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AP News in Brief at 6:04 a.m. EDT

| March 28, 2020 3:27 AM

Trump signs $2.2T stimulus after swift congressional votes

WASHINGTON (AP) — President Donald Trump signed an unprecedented $2.2 trillion economic rescue package into law after swift and near-unanimous action by Congress to support businesses, rush resources to overburdened health care providers and help struggling families during the deepening coronavirus epidemic.

Acting with unity and resolve unseen since the 9/11 attacks, Washington moved urgently to stem an economic free fall caused by widespread restrictions meant to slow the spread of the virus that have shuttered schools, closed businesses and brought American life in many places to a virtual standstill.

“This will deliver urgently needed relief," Trump said as he signed the bill Friday in the Oval Office, flanked only by Republican lawmakers. He thanked members of both parties for putting Americans “first."

Earlier Friday, the House gave near-unanimous approval by voice vote after an impassioned session conducted along the social distancing guidelines imposed by the crisis. Many lawmakers sped to Washington to participate — their numbers swollen after a maverick Republican signaled he'd try to force a roll call vote — though dozens of others remained safely in their home districts.

The Senate passed the bill unanimously late Wednesday.

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UK's Johnson virus positive as new outbreaks appear in US

British Prime Minister Boris Johnson became the first leader of a major country to test positive for the coronavirus while disturbing new outbreaks appeared in the United States, deaths surged in Italy and Spain and the world warily trudged through the pandemic that has sickened more than a half-million people.

As different populations strive for cures, Iranian media reported nearly 300 people have been killed and more than 1,000 sickened by ingesting methanol as a purported safeguard against the disease.

More than 595,000 people have contracted the virus around the world and about 27,000 have died. While the U.S. now leads the world in reported infections, five countries exceed its roughly 1,700 deaths: Italy, Spain, China, Iran and France.

Johnson announced he tested positive for the virus but was continuing to work from self-quarantine. Another casualty was a conference to review the implementation of the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty, postponed indefinitely.

The treaty is considered the cornerstone of global efforts to prevent the spread of nuclear weapons and the 191 parties hold a major conference every five years to discuss how it is working. The meeting had been scheduled to begin on April 27 at U.N. headquarters in New York.

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Virus coordinator Birx is Trump's data-whisperer

WASHINGTON (AP) — For many in the public health and political worlds, Dr. Deborah Birx is the sober scientist advising an unpredictable president. She's the data whisperer who will help steer President Donald Trump as he ponders how quickly to restart an economy that's ground to a halt in the coronavirus pandemic.

Others worry that Birx, who stepped away from her job as the U.S. global AIDS coordinator to help lead the White House coronavirus response, may be offering Trump cover to follow some of his worst instincts as he considers whether to have people packing the pews by Easter Sunday.

In coming days, immunologist Birx will be front and center in that debate along with the U.S. government's foremost infection disease expert, Dr. Anthony Fauci, as well as Vice President MIke Pence. Birx will bring to the discussion what she fondly refers to as her sheet music — data on testing, mortality, demographics and much more.

“What the president has asked us to do is to assemble all the data and give him our best medical recommendation based on all the data,” Birx told reporters. “This is consistent with our mandate to really use every piece of information that we can in order to give the president our opinion that’s backed up by data.”

But will Trump listen?

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'Choppy waters' await Navy as virus strikes aircraft carrier

WASHINGTON (AP) — The Navy, the military service hit hardest by the coronavirus, scrambled to contain its first at-sea outbreak, with at least two dozen infected aboard the USS Theodore Roosevelt, one of 11 active aircraft carriers whose mission is central to the Pentagon's strategy for deterring war with China and Iran.

The Roosevelt and its contingent of warplanes may be sidelined for days, sitting pier side in Guam as the entire crew — more than 5,000 — is tested. Navy leaders say the carrier could return to duty at any time if required, but the sudden setback is seen as a harbinger of more trouble to come.

“The Navy is headed into choppy waters in terms of readiness in the months ahead,” says retired Adm. James Stavridis, a former ship commander who rose to become NATO's top commander in Europe.

In Asia, a carrier presence is central to what the Pentagon has identified as a fundamental shift from fighting insurgent and extremist conflicts in the Middle East to a return to “great power competition." That means, principally, a bigger focus on China, including its militarization of disputed areas of the South China Sea.

The carrier, like other Navy ships, is vulnerable to infectious disease spread given its close quarters. The massive ship is more than 1,000 feet long; sailors are spread out across a labyrinth of decks linked by steep ladder-like stairs and narrow corridors. Enlisted sailors and officers have separate living quarters, but they routinely grab their food from crowded buffet lines and eat at tables joined end-to-end.

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Hawks no more: Fiscal conservatives embrace rescue package

NEW YORK (AP) — Republicans who have spent the past decade howling about the danger of ballooning deficits embraced the mammoth coronavirus rescue package approved by Congress this week, shrugging off past concerns about the nation's spending in the face of a public health crisis.

In many cases, the conservatives who backed the $2 trillion bill — the largest economic relief bill in U.S. history — were the very same who raged against the nearly $800 billion economic stimulus package backed by the Obama administration.

