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State Department Slammed as Thousands of Americans Are Left Stranded Abroad

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  • A State Department official said Wednesday that as many as 50,000 Americans are stuck in other countries due to coronavirus-related travel restrictions. 
  • The Department has pledged to get as many citizens home as possible, but many are frustrated by inconsistent communication and lack of responses.
  • Americans in Peru are facing many issues in particular and have resorted to forming their own communication channels to maintain adequate updates. 
  • Politicians have also spoken out about their frustration with the State Department, accusing them of not doing enough and reacting too slowly.

Thousands of Americans Stuck

As the coronavirus pandemic escalates, many nations have been put on lockdown and thousands of flights have been cancelled as a result, leaving many stranded in foreign countries. According to the U.S. State Department, as many as 50,000 Americans are stuck overseas, trying to return home. 

A State Department official said Wednesday that it has brought about 9,000 Americans home from 28 countries since the beginning of the outbreak, and plans to bring at least 9,000 more back in the next week or so on chartered flights. 

“Our posts around the world have received requests for assistance for getting back to the United States from over 50,000 U.S. citizens,” Ian Brownlee, who runs the Department’s repatriation task force, told reporters. “And we’re committed to bringing home as many Americans as we possibly can.”

But the commitment hasn’t been totally reassuring, and many Americans have felt frustrated by the lack of communication and help from the U.S. government. Some have even taken matters into their own hands through measures like riskily crossing the border from Guatemala to Mexico and bringing money to pay off customs officials, according to reports from Politico

Brownlee says the Department has not been getting a heads up about border closes and flight cancellations, leaving them overwhelmed. He also said that vulnerable populations, like the sick and elderly, are given priority on limited flights. U.S. officials have been urging Americans to return home if they’re not ready to remain overseas for an extended period of time.   

Trapped in Peru

The situation is arguably the worst for those stuck in Peru, a nation that is now on lockdown and has closed its international borders in attempts to curb the spread of the deadly virus. The country closed its international airport in Lima on Sunday. 

“There were some [COVID19] infections in the civil aviation authority and on the civilian side of the airport and they’re trying to run it on a bit of a shoestring from the military side of the airport,” Brownlee told NPR

Because the situation intensified so quickly, many were unable to get home before this shutdown. On Twitter, the hashtag #stuckinPeru has been making its rounds. 

Information from the U.S. government has been conflicting. Last week, the Pentagon said it would fly military aircraft to retrieve Americans in Peru, but the trip was canceled and reconsidered. 

According to State Department officials, the Peruvian government denied permission for two U.S. chartered flights to land on Tuesday. Earlier this week, an American Airlines plane was actually on its way to retrieve Americans stranded in Lima, but had to turn around mid-way after the Peruvian government refused to give it permission to land, according to Politico

Many are upset by the absence of help from the U.S. government. 

“We are being held hostage here, and we don’t know by whom or why,” said Michael Katz, a New York resident stranded in Cusco, told The Wall Street Journal. “The State Department is completely useless and totally incompetent.”

Others have compared America’s failed repatriation efforts to the successes of other countries.

To combat their frustration, citizens have taken their own measures to try to spread accurate information, like making a Facebook page called “Americans Stuck in Peru.” The group has almost 5,000 members.

U.S. politicians have also placed blame on the State Department for failing to get everybody home. 

“#AmericansStuckInPeru is due to lack [of] urgency by some in mid-level of @StateDept,” Sen Marco Rubio tweeted on Tuesday. “We didn’t need you to ‘track’ this, we needed you to solve this.”

Frustrations with State Department Continue

Rubio wasn’t the only senator to speak out about the State Department’s inability to get every American stuck abroad home. Bob Menendez (D-N.J.), the top Democrat on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, pointed fingers at the department as well. 

“If this administration, including Secretary Pompeo and his senior leadership team, had taken the coronavirus threat seriously and planned ahead, we may have been able to avoid some of the confusion and chaos Americans abroad encountered,” Menendez told Politico. “Unfortunately, that simply did not happen. As a result, the State Department now has to try to catch up and make up for lost time.”

Secretary of State Mike Pompeo has faced heat in particular. Over the weekend, he tweeted a photo of his wife at home as they did a puzzle together, and Arizona Rep. Ruben Gallego had a heated reply.

“I have constituents stuck overseas can you get off your ass and get them home?” Gallego wrote.

On Thursday, Pompeo defended the official efforts to bring Americans home. 

“There’s still a lot of work to do. We’ve got a lot of people who are trying to get back this way, and with travel shut down in many of these countries without any notice or little notice, there’s still a major undertaking,” Pompeo told radio host Hugh Hewitt

“But the team has mashaled the resources. It’s an airlift back home like we’ve not seen in an awfully long time, and I’m really proud of the way our team has responded,” Pompeo said. 

