Big Tech props up Wall Street as S&P 500 closes winning July

NEW YORK – Big Tech continues to steamroll through the pandemic, but much of the rest of Wall Street is struggling Friday, leaving stock indexes mixed.

The S&P 500 was up 0.4% in late trading after flipping between small gains and losses earlier. The Dow Jones Industrial Average was down 61 points, or 0.2%, at 26,251, as of 3:08 p.m. Eastern time, while strength for tech stocks had the Nasdaq composite up 0.8%.

Despite the modest moves, caution was clearly present across markets as the coronavirus pandemic continues to cloud the economy’s prospects, along with gridlock in Congress that’s holding up more aid for it. The 10-year Treasury yield remains close to its lowest level since it dropped to a record low in March. Gold also continued its record-setting run as investors searched for safety, while roughly three out of four stocks in the S&P 500 were weaker.

Stocks that most need the economy to get back to “normal” and the pandemic to subside were dropping, including many in the travel industry.

Expedia Group slumped 4.5% after it reported even weaker results for the latest quarter than Wall Street expected. Its CEO called it “likely the worst quarter the travel industry has seen in modern history.”

Energy companies were also particularly weak as the pandemic sucked away demand for oil. Chevron dropped 3.8% after it reported a worse loss for its latest quarter than Wall Street expected. Energy stocks overall in the S&P 500 sank 1.6% for the biggest loss among the 11 sectors that make up the index.

The economy cratered to its worst quarterly performance on record during the spring, and worries are high that continuing waves of coronavirus infections may halt what had been a budding recovery for it. An extra $600 in weekly unemployment benefits from the U.S. government is also about to expire, and Congress continues to argue about whether and how to provide more support for the economy.

Whether Washington can agree on more aid for out-of-work Americans — and quickly — is the biggest risk for the market in the near term, said Yung-Yu Ma, chief investment strategist at BMO Wealth Management.

“If it doesn’t happen in short order, there’s going to be a lot of disappointment and unease,” he said. “I think lawmakers are perhaps underestimating how quickly things could spiral downward without an extension in place. It would take only a few weeks before millions of people are cash strapped.”

Worries about the economy helped send smaller stocks to sharper losses than the rest of the market. They generally have smaller financial cushions to withstand downturns. The Russell 2000 index of small-cap stocks was down 1.4%.

Helping to prop up the S&P 500 was the power of big tech-oriented stocks. Amazon, Apple and Facebook each reported stronger profit for the latest quarter than Wall Street expected late Thursday, and each rose at least 3.9% in their first trading following the reports. These are three of the biggest companies in the world, making up nearly 13% of the S&P 500 themselves, so their movements hold great sway over indexes.

Apple was particularly influential, up 8.9%, following what Wedbush analyst Daniel Ives called a “Picasso-like performance” for its latest quarter.

Google’s parent company, another behemoth in the market, also reported stronger profit than analysts had forecast, but its stock stumbled.

Not only are Big Tech companies growing faster than the rest of the market, some investors have even begun seeing them as safer bets than other stocks because the pandemic is pushing more people online and directly into their wheelhouses. It’s a far cry from 20 years ago when tech stocks were seen as the riskiest investments.

The strength for tech is one of the big reasons the S&P 500 is about to close out its fourth straight month of gains, along with continued, massive amounts of aid from the Federal Reserve. The index has climbed back within 4.5% of its record set in February after earlier being down nearly 34%.

The gains came even though companies have been reporting sharp declines in their profits from year-ago levels, as investors hope that a vaccine can be developed in the next year to corral the pandemic and get the economy closer to normal.

“The market knows earnings are going to be terrible now, with a few select exceptions, for the majority of companies,” Ma said. “What’s really holding up the equity markets is this idea that ‘Yes, it’s a terrible situation now, but the outlook for 2021 and beyond is markedly better.’“

Other markets have not shown as much confidence, though. The yield on the 10-year Treasury ticked down to 0.53% from 0.54% late Thursday. It touched its lowest level since March 9, the day it dropped to its record low just below 0.34%. The yield tends to move with investors’ expectations for the economy and inflation.

Gold for delivery in December, the most actively traded contract, rose $19.10 to settle at $1,985.91 per ounce after earlier climbing as high as $2,005.40.

In Europe, Germany’s DAX lost 0.5%, and France’s CAC 40 was down 1.4%. The FTSE 100 in London slipped 1.5%.

In Asia, Japan’s Nikkei 225 fell 2.8%, South Korea’s Kospi dropped 0.8% and the Hang Seng in Hong Kong lost 0.5%.

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Stocks in Shanghai rose 0.7% after China reported manufacturing edged up in July and export orders strengthened despite weak U.S. and European demand. The monthly survey was another sign the world’s second-largest economy is gradually recovering from the coronavirus pandemic.


