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Coronavirus updates: Dr. Anthony Fauci calls US plateau of cases 'unacceptable'; Beirut explosion devastates 'struggling' health system


John Bacon Jessica Flores Grace Hauck   | USA TODAY
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Days after President Donald Trump defended his administration's "incredible" handling of the coronavirus outbreak in a widely viewed interview, the nation's top health official called the country's response "disparate" and "not as well suited" to the dynamics of the pandemic.

"What happened when the rubber hit the road on this, and we did get hit, we had the kind of response that was not as well suited to what the dynamics of this outbreak is," Dr. Anthony Fauci said during a Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health forum Wednesday. "What happened is, we had a bit of a disparate response."

The country's response has allowed the daily COVID-19 case count to plateau at an "unacceptable level," Fauci said, warning that the U.S. will continue to "smolder" without a unified effort to stop the virus. 

Here are some significant developments:

  • deadly explosion that rocked Lebanon's capital city of Beirut has put a further strain on the nation's health system, which was already running short on personal protective equipment and grappling with more than 5,200 cases of COVID-19.
  • Virginia on Wednesday became the first state to roll out a smartphone app to automatically notify people if they might have been exposed to the coronavirus.
  • Johnson & Johnson said it has a $1 billion agreement to supply 100 million doses of its vaccine candidate to the U.S. government. Also Wednesday, Moderna said it expects to fully enroll 30,000 people for a trial of its vaccine candidate next month.
  • Whatever was left of an in-person 2020 Democratic National Convention evaporated Wednesday as organizers announced Joe Biden won't travel to Milwaukee to give his presidential acceptance speech.
  • Trump says schools should reopen because children are "virtually immune," despite evidence suggesting they are not. “This thing’s going away – It will go away like things go away," Trump said during a wide-ranging interview on "Fox & Friends". Facebook took down a post with the interview from President Trump's personal page, and Twitter will require Trump's campaign account to remove the post before the account can tweet again.

📈 Today's numbers: The U.S. has recorded more than 158,000 deaths and 4.8 million cases of COVID-19, according to Johns Hopkins University. Worldwide, there have been more than 706,000 deaths and 18.7 million cases. 

📰 What we're reading: Kids are less likely to die from the coronavirus. But some experts say a lack of information about how they contract and transmit COVID-19 will leave the nation unprepared when schools reopen.

Our live blog is being updated throughout the day. Refresh for the latest news, and get updates in your inbox with The Daily Briefing.

No NBA players test positive for COVID-19 for third week

No NBA players tested positive for COVID-19 for the third consecutive weekly testing period, the NBA and National Basketball Players Association said in a joint news release Wednesday.

In the latest round of precautionary measures, 343 players were tested inside the NBA’s bubble-like environment at the Disney campus near Orlando, Florida.

No player has tested positive inside the bubble since initial testing between July 7-13.

– Jeff Zillgitt

Kids less likely to die, but schools could become hot spots for spread

As many school districts prepare to reopen campuses, some experts fear classrooms will become the next incubators for large coronavirus outbreaks.

Advocates for resuming school in person, including President Donald Trump, have repeatedly claimed that children pose less of a risk of spreading COVID-19 and that the benefits outweigh the risks. About 6 out of 100,000 school-age kids are hospitalized with COVID-19 compared with the overall rate of 130 people per 100,000, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. However, a recent study estimated that closing schools in March reduced the rate of new COVID-19 cases by 66%.

“We show that it actually did make a difference in cases and in deaths," said lead study author Dr. Katherine Auger, an associate professor at the University of Cincinnati College of Medicine. "That was a very important thing society did.”

In an interview with Fox & Friends on Wednesday morning, Trump claimed children should return to school because they are “almost immune" or “virtually immune” from the disease.

The interview was posted on Trump's personal Facebook page, and later removed – it was the first time Facebook has removed a post by the president for violating its policies on COVID-19 misinformation.

Twitter hid the campaign's post of the interview, telling USA TODAY in a statement that  the "account owner will be required to remove the tweet before they can tweet again,"

Jayme Fraser, Dan Keemahill, and Jessica Guynn

NCAA releases requirements for schools hoping to play fall sports

The NCAA on Wednesday released a set of requirements for all schools wishing to complete fall sports competition. Although the NCAA left the decision on whether to hold fall sports up to individual divisions, it said divisions must determine the status of fall championships by Aug. 21.

"The board expressed serious concerns about the continuing high levels of COVID-19 infection in many parts of the nation," the NCAA statement read. "The board has determined that it will only support moving forward with fall championships and other postseason play if strict conditions are applied and adhered to."

