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    Democratic White House hopefuls are seizing on President Donald Trump’s delayed response to the coronavirus outbreak, calling it the latest evidence of his incompetence and warning that the crisis may only deepen as a result. But some experts and Democrats warn that the candidates risk exacerbating a public health crisis if they go too far in politicizing the virus that causes the COVID-19 illness. Former Vice President Joe Biden, former New York Mayor Mike Bloomberg, Massachusetts Sen. Elizabeth Warren and Minnesota Sen. Amy Klobuchar all went after Trump during their CNN town halls Wednesday night. A number of the candidates have released their own pandemic policies, and Bloomberg is even airing an ad contrasting Trump’s response to the outbreak to his own handling of the aftermath of 9/11. It’s a potent political issue, as it gets at what Democrats see as two major potential weaknesses for Trump: questions about his competence as president and health care issues. “The threat from coronavirus and the chaos of the administration is front and center in everyone’s mind,” said Jesse Ferguson, a longtime Democratic strategist and former spokesman for Hillary Clinton’s campaign. “Not talking about it means you’re missing voters who are deeply worried about the public health threat and deeply concerned about the Trump administration’s incompetence.” Warren, Klobuchar and Bloomberg have all released public health plans detailing how they’d address and prevent similar outbreaks as president. During their CNN town halls, Warren warned that the economic impact of the new coronavirus could get worse. She and Klobuchar slammed Trump’s decision to put Vice President Mike Pence in charge of the coronavirus response, noting his controversial handling of an HIV outbreak in Indiana when he was governor. And Biden has previously slammed Trump for “hysterical xenophobia and fearmongering” rather than respecting science on the issue. But sounding the alarm on the administration’s coronavirus response also holds risks. Florida Rep. Donna Shalala, who served as secretary of health and human services under President Bill Clinton in the 1990s, had a stark warning for Democrats. “Don’t open your mouth until you know what you’re talking about. This is politics. They need to listen to the scientists as well,” she said. That is a major criticism Democrats have lobbed at Trump — that he has botched his response and fostered more confusion by publicly contradicting the scientists in his administration about the severity of the virus. On Wednesday, the president sought to minimize fears at a White House press conference where he insisted the U.S. is “very, very ready” for an outbreak and predicted: “This will end…there’s no reason to be panicked.” But standing next to him, the health officials in charge of handling the outbreak predicted more cases are coming in the U.S. Democrats are not immune to the critique themselves, however. During Tuesday night’s primary debate, both Biden and Bloomberg made the erroneous claim that Trump cut funding for the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. While Trump proposed cuts to the CDC in his budget blueprint, he was overruled by Congress, and the eventual budget he signed included an increase in funding. Biden corrected his comments during Wednesday night’s CNN town hall but went on to warn that Trump “did not have a plan to deal with how you equip hospitals.” Bloomberg, meanwhile, criticized Trump at a Houston rally on Thursday, accusing him of 'burying his head in the sand' and charging that “his failure to prepare is crippling our ability to respond.' But the public health system has a playbook to follow for pandemic preparation — regardless of who’s president or whether specific instructions are coming from the White House. Those plans were put into place in anticipation of another flu pandemic but are designed to work for any respiratory-borne disease. Jen Kates, senior vice president and director of global health and HIV policy at the Kaiser Family Foundation, warned that “any time political ideology starts to dominate the dialogue, it puts the public at risk.” “The history of good public health is that when things become politicized, we risk a good sound response and a response based on science and expertise,” she said. “This is a situation that’s changing by the moment, and that makes it all the more delicate.” Kates warned that there should be some “caution around not stoking panic and not using the partisan environment to steer away from basic public health messaging” — but acknowledged that will be tough “in a very partisan time, during campaign season.” Both parties are guilty of politicizing public health pandemics when they’re not the party in charge of the White House, she noted. During the Ebola outbreak in 2014, Republicans routinely slammed the Obama administration for similar critiques Trump is facing from Democrats — namely, that he was too slow to respond and didn’t appoint an adviser to coordinate the government’s response quickly enough. But Kathleen Sebelius, who served as Obama’s secretary of health and human services from 2009 to 2014, said Democrats have a lot more to criticize when it comes to Trump’s response. “We have the components of what could be a perfect storm. Are there ways to deal with it calmly and rationally? You bet. Is the United States well prepared? It seems like there are some gaps,” she said. She pointed to the fact that the initial White House funding request was just a fraction of what had been allocated for past viral outbreaks like Ebola, and Trump himself has largely left it up to Congress to sort out the details. She also noted that a number of key positions set up by Obama to deal with global pandemics have now either been eliminated or left vacant, and she called out Trump for contradicting his own scientists on the severity of the threat. Shalala agreed — but she warned Democrats to be “careful” to focus their critiques on the president and not the experts in the administration who are trying to tackle the crisis. “There are things that they can criticize, like the inadequate funding request and the president muddying the waters” at his press conference, she said, “but they shouldn’t be criticizing the agency heads and the very good scientist physicians that are trying to do their jobs.” But some Democrats say the conversation around the coronavirus is fair game because it gets at a much broader issue for Trump: questions surrounding his leadership. “Electing a president isn’t about a series of issue check boxes on a spreadsheet. It’s about the public’s confidence that you can lead the country, especially in times of crisis,” Ferguson said. “If we can’t demonstrate the fundamental failure of this administration to lead in this crisis, then we are not talking about the thing that people think about when electing a president.” ___ Catch up on the 2020 election campaign with AP experts on our weekly politics podcast, “Ground Game.”
