Coronavirus updates: Russia accused of trying to steal vaccine research; Georgia bans mask mandates despite surge

The U.S., Britain and Canada accused Russia on Thursday of trying to steal vaccine research as companies around the world race to develop a viable vaccine.

The hacking group APT29, also known as Cozy Bear and said to be part of the Russian intelligence service, is attacking academic and pharmaceutical research institutions, Britain’s National Cybersecurity Center said. It was unclear whether any information actually was stolen, but the center says individuals’ confidential information is not believed to have been compromised.

In Georgia, Gov. Brian Kemp extended coronavirus restrictions but banned cities and counties from requiring masks despite the surge in his state and across the nation Thursday. Kemp is “strongly” encouraging but not requiring face masks in public even though the director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention said the surge could be controlled in 4-6 weeks if people were disciplined about wearing masks.

San Francisco and Sacramento are the latest cities in California to announce that public schools will not reopen in the fall as COVID-19 cases continue to spike. Los Angeles and San Diego, the state’s largest school districts, announced Monday that classes will be online-only for the fall semester.

U.S., others accuse Russia of trying to hack into vaccine research

Britain, the United States and Canada on Thursday accused Russia of attempting to steal information from researchers seeking a COVID-19 vaccine. The hacking group APT29, also known as Cozy Bear, is attacking academic and pharmaceutical research institutions, Britain’s National Cybersecurity Centre said in coordination with authorities in the U.S. and Canada. It was not clear whether Russian President Vladimir Putin knew about the vaccine research hacking. U.S. authorities have for month leveled similar accusations against China.

“At this very moment, China is working to compromise American health care organizations, pharmaceutical companies, and academic institutions conducting essential COVID-19 research,” FBI Director Chris Wray said last week.

Trump’s GOP convention lovefest threatened by Florida outbreak

Republicans scrambling to organize a three-day “celebration” in Florida in which President Donald Trump is set to accept the GOP presidential nomination may be eventually forced to scale the festivities back to a single day, USA TODAY has learned. The explosion of coronavirus cases in Florida – the state has reported a sharp increase in COVID-19 deaths – and the later than usual selection of Jacksonville has cast doubt on the party’s ability to convene a major event there to rally supporters, five Republicans familiar with the planning said on condition of anonymity.

Democrats planning to nominate Joe Biden next month have already scaled back their convention and plan to conduct most of the party’s official business virtually.

– David Jackson, John Fritze and Joey Garrison

Can you get infected twice?

Hopes are dimming that “herd immunity” can help stamp out the tenacious global pandemic amid growing concerns that people can be reinfected with COVID-19. Experts agree that claims of recurring infections require more study since we are only months into the health crisis and evidence has been anecdotal. But if it’s proved that recovered patients can “catch” the virus a second time, it would affect their own immunity while also complicating efforts to obtain the Holy Grail of current medical research – effective vaccines.

“The possibility of reinfection is certainly real,” said Dr. Robert Glatter, an emergency physician at Lenox Hill Hospital in New York City. “And one that I am seeing repeatedly on the front lines.”

Prison population down 8% amid effort to contain virus behind bars

Federal and state prison populations declined by more than 100,000 inmates between March and June, a decrease of 8%, according to a nationwide analysis by The Marshall Project and The Associated Press. The drops range from 2% in Virginia to 32% in Rhode Island. Head counts have dropped largely because prisons stopped accepting new prisoners from county jails to avoid importing the virus, court closures meant fewer people were receiving sentences, and parole officers sent fewer people back inside for low-level violations, according to data and experts.

“Even though we are sending too many people to prison and keeping them there too long, and even though research shows people who are older have the highest risk from COVID-19 and the lowest risk of recidivism, we are still not letting them out,” said Nazgol Ghandnoosh, a senior research analyst at the Sentencing Project.

Japan faces resurgence of new cases, jeopardizing tourism campaign

Tokyo reported a single-day record of 286 new cases of the novel coronavirus on Thursday while nationwide new coronavirus cases topped 500 for the first time since April 18, officials said. The resurgence jeopardizes the central government’s plan to begin its Go To Travel subsidy campaign set to begin next week. On Thursday, Tokyo was dropped from the campaign. “We are looking at the situation with a high level of nervousness,” Prime Minister Shinzo Abe said.

Ohio Gov. DeWine: ‘Our state’s life is now in danger’

Gov. Mike DeWine addressed Ohioans on statewide TV, urging them to increase their vigilance to ward off the threat of COVID-19 infections sweeping the state. DeWine warned Wednesday evening that “our state’s life is now in danger” but stopped short of implementing a statewide mask mandate or rolling back business reopenings amid a four-figure daily spike in cases. DeWine said it took Ohio 20 days to reach our first 1,500 total cases. Last week, Ohio confirmed 1,500 new cases in one day. The state’s death toll stands at over 3,100.

“If all of us do not take immediate action to slow this virus down, the tragedy that we see playing out on our television screens every day in Florida, Texas, Arizona and California may well be our reality in just a matter of weeks,” DeWine said. “It does not have to be this way in Ohio.”

– Randy Ludlow, The Columbus Dispatch

San Francisco, Sacramento schools will not reopen in the fall

San Francisco and Sacramento have become the latest cities in California to announce that public school students will not return to classrooms when the new term begins because of surges in coronavirus cases and delays in getting test results back.