Two of the requirements involve protecting players who choose to opt out. First, the school is required to honor the scholarship of any athlete who opts out, and each division must decide by Aug. 14 how opting out or having a season cut short would affect eligibility, and inform players of that decision. 

– Aria Gerson

Coronavirus in Lebanon: 'Struggling' health system devastated by Beirut explosion

A massive, deadly explosion that rocked Lebanon's capital city of Beirut has put a further strain on the nation's health system, which was already running short on personal protective equipment and grappling with more than 5,200 cases of COVID-19.

Several hospitals were damaged in the explosion – which killed at least 135 people and wounded thousands – and those still working were overwhelmed with patients, the International Committee of the Red Cross said in a series of tweets.

"After months of a spiraling economic crisis and battling the coronavirus pandemic, Lebanon was already in a fragile state," the ICRC said. "The health system was already struggling to respond to the mounting health needs. Now it is totally overwhelmed."

At Hôtel Dieu, a university hospital in Beirut, oncologist Hampig Kourieh was just finishing his shift when the explosion happened. He described "hundreds of people covered in blood arriving on foot, cars and bikes ... the scene was apocalyptic."

The smell of blood, Kourieh said, was so strong it was like "iron was covering the ER."

– Nadia Al Faour, special for USA TODAY

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Beirut explosion may be tied to ammonium nitrate stored for years
Lebanese authorities believe the deadly Beirut explosion could be tied to highly explosive ammonium nitrate, which was stored at the port for years.

Georgia schools face questions after viral back-to-school photos surface

Two suburban Atlanta school districts that began in-person classes Monday with mask-optional policies face more questions about COVID-19 safety protocols after on-campus pictures showed students packed shoulder-to-shoulder.

In Cherokee County, dozens of seniors gathered at two of the district's six high schools to take traditional first-day-of-school senior photos, with students squeezing together in black outfits. In Paulding County, student pictures taken Monday and Tuesday show crowded hallways at North Paulding High School in Dallas, Georgia. Fewer than half of the students shown are wearing masks.

In Columbia County, the school district has already confirmed its first COVID-19 case.

– Miguel Legoas, The Augusta Chronicle; The Associated Press

Virginia is first state to roll out app to detect virus exposure

Virginia on Wednesday became the first state to roll out a smartphone app to automatically notify people if they might have been exposed to the coronavirus. The new pandemic technology, created by Apple and Google, is available in Apple and Android app stores as of Wednesday. The app relies on Bluetooth wireless technology to detect when someone who downloaded the app has spent time near another app user who later tests positive for the virus. State officials said the app doesn’t track user location or collect personal information.

"We’re using every possible approach to fight this virus and keep Virginians healthy," Virginia Gov. Northam said in a statement.

Joe Biden won't go to Milwaukee to claim Democratic nomination

When Milwaukee landed the 2020 Democratic National Convention more than a year ago, city leaders hoped 50,000 people would flood into town for four non-stop days and nights of politics. Now even the party's nominee isn't going.

Officials announced that Joe Biden will accept the party's nod from his home in Delaware – and the other convention speakers won't travel to Wisconsin, either. Organizers cited the "worsening coronavirus pandemic." 

“This convention will look different than any previous convention in history," said Joe Solmonese, the convention's chief executive. "It will reach more people than ever before, and truly be a convention across America for all Americans, regardless of which party you belong to or who you’ve voted for in previous elections."

Bill Glauber, Milwaukee Journal Sentinel

Florida surpasses 500,000 virus cases

Florida became the second state to confirm more than 500,000 cases of COVID-19. The state Department of Health on Wednesday reported 5,409 new cases, bringing the state's total to 502,739. California leads the nation, with more than 526,000 cases, according to data collected by Johns Hopkins University. 

Florida also announced an additional 225 deaths, bringing the state's seven-day rolling average for reported deaths to a record 184.86. The state death toll now stands at 7,627.

Cheryl McCloud, Treasure Coast Newspapers

Chicago Public Schools to start online-only this year

Chicago Public Schools are joining a lengthening line of major school systems that will start the academic year fully online. The district, which had initially planned to launch a hybrid online and in-person model starting Sept. 8, said Wednesday the continued uptick in coronavirus cases and concerns from parents urged them to adjust the plan.

Tens of thousands of families indicated in a district survey that they did not intend to send their children to school. And the city’s teacher’s union threatened to go on strike over concerns about in-person classes. The district said it will consider switching to a hybrid learning model in the second quarter, which begins on Nov. 9. 

