News, August 5th

Beirut explosion: Rescue workers frantically search for survivors as Lebanon capital confronts massive devastation

Rescuers on Wednesday are working frantically to search for survivors in Beirut a day after a massive explosion rocked the Lebanese capital, leaving at least 100 dead and some 4,000 injured.

Lebanon’s Health Minister Hamad Hassan told reporters outside a hospital that the death toll will likely continue to rise, as hundreds of people have been reported missing by their families and other loved ones.

The massive blast witnessed on Tuesday was likely caused by the detonation of more than 2,700 tons of ammonium nitrate that had been stored in a warehouse at the dock in Beirut’s port ever since it was confiscated from a cargo ship in 2014, Lebanese Interior Minister Mohammed Fahmi told local media.

Though the blast remains under investigation, Lebanese officials believe that a fire engulfed what initially appeared to be fireworks at a warehouse – igniting the explosion that leveled most of the port, blew out windows and collapsed balconies and roofs miles from its epicenter and sent out a shockwave heard from as far away as Cyprus. What initially started the fire at the port remains unclear.

But President Trump on Tuesday said that U.S. military generals have told him that they “seem to feel” the massive explosion was a “terrible attack” likely caused by a bomb. However, multiple U.S. officials told Fox News so far, no evidence suggests that is true.

“It’s still too early,” one official said, who like others declined to be identified because he was not authorized to speak on the record.

Meanwhile, multiple sources in the region have told Fox News that the port of Beirut is under the unofficial control of Hezbollah – though whether organized crime is to be blamed for negligence in storing potentially explosive material, or if the blast seen Tuesday was a result of an intentional act of terrorism, remains too early to call.

As the Middle Eastern country observes a day of mourning, the U.K. and France are expected to send in search-and-rescue teams to help sift through the extensive damage, Sky News reported.  Hassan said he was coordinating an emergency plan with Qatar, Iran, Kuwait, Oman, and Jordan to construct between six and eight field hospitals in the city.

The Lebanese Red Cross tweeted Wednesday it would set up shelters and supply food and hygiene kits for some 1,000 families for 72 hours. The ride-sharing app Careem, which is a subsidiary of Uber, is offering free rides to anyone traveling to and from medical centers and hospitals to donate blood.

In a televised address on Wednesday, Lebanon’s President Michel Aoun ramped up calls for the international community to help with the humanitarian crisis in Beirut.

International troops serving in the United Nations Interim Force in Lebanon were among those hurt by the blast, including at least 21 members of Bangladesh’s Navy. One Italian soldier was also injured. Bangladesh has been working in Lebanon since 2010 to deter illegal arms and ammunition sales. Italy is the second-largest contributor to U.N.’s peacekeeping efforts in Lebanon, second only to Indonesia.

A small number of employees at the U.K. Embassy in Beirut have sustained injuries that are not life-threatening, a Foreign Office spokesperson told Sky News. French President Emmanuel Macron is expected to visit Lebanon on Thursday.

Beirut governor Marwan Abboud told reporters on Wednesday that the massive explosion in the Lebanese capital has resulted in an estimated $3 to 5 billion worth of damage. Pope Francis has called on the globe to pray for the victims and their families in Beirut.

Online videos of the disaster’s initial moments show sparks and lights inside the smoke rising from the blaze, just prior to the massive blast. The white cloud that accompanied the explosion appeared to be a condensation cloud, often common in massive explosions in humid conditions that can follow the shock waves of an explosion, experts told the Associated Press. Orange clouds also followed the blast, likely from toxic nitrogen dioxide gas that’s released after an explosion involving nitrates.

Experts typically determine the power of the blast by measuring the crater left behind, which appeared massive in aerial footage shot on Wednesday morning by the AP. The Beirut blast, based on the crater and glass windows being blown out a distance away, exploded with the force equivalent to detonating at least 2.2 kilotons of TNT, said Sim Tack, an analyst and weapons expert at the Texas-based private intelligence firm Stratfor.

COVID-19 Pandemic May Result in a Long-term Human Development Crisis in Central Asia, Warn World Bank Experts

The COVID-19 pandemic can have a detrimental and long-lasting impact on education and human capital, economic and social development in Central Asian countries, where schoolchildren and students make up nearly half of the overall population, warned World Bank experts at an online briefing held today for regional media, experts, academia, and development community in the region. The crisis threatens to deprive this generation of future earnings, as it pushes a large share of Central Asian students into functional illiteracy – inability to read, write, and do math at a level necessary to be productive, World Bank estimates.

Before the pandemic, education across Central Asia was already suffering from low learning levels, as the countries struggled to eliminate learning poverty, distribute equal opportunities to poor learners, and promote inclusion. Students across the region performed 1.5 years below the average of Europe, i.e.  an average student in Central Asia was a year and a half behind their peer in Europe. Many students in the region also performed significantly below functional literacy, according to the OECD Program for International Student Assessment (PISA).

Learning inequality is of particular concern, with the gap between students from various income levels widening due to a number of factors, including differential access to distance learning for teachers and students, teaching support, access to teaching and learning materials at home, and household contribution to home schooling. According to PISA, in Kazakhstan, children from the poorest families were one year behind their peers, while in the Kyrgyz Republic poor students were 2.5 years behind.

The COVID-19 pandemic has further exacerbated the learning deficiencies, with school closures impacting already marginalized groups, including students from socio-economically disadvantaged backgrounds, learners with disabilities and minorities.

 “The COVID-19 pandemic is dealing a blow to education and learning so destructive we will feel its negative effects for decades to come, including $44 billion in economic loss in Central Asia alone, and this is not our most pessimistic scenario,” said Ayesha Vawda, Lead Education Specialist at the World Bank in Central Asia during the event. “Central Asian countries took swift action to deliver emergency learning via multiple channels and modes. Now is the time for governments to respond in a way that lays the foundation of the new education system – one that is high quality, resilient and equitable”.

During the briefing, the World Bank stressed that education needs to be at the forefront of the national recovery plans in Central Asia. The countries need to protect education budgets, improve the quality of distance learning, allow flexibility in the curricula to focus on competencies and skills instead of knowledge, empower teachers with effective remediation strategies and with diagnostic and formative assessments and increased instruction time to allow recovery of learning losses.

As teachers become more aware of the learning, and learning loss of each child, remedial education plans will need to be developed. Special attention will need to be given to those students who have suffered the most during the school closures. The countries also need to develop digital skills amongst students, youth and teachers and increase teacher-student interaction on different distance learning platforms to better respond to the needs of the continuing crises.

“The World Bank in Central Asia and globally has always put special focus on education and building human capital, understanding too well that these investments bring the highest dividends,” said Lilia Burunciuc, World Bank Regional Director for Central Asia. “Currently, we have adapted three education projects in the region to respond to COVID: in Kazakhstan, the Kyrgyz Republic, and Uzbekistan. Through these projects, we were able to mobilize some support for emergency and remote learning. For instance, in Kazakhstan this includes monitoring distance learning and provision of digital equipment for rural teachers”.