AP Business Writer Yuri Kageyama contributed.

One Man’s COVID-19 Death Raises The Worst Fears Of Many People With Disabilities

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Melissa Hickson says no one asked her husband Michael, shown here with stepdaughter Mia, if he wanted to keep getting treatment. “He would say: ‘I want to live. I love my family and my children … that’s the reason for the three years I have fought to survive,'” she says. Melissa Hickson hide caption

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Melissa Hickson

What Melissa Hickson says happened to her husband — and what the hospital says — are in conflict.

But this much is for sure: Michael Hickson, a 46-year old quadriplegic who’d contracted COVID-19, died at St. David’s South Austin Medical Center in Austin, Texas, on June 11, after the hospital ended treatment for him and moved him from the ICU to hospice care.

Melissa Hickson says her husband was denied potentially life-saving treatment because doctors at the hospital made a decision based on their biases that, because of his disabilities, Michael Hickson had a low quality of life.

The hospital says it acted based on the man’s dire medical prognosis and that it would have been pointless and cruel to give him invasive treatment.

Michael Hickson’s death has become a cause among many with disabilities, an emblem of a medical system that they believe views their lives as having less value, even before a pandemic put doctors and hospitals under stress.

And now Hickson’s death may get the scrutiny of a federal civil rights office.

ADAPT of Texas, a disability rights group in Austin, sent a complaint on July 24 to the federal Office for Civil Rights (OCR) at the Department of Health and Human Services. And on Friday, the National Council on Independent Living filed a similar complaint to ask OCR to open an investigation into Hickson’s death.

“In Mr. Hickson’s case, the issue is not abstract,” the complaint says. “The treating professional for Mr. Hickson made a discriminatory determination that, due to his disabilities, Mr. Hickson’s life would not be supported.”

In addition to those formal complaints, two members of the U.S. House of Representatives from Texas expressed alarm. Rep. Chip Roy, a Republican, called the circumstances around Hickson’s death “highly troubling.” And Rep. Joaquin Castro, a Democrat, said Hickson’s death “should be immediately investigated.”

Since the start of the pandemic, the federal civil rights office has kept an eye on health care rationing. Specifically, it has warned states, doctors and hospitals that they can’t place elderly people and disabled people at the back of the line for care for COVID-19.

“We’re concerned that stereotypes about what life is like living with a disability can be improperly used to exclude people from needed care,” said Roger Severino, the OCR director, on March 28 as he announced guidelines for states and medical providers.

To do so, he warned, would violate laws — including the Americans with Disabilities Act and the Affordable Care Act — that guarantee the disabled and the elderly will not face discrimination when they need medical care.

Since then, Severino’s office has investigated multiple states that put out plans for limiting care and has announced settlements with four of those states.

But those plans were simply guidelines, telling medical providers what, theoretically, they could do in case they faced the need to triage care.

Much harder to determine is what actually takes place on the front lines of medical care, especially when hospitals are overwhelmed and doctors are forced to make quick decisions.

Melissa Hickson believes she saw proof that her husband was denied care because of his disability. (Hickson thinks her husband may have been dismissed as a Black man, too, but “the main reason was because of his disabilities.”)

On June 5, Hickson went to see her husband in the ICU at St. David’s South Austin Medical Center.

Michael Hickson was a quadriplegic who’d been diagnosed with COVID-19. Now he had pneumonia. A BiPap machine, a kind of ventilator that people often use in their own homes, was pushing air into his lungs to help him breathe.

Through the mask, he answered her questions with short answers. Would you like me to get you a Long Island Iced Tea, she joked. Yes, he said with a smile. Will you pray with me? Yes.

She asked him “to keep it in your mind: You will live and not die. You will live.” She asked him to repeat the words with her and she saw, under the mask of the breathing device, his lips move as he repeated it with her.

She called the kids on the phone — their five teenage children — for a FaceTime conversation. They told their Dad what they were up to. The 16-year-old was excited she was going to get her driver’s license.

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Michael Hickson with his five children. Melissa Hickson hide caption

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Melissa Hickson

“They chattered. Very chattery,” she recalls with a laugh. “And so I could see him just kind of shaking his head” and smiling.

That was June 5. One morning, three years before, Michael Hickson, a Morehouse College graduate who worked as an auto insurance claims estimator, went into sudden cardiac arrest, as he was driving his wife to work. Blood stopped flowing to his brain and other organs. Sudden cardiac arrest is often fatal, but paramedics arrived and performed extensive Cardiopulmonary Resuscitation. He survived. But the temporary loss of oxygen to his brain left him with significant disabilities — an anoxic brain injury, blindness and quadriplegia.

He could no longer walk. He had trouble talking.

