Trump pushes for massive aid from Congress, checks to public by LISA MASCARO and ZEKE MILLER•AP sources: White House seeks $850 billion economic stimulus WASHINGTON (AP) — In a massive federal effort Tuesday, President Donald Trump asked Congress to speed emergency checks to Americans, enlisted the military for MASH-like hospitals and implored ordinary people — particularly socially active millennials — to do their part by staying home to stop the spread of the coronavirus.His proposed economic package alone could approach $1 trillion, a rescue initiative not seen since the Great Recession. Trump wants checks sent to the public within two weeks and is urging Congress to pass the eye-popping stimulus package in a matter of days.As analysts warn the country is surely entering a recession, the government is grappling with an enormous political undertaking with echoes of the 2008 financial crisis.At the Capitol, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell vowed the Senate would not adjourn until the work was done.“Obviously, we need to act,” McConnell said. „We’re not leaving town until we have constructed and passed another bill.”But first, McConnell said, the Senate will vote on a House-passed package of sick pay, emergency food and free testing, putting it back on track for Trump’s signature — despite Republican objections. “Gag, and vote for it anyway,” he advised colleagues.It was a signal of what the GOP leader called the “herculean” task ahead.Senators gathered at an otherwise shut-down Capitol as Americans across the country were implored to heed advice and avoid crowds. Young adults, in particular, are being urged to quit going out because even seemingly healthy people can be spreading the virus that causes the COVID-19 illness.Even so, presidential primary elections unfolded in Florida, Illinois and Arizona. Ohio’s was called off hours before the polls were set to open.After a savage drop at the start of the week, the stock market rose as Trump and aides sketched out elements of the economic rescue package at a briefing. Economists doubted that would be enough to stop millions of jobs losses, even if in the short term.Bigger than the $700 billion 2008 bank bailout or the nearly $800 billion 2009 recovery act, the White House proposal aims to provide a massive tax cut for wage-earners, $50 billion for the airline industry and $250 billion for small businesses. Two people familiar with he package described it to The Associated Press on the condition of anonymity because they weren’t authorized to speak publicly.The amount that would be sent out in checks Americans is not yet disclosed. The White House said it liked GOP Sen. Mitt Romney’s idea for $1,000 checks, though not necessarily at that sum and not for wealthier people.“This is a very unique situation,” said Treasury Secretary Steve Mnuchin, exiting a private briefing of Senate Republicans. „We’ve put a proposal on that table that would attract a trillion dollars into the economy.”One GOP leader, Sen. John Thune of South Dakota, told reporters afterward it „could be” up to $1 trillion.Senate Democrats produced their own $750 billion proposal, which includes $400 billion to shore up hospitals and other emergency operations in response to the global pandemic and $350 billion to bolster the safety net with unemployment checks and other aid to Americans.“The aid has to be workers first,” said Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer, not what happened in 2008, when the big banks took precedence. Schumer also said it’s time to call out the National Guard to provide security as communities reel from the crisis.The slow-moving Congress is being asked to approve the far-reaching economic rescue as it tries to rise to the occasion of these fast times.A roster of America’s big and small industries — airlines, hotels, retailers and even casinos — lined up for hoped-for aid.For most people, the new coronavirus causes only mild or moderate symptoms, such as fever and cough. For some, especially older adults and people with existing health problems, it can cause more severe illness, including pneumonia.The vast majority of people recover from the new virus. According to the World Health Organization, people with mild illness recover in about two weeks, while those with more severe illness may take three to six weeks to recover.Still, health officials are urging Americans to stay home to prevent an onslaught of cases that could overwhelm hospitals as happened in Italy, among the countries hardest hit.As Congress considered aid, the Pentagon on Tuesday said it would provide 5 million respirator masks and 2,000 specialized ventilators to federal health authorities. And Medicare was immediately expanding coverage for