Emergency aid lands in Lebanon as world offers support

Emergency medical aid and pop-up field hospitals were dispatched to Lebanon Wednesday along with rescue experts and tracking dogs, as the world reached out to the victims of the explosion that devastated Beirut.

The blast centered on the city’s port caused massive destruction and killed more than 100 people, heaping misery on a country already in crisis.

Gulf states were among the first to respond, with Qatar announcing it was sending mobile hospitals to ease pressure on Lebanon’s medical system, already strained by the coronavirus pandemic.

A Qatari air force plane with a cargo of hundreds of collapsible beds, generators and burn sheets touched down in Beirut in the first of a convoy of flights to the Mediterranean country.

Medical supplies from Kuwait also arrived, as the Lebanese Red Cross said that more than 4,000 people were being treated for injuries after the explosion, which sent glass shards and debris flying.

A Greek C-130 army transport plane bearing a dozen rescuers landed at Beirut’s airport, itself damaged in the catastrophic explosion.

Lebanon’s Prime Minister Hassan Diab has called on “friendly countries” to support a nation already reeling from its worst economic crisis in decades as well as the impact of the coronavirus.

As emergency crews hauled survivors from the rubble of demolished buildings, France said it was sending search and rescue experts aboard three military planes loaded with a mobile clinic and tons of medical and sanitary supplies.

President Emmanuel Macron is to travel to Lebanon on Thursday, to “meet all political actors” following the catastrophe, his office said.

“France is at the side of Lebanon. Always,” Macron tweeted in Arabic earlier.

Iran’s President Hassan Rouhani said in a message to his Lebanese counterpart that Tehran was “ready to offer medical and medicinal aid and help treat the injured”. Jordan’s King Abdullah II also promised to dispatch a field hospital.

Cyprus — which lies just 150 miles (240 kilometers) to the northwest was shaken by the Tuesday’s blast — said it was sending eight police tracking dogs and their handlers aboard two helicopters, to help in the search for victims.

Dutch authorities announced that 67 aid workers were headed for Beirut, including doctors, police officers and firefighters, and the Czech Republic dispatched 36 rescuers including dog handlers trained to seek out those trapped in ruins.

Close allies and traditional adversaries of Lebanon alike sent their condolences, with Iran and Saudi Arabia — long rivals for influence over the country — both sending messages of support.

“Our thoughts and prayers are with the great and resilient people of Lebanon,” Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif tweeted.

“Stay strong, Lebanon.”

Saudi Arabia said it was following the situation with “great concern”.

Unusually, neighboring Israel offered humanitarian aid — to a country with which it is still technically at war — via international intermediaries.

United Nations chief Antonio Guterres expressed his “deepest condolences… following the horrific explosions in Beirut,” which he said had also injured some UN personnel.

US President Donald Trump said, “it looks like a terrible attack” and that US generals had told him that the powerful explosions appeared to have been caused by a “bomb of some kind,” without offering evidence.

Qatar’s emir Sheikh Tamim bin Hamad Al-Thani wished “a speedy recovery for the injured,” while the United Arab Emirates’ vice president and ruler of Dubai, Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid Al-Maktoum, tweeted “our condolences to our beloved people in Lebanon”.

Syrian President Bashar al-Assad wrote to his Lebanese counterpart Michel Aoun that “on behalf of the Syrian Arab people, we extend our sincere condolences to you and the Lebanese people”.

British Prime Minister Boris Johnson called the pictures and videos from Beirut “shocking”.

Pope Francis offered prayers for the victims and their families so that they might “face this extremely tragic and painful moment and, with the help of the international community, overcome the grave crisis they are experiencing.”

Fireworks, ammonium nitrate likely fueled Beirut explosion

Fireworks and ammonium nitrate appear to have been the fuel that ignited a massive explosion that rocked the Lebanese capital of Beirut, experts and videos of the blast suggest.

The scale of the damage — from the epicenter of the explosion at the port of Beirut to the windows blown out kilometers (miles) away — resembles other blasts involving the chemical compound commonly used as an agricultural fertilizer.

But the compound itself typically doesn’t detonate on its own and requires another ignition source. That likely came from a fire that engulfed what initially appeared to be fireworks that were stored at the port.

Online videos of the disaster’s initial moments show sparks and lights inside the smoke rising from the blaze, just prior to the massive blast. That likely indicates that fireworks were involved, said Boaz Hayoun, owner of the Tamar Group, an Israeli firm that works closely with the Israeli government on safety and certification issues involving explosives.

“Before the big explosion, you can see in the center of the fire, you can see sparks, you can hear sounds like popcorn and you can hear whistles,” Hayoun told The Associated Press. “This is very specific behavior of fireworks, the visuals, the sounds and the transformation from a slow burn to a massive explosion.”

Jeffrey Lewis, a missile expert at the Middlebury Institute of International Studies in Monterey, California, offered a similar assessment.

“It looks like an accident,” Lewis told the AP. “First, there was a fire preceding the explosion, which is not an attack. And some of the videos show munitions what I could call popcorning, exploding like ’pop, pop, pop, pop.’”

He added that “it’s very common to see fires detonate explosives.”

“If you have a fire raging next to something explosive, and you don’t put it out, it blows up,” he said.

The white cloud that accompanied the massive blast appeared to be a condensation cloud, often common in massive explosions in humid conditions that can follow the shock waves of an explosion, Lewis said.

Orange clouds also followed the blast, likely from toxic nitrogen dioxide gas that’s released after an explosion involving nitrates.

Experts typically determine the power of the blast by measuring the crater left behind, which appeared massive in aerial footage shot on Wednesday morning by the AP.

The Beirut blast, based on the crater and glass windows being blown out a distance away, exploded with the force equivalent to detonating at least 2.2 kilotons of TNT, said Sim Tack, an analyst and weapons expert at the Texas-based private intelligence firm Stratfor.

What initially started the fire at the port remains unclear. Beirut was sunny before Tuesday’s explosion, with a daily high of 30 degrees Celsius (86 degrees Fahrenheit).

Lebanese Interior Minister Mohammed Fahmi, in comments to a local TV station, made no mention of ignited fireworks but said it appeared the blast was caused by the detonation of more than 2,700 tons of ammonium nitrate that had been stored in a warehouse at the dock ever since it was confiscated from a cargo ship in 2014. That amount could cause the explosive force seen in the blast Tuesday, Tack said.

Based on the timeline and the size of the cargo, that ship could be the MV Rhosus. The ship was initially seized in Beirut in 2013 when it entered the port due to technical problems, according to lawyers involved in the case. It came from the nation of Georgia and had been bound for Mozambique.

“Owing to the risks associated with retaining the ammonium nitrate on board the vessel, the port authorities discharged the cargo onto the port’s warehouses,” the lawyers wrote in a 2015 article published by shiparrested.com. “The vessel and cargo remain to date in port awaiting auctioning and/or proper disposal.”

It remains unclear what conditions the ammonium nitrate had been stored in — or why tons of an explosive chemical compound had been left there for years. Lebanon already was on the brink of collapse amid a severe economic crisis that has ignited mass protests in recent months.

The devastation surrounding the port resembled other ammonium nitrate explosions, such as the 1995 Oklahoma City bombing and a 1947 ship explosion that struck Texas City, Texas.