Melissa Hickson posted YouTube videos of him in the years after his injuries: Singing Happy Birthday to his daughter from his hospital bed, joking with his kids, getting physical therapy, bobbing his head as he listens to music. He seems to have difficulty speaking and moving but he is aware and involved.

Still, Melissa Hickson says, the years since the accident were difficult for her husband. He’d moved from hospital to nursing home to back home — and then back to more hospitals and nursing homes.

That day at St. David’s hospital, this past June 5, the medical staff had something to tell Melissa Hickson. They were going to stop treating her husband. And move him from the ICU to hospice care.

In the hallway, Hickson found the doctor. She asked why. And she recorded their conversation.

The recording is hard to hear, the doctor’s voice a bit distant. But he tells Hickson: “The decision is: Do we want to be extremely aggressive with his care or do we feel like this would be futile?”

And then he adds: “As of right now, his quality of life — he doesn’t have much of one.”

Hickson challenges the doctor. “What do you mean?” she asks. “Because he’s paralyzed with a brain injury, he doesn’t have quality of life?”

“Correct,” the doctor replies.

After a while, the doctor gives a different explanation: If we have to intubate him — put him on a more powerful ventilator — in his weakened condition, he’s not going to survive.

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Michael Hickson was driving his wife to work three years ago when he had a sudden cardiac arrest. It resulted in an anoxic brain injury, blindness and quadriplegia. Melissa Hickson hide caption

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Melissa Hickson

That didn’t make sense to Melissa Hickson. The hospital wasn’t overwhelmed with COVID-19 patients. It didn’t need to ration care. Her husband had dealt with pneumonia before, and other hospitals had successfully treated it.

“This decision was not made based on a disability in any way,” says Dr. DeVry Anderson, the chief medical officer at St. David’s. He adds that it was not an issue of the hospital being short on its ability to treat COVID-19 patients.

Anderson says Michael Hickson was much sicker than his wife may have realized: He had sepsis, pneumonia in both lungs and that his organs were shutting down.

Anderson says a medical team — of doctors, palliative care specialists, a chaplain — made the decision that Hickson could not survive further treatment. The team then got sign-off from Michael Hickson’s medical guardian.

A Texas probate court earlier this year had stepped in and appointed an elder care agency to make medical decisions for Michael Hickson. That happened after Melissa Hickson disagreed with a previous hospital. She says it wanted to discharge her husband to a nursing home. She insisted he needed more specialized care at a brain and spinal cord injury center.

It’s not unusual for caregivers and medical staff to fight. It’s unusual, though, that a probate court would step in.

Anderson says that tape recording Melissa Hickson made — of the doctor at the hospital saying her husband had no quality of life — was just a miscommunication. He says the doctor misused the term “quality of life” and that he wasn’t saying the hospital was ending care because her husband was disabled.

Says Anderson: “But rather he was trying to help Mrs. Hickson understand compassion based on understanding what quality of life is — how someone might suffer more based on doing things that we consider treatments or interventions that are actually not helping them be better or feel better.”

NPR listened to the five-minute recording Melissa Hickson made of her conversation with the unnamed doctor. The doctor speaks of Michael Hickson’s quality of life, of wanting to make a “humane” decision. He says he’s seen only three people with COVID-19 on ventilators in the ICU — all young and previously in good health — recover.

The difference between them and her husband, he says: “They’re walking and talking.” Her husband, he says, has “a number of medical problems.”

Melissa Hickson agrees that she doesn’t want her husband intubated. She asks if he could get Remdesivir, a drug in short supply that, studies suggest, can reduce the hospital stay of someone seriously ill from COVID-19. She wants the hospital to try some treatment to save her husband. “It doesn’t make any sense to me to not try,” she tells the doctor.

The doctor, on the tape, never mentions the issues that Dr. Anderson says led to the decision to end treatment — the sepsis and organ failure.

Hospitals call in Devan Stahl on cases just like this. Stahl is an associate professor of ethics at Baylor University in Waco, Texas.

She wasn’t consulted on this case. She doesn’t know all the details of Michael Hickson’s medical condition.

But she’s listened to the tape.

“It was very troubling. Kind of a gut punch,” she says.

“Because a treatment working or not working has nothing to do with a patient’s quality of life, however it’s deemed by this physician,” she says. “And by all accounts — by his wife — that he had a quality of life.”

Stahl says there’s research that we — all of us, and especially doctors — see someone like Michael Hickson with a significant disability and say, I wouldn’t want to live like that. And we have a bias to underestimate that person’s quality of life.

Stahl says doctors need to protect against doing that with disabled patients. “That doesn’t mean they should be triaged out of medical treatment,” she says.

Melissa Hickson says no one asked Michael Hickson if he wanted treatment. “He would say, ‘I want to live. I love my family and my children and they’re the most important things to me,'” she says. “He would probably say that’s the reason for the past three years I have fought to survive.”