telemedicine nationwide to help seniors with health problems stay home to avoid infection.More than two dozen Senate Democrats urged Trump to invoke the Korean War-era Defense Production Act to increase production of masks, ventilators and respirators, as well as expand hospital capacity to combat the coronavirus. Federal officials said the administration is working with the Army Corps of Engineers to see about erecting temporary hospitals, as is done in the military, to handle an expected surge of cases.Schumer compared the government response needed to a wartime mobilization.House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, who marshaled the earlier package through a bipartisan vote last week, fielded a call from Mnuchin on Tuesday morning and another from Federal Reserve Chairman Jerome Powell in the afternoon, encouraged by the Fed chairman’s perspective that Congress could think big with interest rates at nearly zero.In the call with Mnuchin, she and Rep. Peter DeFazio, D-Ore., chairman of the House Transportation committee, “emphasized that protecting workers’ paychecks and benefits was their top priority, and that immediate action was needed,” said Pelosi spokesman Drew Hammill on Twitter.The debate is sure to revive the sharp divisions over the costly bank bailout and economic recovery of the Obama and Bush eras.Much about the proposed checks is not known, such as whether the amount would vary by the income of the recipient or whether everyone would get the same sum. Mnuchin said “it’s clear we don’t need to send people who make $1 million a year checks, OK?”Economists from both parties endorsed mailing checks of at least $1,000 to all American households as the quickest way to offset the sharp slowdown in economic activity.”We need to pay people to stay at home,” said Heidi Shierholz, a senior policy analyst at the Economic Policy Institute, a liberal think-tank. The group predicted that without a huge stimulus package, the U.S. economy could lose three million jobs by this summer.Still, some GOP senators were skeptical about the massive aid on the table. “I’m going to be very leery of doing something like in 2008,” said Indiana Republican Sen. Mike Braun.“Right now, the plan around here is basically to just to start shoveling money out of a helicopter,” said Sen. Ben Sasse, R-Neb. “This is a bad idea. … We don’t need a policy where Washington, D.C., handpicks winners and losers.”Despite federal guidelines against so many people gathering, senators had no choice but to convene. Legislating cannot be done from home.But late Tuesday, another lawmaker, Sen. Cory Gardner, R-Colo., announced he would self-quarantine after contact with a constituent who later tested positive for coronavirus._Associated Press writers Andrew Taylor, Matthew Daly, Martin Crutsinger, Colleen Long, Chris Rugaber, Mary Clare Jalonick and Kevin Freking in Washington contributed to this report._The Associated Press receives support for health and science coverage from the Howard Hughes Medical Institute’s Department of Science Education. The AP is solely responsible for all content.
The Pentagon held an exercise for a flu pandemic 14 years ago. Here’s what was learned.
More than a decade before the coronavirus swept across the globe filling hospitals and roiling economies, the Pentagon quietly conducted an exercise to see how its secret bunker system built in case of nuclear war would stand up to a flu pandemic.
The 2006 exercise revealed just how hard it is to keep infected personnel out of a closed facility. It also underlined the limitations of massive Cold War-era bunker systems, especially for threats like a pandemic.
Built in the 1950s as an “underground Pentagon” where senior Defense Department officials and hundreds of their staffers could be moved quickly in the event of a nuclear war, Raven Rock has also served as an alternate defense headquarters in the face of what the government calls “all hazards,” a term that that has come to encompass a wide range of natural disasters, including pandemics.
In 2006, as the H5N1 “bird flu” virus was spreading around the world, the Defense Department held an exercise that tested its ability to continue operations from Raven Rock in the event of a pandemic, according to retired Army Col. Daniel Roper, who commanded Raven Rock Mountain Complex, sometimes known as “Site R,” from 2005 to 2007.
Raven Rock is one of several Cold War-era bunkers built to ensure continuity of government operations in case of nuclear war — there are similar facilities for other parts of government, such as Mt. Weather in Virginia, for the executive branch. Over the years, these facilities have been incorporated into the Pentagon’s plans for how to respond to other threats.