It also is unclear what conditions a possible shipment of fireworks at the port had been stored in. Fireworks are very common in Lebanon, used to celebrate religious occasions and weddings.

While military explosives are generally safe to transport, common “cheap pyrotechnics” made in China are often of very low quality and can ignite very easily, especially in hot weather, said Hayoun, the Israeli explosives expert.

The “end result,” he added is that “hundreds of tons of energetic materials” were detonated to create an explosion of this magnitude.

“It started definitely with fireworks,” he said.

Fragile hope

The economies of many countries around the world are experiencing recession due to the severe impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic. Second and third epidemic waves have broken out in many countries with the risk of the creation of an unprecedented crisis.

Data on the second quarter GDP growth this year of 13 of the 36 members of the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD), as well as six other major economies including China, Russia, India, Indonesia, Brazil and South Africa paints a gloomy picture of the global economy.

When the 14 large economies named in the OECD statistics are included, the average GDP of this group in the last quarter decreased by 9.5%. The GDP of the US in the second quarter dropped by 9.5% compared to the first quarter. Germany, France, and Spain recorded their rate of GDP dropping by double digits, 10.1%, 13.8% and 18.5%, respectively. Meanwhile, the world’s number one power has been downgraded to “negative” by credit rating agency Fitch. Accordingly, the US economy will decline by 5.6% this year. The growth cycle which lasted for 11 consecutive years has officially ended as the US economy declined by 5% in the first quarter of the year and officially fell into recession.

In Europe, the Eurozone economic output has also been strongly affected by the pandemic crisis, the region’s GDP in the second quarter of 2020 decreased by 12.1%, the sharpest decline since 1995.

In Asia, many experts forecast that economic growth in Japan in the second quarter will decrease by more than 20% compared to the first quarter. For the first time since 2014, the Thai economy decreased by 1.8%. in the first quarter compared to the same period in 2019 and down 2.2% from the previous quarter.

According to a survey on Asian economies by the Japanese Center for Economic Research (JCER), the five largest economies in Southeast Asia, including Indonesia, Malaysia, the Philippines, Singapore and Thailand, will sink into recession, with a forecast of growth in the second quarter of -7.8%.

It is predicted that the US economy will recover by 4% in 2021 thanks to its large-scale financial adaptation policy. Analysts also predict that Japan’s GDP will recover, but there are still many risks. The German economy is expected to gradually revitalize in the second half of this year, provided the of newly confirmed COVID-19 cases does not increase again.

France has also taken unprecedented measures to support businesses throughout the pandemic, helping people afford to spend even though millions of jobs have been lost. Spain announced it was requesting EUR209 billion from the European economic recovery fund. The Government of Italy has approved additional spending of EUR25 billion to support employment and income for people, however this plan is quite risky because it will increase the country’s budget deficit to 11.9% of its GDP, the highest level in the Eurozone, leading to a public debt figure of 157.6% of GDP.

In the context of the complicated developments of the COVID-19 epidemic, economic experts have forecast that global growth in 2020 will decrease by 4%, or about US$3.4 trillion. Although countries and regions have launched economic stimulus packages, the economic outlook is still gloomy, and it will take a long time to regain growth momentum as before.

RCAS delays vote on back-to-school plan, mask mandates until Monday meeting

While the school board had previously planned to vote on several parts of the back-to-school plan in a special meeting Tuesday night, board members decided to hold off on a formal vote until Monday.

The board did vote on the motion to require masks for staff members, but it failed 3-3 with Kate Thomas abstaining after stating that she didn’t believe that she had the right to mandate mask usage.

Board member Jim Hansen previously proposed that the board strike item six from the agenda, which included votes on mask mandates during COVID-19, authorization for Superintendent Lori Simon to make minor changes to the recently updated back-to-school plan, and the overall approval of the plan.

Hansen said he wanted the board to be able to vote on every item on the back-to-school plan individually. Other board members suggested voting on just the mask mandates and hosting discussion on the other items; others wanted to keep discussions open about the mask policy. By the time of deadline, the board had not reached agenda item six for a vote.

The board will decide the fate of mask mandates and the overall plan in the regular meeting on Aug. 10.

Simon gave a presentation to the board on four different distance learning options: Swivel cameras, dedicating teachers for off-campus learning with prorated pay to teach an extra section, virtual vendors, and keeping some teachers dedicated to off-campus teaching only.

Simon said she estimated the cost for Swivel cameras at $1.3 million; prorated pay at $3.7 million and virtual vendors at $4.8 million to $6 million per semester, or $9.6 million to $12 million per year. Simon did not have a cost estimate for keeping some teachers dedicated to only distance learning.

In a teacher survey sent out late last week, Simon shared data that 47% of teachers said they would be willing to teach an additional section of off-campus students prorated on their salary in addition to their teaching responsibilities.

36% of teachers also said they could “live with” the off-campus learning plan, and another 54% said they don’t support the plan.

In a family survey with 2,493 respondents, 32% said they would utilize the district’s off-campus plan while another 15% said they would rather not enroll their children. The other 53% said the question did not apply to them.

In the same survey, 1,820 people said they would have their children physically in schools this year while 659 said they wouldn’t.

Former board member Christine Stephenson joined the public comment section of the meeting and said she didn’t see enough distinction between the first two phases of the back-to-school plan and that the board should ask for a much more specific plan, comparing the 28-page Rapid City Area Schools district plan to the Sioux Falls school district’s 130-page plan.

Sue Podoll, president of the Rapid City Education Association, said she wants schools to reopen safely this fall and “if that means (wearing) masks when we can’t socially distance, then that’s what we need.”

Podoll also said the board should reach out to the “best problem-solvers on this earth: teachers” for more input on the plan.

Kara Flynn, a parent in the district, said she was pleased to hear masks could be mandated in the school and asked the board to vote in favor of mask mandates.

“Those parents that don’t wish for their students to wear a mask do have an option: remote learning,” Flynn said.

Daniel Petersen, an IT professional from the area, said he was concerned with the district’s distance education model for high school students and said he thinks the district has underestimated the bandwidth it will need to support synchronous learning.

Emily Calhoun, a parent in the district, said she believes a mask mandate is necessary across the board for the school system and said skipping it will impact the community at-large because of the nature of the rapid spread of the coronavirus.

Two people gave a public comment referencing Gov. Kristi Noem’s recent campaign email discouraging masks in schools, which the state’s education association called political in a statement. Both Florence Thompson and Sherrie Nutter said kids will develop herd immunity to the coronavirus without masks.

Thompson, who is president of South Dakota Parents Involved in Education and a retired school psychologist, said “healthy people don’t need masks” and said, “you can become unhealthy by wearing a mask.”

Nutter, who said she was a real estate broker in the Black Hills, said if there were too many restrictions on kids this fall, such as a mask mandate, it would have a negative impact on their mental health.