  • A professor at the University of Tennessee has been arrested on charges that he hid his relationship with a Chinese university while receiving research grants from the federal government, the Justice Department said Thursday. Anming Hu, an associate professor in the department of mechanical, aerospace and biomedical engineering at the university's flagship Knoxville campus, was charged with three counts of wire fraud and three counts of making false statements. After the indictment was announced, the university said Hu had been suspended and that school officials had cooperated. “University leadership is fully committed to adherence to grant procedures and the protection of intellectual property,' the school said in a statement. The arrest is part of a broader Justice Department crackdown against university researchers who conceal their ties to Chinese institutions, with a Harvard chemistry professor recently arrested on similar charges. Federal officials have also asserted that Beijing is intent on stealing intellectual property from America's colleges and universities, and have actively been warning schools to be on alert against espionage attempts. Prosecutors say Hu defrauded the National Aeronautics and Space Administration by failing to disclose the fact that he was also a professor at the Beijing University of Technology in China. Under federal law, NASA cannot fund or give grant money to Chinese-owned companies or universities. According to the indictment, as the University of Tennessee last December was preparing a proposal on Hu's behalf for a NASA-funded project, Hu provided false assurances to the school that he was not part of any business collaboration involving China. In addition, prosecutors say, a curriculum vitae that Hu submitted when he applied for a tenured faculty position with the university omitted any affiliation with the Beijing university. “This is just the latest case involving professors or researchers concealing their affiliations with China from their American employers and the U.S. government,' Assistant Attorney General John Demers, the Justice Department's top national security official, said in a statement. “We will not tolerate it.” A federal defender assigned to represent Hu declined to comment. ____
  • Frustrated Democrats again lambasted Senate Republican leader Mitch McConnell Thursday as they marked a year of Senate inaction since the House passed landmark gun control legislation. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi acknowledged that Democrats have been here before — complaining about McConnell's “legislative graveyard' — but she said Democrats were energized to “accelerate a drumbeat” on calls for McConnell to allow a Senate vote on a House-passed bill to expand background checks for gun purchases. McConnell's name came up repeatedly at a raucous House ceremony marking the one-year anniversary of the House bill. Speaking a day after a gunman killed five people at a Milwaukee brewery, Pelosi said McConnell was giving new meaning to his self-described nickname as the “grim reaper” of Democratic legislation. “It's very sad that the Grim Reaper has decided that more people will die because he is the Grim Reaper,'' Pelosi said. ”One hundred people a day die from gun violence. Not all of them could be saved by this legislation, but many could.'' More than 39,000 people were killed by firearms in 2018, according to the federal Centers of Disease Control and Prevention, a number that advocates said translates into more than 100 gun-related deaths per day. More than 60 percent of gun deaths are by suicide, with a small number of accidental deaths. The death toll includes thousands of children under 18 killed by firearms, a number Pelosi called haunting. Addressing McConnell directly, Pelosi asked: “Why do think your political survival is more important than the survival of our children? Give us a vote.’’ Her words were met by thunderous applause from lawmakers, advocates and survivors of gun violence gathered in an ornate room outside the House chamber. Senate Democratic Leader Chuck Schumer also drew applause when he scolded President Donald Trump for offering mere condolences after the country's latest mass shooting. An employee at one of the nation's largest breweries gunned down five co-workers in Milwaukee Wednesday before killing himself. “Enough words!” Schumer shouted. “How about a little action” on gun control? Under McConnell's leadership, the Senate has taken up “zero” gun-related legislation since the House passed the background checks bill last February, Schumer said. He and others made circles with their fingers and held them up to demonstrate the Senate's inaction. A spokesman for McConnell declined to comment. In the past, McConnell has dismissed Democrats' call for gun-control legislation as “theatrics.” McConnell refuses to allow a vote on the background checks bill because he says it's not clear the Senate would be able to pass the legislation or that Trump would sign it into law. For Democratic leaders, 'It's all about trying to scare people,' McConnell said in September after a similar Democratic news conference. Sen. Chris Murphy, D-Conn., said McConnell and other Republicans should get used to the idea of Democrats speaking up about gun safety. “We're building a political movement, and it is coming to get every single Republican who votes against this” bill on background checks, he said. “Either you are with 90% of the American people (who support expanded background checks) or you are with the NRA,'' Murphy said, referring the National Rifle Association, the gun industry's top lobbying group. If McConnell continues 'to allow the NRA to be in charge of the Senate ... he is going to be the minority leader very soon,'' Murphy said. 