On Thursday, June 11, Hickson tried to make a FaceTime call to her husband. The hospital said that she needed permission from that guardianship agency. The guardian said she needed it from the hospital.

The next morning she got up early and tried again.

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Michael participates in physical therapy after his accident. Melissa Hickson hide caption

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Melissa Hickson

Later that morning she got a phone call — this time from the hospice agency. The message said: Michael Hickson had died the night before. It took 12 hours before anyone called to tell Melissa Hickson.

“Michael Hickson’s life mattered — to his wife, to his children, and to his community,” says a statement released by the National Council on Independent Living. “It should have mattered to the medical professionals charged to care for him.”

On Friday, the council, along with seven other disability groups, asked the Office for Civil Rights to investigate his death. The complaint named the hospital, its parent company and Family Eldercare, the guardianship agency. The council represents a national network of 400 centers run by disabled people to advise and advocate for other disabled people.

A spokeswoman for OCR would not say if the office would open an investigation. But sources told NPR that the office has been interested in pursuing a complaint if it thought a decision to triage care was based improperly on a person’s disability.

OCR “can’t discuss open or potential investigations,” says spokesperson Arina Grossu. If it does open an investigation, and finds that the hospital violated civil rights laws, it could then work on an agreement with the hospital to put systems in place to prevent that kind of decision on treatment from happening again. Or if a hospital fails to address a problem, the office can seek to get back or end federal funds to the hospital.

Disability groups have seen OCR as an agency that will protect access to medical care during the pandemic. Groups in multiple states have filed complaints about state triage policies — often called “crisis standards of care plans” — that they feel allow medical providers to give lesser care to the elderly and people with disabilities.

One of the most recent complaints, filed July 22, comes from national and Texas disability groups, led by Disability Rights Texas. It asks OCR to tell Texas to modify guidelines that allow hospitals to use a point scale to determine who is most likely to benefit from care when it is scarce. But the point system, the complaint says, discriminates against people with disabilities because they lose points for their disabilities and underlying medical conditions.

OCR has investigated complaints in other states and forced changes. Pennsylvania modified a system similar to the one now challenged in Texas, Alabama and Tennessee rewrote their rules to ensure that people with dementia, intellectual disabilities, traumatic brain injuries, advanced neuromuscular disease and other disabilities would not be denied ventilator and other care simply because of those conditions.

Now, the death of Michael Hickson, at that hospital in Austin, could be the next test of how doctors and hospitals, stressed by the coronavirus pandemic, provide medical care and whether they do it in a way that values the lives of people with disabilities.

Overdose deaths in Yukon this year double last year’s total toll

WHITEHORSE—Yukon’s health minister says 13 people fatally overdosed between January and mid-July, more than double the number for all of last year.

Pauline Frost says most of the deaths are linked to opioids as street drugs become more toxic because of a disruption of the regular supply during the pandemic.

Frost says the territory will expand drug testing capacity and provide drug users with kits for crack cocaine and injection use as well as methamphetamine pipes as part of its harm-reduction approach.

She says enhanced training for use of naloxone, a medication to reverse overdoses, will begin next week in Watson Lake.

The community will proclaim August as Overdose Awareness Month in recognition of the severity of the overdose crisis.

Frost called on Yukoners to be compassionate, not judgmental of those who use drugs, and says the territory is exploring how a supervised consumption site may meet its needs.

Coronavirus FAQ: Cases Are Spiking Again In Hong Kong. What Are They Doing About It?

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New rules in Hong Kong require everyone to wear a mask in all outdoor places or face a $650 fine. Above: A masked woman stretches out a public park. Also: The maximum number of people allowed at a public gathering is … 2. Miguel Candela/SOPA Images/LightRocket via Gett hide caption

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Miguel Candela/SOPA Images/LightRocket via Gett

Each week, we answer “frequently asked questions” about life during the coronavirus crisis. If you have a question you’d like us to consider for a future post, email us at with the subject line: “Weekly Coronavirus Questions.”

Hong Kong is seeing its biggest surge in coronavirus cases since the outbreak began.

After periods when the city had gotten the number of domestic cases — infections not linked to people arriving from abroad — down to zero, Hong Kong is now reporting more than 100 new cases a day.

So what is Hong Kong doing about it?

A lot. And the goal is to get the reported coronavirus case numbers back down to just a handful if not none at all.

Interestingly, Hong Kong isn’t ordering a blanket “shelter in place” or universal “stay at home” order as some places have. Hong Kong actually has never implemented a full lockdown since the pandemic began.

Instead, city officials have tightened social distancing rules, shut non-essential businesses and required everyone to wear a mask in all outdoor places and on the subway. Violators can be fined $5,000 Hong Kong Dollars ($650 US).