But facing the unprecedented threat of a global pandemic — and working under a Republican president who has largely brushed off concerns about debt and deficits — the GOP has been willing to overlook an unprecedented flood of taxpayer spending. Leading budget hawk Sen. Pat Toomey, R-Pa., who insisted in 2009 that government cannot spend its way out of a recession, this week joined a unanimous Senate majority that approved what he described as “the biggest government intervention in the economy in the history of the world.”

“This is a response to an invasion," he told reporters. “This is the kind of thing you’d have to do if we were at war.”

Like other conservatives, he noted that much of the nation's current economic distress was caused by the government's social distancing orders, while the Obama stimulus was in response to a crisis created by the private sector.

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Trump boosts virus aid, warns governors to be 'appreciative'

WASHINGTON (AP) — After days of desperate pleas from the nation’s governors, President Donald Trump took a round of steps to expand the federal government’s role in helping produce critically needed supplies to fight the coronavirus pandemic even as he warned the leaders of hard-hit states not to cross him.

“I want them to be appreciative,” Trump said Friday after the White House announced that he would be using the powers granted to him under the Korean War-era Defense Production Act to try to compel auto giant General Motors to produce ventilators.

Yet Trump — who hours earlier had suggested the need for the devices was being overblown — rejected any criticism of the federal government's response to a ballooning public health crisis that a month ago he predicted would be over by now.

“We have done a hell of a job," Trump said, as he sent an ominous message to state and local leaders who have been urging the federal government to do more to help them save lives.

Trump said he had instructed Vice President Mike Pence not to call the governors of Washington or Michigan — two coronavirus hotspots — because of their public criticism. “If they don’t treat you right, I don't call,” Trump said.

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Joseph Lowery, civil rights leader and MLK aide, dies at 98

ATLANTA (AP) — The Rev. Joseph E. Lowery fought to end segregation, lived to see the election of the country’s first black president and echoed the call for “justice to roll down like waters and righteousness like a mighty stream” in America.

For more than four decades after the death of his friend and civil rights icon, the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., the fiery Alabama preacher was on the front line of the battle for equality, with an unforgettable delivery that rivaled King’s — and was often more unpredictable. Lowery had a knack for cutting to the core of the country’s conscience with commentary steeped in scripture, refusing to back down whether the audience was a Jim Crow racist or a U.S. president.

“We ask you to help us work for that day when black will not be asked to get in back; when brown can stick around; when yellow will be mellow; when the red man can get ahead, man; and when white will embrace what is right,” Lowery prayed at President Barack Obama’s inaugural benediction in 2009.

Lowery, 98, died Friday at home in Atlanta, surrounded by family members, they said in a statement.

He died from natural causes unrelated to the coronavirus outbreak, the statement said.

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With virus, cherished Mideast traditions come to abrupt halt

BAGHDAD (AP) — Under the sign “Take out only” and a tall bottle of antiseptic by his side, Mazin Hashim, 54, rearranged the coals heating a water pipe outside his famed cafe in Baghdad.

He put up the placard to satisfy recent government restrictions on movement and gatherings that are aimed at slowing the outbreak of the new coronavirus. Once inside, however, thick white plumes of fragrant smoke choked the air as over a dozen young men whiled away the hours in defiance of the directives.

As the pandemic continues to spread, governments across the Middle East are clamping down on the region's cherished traditions: No more massive weddings and celebrations. Restrictions on sales of qat, a mild plant narcotic chewed in groups in Yemen. No more evenings spent mostly by men in traditional coffee shops across the region. And most importantly, no more smoking of the beloved shisha, or water pipe, in public places.

In a region where life is often organized around large families, communal meals and tribal rules, social distancing can be difficult.

In Iraq, clarion calls sound twice a day to remind people to adhere to the ban on public gatherings. But that has little impact at Hashim's shisha parlor, second home to 29-year-old Mustafa Ahmed who comes every day to meet friends and seek solace from the monotony of domestic life.

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Plans to fly German vacationers home from Australia in doubt

SYDNEY (AP) — Authorities on Saturday were still hoping to fly 800 cruise ship passengers from Australia to Germany this weekend, but a sharp overnight rise in cases of the new coronavirus on board brought severe complications for the repatriation mission.

The Artania is one of three cruise ships anchored off Fremantle, south of Perth, causing problems for both the state government of Western Australia and the federal administration in Canberra.

Officials had planned to fly the 800 non-Australian passengers aboard from Perth, the state capital, to Germany on three chartered flights this weekend, before the ship departs Australian waters.

But an increas from nine known COVID-19 patients — who disembarked to enter quarantine on Friday — to more than 70 on Saturday cast severe doubt on the plan. The state government now fears that at the least those passengers displaying symptoms will not be allowed to board the flights, while local media reported that the entire plan was in doubt.

Given the known rapid rate at which COVID-19 is passed on, authorities were said to be closely monitoring the situation before making a decision on whether the flights would go ahead.

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AP Week in Pictures, Global

MARCH 21 - 27, 2020

This photo gallery highlights some of the most compelling images made or published by Associated Press photographers around the world.

The gallery was curated by AP photo editor Patrick Sison in New York.

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