Remarks by President Trump in Press Briefing

THE PRESIDENT: Hello, everybody. Thank you very much. Let me begin by sending America’s deepest sympathies to the people of Lebanon, where reports indicate that many, many people were killed, hundreds more were very badly wounded in a large explosion in Beirut. Our prayers go out to all the victims and their families. The United States stands ready to assist Lebanon. I have a very good relationship with the people of Lebanon, and we will be there to help. It looks like a terrible attack.

I also want to provide the latest on Tropical Storm Isaias. Approximately 600,000 are without power along the East Coast, and utility companies are working around the clock to restore service as quickly as possible. I spoke to Governor Cooper, I spoke to Governor DeSantis, and I spoke to all of the people at FEMA, and they’re working very hard.

Coastal areas in the storm’s path can expect to see the storm surge and rip currents, while inland areas could see flooding and very, very high winds. FEMA is responding to states that have requested the assistance. We have a list of those states; we can give them to you in a little while. And my administration is monitoring the situation very closely.

We have the military on guard, but we have — FEMA is there, in all cases. The Corps of Engineers is ready if needed — the Army Corps of Engineers. Very talented people. I urge everyone in the storm’s path to remain alert and to follow the guidance of your state and local authorities.

I now want to update you on the path forward, having to do with the China virus. Before I do that, I want to give you some numbers, which are rather spectacular, that just came out. The manufacturing index of the Institute for Supply Management — that’s “ISM”; most of you know it by “ISM” — increased for the third month in a row, rising nearly 2 points in July to 54.2 — that’s fantastic — the highest reading since March of 2019.

This is remarkable, considering the survey was conducted throughout July and showed significant improvement despite the Southwest, in particular, virus hotspots. The ISM measures — and it’s a very strong measure of new orders. It rose 5 points in July, to 61.5, in its highest rating, that would be since September of 2018. That’s a big number.

Since the April low, new orders are up over 34 points, which is the largest increase in the history of the ISM, dating back all the way to 1948. So, 34 points — that’s the largest since 1948.

Similarly, the ISM’s measure of production is up 35 points from its April low to a reading of 62.1, which is the largest 3-month gain in over 70 years. That’s some — some number.

These were somewhat surprising, but I’ve been saying we’re doing well, and those numbers are really spectacular.

Automobile sales, likewise, are a key factor in the resurgence of manufacturing since the March low of 8.8 million units with sales and all of the numbers that are going up, stunningly. It’s a 65 percent increase since then, to 14.5 million units, which is a — a massive number.

The great strength and great news are really for states like — in particular, Michigan; and Ohio; South Carolina; Pennsylvania, very good; Florida, little bit. These are great numbers. Record-setting numbers.

The strength in new car sales is also evident in the used car market, where soaring demand — literally, soaring demand — is putting upward pressure on the used car prices. This is a leading indicator of the motor vehicle industry. The need to restock depleted shelves will further galvanize the factory sector — and, we think, very substantially, based on the numbers. We’re very, very happy with these numbers. And I think most people are anywhere from surprised to shock by these numbers, in a very positive way.

Economy-wide inventories crashed at a near $320 billion annualized rate last quarter. A crash, in that case, means a good thing, not a bad thing. That’s the largest drop ever on record — ever.

Homebuilder sentiment, likewise, is soaring, as our home sales sentiment is now higher than last year. And new homes recently made a 13-year high. So, we have a 13-year high in new home — new home construction.

New business applications are very strong. That just came out. The widely followed Atlanta Fed GDP — and it’s something that they have just come out with — now forecasts the new data point and incorporates it into quarterly estimates. It looks like it’s showing a 20 percent annualized growth in the current quarter. So, 20 percent in the current quarter; we’ll take that all day long. I — let’s see if that’s right. That’s a projection. So, we’ll see if that’s right. The Atlanta Fed — very respected.

The virus — back to that — we are continuing to monitor and monitor, in particular, hotspots across the South, Southwest, and the West. And we’re seeing indications that our strong mitigation efforts are working very well, actually, especially to protect those who are most at risk, which has really been our primary focus for — ever since we’ve gotten to understand this horrible, horrible plague that’s been unleashed on our country by China.

As of yesterday, cases are declining in 70 percent of the jurisdictions, compared to 36 percent last Monday. That’s a big, big number. Eleven out of thirteen states with the positive rate above 10 percent have seen a decline in daily cases since mid-July. In other states, the data suggests that the need for continuing vigilance always is strong, even though the numbers are getting very good — states that have a test positivity rate between 5 and 10 percent. And in the states with the lowest positivity rates, we also see slight increases in daily cases in a couple of them.

We must ensure that these states do not become new flare-ups, so we’re watching them very, very closely. Fortunately, thanks to substantial improvements in treatment and the knowledge we have gained about the disease itself, the recent rise in cases has not been accompanied by a significant increase in deaths.

Fatalities nationwide are at roughly half the level of the April peak. So, the death — the number of deaths or fatalities are at half the level. One is too much — one death — because this should have never happened to us. It should have been stopped at — very easily, by China, in Wuhan.

Thanks to our major advances in treatment, we’ve seen vast improvements in recovery rates across all age groups. Compared to April, mortality rates are 85 percent lower among individuals aged 18 to 69, and 70 percent lower among individuals over 70 years old.

We’ve also made significant strides in sheltering those at highest risk, especially the elderly. Approximately 85 percent of all current cases are individuals under the age of 65 — just getting some very accurate numbers on this. And these are people who are generally at a much lower risk of complications.

Since the pandemic began, nearly half of all fatalities have been at nursing homes or assisted-living centers. That’s an incredible statistic when you hear that number. This data underscores that the best path forward is an aggressive strategy focused on protecting Americans at highest risk.

As we race toward the development of a vaccine, we must continue to take extraordinary precautions to shield the elderly, and we’re doing that. We’re doing that at a level that we’ve never even dreamt possible, both with testing and with common sense. And those with underlining [sic] conditions, especially the elderly with the underlining [sic] — whether it’s heart or diabetes — they seem to be the two most predominant conditions that cause tremendous problems. While allowing those at lowest risk to carefully return to work and to school.

Where embers flare up, we must engage immediately, and that’s what we’re doing. This is the science-based approach, and it’s good with us. Working very hard on that. An extended lockdown would fail to target resources at the highest-risk populations, while inflicting massive economic pain, long-lasting damage on society and public health as a whole.

So, there won’t be lockdowns, but we watch specific areas. We’re very careful and we’re putting out embers. We’re putting out flames. When you look at what’s happening with Miami, and it’s going — the numbers are going down. But Florida is going down very significantly. Texas and California are going down rather significantly.

On telemedicine, as we discussed the last time, as — and as I said numerous times during this day, it’s an incredible thing that’s happening. A central part of our effort to protect the elderly is to greatly expand access to telehealth, so seniors can be treated from the safety of their homes. And that’s what’s happening. The number of Medicare beneficiaries using telehealth increased from roughly 14,000 a week to nearly 1.7 million — so from 14,000 to 1.7 million per week. In total, 10 million Medicare beneficiaries have accessed telehealth services since the pandemic began. That’s a tremendous thing that’s happened with telehealth.

As we shelter those at high risk, we are also pouring every resource at our disposal into the development of therapies and vaccines. Two vaccine candidates are currently in the final stage of clinical trials, with several more vaccine candidates entering phase three in the coming weeks. And you’ve read and seen what’s happened today. Today’s news was very exciting.

