It’s “very likely” Colorado students will spend rest of school year learning remotely, Polis says

Gov. Jared Polis may have dashed the hopes of homebound teachers, parents and students across Colorado on Monday, reiterating that in-class education is not likely to resume this academic year due to the state’s ongoing social-distancing measures.

“It is very likely that you won’t be able to resume normal classroom activities this school year,” Polis said during a news conference updating the public on efforts to combat the coronavirus outbreak. “The school year hasn’t been called off yet statewide; we’re always hopeful. But districts have been preparing for that. That’s the likelihood.”

About two weeks ago, Polis ordered all public and private schools statewide to close their doors until at least April 17 in a bid to stop the spread of the highly contagious respiratory illness COVID-19.

But even before he issued that order, as schools across Colorado opted on their own to shut down in-person learning, Polis said it was “increasingly unlikely” students would return to the classroom before summer break.

Denver Public Schools officials said Monday they are “working closely with state and local officials and health experts” on the question of whether classroom education will resume before the end of the academic year.

In the meantime, schools around Colorado have abruptly pivoted to remote learning to keep students engaged. The drastic change hasn’t always rolled out smoothly.

On Monday, as the Boulder Valley School District launched its first day of remote learning, the widely-used online education management system Schoology crashed for some users, including those within the Boulder district.

On Twitter, Schoology officials said some users experienced temporary performance issues due to increased usage.

Carolyn Nohe, spokeswoman for Boulder Valley , said the platform was back up in about an hour and that learning wasn’t impacted Monday.

Denver Public Schools has yet to begin its remote learning journey; that begins April 7.

 

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Another attempt to move ahead on coronavirus aid package snags – The Denver Post

WASHINGTON — President Donald Trump expressed qualms Monday about extending the current 15-day shutdown recommended by the federal government, even as his officials warned that the coronavirus crisis is deepening and Congress ran into more roadblocks trying to complete a nearly $2 trillion economic rescue package.

At the Capitol, tempers flared and emotions were raw as senators wrangled over critically needed aid. Democrats blocked another vote to advance the package, trying to steer more of the assistance to public health and workers. They argue the package is tilted toward corporations.

Trump sounded a note of impatience about the two weeks of suspended public activities his administration recommended Americans live through starting a week ago. In all capital letters, he tweeted: “We cannot let the cure be worse than the problem itself. At the end of the 15-day period, we will make a decision as to which way we want to go.”

His suggestion that the remedies may be more harmful than the outbreak contradicts the advice of medical experts across the country.

House Speaker Nancy Pelosi assailed Trump’s apparent wavering on the federal response and statements he’s made about the pandemic that some of his public-health officials have had to walk back.

“He’s a notion-monger, just tossing out things that have no relationship to a well coordinated, science-based, government-wide response to this,” she said on a health-care conference call. “Thank God for the governors who are taking the lead in their state. Thank God for some of the people in the administration who speak truth to power.”

A week ago, the White House came out with a “15 Days to Stop the Spread” plan that encouraged Americans to work from home and avoid bars, restaurants and discretionary travel, as well as groups of more than 10 people. It also told older Americans and those with serious underlying health conditions that they should stay home and away from other people.

Since then, states that have become hot spots for the virus have implemented even more radical measures, which the White House has applauded.

Yet on Sunday, Vice President Mike Pence said the country should expect new federal guidance “which will make it possible for people that have been exposed to return to work more quickly with — by wearing a mask for a certain period of time.”

On Monday, Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin was back on Capitol Hill after officials worked through the night on the massive economic rescue plan.

“We’re making a lot of progress,” Mnuchin said midday as he shuttled through the halls.

The top Senate Democrat, Chuck Schumer of New York, said: “We’re very close to reaching a deal.” Yet, another attempt to move the package forward snagged.

At the Capitol, the virus has struck close. Republican Sen. Rand Paul of Kentucky, who announced he tested positive for coronavirus, is now among five senators under self-quarantine. Several other lawmakers have cycled in and out of isolation. And the husband of Sen. Amy Klobuchar, D-Minn., is in a hospital with pneumonia after testing positive, she said Monday.

Democrats are holding out as they arguing the package is tilted toward corporations and did too little to help workers and health care providers. Schumer said earlier the bill would “affect this country and the lives of Americans, not just for the next few days, but in the next few months and years — so we have to make sure it is good.”

As talks progressed, Pelosi came out with the House Democrats’ own sweeping bill, urging Senate negotiators “to move closer to the values” in it. “We must be bold and forward looking,” she said.

Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell fumed, warning Democrats — and Pelosi in particular — to quit stalling on “political games” and strike a deal. Other Republicans joined with fiery arguments on the Senate floor.

“It’s time to get with the program, time to pass historic relief,” McConnell said as he opened the chamber. “The eyes of the nation are on the Senate.”

Trump has also balked at using his authority under the recently invoked Defense Protection Act to compel the private sector to manufacture needed medical supplies like masks and ventilators, even as he encourages them to spur production. “We are a country not based on nationalizing our business,” said Trump, who has repeatedly railed against socialism overseas and among Democrats.

On Monday, Democratic presidential rival Joe Biden criticized Trump for stopping short of using the full force of emergency federal authority .

“Trump keeps saying he’s a wartime president,” Biden said in an online address from his Delaware home. “Well, start acting like one.”

On the economic front, the Federal Reserve announced Monday it will lend to small and large businesses and local governments as well as extend its bond-buying programs as part of a series of sweeping steps to support the flow of credit through an economy ravaged by the viral outbreak.

With a population on edge and shell-shocked financial markets entering a new work week, Washington labored under the size and scope of a rescue package that’s more ambitious than any in recent times — larger than the 2008 bank bailout and 2009 recovery act combined.

Democrats are particularly fighting for constraints on the largely Republican-led effort to provide $500 billion for corporations. Democrats call that a “slush fund.”

Democrats won a concession — to provide four months of expanded unemployment benefits, rather than just three as proposed, according to an official granted anonymity to discuss the private talks. The jobless pay also would extend to self-employed and so-called gig workers.

But Republicans complained Democrats were holding out for more labor protections for workers, wanting assurances that corporations taking federal aid will commit to retaining their employees.

Alarms were being sounded from coast to coast about the wave of coronavirus cases about to crash onto the nation’s health system.

New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio said from the pandemic’s U.S. epicenter: “April and May are going to be a lot worse.” On NBC’s “Meet the Press,” he all but begged Washington to help procure ventilators and other medical supplies and accused the Republican president of “not lifting a finger” to help.

Trump urged Congress to get a deal done and, during the Sunday briefing, responded to criticism that his administration was sluggish to act. He cited his cooperation with the three states hardest hit — New York, Washington and California — and invoked a measure to give governors flexibility in calling up the national guard under their control, while the federal government covers the bill.

But even as Trump stressed federal-local partnerships, some governors, including Republican Greg Abbott of Texas, expressed unhappiness with Washington’s response. The president himself took a swipe at Democratic Gov. J. B. Pritzker of Illinois, saying that he and “a very small group of certain other Governors, together with Fake News” should not be “blaming the Federal Government for their own shortcomings.”

The urgency to act is mounting, as jobless claims skyrocket and financial markets are eager for signs that Washington can soften the blow of the health-care crisis and what experts say is a looming recession.

Central to the package is as much as $350 billion for small businesses to keep making payroll while workers are forced to stay home. There is also a one-time rebate check of about $1,200 per person, or $3,000 for a family of four, as well as the extended unemployment benefits.

Hospitals would get about $110 billion for the expected influx of sick patients, said Mnuchin.

For most people, the new coronavirus causes only mild or moderate symptoms, such as fever and cough. For some, especially older adults and people with existing health problems, it can cause more severe illness, including pneumonia. The vast majority of people recover from the new virus. According to the World Health Organization, people with mild illness recover in about two weeks, while those with more severe illness may take three to six weeks to recover.

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Sourcing & Methodology

Bev Banks contributed. Associated Press writers Jill Colvin, Colleen Long, Hope Yen, Mary Clare Jalonick, Ricardo Alonso-Zaldivar, Alan Fram and Padmananda Rama contributed to this report.

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Denver stay-at-home order takes effect — after one final sunny afternoon

Denver residents couldn’t have asked for a nicer afternoon Tuesday to get in their final trips to clothing stores, playgrounds and at least one ice cream shop.

At 5 p.m., mobile phones blared with the city’s public safety alert. It was a notification most knew was coming: The city is effectively closed down for at least two weeks, the result of a stay-at-home order announced Monday by Mayor Michael Hancock that grants some exceptions. It’s the latest effort aimed at slowing the spread of the coronavirus.

Those final hours allowed small moments of escape before the city retreats inside.