But even by 2006, it was increasingly clear that the hardened, deeply buried bunker-type bases like Raven Rock were of “diminishing value,” according to Paul McHale, a senior Pentagon official from that time.
“Any number of nation states have now developed capabilities that could potentially place in doubt the survivability of a hardened site,” he said. “That kind of facility was rapidly becoming an anachronism.”
In the case of a pandemic, “a hardened site would not, at least in my judgment, have been the proper choice” of a location to relocate key Pentagon personnel, said McHale. He added that his recommendation would be to move senior leaders and staff to a major military installation as far from the pandemic as possible, where they could be socially isolated.
In addition to “distancing from the pandemic outbreak,” a remote command-and-control site of that sort requires access to sufficient medical care and logistics support to sustain the newly arrived personnel indefinitely, “and most especially secure and reliable communications capabilities that could be quickly established at that site,” he said.
The 2006 exercise, which has not been previously reported, involved simulating a pandemic that would require moving personnel quickly into Raven Rock. “It was a fairly significant exercise,” Roper said, adding that the bird flu “was probably the most emergent challenge” during his time in command. “At some point there was an understanding that OK, this is a potential hazard, so we can’t wish it away,” he said. “Everybody was trying to figure out: How do we proactively prepare for it.”
The exercise took place the same year that the Pentaton issued a formal plan for dealing with pandemic flu. Formally titled “Department of Defense Implementation Plan for Pandemic Influenza,” the 87-page document was issued by the office headed by McHale, who was the assistant secretary of defense for homeland defense at the time. “We looked at a number of potential pandemic events,” McHale said. “Obviously we would have paid close attention to continuity of operations [and] continuity of government in the context of a pandemic outbreak.”
One of the major challenges of the mock pandemic exercise at Raven Rock was screening personnel quickly, while also ensuring no infected individuals enter a complex designed against nuclear attack, rather than mass illness. “The place wasn’t built for that,” Roper said. “Not to say it doesn’t have the capability, but that probably was not envisioned when they started bending metal and breaking rock.”
McHale said he did not recall the specific 2006 exercise at Raven Rock, but added that “the ability to establish a prescreening entry point into a given remote command-and-control center would need to have a degree of flexibility … that would be hard to put in place at a fixed and hardened site.”
After taking advice from a variety of experts and developing a set of procedures, the Raven Rock team screened a group of newly arrived personnel who were not routinely stationed at Raven Rock, to simulate what would have to be done amidst a crisis. “It was a dress rehearsal for what could be something larger,” Roper said.
But unlike the threat of nuclear attack, in which the key is to move people as quickly as possible into a bunker complex where they are considered relatively safe, in the case of a pandemic, it is essential to ensure the people entering the complex are not already infected. “The challenge is: How do you make it so the firemen aren’t burning your house down,” said Roper.
Unlike other parts of the government, the key Pentagon personnel who are supposed to move to Raven Rock can’t do their work from home if they feel sick. They also can’t necessarily be trusted to inform their chains of command that they feel ill. “They want to do their jobs when the nation needs it the most,” Roper said. “People are just going to say, ‘To hell with it, I’ve never missed a day of work.’”
But screening personnel entering the facility also presents complications, especially when the test results aren’t immediately available, according to Roper. “For the results of that to be valid, they essentially need to be quarantined from that point forward,” he said. “It’s not like you’ve just been vaccinated.”
Keeping them isolated isn’t easy: Raven Rock is 62 miles from the Washington area, and Pentagon personnel who are tested can’t return home while awaiting results, nor can they enter Raven Rock, or even be allowed to mingle with others who will enter the facility because they could infect others.
Therein lies the dilemma: In a crisis you want to move people quickly, but the faster the Defense Department tries to move personnel into Raven Rock or any similar facility, the more trade-offs have to be made between speed and the risks of the virus getting into Raven Rock or similar facilities, according to Roper. “You may be contaminating your own well, so to speak,” he said.
During the 2006 exercise, no sick individuals made it into the bunker complex, but in real life things might not work as efficiently, according to Roper. The facility’s personnel need to be on their guard because “no test is a hundred percent foolproof,” he cautioned.