See what others are saying: (Politico) (NBC) (NPR)

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Trump Signs Order Allowing Former Troops to Be Called Upon for Coronavirus Fight

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  • President Trump signed an executive order that allows for former troops to be brought back to active duty to help fight the coronavirus pandemic.
  • This is not an immediate order to call former service members back, but it is typically used when the military is in need of specific skill sets, like persons with high demand medical capabilities. 
  • Officials are still reviewing who might be activated.
  • The order comes just days after the Army called upon former service members to voluntarily rejoin and help in the military’s response efforts. Over 14,000 have expressed interest as of Friday. 

Trump Signs Executive Order

President Donald Trump signed an executive order Friday that allows the Pentagon to bring former U.S. troops and members of the National Gaurd and reserve back to active duty to help those already battling the county’s coronavirus outbreaks.

During his press conference Friday night, Trump said the decision allows the federal government “to mobilize medical, disaster and emergency response personnel to help wage our battle against the virus by activating thousands of experienced service members including retirees.”

“We have a lot of people, retirees, great military people — they’re coming back in,” Trump added.

What This Means

The executive order released by the White House states that anyone recalled can remain on active duty for up to 24 months straight. It provides the Department of Defense and the Department of Homeland Security the authority to order as many as 1 million individuals at one time, however, it is not an order to do so. 

According to Pentagon spokesperson Jonathan Hoffman, the order applies to units and individual members in the National Guard and Reserves and certain Individual Ready Reserve members who are normally in an inactive status.

Hoffman said that decisions about who may be activated are still being reviewed, but he added, “Generally, these members will be persons in Headquarters units and persons with high demand medical capabilities whose call-up would not adversely affect their civilian communities.” 

As of now, the Individual Ready Reserve contains 224,841 members, according to the Department of Defense, and nearly 11,000 of those members “have medical capabilities.”

“This is a dynamic situation, we do not currently have a projected number of expected activations, but the Department is now fully authorized to make activations as needed,” Hoffman said. 

He also stressed that the departments would consult with state officials before using any National Gaurd Reserve Component units under the executive order.

Earlier this week, the Army called upon former service members to voluntarily rejoin and help in the military’s pandemic response efforts. The Army said the initial response has been positive, with at least 14,6000 people expressing interest as of Friday.

See what others are saying: (Politico) (CNN) (Fox News)

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FDA Authorizes Portable Test Kit That Can Detect COVID-19 in 5 Minutes

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  • The FDA has approved the use of a new coronavirus test kit that can give positive results in as little as 5 minutes and negative results in 13, leaps faster than the hours and sometimes days laboratory tests normally take. 
  • The tests are run on a lightweight and small portable device that can be used in emergency rooms, urgent care clinics, and even outside hospital walls.
  • Abbott, the medical device company that makes the kits, plans to send out 50,000 tests a day starting next week.

New Test Approved

The U.S. Food and Drug Administration gave Emergency Use Authorization to the medical device company Abbott for a new coronavirus test kit that gives results within minutes.

Abbott announced the news in a Friday press release, saying it plans to start delivering 50,000 tests a day beginning next week. The tests run on the company’s ID NOW platform, a portable device about the size of a small toaster than weights only 6.6 pounds.

Its portability means it can be used directly in an emergency room or urgent care clinic and even, “outside the traditional four walls of a hospital in outbreak hotspots.”

The company called it “the fastest available molecular point-of-care test for the detection of novel coronavirus(COVID-19), delivering positive results in as little as five minutes and negative results in 13 minutes.”

Second Rapid Test to Be Approved by FDA 

The approval from federal health officials means that regulators were satisfied with the test’s validation data and are confident that its benefits outweigh any risk, like false positives or negatives. 

The FDA’s approval marks the seconds time it has green-lit a fast working test that could accelerate testing across the country.  Last week, it approved a 45-minute rapid point of care test by the molecular diagnostics company Cepheid. However, that test is primarily intended for emergency rooms and hospitals, not doctors’ officers or urgent care clinics.  

Still, those turnaround times are leaps faster than the hours to days it takes most laboratory tests to bring results. 

Medical Shortages Still Cause Concern 

The approval of the Abbott test comes as cities across the nation battle with numbers of potential patients that surpass available tests and resources. Even with insufficient testing, the United States became the country with the largest number of reported cases of coronavirus on Thursday, exceeding China and Italy. By Friday, the U.S. hit more than 100,000 cases. 

Many fear that shortages of other critical medical equipment, like masks and swabs, could stifle the new rapid test’s impact. That’s because the kit requires a swab sample collected from patients, and many health care facilities are running desperately low on the tools needed to safely collect those samples.

The Center for Disease Control issued guidance Tuesday that allows some patients to collect their own nasal swabs in health care facilities, in an effort to reduce the amount of protective equipment needed for health care workers. 