On Wednesday of this week new rules went into effect that closed all bars, nightclubs, karaoke halls and mahjong parlors. Gyms, hair salons and swimming pools were shut as well.

The rules also shuttered food courts, bathhouses, movie theaters, party halls and sports facilities. And restaurants which had been allowed to offer sit-down service were ordered to switch to takeout only (more on that later).

Business owners who violate the restrictions face fines of $50,000 HKD or roughly $6,500 USD and six months in jail.

And while some places in the world have been capping the size of public gatherings at 50 or 20 or 10 people, Hong Kong set their new limit for public gatherings at 2. Yes, you read that right. You can’t really get a smaller party.

At a time when there have been mass street demonstrations about the influence of Beijing over the semi-autonomous territory, people who gather in groups larger than 2 can face up to a half a year in prison and a fine of $25,000 HKD ($3,250 USD).

As the new rules were announced, Carrie Lam, chief executive of Hong Kong, told Hong Kongers in a video message that the city is on the verge of an even larger outbreak that could overwhelm its hospitals.

“The government has put in place the most stringent measures ever in enforcing social distancing,” Lam said from behind a white mask. “Our frontline staff are battling with the surge and the central government is helping us to enhance testing capability and set up a community treatment facility. What we need now is your co-operation.”

You may wonder how the new restrictions are playing out.

On Wednesday, the first day restaurants were forced to only offer takeout, sidewalks were jammed with people trying to eat lunch outside.

“What we saw on the streets of Hong Kong was a lot of office workers buying their lunch takeaway and then eating it on the street, crouching down, kneeling down, sitting on park benches with umbrellas because it’s raining,” says Ben Cowling, an infectious disease epidemiologist at the University of Hong Kong.

“It made Hong Kong seem like it was a different country to what we’re used to. We don’t normally see people crouching down eating their lunch outside. So it’s kind of strange to see that.”

The takeaway-only rule caused so much chaos that city officials reversed it the next day. On Thursday, they put in place new rules allowing restaurants to serve sitdown lunch at 50% capacity and with at least 1.5 meters between tables – just shy of 5 feet.

Despite Hong Kong having contained the coronavirus incredibly efficiently for months, Cowling says he’s not that surprised there’s now a surge in cases.

“We knew that we’d get a resurgence sooner or later because we had relaxed all of the public health measures,” Cowling says. “By opening up again, we were vulnerable to a resurgence in cases. And that’s what’s happened in the past month.”

Even before this recent wave of cases, Hong Kong had a strict system for isolating people who are infected and people who’d had close contact with any known case.

Anyone who tests positive is admitted to a hospital for treatment even if they’ve got no symptoms whatsoever. And they’re not allowed to leave until they’re confirmed negative on two consecutive tests – ideally two days in a row. Close contacts of confirmed cases and people who arrive from abroad are also required to quarantine up to 14 days, even if they test negative.

The quarantine rules are so burdensome that an association representing FedEx pilots this week called on the international shipping giant to suspend operations in Hong Kong. The Air Line Pilots Association said three asymptomatic FedEx pilots who tested positive were “forced” to stay in hospitals for nearly 2 weeks. And other crew members who’d been in contact with them were placed in government camps.

But those strict quarantine requirements have been part of how Hong Kong kept its COVID-19 numbers so low for so long.

Cowling says the new rules that went into effect this week are a way for health officials to put additional pressure on the virus and drive down transmission.

“Hopefully we’re going to get the numbers coming down and down over the course of the next month, back to zero again,” he says. Slowly restaurants will fill back up. Karaoke will return. Hair salons and swimming pools will reopen.

“And then the whole thing starts again. We try and keep infections out for as long as possible, but sooner or later, they’re going to be back and then we’ll be facing another wave.”

And Hong Kong will have to tighten up measures to push down transmission once again.

Nova Scotia man faces murder charge in death of 85-year-old woman in Dartmouth

HALIFAX—A Nova Scotia man has been charged in the death of an 85-year-old woman who was found in her home earlier this month.

Sixty-two-year-old Richard George Willis of Truro was arrested Thursday and is to appear in provincial court in Dartmouth at a later date to face charges of first-degree murder and break-and-enter.

The charges by Halifax police are in relation to the death of Eleanor Noreen Harding, whose body was found on July 11 in her Dartmouth home on Lynwood Drive.

The medical examiner’s office completed an autopsy and her death was ruled a homicide.

Willis was arrested in Dartmouth and has remained in custody.

Investigators are seeking to identify anyone who may have picked up someone hitchhiking between Dartmouth and Truro between 2 a.m. and noon on July 10.

In Florida, COVID-19 Death Toll Keeps Rising

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People relax on the beach in Miami Beach, Fla. on Tuesday amid the coronavirus pandemic. Chandan Khanna/AFP via Getty Images hide caption

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Chandan Khanna/AFP via Getty Images

For the fourth day in a row, Florida set a new record for the number of COVID-19 deaths. 257 deaths were reported Friday and a total of 6,843 people in Florida have died so far from the coronavirus.