'If that,'' a supporter yelled. McConnell faces a well-funded challenge from Democrat Amy McGrath in Kentucky. Rep. Robin Kelly, D-Ill., also focused on McConnell, citing statistics from the non-partisan Gun Violence Archive that 232 Kentucky residents were killed by gun violence in the year since the House approved the background checks bill. 'We are here today because Americans are dying, and more die every day because Mitch McConnell and Senate Republicans lack the spine to stand up to the NRA,'' Kelly said. Kelly, who represents Chicago, said her state and city have strong gun safety laws, but neighboring states do not. 'We need universal background checks legislation to stop Indiana and Wisconsin guns from killing kids in Chicago,'' she said, citing statistics that more than half the guns used in crimes in Chicago come from out of state. After back-to-back mass shootings in Ohio and Texas last summer, Trump embraced calls for “strong background checks” — only to backpedal. Ideas the administration has considered include so-called red-flag legislation to allow officials to take away guns from people believed to be dangers to themselves or others and quicker imposition of the death penalty for mass shooters. Little progress has been made, and gun control supporters do not expect major legislation to emerge before the presidential election. The White House did not respond to a request for comment. Trump has embraced the mantle of gun rights champion, repeatedly warning supporters at his rallies that Democrats “will take your guns away.” Last month, he labeled Virginia Gov. Ralph Northam a “whack job” as the Democratic governor moves to tighten gun laws following a mass shooting in Virginia Beach.
  • U.S. authorities have arrested the daughter of a fugitive Mexican drug kingpin, who was in Washington to attend her brother's trial. Jessica Johanna Oseguera was arrested at the D.C. federal courthouse Wednesday, a person familiar with the matter told The Associated Press. The person wasn’t authorized to discuss the matter publicly and spoke to the AP on condition of anonymity. After her arrest, she was presented with a secret sealed indictment from Feb. 13. Jessica Oseguera is being charged with doing business with five business entities that have been declared off-limits by the Treasury Department's Office of Foreign Asset Control for “providing material support to the international narcotics trafficking activities” to the cartel, according to a Justice Department statement. Her brother, Ruben Oseguera, 30, has pleaded not guilty to multiple charges relating to conspiracy to distribute narcotics. If convicted, he faces at least 15 years in prison. His trial begins on Friday. Their father, Nemesio Oseguera, Alias, 'El Mencho,” is the reputed head of the Jalisco New Generation drug cartel, a large and very violent drug-dealing gang. He remains a fugitive, with the U.S. government offering $10 million for information leading to his arrest. A dual U.S.-Mexican citizen, Jessica Oseguera remains in U.S. custody and faces a detention hearing on Tuesday, March 2. ___ Associated Press writer Mike Balsamo contributed to this report.
  • The Senate has passed a bill to provide $1 billion for small telecom providers to replace equipment made by China's Huawei and ZTE, sending the measure to President Donald Trump. The U.S. government considers the Chinese companies a security risk and has pushed its allies not to use Huawei equipment in next-generation cellular networks, known as 5G. Both companies have denied that China uses their products for spying. The Federal Communications Commission has already voted to bar U.S. phone companies from using government subsidies for equipment from the two Chinese companies. This affects mostly small, rural companies, as the major U.S. network providers don't use the Chinese equipment. The small phone companies have complained that it will be difficult and expense for them to rebuild their networks. Their trade group has said that it would cost up to $1 billion for its dozen companies to replace Huawei and ZTE equipment, and it has said that Huawei has 40 customers in the U.S. The group, Rural Wireless Association, applauded passage of the bill Thursday. The bill would reimburse telecom providers with fewer than 2 million customers. Huawei and ZTE did not immediately reply to requests for comment.