On the opposite end, however, others note that fast and efficient testing can help medical professionals determine how much protective equipment they actually need to wear when interacting with a patient, as well as what kind of care to provide. Since this test can be done in a doctor’s office, it could even potentially help diagnose patients with mild or asymptomatic cases of the virus and help stop them from unknowingly spreading it. 

Experts also say drastically increasing testing capacity can help get the economy back on track sooner. With increased testing, measures like keeping everyone at home could be replaced with more targeted identification and isolation of those infected. 

See what others are saying: (The Hill) (CNBC) (CNN

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EPA Limits Environmental Regulations During Coronavirus Crisis

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  • The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency announced Thursday that it is scaling back its enforcement of environmental rules during the coronavirus emergency as businesses face challenges like layoffs and accessibility issues.
  • The temporary policy allows companies to monitor their own compliance with environmental laws, and the EPA said it will not issue penalties for violations of certain reporting requirements.
  • Many critics slammed the move, arguing that it opens doors to excess pollution and does not prioritize the health and safety of people and wildlife.   
  • The EPA defended the policy, saying it has reserved its authorities for situations other than routine monitoring and reporting and will consider the pandemic’s impacts on a “case-to-case basis.”

Temporary Policy 

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) says it will limit the enforcement of certain regulations as the coronavirus pandemic continues, leaving companies in charge of monitoring their own compliance with environmental laws. 

The agency unveiled the temporary policy on Thursday, arguing that businesses are running into obstacles like layoffs and accessibility issues as the virus alters normal life across the nation.

“EPA is committed to protecting human health and the environment, but recognizes challenges resulting from efforts to protect workers and the public from COVID-19 may directly impact the ability of regulated facilities to meet all federal regulatory requirements,” EPA Administrator Andrew Wheeler said in a statement.  

Under normal circumstances, companies must report when their facilities release a certain amount of pollution into the air or water. Now, that requirement will be put on hold for the time being. 

“In general, the EPA does not expect to seek penalties for violations of routine compliance monitoring, integrity testing, sampling, laboratory analysis, training, and reporting or certification obligations in situations where the EPA agrees that Covid-19 was the cause of the noncompliance and the entity provides supporting documentation to the EPA upon request,” the policy states.

The agency also said it would exercise “discretion” in enforcing other environmental rules. It noted that the policy does not apply to criminal violations or hundreds of the country’s most toxic waste sites that fall under the Superfund act. The EPA also said it expects public water systems to maintain high standards. 

“Public water systems have a heightened responsibility to protect public health because unsafe drinking water can lead to serious illnesses and access to clean water for drinking and handwashing is critical during the COVID-19 pandemic,” the policy says.

The memo said that the changes will apply retroactively beginning on March 13, with no set end date indicated. 

Criticism of New Policy

Some, including people in the oil industry, had been asking for these regulations to be loosened, but others slammed the EPA’s choice, claiming it is too broad and lax. 

Gina McCarthy, who headed the EPA under the Obama administration and is now president of the Natural Resources Defense Council, called the policy an “open license to pollute.” 

Some called the changes “outrageous” and “evil,” accusing the EPA of prioritizing businesses over the health of individuals and wildlife.

Prominent figures in the climate change fight slammed the move as well.

“The EPA uses this global pandemic to create loopholes for destroying the environment,” teenage climate activist Greta Thunberg tweeted. “This is a schoolbook example for what we need to start looking out for.”

Others pointed out the irony of suspending rules that preserve air quality while a respiratory disease makes its rounds across the country. 

“What part of, ‘air pollution increases our vulnerability to respiratory diseases LIKE CORONAVIRUS,’ is not clear, EPA?” one Twitter user wrote.

Defense of Policy

The EPA stood behind their move and did not agree with its classification as a dismissal of regulations. 

“It is not a nationwide waiver of environmental rules,” Andrea Woods, an E.P.A. spokeswoman, told The New York Times. “For situations outside of routine monitoring and reporting, the agency has reserved its authorities and will take the pandemic into account on a case-by-case basis.”

Susan Parker Bodine, the EPA official who issued the policy, said that it does not excuse organizations from consequences if they do committ environmental violations.

“If you do have violations of your permit, you’re still obligated to meet your permit limits, you’re supposed to do everything possible,” Bodine told ABC. “And after the fact the agency will take that all into consideration but there isn’t a promise of no penalties in those kinds of situations.”

“If you have an acute risk, if you have an imminent threat … the facility has to come in and talk to their regulator, their authorized state or come into the agency,” she added. “And the reason for that is that we want to, we want to put all of our resources into keeping these facilities safe keeping communities safe.”

See what others are saying: (New York Times) (The Guardian) (CNN)

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