Epidemiologists say that number will keep rising following the surge in cases seen over the last six weeks. Jay Wolfson, a public health expert at the University of South Florida says, “What we’re seeing now is the result of the push to open the state. Now, we’ll have to wait to see if it will level out.”

Although Florida is behind only California in the total number of cases of COVID-19, it ranks seventh in the number of deaths. Florida Republican Gov. Ron DeSantis says the experience doctors have gained in learning how to treat coronavirus patients and the use of therapeutics like the anti-viral medication, remdesivir, have helped improve outcomes. “We actually like some of the trends that we’ve been seeing,” DeSantis said. “If you look at the emergency department visits for COVID-like illness, those have been declining since early July. If you look at the hospitalization trends for hospital admissions, those have been declining.”

In another positive sign, the percentage of people who tested positive for the virus was the lowest in two weeks. “We definitely believe that we’ve seen a peak,” DeSantis said, as he reminded Floridians to keep following guidelines including social distancing and wearing face coverings.

As DeSantis points to signs of progress in Florida’s battle with the coronavirus, Democrats continue to criticize him for not adopting tougher policies, including a statewide face covering mandate. The head of the U.S. House Oversight and Reform subcommittee, Democrat James Clyburn, sent a letter to DeSantis this week, asking why the state wasn’t following White House Coronavirus Task Force recommendations on face masks, gyms and social gatherings.

In the latest report, 8,983 people in Florida tested positive for COVID-19. With the approach of Hurricane Isaias, the state has closed many of its coronavirus testing centers, including all in Miami-Dade County, the state’s hot spot.

Oklahoma murder suspect escapes 12th floor cell using sheets

OKLAHOMA CITY – A murder suspect escaped the Oklahoma County jail in Oklahoma City early Friday by using sheets tied together to climb down the outside of the building from a 12th floor cell, authorities said.

Pablo Robledo, 34, who was being held on a first-degree murder charge, and his cellmate escaped by breaking a window of their cell and climbing down, according to jail spokesman Mac Mullings.

Mullings said Robledo was seen on jail security video about 5:25 a.m. outside the jail. He was being sought Friday.

The cellmate, Jose Hernandez, fell or jumped from the makeshift rope at about the fourth floor and was found and arrested by Oklahoma City police.

Jail records show Robledo had been jailed since June 2019 on murder, assault and battery, domestic abuse and other charges.

Court records show he had pleaded not guilty and was set for trial beginning Aug. 31.

Hong Kong Delays Elections For A Year, Citing Coronavirus Pandemic

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Hong Kong Chief Executive Carrie Lam, shown here arriving for a news conference in Hong Kong on Friday, is delaying the region’s legislative elections by a year. Kin Cheung/AP hide caption

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Kin Cheung/AP

Hong Kong Chief Executive Carrie Lam is delaying the region’s legislative elections by a year, citing a resurgence in coronavirus cases.

Critics decry the decision, seen as the latest in a series of recent moves that curb Hong Kong’s limited autonomy, which was guaranteed for 50 years after the end of British rule and its handover to China in 1997.

Lam, who is backed by Beijing, invoked emergency powers — a holdover from the Chinese territory’s colonial era — to postpone the elections, scheduled for Sept. 6, until September 2021.

It was “the toughest decision,” Lam told reporters on Friday.

“But I have to have consider the public safety and the health condition for all the Hong Kong residents,” she said, noting that the number of confirmed cases of coronavirus in Hong Kong has doubled in the past six weeks.

From June 13 to July 5, there were no locally transmitted cases in Hong Kong. Schools started reopening in late May, but were shut down in mid-July, as the number of cases began to climb in what’s been dubbed a third wave of infections. As of Friday evening, there were 3,273 cases in Hong Kong.

Lam said the central government in Beijing supports the delay.

The decision comes a month after Beijing imposed a controversial and sweeping national security law — passed in secret — on Hong Kong. The law bans subversion of state power, secession, terrorism and collusion with foreign entities — and carries a penalty of up to life in prison. This has heightened fears that Beijing is stripping away the freedoms that Hong Kong has enjoyed.

“The legal firewall, if you like, that separates the two systems [of Hong Kong and Beijing] is now gone,” Alan Leong, a former chair of Hong Kong’s bar association and chair of Hong Kong’s Civic Party, told NPR’s Emily Feng at the time. “We are allowing the long arms of the Chinese Communist Party to reach Hong Kong.”

Earlier this week, Hong Kong disqualified 12 opposition candidates from running in legislative elections, citing their collusion with foreign forces and opposition to the national security law.