At Commons Park near downtown, dozens of people walked, threw balls for their dogs, lounged on the grassy hill under the sun and filled the air with laughter as they picnicked in groups — largely well-spaced from one another. Many of those activities, save for individual exercise, are now banned in parks.

Lauren Danielson, 36, and her partner, Rossinni Alba, 32, relished the fresh air as they kicked a soccer ball. They live nearby.

“Before this announcement, we had interactions with maybe one or two of our friends — like a total of four people over the last couple of weeks,” Danielson said. “We’re planning on cutting off any interaction with people that isn’t 6 feet away. I’m just trusting that they know what they’re talking about,” she said of city officials, “and that this is going to be what’s best. It’s not the worst thing in the world to be ordered to sit on my couch and watch TV.”

Hancock’s order also closes “nonessential businesses” and some public places. It will last until April 10, unless he decides to extend it.

The order allows residents to venture out to buy groceries, visit doctors, fill medications and exercise. And it includes a host of exemptions that allow some kinds of businesses to keep their doors open or their employees on site. But more Denver employers face a decision between shifting most employees to working from home Wednesday or, if that’s not an option, closing down temporarily.

Little Man Ice Cream took a cue from the city’s order and went on hiatus at 5 Tuesday at all of its Denver locations, though they weren’t required to. Some other ice cream shops are staying open, offering takeout or delivery service, but business has been slow for most, including Little Man.

Michael Pannier was among a half-dozen people in line a few minutes before 5 at its iconic giant milk can in Lower Highland, there to buy pints while his pregnant wife waited in the car.

In Stapleton, Central Park’s playgrounds — now closed — were popular throughout the afternoon, but some other parks, particularly in west Denver, offered quieter respite.

Chad Hadersbeck and Rory Conrad threw a Frisbee on the trail near Paco Sanchez Park. Conrad said they go to the park about twice a month and hope to keep doing so.

“I feel like everything changes day-to-day, but if that’s what we’ve got to do to keep everyone safe, we need to do it,” Hadersbeck said of the city’s new rules.

New restrictions in a new reality

Denver’s stay-at-home order was the first to be announced in the metro area, with Boulder and several other areas beginning to follow suit. So far, Gov. Jared Polis has held off on a statewide stay-at-home order.

Such an edict adds just a few more restrictions to the already-drastic changes many residents have made in just a couple weeks. But for those who have shirked the city’s and state’s prior guidance, the order means big changes.

In his announcement, Hancock lamented that Denver’s city’s parks drew huge crowds over the weekend. City parks will still be open, but the order prohibits pretty much any outdoor activity at them except for individual or family exercise. Playgrounds, dog parks, tennis and basketball courts, and golf courses will be closed.

“This isn’t a recommendation anymore,” Hancock said Monday.

Denver was still adjusting Tuesday evening. On East Colfax Avenue, foot traffic remained consistent as the deadline came and went, though there were fewer people than usual at that time. On the patio at Atomic Cowboy, couples sat and chatted around 5:45 p.m.

A couple hours earlier, Lorenzo Mathis, 36, killed time with his fiancee in front of Union Station downtown while waiting for a bus back home to Stapleton. His job at Walmart will continue feeding his five children, for now. But he was skeptical about Hancock’s action.

“I think it’s too early to make the right call. You’re sending out a big panic to millions of” metro-area residents, he said. “We saw what happened (Monday) as soon as they made the call.”

Hancock’s initial order inadvertently set off a mad rush to liquor stores and marijuana shops — even those outside city limits — causing the kinds of lines and crowds he meant to discourage. Hours later, the mayor reversed the decision to treat those businesses as nonessential.

Retail outlets slim down staffs or close

Other types of businesses aren’t so fortunate.

In Stapleton, the often-bustling streets and sidewalks of Northfield shopping center were unusually quiet at 3:30 p.m. Tuesday and eerily so an hour later, when employees erected large, red A-frame signs at the entrances to make the retail district’s closure official.

Whimsy Studios co-owner Stine Hildre said after seeing little traffic these past two weeks, the stay-at-home order has meant layoffs. The store will keep one full-time employee, plus her. Hildre’s husband and co-owner is a National Guard medic who’s helping with the coronavirus response.

“We’re switching our business model from in-studio painting classes to online painting classes,” Hildre said. “We have these to-go kits that people can take home — and then we have a video on our website, so they can follow along.”

The 16th Street Mall, too, was oddly quiet near Lower Downtown even before the deadline.