They join Los Angeles and San Diego, the state’s two largest districts. Also not reopening are schools in Oakland, Long Beach, Santa Ana, San Bernardino and others that have chosen to start the new term with digital learning amid strong concerns from teachers unions and public health officials about the safety of staff on school campuses.

State Superintendent of Public Instruction Tony Thurmond says he expects more districts to announce plans for distance learning.

Arizona hires out-of-state nurses to help with COVID-19

The state of Arizona is working with a Texas-based company to bring nearly 600 out-of-state nurses to help stressed hospitals during the COVID-19 crisis. Vizient Inc. is working with the Arizona Department of Health Services to bring critical care and medical-surgical nurses to Arizona, state health officials said Wednesday.

To be eligible, hospitals must be operating in accordance with all of Arizona Gov. Doug Ducey’s executive orders and must have “exhausted other existing avenues of increasing staffing,” state officials said in a news release.

More than 30 hospitals across Arizona already have applied to the state for help with staffing, department spokeswoman Holly Poynter said. Arizona has one of the highest rates of COVID-19 infections in the country, and its hospital system is feeling the strain of caring for the sickest of those getting the disease.

Kohl’s to require shoppers wear masks nationwide starting Monday

Kohl’s will require shoppers wear face coverings at its more than 1,100 stores nationwide starting Monday. The Menomonee Falls, Wisconsin-based retailer announced its new mask policy Wednesday, hours after Walmart, Sam’s Club and Kroger announced they would mandate masks.

“As COVID-19 cases continue to rise, face covering mandates have grown to apply to approximately 70% of our store base, therefore we’ve made the decision to take a consistent approach across our entire store fleet,” Kohl’s said in a statement. “Beginning Monday, July 20, we will require all customers to wear a face covering while shopping in our stores.”

Kohl’s employees have been required to wear masks since stores started reopening May 4.

– Kelly Tyko

Georgia extends restrictions but bans cities from mandating masks

Georgia Gov. Brian Kemp extended the state’s coronavirus restrictions which was set to expire Wednesday. The governor is also banning cities and counties from mandating face coverings, according to the Atlanta Journal-Constitution.

Kemp’s order does not require facial coverings but “strongly encourages Georgians to wear masks in public,” he said on Twitter. The order restricts gatherings of more than 50 people, requires vulnerable people to shelter in place and requires restaurants and businesses to follow specific protocols.

The extension, which expires July 31, comes a week after Atlanta Mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms mandated facial coverings in public and at the Hartsfield-Jackson International Airport.

Some Las Vegas casinos limit smoking to prevent patrons from removing face masks

Several Las Vegas casinos are limiting smoking to keep patrons from removing the protective face masks they are required to wear.

In mid-June, Las Vegas Sands Corp. updated its policy to ask that table game players and spectators do not smoke or vape in its Venetian and Palazzo resorts. Wynn Resorts Ltd. has designated any table games without a plexiglass barrier as nonsmoking areas inside its Wynn and Encore casinos on the Las Vegas Strip.

Nevada on Wednesday reported 849 new cases of COVID-19, a decline from a day earlier, when the state set a new daily high of 1,104 cases.

Detroit’s Motown Museum reopens with music-themed safety measures

The birthplace of Motown got a reboot Wednesday. Four months after closing amid the COVID-19 outbreak, the Motown Museum reopened its doors to the public, the latest cautious but optimistic symbol of a new normal.

The museum provided a snapshot of the way cultural sites across the region are adapting to the pandemic: reduced capacities, social distancing, revised foot-traffic patterns and masks, masks, masks.

At the Motown Museum, entry starts with a questionnaire, accessible on mobile devices via a digital code on placards out front. After confirming you’ve not had recent unprotected contact with someone with COVID-19 and are personally free of symptoms, it’s on to a touchless temperature check, administered by a staffer on the Hitsville porch.

If all’s well, you get the mark of approval: a sticker that reads “Signed Sealed Delivered I’m Good,” in a nod to the 1970 Stevie Wonder hit.

– Brian McCollum, Detroit Free Press

American Airlines to lay off up to 25,000 employees

American Airlines executives warned employees Wednesday that the airline will have to lay off as many as 25,000 front-line workers this fall because travel has not rebounded from the coronavirus crisis as they had hoped.

The job cuts, which cover unionized employees including pilots, flight attendants, mechanics and airport workers, represent nearly 30% of the company’s 85,000 front-line workers in its U.S. mainline operation. American previously cut 30% of its corporate staff, or 5,000 employees.

In a memo to employees, American CEO Doug Parker and President Robert Isom said the goal when the payroll protection provisions of the federal CARES Act were signed in March was to buy time for travel to rebound so no layoffs were needed when the program ends Oct. 1. “That unfortunately has not been the case,” they said.

– Dawn Gilbertson

Pence defends Fauci as White House sends mixed messages on health expert

Vice President Mike Pence on Wednesday defended Dr. Anthony Fauci in public comments made soon after he tweeted out a photo of the two of them at the White House.

“Dr. Fauci is a valued member of the White House Coronavirus Task Force,” Pence said on a campaign call with reporters when asked about recent attacks on Fauci by others in the administration. “We just completed our latest meeting today and we couldn’t be more grateful for his steady counsel.”

The photo he tweeted showed Fauci sitting at Pence’s right hand during the meeting. Pence’s comments came a day after White House trade adviser Peter Navarro criticized Fauci in an opinion piece for USA TODAY that included remarks he’d made earlier in the week.

– Maureen Groppe