Whitmer’s one-size strategy to stop the spread of the coronavirus by keeping people at home statewide and shutting down businesses, even if some regions were not harmed much by the virus or COVID-19.

The Legislature did not extend Whitmer’s disaster emergency declaration in late April but she acted anyway, pointing to the ’45 law.

The Legislature preferred a 1976 statute that gives it a say in emergency declarations after 28 days. Indeed, the judge said the governor can’t use that law to extend emergencies without input from lawmakers.

The decision was a third time that a Court of Claims judge ruled in favor of Whitmer. The other lawsuits were brought by residents, a business owner and a new group that has organized protests at the Capitol.

Also, Whitmer has further relaxed stay-at-home restrictions, saying a ban on nonessential health procedures would be lifted next week and that groups of up to 10 people can gather immediately ahead of the Memorial Day weekend.

Retailers can reopen by appointment only, starting Tuesday, as long as there are no more than 10 customers inside at a time. People also can make an appointment to visit an auto dealer showroom. Social distancing requirements remain in place.

She said Thursday that the stay-home order, which remains in effect through May 28, will likely be extended.

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LOS ANGELES — Los Angeles County’s death toll from the coronavirus has passed 2,000 even as other figures pointed to progress in slowing the spread of the infection.

The largest county in California recorded 46 more COVID-19-related deaths on Thursday for a total of 2,016.

That represents about 60% of all virus-related deaths in California. Public Health Director Barbara Ferrer calls it “a very sad milestone.”

But she also notes the average recent rates of hospitalizations and deaths in the county are decreasing and one study suggests the rate of COVID-19 prevalence didn’t rise between March and April. The county has seen more than 42,000 cases.

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OLYMPIA, Wash. — Impostors have used the stolen information of tens of thousands of people in the state to fraudulently receive hundreds of millions of dollars in unemployment benefits, the head of Washington’s Employment Security Department said Thursday.

Commissioner Suzi LeVine said that the state is currently working with federal law enforcement, financial institutions and the U.S. Department of Labor to investigate the fraud and to try and recover the money paid out during the coronavirus crisis.

LeVine said she can’t release specific numbers or details of the ongoing investigation. But she said that countermeasures taken by the state have “prevented hundreds of millions of additional dollars from going out to criminals and have prevented thousands of fraudulent claims being filed.”

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MINNEAPOLIS — Minneapolis Mayor Jacob Frey signed an emergency regulation Thursday requiring people to wear masks or other cloth face coverings starting Tuesday when they’re inside stores, hotels, recreation centers, the skyway system and other government buildings.

“With more commercial activity set to resume, it’s important that we right-size our approach to public health regulations given our city’s outsized footprint in the state,” the Democratic mayor said.

Minneapolis businesses won’t be required to provide masks to customers or employees, though employers will be required to mandate the use of masks by their workers. Violations could be punished by fines up to $1,000.

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U.S. health officials are planning to draw blood from people in 25 cities over the next year as part of one of the government’s largest studies yet to better understand how widely the coronavirus has spread.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention is partnering with two other federal agencies and other organizations to expand a study of blood donation specimens from Boston, Los Angeles, Minneapolis, New York City, San Francisco, and Seattle. The list of 19 additional metro areas has not been finalized, CDC officials said Thursday.

The researchers will be looking for antibodies that signal past coronavirus infection.

Nearly 300,000 blood samples will be tested over the next year, the CDC said. Specimen collection is supposed to begin next month and continue every month until May 2021, with one final collection in October 2021.

The goal is to see how widely the coronavirus has spread in different parts of the country.

The CDC’s partners in the project include the National Institutes of Health, The U.S. Food and Drug Administration, Vitalant Research Institute, and a number of large blood collection agencies.

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RIO DE JANEIRO — Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro said he would ratify a financial package worth 60 billion reais ($10.8 billion) to help states and cities during the pandemic and asked them in return to back his plan to freeze public servant salaries.

His video conference with governors was something of an olive branch after a tense few months. Bolsonaro has repeatedly clashed with local leaders who have introduced measures to limit the spread of the new coronavirus, such as shutting down businesses or recommending that people stay home.

The Brazilian leader says the measures could have a deadly impact on the economy and end up hurting the population more than the virus itself.