On Wazee Street, the iconic store Rockmount Ranch Wear was dark. But the notice in its window was optimistic: “When Papa Jack founded Rockmount in 1946 he weathered all kinds of challenges, same as all businesses over time. This too will pass.”

Even some small businesses that can stay open under the city’s order are struggling. Intermountain Radiator and Muffler on Federal Boulevard at West 25th Avenue has seen business nosedive, with about 10% of normal customer traffic coming through Tuesday, owner Riley Meehan said.

“I think it’s because people are scared,” said Meehan, who has had the shop for 40 years. Still, he feels the measures taken are necessary.

“The small businessman should really understand that they’re there to support society,” he said, “and it’s not the government’s job to support them.”

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‘It’s not funny!’ Germany BANS April Fool’s Day jokes amid coronavirus lockdown

April 1 is traditionally a time for pranks, but other countries around the world, including India, have issued similar pleas amid concerns about the spread of false information – with some even going so far as to threaten culprits with prison. Meanwhile, Tech giant Google, famous for its annual spoofs, has cancelled the tradition because of the pandemic which has killed about 40,000 people worldwide. Under the heading “Corona is no joke”, Germany’s health ministry urged the public to invent stories related to the virus.

In the current situation, we kindly ask you to do without made-up stories on the subject of coronavirus on April 1st this year

Germany’s health ministry

It explained: “In the current situation, we kindly ask you to do without made-up stories on the subject of coronavirus on April 1st this year.

“This minimises the risk that the fight against the virus is made more difficult by incorrect information on the subject.”

Out of a worldwide total of more than 860,000 cases of COVID-19, Germany currently has 71,808, with 775 deaths.

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Elsewhere, Thailand said jokes about the virus could be punished under a law carrying a sentence of up to five years in prison.

The Government’s official Twitter account warned: “It’s against the law to fake having COVID-19 this April Fools’ Day.”

Taiwan’s President Tsai Ing-wen took to Facebook to tell people not to prank about the virus, adding that anyone spreading rumours or false information could likewise spend time behind bars, plus a fine of up to £80,000 ($99,200).

In India, Maharashtra state’s cybersecurity unit pledged to take legal action against anyone spreading fake news on April Fools’ Day.

Maharashtra Home Minister Anil Deshmukh tweeted: “The state govt won’t allow anyone to spread rumours/panic on #Corona.”

He had instructed the authorities to “act swiftly & strongly (against) such miscreants”, Mr Deshmukh added.

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In the UK, a Department of Health and Social Care spokesman told Express.co.uk there were no plans to follow Germany’s example and issue a similar Twitter directive.

April Fool’s Day traditions are widespread throughout the world. In one famous prank in 1957, BBC’s Panorama ran a feature about Swiss farmers picking freshly grown spaghetti and was subsequently deluged with inquiries about where to buy a spaghetti plant from people taken in by the joke.

In Odesa in Ukraine, April Fool’s Day is an official holiday.

With people relying on the internet and media for vital information about coronavirus, there are fears that jokes could fan the spread of misinformation.

From drinking cow urine to sleeping by chopped onions, myths about how people can catch and cure COVID-19 are already widely circulating.

The World Health Organization (WHO) has described it as an “infodemic”, which could increase the spread of the virus among vulnerable people.

Google said it had suspended its annual April Fools’ tradition “out of respect for all those fighting the COVID-19 pandemic”.

In an internal email to staff, it said: “Our highest goal right now is to be helpful to people, so let’s save the jokes for next April, which will undoubtedly be a whole lot brighter than this one.”

In previous years Google has advertised fictitious jobs at a new research centre on the moon, turned Google Maps into a game of Where’s Waldo – also known as Where’s Wally – and claimed its search technology uses trained pigeons to rank pages.

Taylor Herring, a British PR agency whose clients include TV channels and international brands, has also advised all companies to ditch the jokes this year.

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Heroic OAP sacrifices herself to save younger coronavirus victims – ‘I’ve had good life’

Suzanne Hoylaerts from Binkom, near Lubbeek in Belgium, refused a potentially life-saving ventilator to help her battle the coronavirus disease before she died in hospital. The pensioner was admitted to hospital after displaying COVID-19 symptoms including shortness of breath and a loss of appetite.

She was then placed in isolation after testing positive for the invisible killer disease.

However, this is where Ms Hoylaerts quickly deteriorated and doctors offered her a ventilator.

But she refused, reportedly telling doctors: “I don’t want to use artificial respiration.

