Coronavirus updates: Trump may overrule FDA; Missouri governor, wife test positive; Fauci, Sen. Rand Paul spar over pandemic response

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Without masks and a vaccine, we could reach Herd Immunity from COVID-19, but deaths would skyrocket. We break down the science of it. USA TODAY

Missouri Gov. Mike Parson and his wife tested positive for the coronavirus Wednesday, the same day another Republican elected official, Sen. Rand Paul of Kentucky, once again engaged Dr. Anthony Fauci in a contentious debate over the U.S. pandemic response. And President Donald Trump cast doubt on the FDA’s assurances that it would keep politics out of the vaccine-approval process.

Earlier in the day, Johnson & Johnson said it was beginning the final stage of its COVID-19 vaccine candidate trial as the company hopes to provide safe and effective protection with a single shot.

While other companies have already begun their late-stage trials, Johnson & Johnson’s is the first vaccine candidate to reach Phase 3 requiring only one dose, which could ease the challenges of vaccine distribution.

The news comes as the nation’s top health experts told a Senate panel Wednesday that regulatory agencies were not cutting corners when it comes to vaccine safety.

“We feel cautiously optimistic that we will be able to have a safe and effective vaccine, although there is never a guarantee of that,” said Dr. Anthony Fauci, infectious disease chief at the National Institutes of Health.

Some significant developments:

  • The Miami-Dade County School Board voted unanimously Tuesday to start a staggered reopening plan on Oct. 14 in the country’s fourth-largest district. 
  • The CDC advised against traditional trick-or-treating this year amid the pandemic.
  • The NCAA Division 1 Board of Directors approved a plan Tuesday to move fall sports championships – including the FCS football championship – to spring 2021.

📈 Today’s numbers: The U.S. has reported more than 6.9 million cases and 201,000 deaths, according to Johns Hopkins University data. Five states – Minnesota, Montana, Utah, Wisconsin and Wyoming – set records for new cases in a week through late Tuesday while Montana had a record number of deaths in a week. Globally, there have been more than 31.7 million cases and 973,000 fatalities. 

📰 What we’re reading: Our travel writer David Oliver checked in at a few hotels to check out their coronavirus protocols. Here’s what he found.

🗺️ Mapping coronavirus: Track the U.S. outbreak, state by state

This file will be updated throughout the day. For updates in your inbox, subscribe to The Daily Briefing newsletter.

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Many traditional Halloween activities are a risk to spreading COVID-19, so here are some suggestions the CDC has stay safe this spooky season. USA TODAY

Trump suggests he’ll overrule FDA on vaccine

Hours after some of the administration’s leading health officials offered assurances that the search for a coronavirus vaccine would be conducted free of political interference, President Donald Trump undercut that notion and suggested he may overrule the Federal Drug Administration.

Trump, who has predicted the arrival of a vaccine before the Nov. 3 election, questioned why the FDA would set a higher standard for granting emergency authorization for a vaccine, as the agency is reportedly planning on in an effort to gain public trust. 

“I think that was a political move more than anything else,” Trump said

The president added that the FDA guidance “has to be approved by the White House. We may or may not approve it.”

Earlier in the day, FDA Commissioner Stephen Hahn addressed concerns of politics playing a role in the approval process, emphasizing that career scientists at the FDA drive decision making: “Science will guide our decisions,” Hahn said. “FDA will not permit any pressure from anyone to change that.” 

Missouri Gov. Parson and wife test positive

Missouri Gov. Mike Parson, a steadfast opponent of mandatory mask requirements, tested positive for the coronavirus Wednesday after his wife was also confirmed infected.

Parson’s office said in a news release that the Republican leader “feels healthy and is displaying no symptoms.” His wife, Teresa, tested positive earlier in the day and has experienced mild symptoms that include a cough and nasal congestion, her spokeswoman said.