Through Operation Warp Speed, we’re also mass producing all of the most promising vaccine candidates, and we’re determined to have a vaccine very quickly. We think we’re going to have something very soon.

We have great companies. These are the — among the greatest companies in the world. But right now, they don’t like me so much because I’m forcing them to drop drug prices — prescription drug prices — very massively. Some of these companies are involved in that; some of them aren’t. We’re having a tremendous — you’ll see a tremendous drop in price. We’re using favored nations — we’re using the rebates. We’re using everything.

For so long, I’ve heard about how wealthy the middlemen are. They call them “the middlemen.” And they are very wealthy. Nobody even knows who they are, but they’re very wealthy people.

And we’re doing the rebates. We’re doing purchases from other countries — like Canada, which buys drugs for much less money than the United States is allowed to, under a very bad system. I don’t call it “archaic”; I call it “bad” because it’s meant, really, for drug companies to get higher prices.

But under — under the system of matching that we have, if Germany has a pill for 10 cents and ours is $2, we’re allowed to say we want favored nations, and we want the pill for the same — the same as the lowest country in the world. If they sell to one country lower than anybody else, that’s the price we’re going to get. Drug companies aren’t too happy about that — big pharma.

We’ve also dramatically accelerated the availability of plasma therapies, steroid treatments, antivirals, and other therapies to treat the illness. Today, the NIH — we’re — very exciting — announced that they’re beginning the trial of two new antibody treatments, which will take place in 40 cities across the country. We’re going to move — move very quickly. Results look very good already. Incredible results.

More than 230 clinical trials for potential treatments are underway, and we’ve secured 500,000 courses of treatment for remdesivir — of remdesivir. We’re really doing a job with it, and it’s helping a lot of people. That’s why you see the fatalities and mortality numbers looking very good — relatively speaking, that is. But that’s for American hospitals through the month of September. So, we have remdesivir at a very high level for hospitals through the month of September. That’s big news.

The United States also has far and away the most robust testing capacity in the world. Testing has been incredible, what we’ve been able to do. Nobody is even close. Since March 12th, we’ve increased daily testing by 32,000 percent. How’s that? Thirty-two thousand percent. Somebody would say, “That must be a typo.” It’s not a typo. Thirty-two thousand percent.

We now have conducted over 61 million tests nationwide, averaging over 820,000 tests per day and nearly 5 million tests per week. And now that we’re understanding the virus, we’re understanding very much what we’re doing with respect to who it affects, who it’s destroying, and who gets away with it — like young people, very young people. We’ll be having some interesting statements having to do a testing and focus testing. I call it “focus testing.”

By comparison, Mexico — so we’re doing numbers that are incredible. But by comparison, Mexico — as you know, the President was here; he’s a great guy — but their — their numbers are much different. They do about 1 million tests. France has done 2.9 million tests. Canada is around the 4 million mark. Australia is around the 4 million mark. The United States is testing more people in a single week than, in many cases, large segments or large, well-known countries all put together. It’s been an amazing achievement: the testing and the quality of the testing also. And now we’re doing testing where you can have results in 5 minutes, in 7 minutes, and 15 minutes, as opposed to waiting to come back from labs — for it to come back from labs.

Over the last several weeks, HHS has opened surging testing sites in Baton Rouge; New Orleans; Phoenix; Miami; Jacksonville, Florida; McAllen, Texas; Bakersfield, California. And this week, we’re opening new surge sites in Houston, Texas; Atlanta. To date, more than 130,000 tests have been conducted at these sites.

Last week, the FDA also authorized the first two tests that display an estimated quantity of antibodies present in the individual’s blood, which is a big deal, allowing us to learn more about the immune response.

FEMA and HHS has worked with the private sector to deliver more than — we have new numbers — more than 200 million N95 masks, 855 million surgical masks, 36 million goggles and face shields, 364 million gowns and coveralls, and 21 billion gloves — billion. Can you believe that? Billion gloves.

And we distribute that to the governors, different states. And when we get on the phone with them, they’re very happy, that I can tell you. No — no complaints from any of them. They’re very, very happy. What they say to you separately maybe will change for political reasons, but they are very happy with the job we’ve done.

In our National Stockpile, we’ve tripled the number of N95 masks on hand to more than 40 million; tripled the number of gowns to 15 million; and quadrupled the number of ventilators to nearly 70,000. These numbers are growing every day, and we’re now making thousands of ventilators — many thousands of ventilators a month. And we’re getting them to other countries who are desperately in need of ventilators. They’re very hard to produce. They’re very complicated machines. So, we’re — we’re fully stocked here, and we’ve made sure that every state is fully stocked, but we’re getting them to a lot of countries that need help.

We’ll continue to work with the governors and local authorities to help them ensure significant hospital capacity, protective equipment, supplies, and medicine. I’m more confident than ever that we will get a vaccine very soon and we will defeat the virus.

And I want to thank you all for being here. We’ll take a few questions.

Yeah, please.

Q Mr. President, I wanted to ask you about Kodak. You had a big announcement the other day about getting Kodak into the pharmaceutical business, but the SEC is now investigating what happened. Can you say a word or two whether you think that there might have been some kind of a problem in terms of how those arrangements were made? Are there any grounds for concern, from your perspective?

THE PRESIDENT: Well, I don’t know. I wasn’t involved in the deal. The concept of the deal is good, but I’ll let you know. We’ll — we’ll do a little study on that, and we’ll find out.

Q Okay. And —

THE PRESIDENT: If there’s — if there is any problem, we’ll let you know about it very quickly, but I wasn’t involved in it.

It’s a big deal. It’s a way of bringing back a great area, too, in addition to the pharmaceuticals. Kodak has been a great name, but obviously pretty much in a different business. And so, we’ll see what that’s all about, but we’ll — we’ll let you know very quickly.

Yeah, please.

Q I just wanted to follow up, before I ask a coronavirus question, on Lebanon. You called this an “attack.” Are you confident that this was an attack and not an accident?

THE PRESIDENT: Well, it would seem like it, based on the explosion. I’ve met with some of our great generals, and they just seem to feel that it was. This was not a — some kind of a manufacturing explosion type of event. This was a — seems to be, according to them — they would know better than I would, but they seem to think it was an attack. It was a bomb of some kind. Yes.

Q Interesting. And, on coronavirus, you’ve talked a lot about — when you talk about the mortality rate, the deaths as a proportion of cases, which — I understand that is significant when you look at how deadly the virus is or how good a country does at keeping people alive —

THE PRESIDENT: Right.

Q — who get infected. But when you’re talking about the scope of this virus, when you look at the percentage of the population that’s died, there’s only three countries that have more deaths than the U.S. So how do you explain that: that — why the percentage of the population who has died is so much higher in the U.S.?

THE PRESIDENT: Well, I think, actually, the numbers are lower than others. I’ll get back to you on that. But we, proportionately, are lower than almost all countries. We’re at the bottom of the list.