“Save it for younger patients. I already had a good life.”

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She died two days after being admitted to hospital.

Her grieving daughter Judithtold Dutch newspaper Het Laatste Nieuws: “I can’t say goodbye to her and I don’t even have a chance to attend her funeral.”

The family are unsure how Ms Hoylaerts came to contract coronavirus because she was following the strict lockdown rules in Belgium.

Belgium on Tuesday imposed its coronavirus lockdown restrictions to continue until April 12.

The nation imposed a lockdown on Wednesday, March 18 in effect for two-and-a-half weeks until April 5.

The EU has banned all non-essential travel to 30 countries in Europe.

Belgium’s coronavirus death toll is at 705, with 12,775 confirmed cases.

The news comes after a 12-year-old Belgian girl was named as the youngest victim to die of coronavirus in Europe.

Dr Emmanuel Andre, a government spokesman in Belgium, said the death of somebody so young “is a very rare occurrence” and the tragedy “shook us”.

Mr Andre said it was “an emotionally difficult moment, because it involves a child, and it has also upset the medical and scientific community.”

He added: “We are thinking of her family and friends. It is an event that is very rare, but one which upsets us greatly.”

Spokesman Steven Van Gucht said the girl had a fever for three days before her death and tested positive for coronavirus.

It comes amid concerns of a global shortage of ventilators that will be needed to treat critically ill patients suffering from coronavirus.

Ventilators are used to help people with respiratory difficulties to breathe.

They are high-tech versions of the “iron lungs” that kept people alive into the 1950s during fierce polio epidemics.

Worldwide, the devices have become shorthand for the rapid advance of the disease – but officials fear their stocks are inadequate.

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Ask Amy: It’s hard to party with “one-party” rule – The Denver Post

Dear Amy: I am an intellectual conservative, living in liberal and one-party Berkeley, California.

Time after time at dinner parties (even my own), the guests just assume that I am a liberal like they are.

When I tell them that I’m fairly conservative, they just don’t get it. They freely disparage “right-wing hillbillies” and say that all conservatives are “evil people.”

One time I countered, “Forty percent of the people in this country are not evil. They are good people. They just have different values from yours.”

The table became silent, they all glared at me, and the dinner party was ruined.

What is one to do? Must one just smile faintly and bear it? What can one say?

— Frustrated Republican in Berkeley

Dear Frustrated: Whenever I try to tackle a politics-adjacent question, the reader-responses range the gamut from people decrying my conservative hot takes, my liberal views, or my “both-sides-ism.” This tells me that people are avoiding nuance, context, or subtext.

My take on the phenomenon you describe is that one unexpected and unfortunate consequence of our president’s personal and public comportment is that it seems to have inspired a parallel mindset in the opposition. I do not lay the blame for the close-minded attitude of many progressives on the current administration; I simply note the parallels.

Each of us is entirely responsible for our own behavior. But the stereotyping and overall narrow-minded attitude you describe is something you might want to gently ask these liberal intellectuals to reflect upon. Practice a question: “Are you interested in learning more about how conservatives like me view current events — and what we are thinking about?”

Yes, it might be easier for you to simply sit through this sort of group-think, but you should not take the blame for “ruining” a gathering simply because you have asked people to be open-minded and rational. Nor do I think that you (or anyone) should feel forced to stay silent when others are being rude, crude, or reactionary.

Surely anyone worthy of being called a “liberal” should defend your right to speak your own mind, and should maintain an attitude of open-minded curiosity about people who think differently than they do.

Dear Amy: I’m a media producer with an emphasis on video production. I mainly work on documentaries, so I usually work with people who don’t have on-camera experience.

When I put microphones on people, I try to make small talk about whatever common subjects I can think of (sports, pets, kids, where they’re from, etc.). The goal is to loosen them up for when they have to talk on camera and to alleviate some tension regarding me, a stranger touching their body and clothes to properly place the mic and hide the cable. (I do always say, “I’m putting the mic here, is that OK?”)

Recently I put a mic on a very pregnant woman. I was going to say, “Congratulations on the pending arrival, I have a daughter myself and it’s great…”

Instead, I made a comment about the weather because I thought if I mentioned the pregnancy it would be akin to commenting on her body and I’m “woke” enough to know that people, especially women, don’t like that.

Was I correct in not acknowledging the pregnancy, or would using the pregnancy to relate on a “I’m a parent too” level be acceptable? Trying to make people comfortable and relaxed is my number one priority.