All of Gov. Parson’s official and campaign events have been canceled until further notice, including Friday’s debate with Democratic challenger Nicole Galloway. Parson has repeatedly urged residents to wear masks and maintain social distancing but has been an outspoken opponent of mask mandates, often appearing at functions without one.

Parson is the second state governor known to have been infected by the virus. Fellow Republican Kevin Stitt of Oklahoma announced he had tested positive in mid-July, and three weeks later Ohio’s Mike DeWine also said he tested positive, but hours later said a more sophisticated screening came out negative. 

Fauci scolds Sen. Rand Paul in latest clash

Dr. Anthony Fauci clashed once again with Sen. Rand Paul, and this time the nation’s top infectious disease expert was more forceful in his comments.

Fauci scolded the Kentucky Republican for repeatedly misinterpreting his statements about the coronavirus pandemic during a hearing before the Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee on Wednesday, at one point telling Paul, “You are not listening to what the director of the CDC said.”

It was the third time in about four months the two sides sparred publicly over the pandemic response. Paul asked Fauci on Wednesday about his praise for New York’s efforts to contain the pandemic, but Fauci batted away the question. 

“No, no, you misconstrue that senator, and you’ve done that repeatedly in the past. They got hit very badly, they made some mistakes,” Fauci said, adding that New York got its test positivity rate below 1% by following recommendations from the coronavirus task force regarding hand-washing, mask-wearing, social distancing and outdoor activities.

At the same hearing, Fauci told senators that college administrators should not send students home if there’s an outbreak on campus because they could transmit the disease to their communities.

— Nicholas Wu

A scaled-down New Year’s Eve in Times Square

The New Year’s Eve celebration in New York’s Times Square will be pared down to allow for social distancing and will include enhanced virtual elements, organizers said Wednesday. Details of the in-person festivities are still being worked out, but essential workers and first responders will be among those honored.

“Whether you want to turn off and turn away from the bad news of 2020, or turn to the new year with a sense of hope, renewal and resolution, you’ll be able to join us virtually like never before as part of the Times Square 2021 celebration,” Jeff Straus, president of Countdown Entertainment, said in a statement.

CDC head: Change to testing guidelines were misinterpreted

The director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention said Wednesday that since-reversed changes to the agency’s testing guidelines that drew sharp criticism last month from infectious disease experts were misinterpreted.

The CDC posted revised guidelines in August that said asymptomatic people may not need a test – even if they’ve been exposed to the coronavirus. The CDC on Friday walked back that revision, reinforcing the need for all people who have been exposed to someone with COVID-19 to get tested.

CDC head Dr. Robert Redfield told a Senate panel the changes in August “were not interpreted in the manner in which we had intended them to be interpreted.” Redfield said the August revisions were intended to “reengage the medical and public health community as part of testing so that there was a public health action that happened as a consequence of every test.” 

DC church sues city over virus restrictions

A prominent evangelical church in Washington sued the city’s government for allegedly violating the First Amendment by restricting the size of religious gatherings but allowing for anti-racism protests.

The lawsuit, which was first reported by The Washington Post, says D.C.’s government “favor(ed) certain expressive gatherings over others.” According to the Post, D.C. Mayor Muriel Bowser has limited services at houses of worship to 100 people or 50% of capacity during her phased reopening plan, but the lawsuit notes that she appeared at anti-racism rallies in June and allegedly has not enforced a ban on outdoor gatherings of more than 50 people. The lawsuit filed by the members of the Capitol Hill Baptist Church is the first by a religious group against the city and its coronavirus restrictions, the Post reported.

Parts of NYC see virus uptick that is ’cause for significant concern’

Several neighborhoods in New York City have seen an uptick in coronavirus cases that is causing city officials “significant concern.”

New York’s health department identified multiple neighborhoods in Brooklyn and Queens that account for 20% of all cases citywide as of Sept. 19. The uptick in the areas began Aug. 1, the health department said Tuesday. “These increases could potentially evolve into more widespread community transmission and spread to other neighborhoods unless action is taken,” the department said.

