News briefs for March 24

Testing blunders crippled US response as coronavirus spread

WASHINGTON — A series of missteps at the nation’s top public health agency caused a critical shortage of reliable laboratory tests for the coronavirus, hobbling the federal response as the pandemic spread across the country like wildfire.

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President Donald Trump assured Americans early this month that the COVID-19 test developed by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention is “perfect” and that “anyone who wants a test can get a test.” But more than two months after the first U.S. case of the new disease was confirmed, many people still cannot get tested.

In the critical month of February, as the virus began taking root in the U.S. population, CDC data shows government labs processed 352 COVID-19 tests — an average of only a dozen per day, an Associated Press review found.

“You cannot fight a fire blindfolded,” Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, head of the World Health Organization, said at a recent briefing. “We cannot stop this pandemic if we don’t know who is infected.”

The Department of Health and Human Services, which includes the CDC, has begun an internal review to assess its own mistakes. But outside observers and federal health officials have pointed to four primary issues that together hampered the national response — the early decision not to use the test adopted by the World Health Organization, flaws with the more complex test developed by the CDC, government guidelines restricting who could be tested and delays in engaging the private sector to ramp up testing capacity.

US slashes aid to Afghanistan after Pompeo visit to Kabul

WASHINGTON — The Trump administration is slashing $1 billion in assistance to Afghanistan and threatening further reductions in all forms of cooperation after the country’s rival leaders failed to agree on forming a new government.

The decision to cut the aid was made on Monday by Secretary of State Mike Pompeo after he made an unannounced, urgent visit to Kabul to meet with Ashraf Ghani and Abdullah Abdullah, the rival Afghan politicians who have each declared themselves president of the country after disputed elections last year. Pompeo had hoped to break the deadlock but was unable to.

In an unusually harsh statement, Pompeo slammed the two men for being unable to work together and threatening a potential peace deal that could end America’s longest-running conflict. The U.S. has been the prime backer of the Afghan government since it invaded the country in 2001 and overthrew the Taliban after the 9/11 attacks.

“The United States deeply regrets that Afghan President Ashraf Ghani and former Chief Executive Abdullah Abdullah have informed Secretary Pompeo that they have been unable to agree on an inclusive government that can meet the challenges of governance, peace, and security, and provide for the health and welfare of Afghan citizens,” he said.

Pompeo said the U.S. was “disappointed” in both men and their conduct, which he said had “harmed U.S.-Afghan relations and, sadly, dishonors those Afghan, Americans, and coalition partners who have sacrificed their lives and treasure in the struggle to build a new future for this country.”

PG&E to plead guilty to lethal crimes in 2018 wildfires

SAN FRANCISCO — Pacific Gas & Electric will plead guilty to 84 counts of involuntary manslaughter for a swath of death and destruction left behind after its fraying electrical grid ignited a 2018 wildfire that destroyed three Northern California towns and drove the nation’s largest utility into bankruptcy.

The plea agreement announced Monday resolves the charges facing PG&E as part of a previously sealed indictment in Butte County. It marks the second time this decade that the company’s neglect has culminated in it being deemed a criminal. PG&E already is serving a five-year criminal probation imposed after it was convicted of six felony counts for falsifying records and other safety violations underlying a natural gas explosion that blew up a neighborhood in 2010 and killed eight people in San Bruno, California.

As with its prior criminal conviction, no one from PG&E will go to prison for the company’s felony crimes. Instead, its plea agreement with the Butte County District Attorney’s office calls for PG&E to pay a $4 million fine, the maximum allowed. It will also help pay for efforts to restore access to water for residents affected by the loss of a canal destroyed by what became known as the Camp Fire.

“We cannot replace all that the fire destroyed, but our hope is that this plea agreement, along with our rebuilding efforts, will help the community move forward from this tragic incident,” PG&E Corp. CEO Bill Johnson said.

In a statement, Butte County District Attorney Mike Ramsey said he hopes the plea agreement will bring “a bit of a sense of justice done” for the fire.

All signs point to Tokyo Olympics being postponed

IOC members, national Olympic committees and athletes were all racing toward the same conclusion Monday: The Tokyo Olympics are not going to take place this summer.

Craig Reedie, a longtime member of the International Olympic Committee, told The Associated Press that everyone can see where things are headed, with the coronavirus pandemic spreading and Olympic hopefuls around the world unable to train.

“In the balance of probabilities, the information known about conditions in Japan and the COVID-19’s effect on the rest of world clearly indicates the likelihood of postponement,” Reedie said. “The length of postponement is the major challenge for the IOC.”

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Earlier in the day, IOC member Dick Pound told USA Today that he had reached the same conclusion about the games, which are scheduled to start July 24. A tweet put out by the newspaper read: “The 2020 Summer Olympics Have Been Postponed Over Coronavirus Concerns.”

The IOC said no decision had been made, and Reedie was quick to acknowledge that he was speaking only for himself and not because of any insight provided to him by IOC president Thomas Bach, who will guide the final decision. Pound did not return a message left by AP. Earlier in the day, after Pound’s pronouncement, an IOC spokesman said, “It is the right of every IOC member to interpret the decision of the IOC (executive board) from Sunday.”

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