— Too Woke in Chicago?

Dear Too Woke: You understand the important role you have in helping to calm jittery nerves during what can be a nerve-wracking process. Your sensitivity is commendable.

No, you should not mention a woman’s pregnancy as you are helping to affix her mic. The main reason for this is because a person getting ready to be interviewed on camera should be concentrating on their own preparation. Pregnancy is a diverting topic to discuss just before being interviewed.

If a woman makes a reference to her own pregnancy, then yes — congratulate and briefly share your positive parenting experience with her, but the time for more leisurely chit chat is after the interview is wrapped.

Dear Amy: “Just Wondering” was worried about his girlfriend’s habit of texting a (male) co-worker after work-hours. I agree with you that any of us has the right to maintain friendships outside of the love-relationship, but Wondering’s girlfriend should show him her texts and reassure him. Secrecy makes all of this worse, maybe for no reason.

— Been There

Dear Been There: I agree.

(You can email Amy Dickinson at [email protected] or send a letter to Ask Amy, P.O. Box 194, Freeville, NY 13068. You can also follow her on Twitter @askingamy or Facebook.)

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Denmark ‘succeeds’ in social distancing as Nordic country prepares to lift lockdown

Denmark has reported a death toll of 77 since the coronavirus pandemic was first reported in January. The Nordic country announced the social distancing measures on March 11.

After two weeks in lockdown, the country announced an extension until after Easter.

Prime Minister Mette Frederiksen said: “We do see signs that we have succeeded in delaying the transmission of corona in Denmark.”

“The transmission is spreading slower than feared,

“Over the past week the number of hospital admissions has risen slightly slower than the week before and without the explosion in the numbers that we have seen in other countries.”

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“If we over the next two weeks across Easter keep standing together by staying apart, and if the numbers remain stable for the next two weeks, then the government will begin a gradual, quiet and controlled opening of our society again, at the other side of Easter”.

The Social Democrat leader warned that they would have to “tighten up even more instead” should the figures begin to rise after the lockdown is lifted.

Last week, the number of patients in hospitals due to Covid-19 nearly doubled from 254 to 533, according to numbers published by the Danish Health Authority.

Denmark has recorded 2,577 coronavirus cases in total.

Denmark’s measures are considerably tougher than those of other Nordic countries that remain open for business, but they are not as strict as the restrictions in more affected countries.

In countries like Italy or France citizens are only allowed to leave their houses to buy groceries, go to work if essential or for medical emergencies.

Denmark has closed schools, universities, day cares, restaurants, cafes, libraries, gyms and hair salons, and shut all borders to most foreigners.

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It also limited public gatherings to 10 or fewer people.

According to Frederiksen, lifting the lockdown would mean reopening schools and people working in shifts to avoid large concentrations of traffic and people.

The Danish Prime Minister said she intended to announce a plan for the first stage of a reopening by the end of the week.

She first must undergo a consultation with other parties in government.

Globally, the coronavirus death toll has reached 35,006.

The current number of infections worldwide has surpassed 738,400.

The two most affected countries are Italy and Spain, as Europe sees itself at the centre of the crisis.

In Finland the lockdown measures have been prolonged by a month in the southern area of the country.

The move will affect 1.7 million people who make up almost a third or the country’s population.

The restrictions were set out by the Prime Minister Sanna Marin’s government and were due to last until April 13.

The will now stay in place until May 13 in an attempt to “slow down the spread of coronavirus infections and to protect those at risk”.

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Grounded cabin crew get hospital training as Sweden battles coronavirus

STOCKHOLM (Reuters) – Furloughed crew from crisis-hit Scandinavian airline SAS are taking a three-day course in basic hospital duties to help plug gaps in a Swedish healthcare system strained by thousands of coronavirus cases.

The airline, part owned by the governments of Sweden and Denmark, temporarily laid off 10,000 staff – 90% of its workforce – this month to cut costs and ride out a plunge in air travel due the pandemic and related border closures.

With Stockholm’s healthcare system in need of reinforcement as cases rise, Sophiahemmet University Hospital is teaching former cabin crew skills such as sterilizing equipment, making hospital beds and providing information to patients and their relatives.

The first students are due to complete the course on Thursday and the response has been overwhelming.

“We now have a long, long list of healthcare providers that are just waiting for them,” said Johanna Adami, principal at the University. Airlines in Australia, and the U.S. have also enquired about using the training methods for their staff.