Los Angeles, San Diego, San Francisco and Miami are among other major cities starting the school year online-only.

Cruise lines extend moratorium on cruises through October

The cruise industry has voluntarily extended its pause on operations in U.S. waters until "at least" Oct. 31, a month past the date the Center for Disease Control and Prevention's "no-sail" order is set to expire. CLIA's member lines carry 95% of the world's ocean-going cruisers. The new order will apply to all CLIA member ships that can carry 250 or more passengers.

"We believe it is prudent at this time to voluntarily extend the suspension of U.S. ocean-going cruise operations to Oct. 31," Cruise Lines International Association, the major trade organization for ocean-going cruise lines, said in a statement.

Morgan Hines

UConn is first bowl-level college football program to cancel season

The University of Connecticut football team became the first bowl-level program to cancel its 2020 season Wednesday, citing an "unacceptable risk level" faced by the student athletes.

UConn, which plays as an independent, had games against Illinois, Indiana, Maine and Mississippi dropped from the schedule due to "conference-only" schedules being played by those schools. Games against North Carolina and Virginia might have faced the same fate. The players released a joint statement through the school citing "full support of the decision to not compete in 2020."

Several schools in college football's lower divisions, including the entire Ivy League, also have canceled their seasons.

Chris Bumbaca

Alaska cruise ship quarantines after passenger tests positive

One of the first cruise ships to resume overnight sailing in U.S. waters since the pandemic shut down the cruise industry has reported one case of COVID-19. Passengers are quarantining on board UnCruise Adventures' Wilderness Adventurer "until the state of Alaska deems it safe for them to return home," according to a travel alert posted on the cruise line's website. The ship was able to bypass the federal no-sail order because its capacity is less than 250 passengers and crew.

"The guest is showing no symptoms and no other guests or crew are showing outward symptoms of any kind," the cruise line said. "All guests have been informed and will quarantine until the state of Alaska deems it safe for them to return home."

Hannah Yasharoff and Morgan Hines

What we're reading

US buys 100 million doses of Johnson & Johnson vaccine candidate

Johnson & Johnson announced a deal with the U.S. government for 100 million doses of its SARS-CoV-2 vaccine candidate, Ad26.COV2.S, for use in the United States – if and when the vaccine wins Food and Drug Administration approval. The government may also purchase an additional 200 million doses, the company said in announcing the $1 billion deal. A clinical trial is underway, and the company said it is evaluating one- and two-dose regimens. The plan is to provide more than 1 billion non-for-profit doses globally through the course of 2021.

"We are scaling up production in the U.S. and worldwide to deliver a SARS-CoV-2 vaccine for emergency use," said Dr. Paul Stoffels, Johnson & Johnson's chief scientific officer.

517 inmates at Arizona prison test positive for COVID-19

More than 500 inmates at the Arizona State Prison Complex Tucson Whetstone Unit have tested positive for COVID-19, authorities said. The 517 inmates, almost half the unit's population of 1,066, are being housed together in separate areas and receiving medical care, according to a statement released by the Arizona Department of Corrections, Rehabilitation and Reentry.

The department did not immediately respond to questions, including when tests were performed and whether every inmate there was tested. The tests came after inmates at the Whetstone Unit staged a peaceful walkout last week due to virus concerns.

Audrey Jensen, Arizona Republic

Moderna in talks with 'several countries' for vaccine candidate

Biotech giant Moderna said Wednesday it expects to fully enroll 30,000 volunteers in the crucial Phase 3 study of its COVID-19 vaccine next month. Moderna's vaccine candidate, backed by almost $1 billion in federal funding, last week became the nation's first to begin such a large trial. It's being tested at scores of sites in the U.S., with results expected as soon as October.

"We began discussions with several countries for supply agreements for (vaccine candidate) mRNA-1273 and as of July 31, we have received approximately $400 million of customer deposits for potential supply," Moderna said in a statement.

The announcement came one day after Novavax released promising results from a small, early trial. AstraZeneca, Pfizer and a group of Chinese researchers also have released promising early trial results, and China has begun providing its candidate vaccine to members of its military.

By the numbers: Record deaths in California, Florida, Georgia

A USA TODAY analysis of Johns Hopkins data through late Tuesday shows one state set records for new cases in a week while three states had a record number of deaths in a week. New case records were set in Hawaii, and also Puerto Rico. Record numbers of deaths were reported in California, Florida and Georgia. The United States has reported 4,771,080 cases and 156,801 deaths.

– Mike Stucka

More COVID-19 resources from USA TODAY

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Contributing: Elinor Aspegren, UISA TODAY; The Associated Press