Roper declined to speak in detail about Raven Rock’s medical facilities and whether they are equipped to handle a coronavirus outbreak. “Any place that’s got medical facilities probably isn’t ideally configured to deal with this,” he said. “They were built for different purposes.”
Making the screening, testing and entry process run anything close to smoothly will require a lot of trained personnel, and people with the right skills are likely to be in short supply. according to Roper. “All things being equal, you’d love to have an epidemiologist standing there,” he said. “But guess what, we’re probably going to run out of those guys pretty soon.”
Another challenge the Defense Department faces during a pandemic is deciding whether and when to start moving people to Raven Rock and other continuity-of-government sites. Unlike a military crisis, it may not be clear what should trigger that decision during the gradual spread of a disease, according to Roper.
A pandemic is “more complex,” he said, because no such “explicit event” has occurred. “There weren’t two ships colliding in the South China Sea or it wasn’t an aircraft accident,” he added. “It becomes deliberate decision making on when we need to up our game.”
“There is no break point that is objectively defined by the pandemic outbreak,” McHale agreed. “It’s really an informed judgment call on the part of the secretary of defense.”
Even if the Pentagon is fully functional at a given point during the pandemic, “prudent planning would require an assessment of whether or not the arc of the threat produced doubt as to the functionality of the department two, three or four weeks into the future,” he said. That analysis would have to consider whether critical capabilities would be degraded “by either the illness of the workforce or the likelihood that a limited number of personnel within the workforce might continue to spread the disease through and among the senior leaders.”
At midnight on Sunday, Defense Secretary Mark Esper raised the health protection condition level at the Pentagon to “bravo,” which signifies increased community transition. It is not clear whether any particular level would trigger an exodus of senior leaders and staff to Raven Rock or elsewhere. A Defense Department spokesperson did not respond to multiple emails seeking comment.
To date, the Defense Department has not commented publicly on any relocations plans, but in a press briefing Monday, Pentagon spokesperson Jonathan Hoffman said that Defense Secretary Mark Esper and Deputy Secretary David Norquist would, effective immediately, be “physically separated” from each other. „We are attempting to put … a bubble around the two of them,” Hoffman said. “They and their staffs will only interact via teleconference. We’re screening people that are entering the secretary’s suite and limiting the number of people who have access as well.”
The 2006 bird flu virus killed untold thousands of birds but only a few hundred people because it was not very contagious between humans. By contrast, the coronavirus had already killed more than 6,700 people by Monday.
At the time of the Raven Rock exercise, the bird flu virus “wasn’t fully understood,” Roper said. However, he added, with reference to the coronavirus threat, “I think it was understood better than what we’re looking at right now.”
The question now — 14 years after that exercise — is whether the Pentagon has been properly preparing for the type of pandemic occurring now.
“I’m confident there are plans in place,” Roper said, based on his experience at Raven Rock. “I’m less confident that the plans can be exercised on a moment’s notice effectively.”
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California Gov. Gavin Newsom (D) on Tuesday afternoon said because of the coronavirus pandemic, it is likely schools will be closed in the state for the rest of this school year.
„I don’t want to mislead you,” he said to parents and educators. Nearly every single district in California is closed due to the pandemic, and they are working on getting homework packets to students and online classes up and ready.
The Los Angeles Unified School District is the country’s second-largest school district, and is helping feed more than 500,000 kids displaced by the shutdown. Starting Wednesday, 60 sites across the city will offer healthy „grab and go” meals for students, the Los Angeles Times reports.
Earlier in the day, Kansas Gov. Laura Kelly (D) ordered all K-12 schools in her state to close for the rest of the school year, affecting half a million students. „This situation has evolved rapidly and will continue to do so for the foreseeable future,” she said. „The reality of this pandemic is that it cannot be controlled statewide if school buildings return to normal operations, or if they respond too inconsistently within our local communities.”
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