New York City was once the epicenter of the COVID-19 outbreak in the U.S., adding around 5,000 new cases a day in late March and early April, but the city’s new case counts have effectively flattened the past two months.

Late-stage trial of first single-shot vaccine candidate begins

The final stage of Johnson & Johnson’s trial for its vaccine candidate, which would require only one dose, is set to begin Wednesday, the company announced. The trial will be one of the largest in the world, with 60,000 volunteers in the U.S., South Africa, Argentina, Brazil, Chile, Colombia, Mexico and Peru expected to receive doses.

A few other companies already have vaccine candidates in the final stage of trials to test whether they’re safe and effective, but those require two shots.

“A single-shot vaccine, if it’s safe and effective, will have substantial logistic advantages for global pandemic control,” Dan Barouch, director of the Center for Virology and Vaccine Research at Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center in Boston, who partnered with Johnson & Johnson on the vaccine, told The Washington Post.

Ginsburg’s public viewing at Supreme Court being held outdoors

The late Ruth Bader Ginsburg returned to the Supreme Court for the final time Wednesday, with family, friends, former law clerks, colleagues on the high court and the public bidding one last goodbye to the iconic justice.

After a brief ceremony just outside the courtroom Wednesday, Ginsburg’s casket will be on the front portico of the court for two days of public viewing outdoors with appropriate social distancing to guard against the coronavirus.

– Richard Wolf

Gas tax hikes pile up as states become desperate for road repair revenue

Americans who want to stay socially distant during the COVID-19 pandemic now have another reason to think twice before going out for gas.

Several states have increased gas taxes in recent months to make up for sudden shortfalls in revenue for road repairs. As Americans drive less during the pandemic partly because of social distancing and remote work arrangements, gasoline demand has fallen. That’s one key factor triggering the tax increases as lawmakers seek to limit the impact of lower revenue on road repair budgets.

There’s some good news for motorists: They’re currently saving at the pump because the COVID-19 pandemic has caused the economy to slow, pushing down demand and prices for petroleum and gasoline.

– Nathan Bomey

Miami-Dade County schools will reopen classrooms beginning Oct. 14

The Miami-Dade County School Board on Tuesday voted unanimously to gradually start in-person instruction on Oct. 14 after a record-breaking two-day meeting, the Miami Herald reported.

The staggered reopening plan will begin with students in pre-K, kindergarten and first grade and students with special needs. All students can return to classrooms by Oct. 21. Those who prefer remote-learning – which accounts for 51% of the district’s families – can stick to that option, the newspaper reported.

The decision “reflected a collective effort from a community that has been appropriately concerned about the potentially disastrous impact of prematurely reopening physical classrooms,” United Teachers of Dade president Karla Hernandez-Mats told The Herald in a statement.

The decision comes after New York City, the country’s largest school district, began limited in-person instruction Monday. 

‘It’s been pretty rough’: As more schools offer in-person options, what happens to the students who stay virtual?

Virginia lawmakers demand answers on ‘troubling conditions’ at federal jails 

Four lawmakers have renewed bipartisan calls demanding answers for “troubling conditions” at two federal jails in Virginia, citing a lack of personal protective equipment, unsanitary conditions and spoiled food being served to inmates.

Senators Mark Warner and Tim Kaine and Reps. Donald McEachin and Morgan Griffith wrote a letter to the director of the Federal Bureau of Prisons expressing frustration over the lack of response to concerns they addressed in a May 21 letter. The concerns are regarding FCC Petersburg in Prince George County and United States Penitentiary Lee in Lee County.

– William Atkinson, The Progress-Index

FDA to impose higher standard for emergency authorization of vaccine

The Food and Drug Administration, whose autonomy has been questioned amid repeated interference from the Trump administration, is expected to announce a higher standard for emergency authorization of a coronavirus vaccine in an effort to gain public trust, the New York Times and Washington Post reported.

The new requirement would make it highly unlikely a vaccine would be available before the Nov. 3 election, contrary to what President Donald Trump has predicted.