And we’re — relative to cases, also, we’re at the bottom of the list, which is a good thing, being at the bottom of the list. But I can get back to you. We have about four or five different lists on that. And we’re, generally speaking, at the very bottom of the list. So, I’ll get back to you.

Q Because when I — when I look at the Johns Hopkins, you know, Coronavirus Resource Center on their website, it says the most affected countries, when you look at deaths per 100,000 people of the population — so how many people in the population have died — you have the UK, Peru, Chile, and then the U.S.

You know, Canada has 8,000, 9,000 deaths. Obviously, they’re smaller than us, but that’s only 6 percent of the population. You know, that’s 6 percent of our total cases. So why are the deaths so much higher in the U.S.?

THE PRESIDENT: Well, a lot of our numbers were based on the — New York had a very tough time, as you know. New York, New Jersey — that area. And when you take them out — just as an example, take a look at Florida, relative to New York.

That’s not to say anything wrong with New York. It was just a very tough place. People are close together. It’s crowded. It’s — it’s not easy.

But when you take that out, our numbers are among the lowest. And even with it in — I will get back to you, but we have among the lowest numbers. They’ve done a fantastic job on it.

Yeah, please. Go ahead.

Q Yes, Mr. President. I would like to ask a question about the election, but one thing on unemployment first. Are you considering taking executive action to extend or, rather, reinstate the unemployment benefits that expired last week, if Congress can’t get a deal by the end of the week?

THE PRESIDENT: Yes.

Q And, as a general point, what rate, then, would you want in there — a percentage or a flat rate?

THE PRESIDENT: We are looking at it. We’re also looking at various other things that I’m allowed to do under the system, and — such as the payroll tax suspension. And so, we’re allowed to do things.

We’re talking with the Democrats. They seem to be much more interested in solving the problems of some of the Democrat-run states and cities that have suffered greatly through bad management. I mean, really bad management. So, that seems to be where they — they’re looking for a trillion dollars to help out with cities that are run by Democrats — in some cases, radical-left Democrats that have not done a good job.

I appreciate — today, the Wall Street Journal said very good things — that we did a great job in Portland by having our people go in. Homeland Security, Chad Wolf, and the folks — we went into Portland, and we’ve done a great job. And they had that in an editorial, that we — that we really won that situation.

But we want the whole — we did save the courthouse. The courthouse was going to be burned down or knocked down. It was in tremendous danger. We went in. We took care of it. And we appreciated what the Wall Street Journal said.

As far as the various things that I may or may not sign I may not have to sign. I mean, progress is being made, as you know very well, on the Hill. We’ll see what happens. But I have the right — including the payroll tax suspension. We may do some things.

We want to take care of the eviction problem. People are being evicted very unfairly. It’s not their fault. It’s China’s fault; it’s not their fault. And people are being evicted, and we can do that with an executive order. So, if we don’t get — and we want to do it relatively quickly.

I mean, even from the standpoint of COVID, people get evicted, and then they go into shelters, and there are thousands of people in the shelters. And this is not a time — you never want to be in a shelter, but this is not a time to be in a shelter with the COVID. They catch it, they get it, and it’s no good.

So, I may have to do something on evictions, too, because the Democrats, amazingly, don’t want to do it. We offered them short-term deals, and we offered them lots of alternatives. But so far, the only thing they really want to do is bail out states that have been poorly managed by Democrats.

Okay. Please, go ahead.

Q And if I could, on the election, sir — can I —

Q President Trump, on the sale of TikTok, you’re basically arguing that the U.S. government is going to collect a cut from a — of a transaction including two companies, in which it doesn’t hold a stake in.

That’s unprecedented. That’s never happened in U.S. history before, and the administration has offered very little explanation about how that’s going to work. Can you back your statement up and provide specifics about how that would work?

THE PRESIDENT: Did you say, “That’s impressive”? Did you actually use that term?

Q I said it’s “unprecedented.”

THE PRESIDENT: Oh, unpre- — well, it’s almost the same thing. Not quite. I like “im- “— (laughter) — I like “impressive.” I like “impressive” much better. Not quite, but close.

So, TikTok — TikTok is very successful. It does tremendous business in the United States. People are riveted by it. I mean, I have many friends — when they saw that announcement, they’re calling. And I think their kids love it; they don’t. Because they don’t get to see their kids anymore, but they are — it’s an amazing thing, whatever it may be.

And I told Microsoft — and, frankly, others — if they want to do it, if they make a deal for TikTok — whether it’s the 30 percent in the United States or the whole company, I say, “It’s okay. But if you do that, we’re really making it possible because we’re letting you operate here.”

So, the United States Treasury would have to benefit also, not just the — not just the sellers. And I said, “Inform…” —

Q (Inaudible) through a tax, or how?

THE PRESIDENT: Very simple. I mean we have — we have all the cards because, without us, you can’t come into the United States. It’s like if you’re a landlord, and you have a tenant. The tenant’s business needs a rent; it needs a lease. And so, what I said to them is, “Whatever the price is, a very big proportion of that price would have to go to the Treasury of the United States.”

And they understood that. And actually, they agreed with me. I mean, I think they agreed with me very much.

Yeah, please. In the back.

Q Thank — thank you, sir.

THE PRESIDENT: So that deal may or may not happen. We’ve given- — given them until September 15th or so, and we’ll see.

If we can have it and there can be great security — meaning, the obvious security — Microsoft would be a company that would be good in that respect. They’re approved in that respect at many levels, including working with the Department of Defense. And, you know, they’re very high-level approvals. So, it would be good, but there are other companies also.

Yes, please.

Q Thank you, sir. Have you or the — anyone in the administration reached out to other companies, aside from Microsoft, to see if they’re interested in —

THE PRESIDENT: No, we’ve had other companies call us, and Microsoft called me directly. And we’ve had other companies call. I don’t know where they are. It sounds like Microsoft is along the way of doing something. I don’t blame them. It’d be — you know, it’s great company. It’s really a great company.

But we cannot take the security risks of any of those companies — including Huawei, which as you know, we put a halt to. But we can’t take the security risk.

I think our attitude on China has changed greatly since the China virus hit us. I think it changed greatly. It hit the world, and it shouldn’t have. They should have been able to stop it. So, we feel differently. I just don’t know. When you lose —

Q Can you say what other companies?

THE PRESIDENT: — when you lose so many thousands of people, and — you know, ultimately, it’ll be millions of people around the world. It’s a terrible thing that happened to the United States and Europe and the entire world. Really a terrible thing.

Yes, please. Go ahead.

Q Thank you, Mr. President. I have two quick questions: one on the virus and one on policing. On the virus, you said recently that there can be “too much testing.” Can you explain what the downside would be from testing too many Americans for the virus, and why you haven’t provided a date by which all Americans might have the same kind of testing that we have here at the White House?

THE PRESIDENT: Well, we do more testing than anybody in the world, as I explained — and I don’t mean just a little bit. If you look at India, they’re at about 11 million, and we’re at 61 million. And there comes a point when you just — you want to focus your testing in a different way. And we’ll be announcing some — what we’ve done is incredible with the testing. Not only the testing —

Q Is there a downside though?