Also this week, Hong Kong police arrested four people for online statements. Police say the statements promote Hong Kong’s independence from China, which is illegal under the national security law.

“What we’re seeing here is four young people who are potentially facing quite serious jail time simply for expressing their political views online,” Joshua Rosenzweig of Amnesty International in Hong Kong told NPR’s John Ruwitch. “Under international human rights law, blanket prohibitions of peaceful expression are just not allowed.”

Friday’s announcement by Lam, the Hong Kong chief executive, marks the second time she has invoked emergency powers since assuming office in 2017. The first time occurred in October 2019, Feng reported, to ban face masks in public gatherings amid anti-government protests. Before that, the ordinance had not been used since 1967.

Fauci optimistic COVID-19 vaccine will be widely available

WASHINGTON – Once a coronavirus vaccine is approved as safe and effective, Americans should have widespread access within a reasonable time, Dr. Anthony Fauci assured lawmakers Friday.

Appearing before a House panel investigating the nation’s response to the pandemic, Fauci expressed “cautious” optimism that a vaccine would be available, particularly by next year.

“I believe, ultimately, over a period of time in 2021, that Americans will be able to get it,” Fauci said, referring to the vaccine.

There will be a priority list for who gets early vaccinations. “I don’t think we will have everybody getting it immediately,” Fauci explained.

But “ultimately, within a reasonable time, the plans allow for any American who needs the vaccine to get it,” he added.

Under direction from the White House, federal health authorities are carrying out a plan dubbed Operation Warp Speed to manufacture 300 million doses of a vaccine on a compressed timeline.

Fauci, the nation’s top infectious disease official, said a quarter-million people have expressed interest in taking part in studies of experimental vaccines for the coronavirus.

He said that 250,000 people have registered on a government website to take part in vaccine trials, which are pivotal for establishing safety and effectiveness. Not all patients who volunteer to take part in clinical trials are eligible to participate.

Fauci was joined by Centers for Disease Control and Prevention head Dr. Robert Redfield and Health and Human Services testing czar Adm. Brett Giroir.

At a time when early progress seems to have been lost and uncertainty clouds the nation’s path forward, Fauci is calling on lawmakers — and all other Americans — to go back to public health basics such as social distancing and wearing masks.

The panel, the House Select Subcommittee on the Coronavirus Crisis, is divided about how to reopen schools and businesses, mirroring divisions among Americans. Committee Chairman Rep. James Clyburn, D-S.C., said the White House must come up with a comprehensive national plan to contain the virus. Ranking Republican Steve Scalise of Louisiana said the Trump administration has plans already on vaccines, testing, nursing homes and other coronavirus-related issues.

A rebound of cases across the South and the West has dashed hopes for a quick return to normal life. Problems with the availability and timeliness of testing continue to be reported. And the race for a vaccine, though progressing rapidly, has yet to deliver a breakthrough.

Fauci’s public message in recent days has been that Americans can’t afford a devil-may-care attitude toward COVID-19 and need to double down on basic measures such as wearing masks in public, keeping their distance from others and avoiding crowds and indoor spaces such as bars. That’s echoed by Redfield and Giroir, though they are far less prominent.

Fauci’s dogged persistence has drawn the ire of some of President Donald Trump’s supporters and prompted a new round of calls for his firing. But the veteran of battles against AIDS and Ebola has stuck to his message, while carefully avoiding open confrontations with the Trump White House.

In an interview with The Associated Press earlier this week, Fauci said he was “disturbed” by the flat-out opposition in parts of the country to wearing masks as a public health protective measure.

“There are certain fundamentals,” he said, “the staples of what you need to do … one is universal wearing of masks.”

Public health experts say masks help prevent an infected person who has yet to develop symptoms from passing the virus to others. For mask wearers, there’s also some evidence that they can offer a degree of protection from an infected person nearby.

Fauci said in his AP interview that he’s concerned because the U.S. has not followed the track of Asian and European nations also hit hard by the coronavirus.

Other countries that shut down their economies knocked back uncontrolled spread and settled into a pattern of relatively few new cases, although they continued to experience local outbreaks.

The U.S. also knocked back the initial spread, but it never got the background level of new cases quite as low. And the resurgence of COVID-19 in the Sunbelt in recent weeks has driven the number of new daily cases back up into the 60,000-70,000 range. It coincided with economic reopening and a return to social gatherings, particularly among younger adults. Growing numbers of emergency room visits, hospitalizations and deaths have followed as grim consequences.

Nearly 4.5 million Americans have been been infected since the start of the pandemic, and more than 150,000 have died, according to figures compiled by Johns Hopkins University.

Fauci said there’s evidence the surge across the South may be peaking, but upticks in the Midwest are now a concern.

“They’ve really got to jump all over that because if they don’t then you might see the surge we saw in some of the Southern states,” he told the AP.