Vaccine manufacturers will have to follow participants in Stage 3 clinical trials for at least two months after they receive a second shot of the vaccine candidate, the newspapers said. Surveys have shown many Americans are skeptical a new coronavirus vaccine would be safe and effective, with as many as half the respondents saying they would not get the immunization if it were available today.

The FDA granted emergency authorization to hydroxychloroquine and convalescent plasma, two treatments for the virus touted by Trump but questioned by public health experts. The vaccine guidelines, drafted by a team of career scientists at the FDA and being reviewed by the White House, could come as early as this week, the Times reported.

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Donald Trump on 200K coronavirus deaths in US: ‘It’s a shame’

Making his first remarks on the latest milestone in the nation’s battle with coronavirus, President Donald Trump on Tuesday lamented the loss of 200,000 Americans who have died from the disease, describing it as “a shame.”  

“It’s a horrible thing,” Trump told reporters on the South Lawn of the White House as he left for a rally in the battleground state of Pennsylvania. At the rally, Trump mocked his Democratic opponent Joe Biden for wearing a face mask – something White House public health experts have recommended – and said his administration had done an “A-plus job” dealing with the pandemic.

During 90 minutes of remarks, Trump did not mention the death toll from the virus but instead blamed China for allowing it to become a pandemic, promised a vaccine will be widely available for Americans soon and criticized social distancing measures approved by state officials that his own public health experts have called for.

– John Fritze, Michael Collins and David Jackson

Bob Woodward ’embarrassed’ for Trump’s self-praise 

Veteran Washington Post journalist Bob Woodward reportedly said Tuesday that he was “quite frankly embarrassed” for President Donald Trump giving  himself an A+ grade for his coronavirus response.

Woodward, speaking at an invite-only forum for the Citizen by CNN 2020 conference, said in his experience of covering nine different presidents he has “never seen anything like” Trump’s mangled handling of the ongoing pandemic.

Woodward recently released an explosive book on Trump titled “Rage,” which included the president telling the journalist in a recorded interview weeks before the first death in the U.S. that despite knowing how “deadly” and serious the coronavirus pandemic would be, he wanted to “play it down” and would to continue to do so. 

Trump also told Woodward in an interview on Feb. 7 about how much “more deadly” COVID-19 would be than the flu, a startling juxtaposition from the president’s public remarks at the time and in subsequent months.

– Savannah Behrmann

Trump administration supports relief bills to avoid airline worker layoffs

The Trump administration indicated Tuesday that it would support separate funding measures to provide more financial relief for airlines, a move that could stave off layoffs of thousands of workers and drastic cuts to flight schedules.

With talks for an overall additional stimulus deal stalled, press secretary Kayleigh McEnany encouraged House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., to send separate funding bills, including one for airlines.

“At this point, the onus is really on Speaker Pelosi,” McEnany said at the daily media briefing. “We encourage her to send one-off bills, perhaps airline funding or other elements that we could work through the process to get to the American people.” 

Despite many empty seats, airlines have kept flying with help from a $50 billion allotment that was part of the Coronavirus Aid, Relief and Economic Security (CARES) Act that passed in March. 

– Chris Woodyard

Restaurant chain Sizzler files for Chapter 11 bankruptcy, citing COVID-19 impact

Sizzler, the steakhouse chain started 62 years ago, has filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection, the latest business to suffer as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic.

In a statement, Sizzler said it filed for voluntary Chapter 11 protection in the U.S. Bankruptcy Court for the Northern District in California on Monday. The restaurant chain will start a restructuring process to reduce debt and renegotiate its leases with landlords.

“Our current financial state is a direct consequence of the pandemic’s economic impact due to long-term indoor dining closures and landlords’ refusal to provide necessary rent abatements,” Chris Perkins, president and chief services officer for Sizzler, said in a statement.

The chain operates 107 locations across 10 states and Puerto Rico.

– Brett Molina

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Contributing: The Associated Press

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