The interim health minister, Gen. Eduardo Pazuello, also held his first meeting with state and municipal health secretaries to discuss the country’s COVID-19 response.

Federal health officials said in a news conference Thursday that the number of municipalities that have registered COVID-19 cases has surged over the past two months to 3,488, which represents 60 percent of Brazilian cities.

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UNITED NATIONS — The United Nations is launching a new initiative to sign up millions of “digital first responders” around the world to counter misinformation about the COVID-19 pandemic and spread fact-based information and advice to their networks of family, friends and followers.

U.N. Secretary-General António Guterres, who announced the initiative on Thursday, said: “We cannot cede our virtual spaces to those who traffic in lies, fear and hate.”

The U.N. chief said “misinformation spreads online, in messaging apps and person to person” and “its creators use savvy production and distribution methods.”

Guterres said that scientists and institutions such as the United Nations need to reach people with accurate information they can trust to counter the misinformation and that’s why the U.N. is launching the initiative called “Verified.”

It is asking interested people around the world to sign up to become “information volunteers” — also called “digital first responders” — at https://www.shareverified.com/ and share a daily feed of verified information that counters misinformation or fills an information void.”

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Universal Orlando is aiming to reopen its theme parks in early June, a resort official said Thursday, more than two months after the company joined crosstown rivals Disney World and SeaWorld in closing their gates to stop the spread of the new coronavirus.

During a tourism forum in Orlando with Vice President Mike Pence on Wednesday, SeaWorld’s interim CEO, Marc Swanson, said he also expected a reopening in June. Officials with Disney World haven’t said when they plan to reopen.

Universal Orlando executive John Sprouls asked Orange County Mayor Jerry Demings for approval to open the company’s theme parks as early as June 5, the Orlando Sentinel reported Thursday.

Demings must sign off on Universal’s reopening plan before it heads to Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis for his approval, the newspaper said.

Universal, Disney World and SeaWorld have been closed since mid-March in an effort to stop the virus’s spread.

Both Disney and Universal in Orlando have reopened shopping complexes and restaurants in the past week, with several restrictions.

All workers and visitors must wear masks, although Disney exempts children under age 3. Temperatures are checked at entrances to keep out anyone with a fever of 100.4 degrees (38 degrees Celsius) or higher and a limited number of people are admitted to allow social distancing.

Many of those same protocols will be implemented at the theme parks. Children’s play areas will remain closed and employees won’t be sharing wardrobes, Sprouls said.

___

CONCORD, N.C. — Federal Health and Human Services Secretary Alex Azar said he came to North Carolina to see the work being done in Charlotte and to highlight the upcoming NASCAR Coca-Cola 600.

He described the race as “an important part of getting America back and to working to school, to functioning, to getting people out and getting our activities going again.”

He praised moves that governors have been making to reopen their economies — with North Carolina set to enter a second phase of loosened restrictions Friday — saying that there are health risks associated with restricting economies that must be weighed against the risks of the virus.

He said that economic downturns can lead to increased suicide rates, reductions in cancer screening and reductions in vaccine use.

Azar addressed reporters after touring a testing center at the Charlotte Motor Speedway and having a discussion with health leaders about reopening state economies.

Asked by a reporter if state reopenings create a risk of a second wave of virus cases, Azar said it’s too early to tell.

Asked about what preparations Charlotte will need to make to safely host the Republican National Convention in August, Azar said that increasing testing capacity would be important. However, he didn’t refer to the RNC as a certainty, but rather noted that “we’re several months away from the possibility of the RNC.”

___

WASHINGTON — President Donald Trump says a “full” G7 summit bringing together the leaders of the world’s major economies “looks like” it “will be on.”

But he says the in-person event — which had been scrapped in March because of the coronavirus — will now take place “primarily at the White House,” with “a piece of it” perhaps taking place at the nearby Camp David presidential retreat.

Trump made the comments while departing the White House for a trip to Michigan on Thursday.

The District of Columbia remains under stay-at-home orders and U.S. travel restrictions remain in place on many Group of Seven nations.

But Trump has said that holding the event would be a “great sign to all” that things are getting back to normal.

He said a formal announcement will likely come early next week.

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Follow AP news coverage of the coronavirus pandemic at https://apnews.com/VirusOutbreak and https://apnews.com/UnderstandingtheOutbreak

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