She said municipalities, hospitals and nursing homes have all been queuing up to employ the re-trained staff, who will number around 300 in the coming weeks. Adami said airline staff were particularly suited to helping in the healthcare sector.

“They have basic healthcare education from their work. They are also very experienced to be flexible and think about security and also to handle complicated situations,” she said.

Sweden has around 4,500 confirmed cases of the virus and 180 deaths, with the capital especially hard hit. Healthcare officials in Stockholm have scrambled to set up a temporary hospital in a convention center and warned of a lack off staff and safety equipment to meet the crisis.

Malin Ohman, 25, a airline stewardess from northern Sweden was in the first class of students.

“In the a blink of an eye I decided – ‘yes of course, why wouldn’t I’,” she said of her decision to retrain. “I felt that we could just contribute with something,” she added.

The course is free of charge and the companies involved with the training are not seeking to make a profit. Funding, about 7 million Swedish crowns ($698,000) is provided by the Marianne and Marcus Wallenberg foundation.

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Italy frets over lockdown, eyes eventual staggered re-opening

ROME (Reuters) – Italian health officials warned on Tuesday it was too soon to consider lifting lockdown restrictions, saying a deceleration in new cases of coronavirus should not raise hopes that the crisis was near an end.

The government announced on Monday that curbs on movement and business activities introduced nationwide on March 9 would stay in place until at least the Easter holidays in mid-April.

Politicians fear it will be hard to keep people penned up in their houses much beyond that date, especially as the daily medical bulletins start to improve, but doctors on the frontline of the fight against the disease urged caution.

“Today, official sources are suggesting that perhaps we can (lift restrictions) after Easter … It seems to me highly unrealistic to think this nightmare will end by then,” said Guido Marinoni, head of the doctors’ association in Bergamo, the northern city at the epicenter of Italy’s epidemic.

“If we let work resume (too soon), it will reignite the outbreak and the fire will return. This will cause devastating damage, not only for people but also for the whole economy,” he told a group of foreign reporters.

After days of steep rises in cases, the data this week has suggested the pace of growth is slowing, with new infections coming in at 4,053 on Tuesday – some 1,200 less than the daily rate recorded a week ago. Deaths have remained largely steady at over 800 a day.

“The sacrifices and effort we have made are beginning to bear fruit,” Giulio Gallera, the top health official in the northern region of Lombardy, told reporters, adding that there might be a gradual reopening after April 15.

In an effort to make the lockdown more bearable for families, the government said on Tuesday that parents would be allowed to take their children out for short walks around the block, although parks will remain closed.

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Italy was the first Western country to introduce swingeing restrictions on movement after uncovering the outbreak almost six weeks ago. It has tightened them week by week, banning all but core strategic activities, while shuttering restaurants, most shops, schools and universities.

The fragile Italian economy is expected to be plunged into a deep recession by the virus, with investment bank Goldman Sachs forecasting a contraction of 11.6%. This is putting huge pressure on the government to get business back up and running.

Industry Minister Stefano Patuanelli said on Tuesday that work restrictions would probably be lifted on a sector-by-sector basis, rather than on a geographical basis.

“Things will have to be reopened in stages, when people’s safety can be guaranteed. Today it is too early to do a timeline analysis. I think it will take a few more weeks before we get anywhere,” he told Radio 24.

Urging against complacency, Silvio Brusaferro, the head of the national health institute ISS, said it was vital to reduce the rate of infection – the number of people each coronavirus sufferer themselves infect.

At the start of the epidemic, the number was as high as four in Lombardy. It has now sunk to around one.

“The ideal is to go to zero … but reaching zero will be quite difficult until we get the vaccine,” Brusaferro told a news conference, adding that in the meantime Italy needed to aim for a level of around 0.5, or below.

However, it might take weeks to reach that point, making it hard for the government to reopen bars, cafes, cinemas and theaters where social distancing is difficult to patrol.

“We must avoid any measure that causes the curve (of cases) to climb again,” said Brusaferro, adding that Italy was in a tough position because it was the first Western country to be hit by the virus so was plotting a path for others to follow.

“There are no studies or literature on this … We are looking into scenarios that have never been taken before by countries that resemble Italy. Other nations are looking at us as a pilot program,” he said.

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India’s race to build a $650 ventilator

In an 8,000 sq ft (743 sq m) facility in the western Indian city of Pune, a bunch of young engineers are racing against time to develop a low-cost ventilator that could save thousands of lives if the coronavirus pandemic overwhelms the country’s hospitals.