THE PRESIDENT: — not only the number of tests, but also, very importantly, the quality of the test and the machinery itself to do the testing.

Nobody thought it would be possible to get a 5-minute and a 15-minute result that’s a very accurate result, and we do, with Abbott. Abbott Laboratories has done a great job. Many of these companies have done an incredible job.

So, we’re looking at that very strongly. And we’re looking at doing something that if we do — if we do it — look, right now, what the testing is doing is helpful, but we’re spending massive amounts of money, and we want to have it — we want to have it channeled very accurately. We want to be able to help the most people we can.

But we are testing at a level that no country in the world — and I’ve spoken to the leaders of the world, and they’ll ask me about it — no country in the world thought it would be — it’s even believable that we’re able to test so much. Sixty-one million versus — you know, most countries don’t even test. You know when they test? When somebody is feeling badly. If somebody is feeling badly, they’re symptomatic, that’s when they test. And that’s a big difference.

With us, we go around and — looking, because if we find — we find spots. We find hotspots. One problem is, from the standpoint of the media, we end up with far more cases than we would normally show. So, it’s — you know, as I called it the other day in a statement, I said it’s called “media gold.” You know, for the media, it’s gold.

But the truth is, it’s — we’ve done an incredible job on testing. Nobody in the world has done the job. Other leaders have told me the same thing, they can’t believe we’re able to do it.

Q (Inaudible.)

THE PRESIDENT: And — and we will continue, but we want to really be able to test, very specifically, the people that are in most danger, most in need.

All right. Please, go ahead.

Q And, on policing, sir —

Q Thank you. Thank you, Mr. President. I wanted to ask you first about what you tweeted out earlier today, in regard to Florida, and your comfortableness, as it relates to mail-in ballots —

THE PRESIDENT: Yeah.

Q — for Florida. What —

THE PRESIDENT: Okay, I’m glad you’re asking.

Q Why does that apply to Florida and it doesn’t apply to mail-in balloting across the country?

THE PRESIDENT: So, Florida has got a great Republican governor, and it had a great Republican governor. It’s got Ron DeSantis, Rick Scott — two great governors. And over a long period of time, they’ve been able to get the absentee ballots done extremely professionally. Florida is different from other states.

I mean, in Nevada, where you have a governor — he said, “Let’s just send out millions of ballots,” and the Post Office cannot be prepared; I haven’t spoken to the Post Office about it, but I don’t know how they could possibly be prepared.

Florida has been working on this for years. And they have a very good system of mail-in — and that would be absentee or even beyond absentee. So, in the case of Florida, there aren’t too many people that would qualify.

They’re so well-run. Florida is a very well-run state: low taxes, low everything. They’ve done a great job, really a great job. And the two governors, between the both of them, they’ve really got a great system of absentee ballots and even the — even in the case of mail-in ballots, the postal services have built up their — you know, it takes a long time.

When you look at the Carolyn Maloney election, I think they — and I’ll give you the story: I think you have to do that election over. That election is no good. You have to take a look.

In New York, they have thousands of ballots. They don’t know what happened to them. Is there fraud? Is there — it’s a disaster. And that’s only for a relatively small number of ballots. But I think they have to do the election in New York over.

The Times wrote a big story about it yesterday. Front page story. It’s a disaster. It’s a mess. And they have to do that — I think they have to do that election over. Nobody can know what the election result is.

So, in the case of Florida, they’ve done a great job and they’ve had tremendous success with it. But they’ve been doing this over many years, and they’ve made it really terrific.

So, for Florida, you can mail in your ballots. You don’t have to go. In maybe a couple of other states, they’ve worked out a system, but this took years to do. This doesn’t take weeks or months.

In the case of Nevada, they’re going to be voting in a matter of weeks. And you can’t do that. I can’t imagine the Post Office could do it. All of sudden, they’re supposed to be dealing in millions of ballots.

But Florida has done a great job, and we have total confidence that if you mail in your ballot in Florida, it’s going to matter.

Thank you all very much. Thank you. Thank you very much.

South Dakota awarded $6.9 million Rethink K-12 Education Models Grant

The U.S. Department of Education has awarded the South Dakota Department of Education a Rethink K-12 Education Models Grant in the amount of $6,883,481 to support the state’s efforts to better serve students during the COVID-19 pandemic and beyond. South Dakota is one of only 11 states to be awarded one of these grants. Thirty-nine states applied.

“During school closures in the spring, we saw that those schools providing competency-based instruction, or what’s often called ‘customized’ or ‘personalized’ learning, were better able to keep more of their students engaged in distance learning,” said Secretary of Education Ben Jones. “This three-year grant will help us build on those successes and further develop that kind of learning model across South Dakota.”

This grant project aims to provide a comprehensive road map to successful learning so that students can learn at school, at home, or with blended learning approaches. It will also seek to empower parents and families in navigating these options. Grant funds will be used to help a group of 30 schools pursue new course options in personalized, competency-based education and provide coursework and professional development for more than 1,600 South Dakota teachers, principals, and pre-service teachers.

Partners include South Dakota State University, the South Dakota Statewide Family Engagement Center, and Technology and Innovation in Education.

Trump says U.S. COVID-19 pandemic under control even as death toll rises

U.S. President Donald Trump said the coronavirus pandemic is as well-controlled in the United States as it can be, despite the fact that over 155,000 American people have died amid rising infections, according to media reports.

In a recent interview with U.S. news website AXIOS, the president said his administration has done an “incredible” job handling the pandemic, and he continued urging schools in the country to reopen on his Twitter account.

“They are dying, that’s true. And you have – it is what it is. But that doesn’t mean we aren’t doing everything we can. It’s under control as much as you can control it. This is a horrible plague,” Trump said in the interview.

The president also insisted that growing diagnostic testing in his country accounted for the rise in confirmed COVID-19 cases.

According to a tally by Johns Hopkins University, as of Tuesday afternoon, more than 4.75 million confirmed COVID-19 cases have been reported in the United States, with over 156,000 deaths.

US sending highest official to Taiwan since ties cut in 1979, China protests

The U.S. secretary of Health and Human Services is scheduled to visit Taiwan in coming days in the highest-level visit by an American Cabinet official since the break in formal diplomatic relations between Washington and Taipei in 1979.

The visit by Alex Azar, and especially a planned meeting with Taiwan’s president, will likely create new friction between the U.S. and China, which claims Taiwan as its own territory to be annexed by force if necessary.

Taiwan is a key irritant in the troubled relationship between the world’s two largest economies, which are also at odds over trade, technology, territorial claims in the South China Sea and China’s response to the coronavirus pandemic.

In Beijing, foreign ministry spokesman Wang Wenbin said China has lodged solemn complaints” over the visit with U.S. officials in both Beijing and Washington.

The Taiwan issue is the most important and sensitive issue in China-U.S. relations,” Wang said at a daily briefing. He said Washington needs to stop all forms of official contact with Taiwan and make good on its commitment to Beijing to avoid serious damage to China-U.S. relations and peace and stability across the Taiwan Strait.”

The U.S. maintains only unofficial ties with Taiwan in deference to Beijing but is the island’s most important ally and provider of defense equipment.