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Though Fauci gets push-back from White House officials, other medical experts in the administration are on the same page when it comes to the public health message.

Giroir, the testing czar, told reporters Thursday: “I think it’s very important to make sure that we all spread the public health message that we can control all the outbreaks occurring right now.”

He said controlling the outbreaks will require people to wear masks, avoid crowded indoor spaces and wash their hands frequently.

New Coronavirus Testing Technologies Advance Toward Production

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The federal government is giving out funds to develop seven new testing technologies which could increase testing capacity around the U.S. Charles Krupa/AP hide caption

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Charles Krupa/AP

Americans continue to wait in long lines to get tested for the coronavirus. Many then face frustration and anxiety waiting days — sometimes even weeks — to get their results.

Could technology finally solve the testing woes that have hobbled the nation’s ability to fight the pandemic? The National Institutes of Health hopes so.

On Friday, the NIH announced the first seven winners of a competition to produce next-generation coronavirus tests to help battle the spread of COVID-19. Together, they will receive $248.7 million to further develop their tests and hopefully make them available by the fall.

“This is a very substantial investment to try to speed up the availability of COVID-19 testing to try to deal with this pandemic,” NIH Director Francis Collins told reporters during a telebriefing.

One test uses the revolutionary gene-editing technique called CRISPR to spot the coronavirus. Another uses a technique for scanning the genetic code to see if someone is infected. A third uses a hand-held device that produces results within 30 minutes.

Congress gave the NIH $1.5 billion in the spring to jump-start the hunt for technologies that would enable millions of Americans to get easier access to faster, cheaper, accurate tests. The hope is that new tests could allow students, teachers and other workers to get tested frequently to help beat back the pandemic and safely reopen the nation.

Public health and testing researchers welcomed the new technologies.

“It’s pretty exciting,” said Ashish Jha, who runs the Harvard Global Health Institute, via an email to NPR. “The big question is how quickly can these technologies be scaled up and made available on the front lines … the proof will be in the pudding.”

All of the products identified through the NIH’s RADx program are exciting in their own right, and I anticipate many will find a place in the market to expand our testing capabilities and help in the fight against COVID-19,” wrote Gary Procop, a professor of pathology at the Cleveland Clinic in an email. Procop chairs the Commission of Science, Technology and Policy for the American Society for Clinical Pathology.

While the first winners appear promising, some observers remain cautious. One of the tests is already on the market and others “may not always be as sensitive” as those already in use, according to Daniel Green, an assistant professor of pathology & cell biology at Columbia University.

“It will be interesting to see how this plays out, and if supply can ever catch up with the soaring demand,” Green wrote in an email to NPR.

The RADx program has received more than 650 applications so far, according to the NIH. About 100 of those went through a one-week “shark tank” evaluation. Thirty-one then progressed through a four- to six-week Phase 1 evaluation.

The seven announced Friday are the first selected to move on Phase 2 of the program, which will involve scaling them up and manufacturing them for use, the NIH says.

“These have now reached the point where we think it’s time to go big,” Collins said.

More then 20 others are still under consideration for Phase 2. And dozens of others are also still under consideration

The seven companies receiving grants are:

– Mammoth Biosciences, Inc., in San Francisco., which uses CRISPR. This technology, best known for editing DNA, can zero in on any spot in a genetic code. In this case, it’s being used to spot the genetic material of the coronavirus.

– Helix OpCo LLC. in San Mateo, Calif., which will bulk ship kits to collect nasal swab samples that can processed within 24 to 48 hours through a combination of automation and “next-generation sequencing,” which has been used in research to scan genomes. Helix expects to process up to 50,000 samples a day by the end of September and 100,000 a day by the end of the year, according to the NIH.

– Fluidigm Corp. in San Francisco, which has developed a test designed to process thousands of samples each day, primarily from saliva. Because the company already has machines in many labs around the country, it should be able to scale up to hundred of thousand of tests per day by the fall, the NIH says.

– Mesa Biotech, Inc. in San Diego, whose test uses a hand-held device and a “compact, single-use cartridge” that can produce results in doctors’ offices, clinics and elsewhere within 30 minutes, the NIH says.

– Quidell Corp. in San Diego already has gotten approval for an antigen test, which detects a protein from the virus instead of genetic material. The test is much simpler and easier to manufacture and use than the genetic tests that have been primarily used so far, and it produces results in 15 minutes.

– Talis Biomedical Corp. in Menlo Park, Calif., uses a different technique to analyze genetic material in the virus using light. It produces results within 30 minutes.

– Ginkgo Bioworks in Boston is scaling up an automated process for processing tens of thousands of tests simultaneously using next-generation sequencing and delivering results within 24 to 48 hours. The company expects to scale up to 50,00 tests per day in September and 100,000 per day by the end of the year.