These engineers – from some of India’s top engineering schools – belong to a two-year-old start-up which makes water-less robots that clean solar plants.

Last year, Nocca Robotics had a modest turnover of 2.7 million rupees ($36,000; £29,000). The average age of the mechanical, electronic and aerospace engineers who work for the firm is 26.

India, by most estimates, only has 48,000 ventilators. Nobody quite knows how many of these breathing assistance machines are working. But it is a fair assumption that all those available are being used in intensive care units on existing patients with other diseases.

About one in six people with Covid-19 gets seriously ill, which can include breathing difficulties. The country faces seeing its hospitals hobbled as others around the world have been, with doctors forced to choose who they try to save.

At least two Indian companies make ventilators at present, mostly from imported components. They cost around 150,000 ($1,987; £1,612) rupees each. One of them, AgVa Healthcare, plans to make 20,000 in a month’s time. India has also ordered 10,000 from China, but that will meet just a fraction of the potential demand.

The invasive ventilator being developed by the engineers at Nocca Robotics will cost 50,000 rupees ($662). Within five days of beginning work, a group of seven engineers at the start-up have three prototypes of a portable machine ready.

They are being tested on artificial lungs, a prosthetic device that provides oxygen and removes carbon dioxide from the blood. By 7 April, they plan to be ready with machines that can be tested on patients after approvals.

“It is most certainly doable,” said Dr Deepak Padmanabhan, a cardiologist at Bangalore’s Jayadeva Institute of Cardiovascular Sciences and Research, and a key advisor on this project. “The simulations on artificial lungs have been done and seem to work well.”

Inspiring story

The race to develop this inexpensive, home-grown invasive breathing machine is an inspiring story of swift coordination and speedy action involving public and private institutions, something not common in India.

“The pandemic has brought us all together in ways I could never imagine,” says Amitabha Bandhopadhyay, a professor of biological sciences and bioengineering at Indian Institute of Technology (IIT), Kanpur, and a key mover of the project.

The young engineers mined open source medical supplies groups on the internet to find information on how to make the ventilators. After securing permissions, it took them exactly eight hours to produce the first prototype. Of particular use, say doctors, were some designs by engineers at MIT. With imports stalled, the engineers picked up pressure sensors – a key component of the machine that helps supply oxygen to lungs at a pressure that doesn’t cause injury – from those used in drones and available in the market.

Local authorities helped open firms that stock components – each machine needs 150 to 200 parts – and made sure that a bunch of engineers who had returned home to Nanded after the lockdown were still able to travel 400km (248 miles) back to Pune to work on the machine.

Some leading Indian industrialists, including a major medical device-making company, have offered their factories to manufacture the machines. The plan is to make 30,000 ventilators, at around 150-200 a day, by the middle of May.

Social media influencers joined the effort. Rahul Raj, a lithium battery-maker and an IIT alumnus, crowd-sourced a group called Caring Indians to “pool resources and experience” to cope with the pandemic. Within 24 hours, 1,000 people had signed up. “We tweeted to the local lawmaker and local police in Pune to help the developers, and made contacts with people who would be interested in the project,” Mr Raj said.

‘No-frills machine’

Expat Indian doctors and entrepreneurs who went to the same school – IIT is India’s leading engineering school and alumni include Google chief Sundar Pichai – held Zoom meetings with the young developers, advising them and asking questions about the machine’s development. The head of a US-based company gave them a 90-minute lecture on how to manage production. A former chief of an info-tech company told them how to source the components.

Lastly, a bunch of doctors vetted every development and asked hard questions. In the end, more than a dozen top professionals – pulmonologists, cardiologists, scientists, innovators, venture capitalists – have guided the young team.

Doctors say the goal is to develop a “no-frills” breathing machine tailored to Indian conditions.

Ventilators depend on pressurised oxygen supply from hospital plants. But in a country where piped oxygen is not available in many small towns and villages, developers are seeing whether they can also make the machine run on oxygen cylinders. “In a way we are trying to de-modernise the machine to what it was barely 20 years ago,” says Dr Padmanabhan.

“We are not experienced. But we are very good at making products easily. The robots that we make are much more complex to make. But this is a life-saving machine and carries risk, so we have to be very, very careful that we develop a perfect product which clears all approvals,” said Nikhil Kurele, the 26-year-old co-founder and chief executive officer of Nocca Robotics.

In just a week’s time, India will learn whether they pulled off the feat.

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