The American Institute in Taiwan, which operates as Washington’s de facto embassy on the island, said Wednesday that Azar’s historic visit will strengthen the U.S.-Taiwan partnership and enhance U.S-Taiwan cooperation to combat the global COVID-19 pandemic.

In Beijing, foreign ministry spokesman Wang Wenbin said China has lodged solemn complaints” over the visit with U.S. officials in both Beijing and Washington.

The Taiwan issue is the most important and sensitive issue in China-U.S. relations,” Wang said at a daily briefing. He said Washington needs to stop all forms of official contact with Taiwan and make good on its commitment to Beijing to avoid serious damage to China-U.S. relations and peace and stability across the Taiwan Strait.”

The U.S. maintains only unofficial ties with Taiwan in deference to Beijing but is the island’s most important ally and provider of defense equipment.

The American Institute in Taiwan, which operates as Washington’s de facto embassy on the island, said Wednesday that Azar’s historic visit will strengthen the U.S.-Taiwan partnership and enhance U.S-Taiwan cooperation to combat the global COVID-19 pandemic.

In a tweet, Taiwan’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs said it looks forward to welcoming Azar and his delegation.

This is the highest-level visit by a U.S. Cabinet official since 1979! Taiwan and the U.S. are like minded partners cooperating closely in combating coronavirus and promoting freedom democracy & human rights worldwide.

The ministry said Azar will meet with independence-minded President Tsai Ing-wen, with whose government Beijing cut off virtually all contacts four years ago, and with Foreign Minister Joseph Wu and top health officials.

AIT said Azar will discuss the disease, global health, and Taiwan’s role as a supplier of medical equipment and technology.

The visit is believed to be scheduled for next week, although AIT said details on the timing and agenda would be announced later.

Azar would be the first HHS secretary to visit Taiwan and the first Cabinet member to visit in six years, the last being then-Environmental Protection Agency Administrator Gina McCarthy. His Cabinet ranking is higher than previous U.S. visitors.

Taiwan has been a model of transparency and cooperation in global health during the COVID-19 pandemic and long before it, Azar said in the AIT statement.

This trip represents an opportunity to strengthen our economic and public health cooperation with Taiwan, especially as the United States and other countries work to strengthen and diversify our sources for crucial medical products.

Azar’s visit was facilitated by the 2018 passage of the Taiwan Travel Act that encouraged sending higher-level officials to Taiwan after decades during which such contacts were rare and freighted with safeguards to avoid roiling ties with Beijing.

McCarthy’s visit to Taiwan in 2014 sparked a protest from China’s foreign ministry, which accused the U.S. of betraying commitments made to it about maintaining only unofficial links with Taipei.

China objects to all official contact between Taiwan and the U.S. But its increasing diplomatic pressure, including poaching Taiwan’s few remaining diplomatic allies and excluding it from international gatherings including the World Health Assembly, have fostered already considerable bipartisan sympathy for Taipei in Washington and prompted new measures to strengthen governmental and military ties.

Taiwan’s strong performance in handling its COVID-19 outbreak has also won it plaudits while highlighting its exclusion from the World Health Organization and other U.N. bodies.

Despite its close proximity to China, where the global pandemic is believed to have originated, the island of 23 million has recorded just 476 cases and seven deaths from COVID-19.

In contrast to authoritarian systems, U.S. and Taiwan societies and economies are uniquely equipped to drive global progress in areas such as medicine and science to help the world tackle emerging threats,” AIT said.

The COVID-19 pandemic is the most recent example of joint U.S.-Taiwan efforts to confront global challenges for the good of the world.”

White House eyes executive orders to upend virus negotiations

The White House is considering a trio of executive orders aimed at shaking up coronavirus relief negotiations with Democrats, a sign of frustration within the Trump administration at the sluggish pace of the talks with Speaker Nancy Pelosi and Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer.

The three actions under consideration would delay the collection of federal payroll taxes, reinstitute an expired eviction moratorium, and in the riskiest gambit of them all, extend enhanced federal unemployment benefits using unspent money already appropriated by Congress.

This plan is the brainchild of White House chief of staff Mark Meadows, and President Donald Trump on Tuesday confirmed that he was reviewing his options for unilateral action but hadn’t made any decisions to move forward yet.

“We’re looking at it,” Trump said at a press briefing. “Were also looking at various other things that I’m allowed to do under the system. Such as the payroll tax suspension.”

Following another session with Pelosi and Schumer, Meadows called it “the most productive meeting we’ve had yet,” and added that Trump wouldn’t issue any executive orders if the negotiations with Democratic leaders are moving toward a conclusion.

“Really right now, we’re continuing to consider all of the options that we have before us, but as long as we’re making substantial progress in our negotiations, we’re hopeful that will provide the fruit necessary to bring it to a close,” Meadows told reporters after the meeting with Pelosi and Schumer.

The two Democratic leaders — who have refused to yield much ground in the discussions so far — suggested there had been positive development during Tuesday’s closed-door talks.

“They made some concessions, which we appreciated. We made some concessions, which they appreciated,” Schumer said. “But we’re still far away on a lot of the important issues, but we’re continuing to go at it.”

Schumer, however, noted that there remained “a fundamental disagreement” over the scale of government aid needed to address the crisis.

Like Mnuchin and Meadows, the two Democrats declined to offer details of the day’s back-and-forth.

Having Trump issue executive orders would be aimed at shifting the power dynamics in high-level talks between the two top administration officials on one side, and Pelosi and Schumer on the other. And it may also give embattled Senate Republicans a lifeline as they try to save their majority heading into Nov. 3.

The White House believes it could tap $81 billion in unspent aid approved by Congress as part of the CARES Act to offer states the ability to take advantage of beefed up unemployment benefits. Administration officials also think the Labor Department can loan state unemployment agencies additional money to boost payments to laid-off workers.

Under this scenario, states could offer anywhere from $200 to $600 per week.

Trump has openly speculated about whether he has the authority to take such sweeping actions, which could potentially set up another huge legal battle with Congress over who controls the federal purse. Democratic congressional leaders have already sued Trump over his decision to divert several billion dollars in Pentagon funding to build a border wall between the United States and Mexico, but the decision to divert tens of billions of dollars in CARES Act funds to unemployment payments would be the most dramatic power grab yet.

The payroll tax cut deferral would be another aggressive gamble by the White House. The move would essentially cut taxes for workers, who along with their employers pay to fund Medicare and Social Security. Trump allies, including economic analysts Stephen Moore, say Trump can take this action under the same authority that allowed him to postpone the filing of income tax until July.

And Trump — only 90 days away from reelection and trailing in the polls — has already shown he willing to push executive authority as much as possible.

“I can do that also through an executive order, so we’ll be talking about that,” Trump said at a White House press briefing on Monday night.

However, neither Democrats or Republicans on Capitol Hill have expressed any support for a payroll tax cut, arguing it could hurt Social Security and Medicare.

And Democrats have warned that they could bring a legal challenge on this issue as well, although there is no way it could be decided before Election Day, giving Trump what he likely wants — another campaign issue.

Published by jim

Curator of things...

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