  • What if a neighborhood precinct was voting in Nevada's presidential caucuses and nobody came? Democrats in one county were left scratching their heads about the possibility they had stumbled onto a phantom precinct during the party's third-in-the-nation presidential contest last week. Not only did no one cast a ballot during early voting in precinct No. 7321, but nobody from there showed up to participate at Saturday's caucus site at the University of Nevada, Reno, where hundreds gathered from six other precincts in Washoe County. Worried about the potential for a meltdown like the one that delayed official results in Iowa, site leader Austin Daly said they were prepared for the possibility of glitches with the iPads that were used to tabulate results or other software-related emergencies. 'And I expected big turnout, but never thought there would be a precinct with zero votes,' said Daly, head of the UNR Young Democrats. Amy Travis, a Bernie Sanders supporter from a neighboring precinct, was given the task of filling in the 'zeros' next to all the candidates’ names in precinct 7321. But she thought it was strange. She looked up a map of the precinct on her cellphone and found it consists entirely of a 600-acre county park just west of the Reno campus. “I had to call state party headquarters and they had to transfer me to someone else to figure it out,” Daly said. It turns out there is one registered voter who lives at the lone residence in the precinct: a park employee. The employee didn't return messages from The Associated Press seeking comment. Robert Holland, ranger of Rancho San Rafael Regional Park, confirmed the employee lives at the residence that's part of an old frontier ranch homestead, which can be rented for weddings and other special events. State party officials determined the precinct's lone delegate would be recorded as 'uncommitted' at the precinct caucus level but does not advance to the next round at the county convention. “The delegate just goes away,” party spokeswoman Molly Forgey said Thursday. Having few or no registered voters in precincts is not as unusual as it sounds in sparsely populated Nevada. Unbeknownst to many, state election law caps the maximum number of active registered voters per precinct at 3,000, but there is no minimum. In fact, 108 of Washoe County's 555 precincts have no registered voters, county Registrar of Voters Deanna Spikula said Wednesday. The areas are designated as precincts partly because of the potential for future development or construction of even a few new houses in a rural area. Washoe County covers more than 6,500 square miles (16,834 square kilometers) stretching from Reno to the northwest corner of Nevada — an area more than three times the size of Delaware. “Every piece of land within the county is assigned to a precinct, whether people live there or not — just wild horses and jackrabbits,' Spikula said. There are even 72 of 1,146 precincts with no voters in Clark County, which is Nevada's most populated and includes Las Vegas. Joe P. Gloria, the county's registrar of voters, said the voter-less precincts in and around Las Vegas commonly include airports, drainage basins and areas beneath freeway interchanges. Forgey, the state party spokeswoman, said she wasn't aware of a precinct with no voters causing confusion or concerns at any other caucus sites. Wayne Thorley, deputy secretary of state for elections, said he didn't immediately have the total number of voter-less precincts available statewide but confirmed that individual precincts must be established “to cover every part of the state.” “There are certain areas, particularly in urban areas, where nobody will ever live,” he said. “It happens a lot when cities annex new areas, and it creates these weird no-man lands.” ____ This story has been corrected to show that “uncommitted” delegates from precincts with no voters do not advance to the next round at the county convention.
  • The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints announced Thursday that it has postponed a key April meeting of its top global leaders because of the spread of the coronavirus, and said it is discouraging its many members who live outside the U.S. from coming to Utah for much larger church event that same week. The leadership meeting brings together several tiers of leaders in the faith who gather behind closed doors to discuss church policies, sometimes leading to major public announcements about decisions made in the sessions. It was scheduled for April 1-2 in Salt Lake City, but has been postponed to Oct. 1-2, the faith said in a statement. The larger church event planned for that weekend of April 4-5 is still on, but not for church members living outside the U.S. because the faith does not want its international members to travel to it for fear of spreading the COVID-19 virus. More than half of the faith's 16 million members live outside the United States and the larger gathering is attended by nearly 100,000 people who converge on Utah to listen to speeches by the faith's leaders that are broadcast live around the world. The decision to postpone the meetings and discourage international travel came after warnings from governments and health organizations, the faith known widely as the Mormon church said in the statement. “We wish to be good global citizens and do what we can to limit the spread of this disease,” the faith said. 'We also want to relieve concerns of our leaders, members, and their families related to the uncertainties of travel at this time.” The moves mark the latest steps taken by the faith as it responds to the coronavirus outbreak. The church has temporarily closed temples in Tapei, Taiwan, Seoul, Korea, and in the Japanese cities of Fukuoka and Sapporo. Temples in Tokyo and Hong Kong were already closed for renovations. Temples are used by members of the faith for the most sacred ceremonies such as weddings and baptisms for the dead. Regular worship services are held at different churches. Worship services have been halted or suspended in Hong Kong, Mongolia, Korea and Japan, the church said Thursday. Church officials say they are are closely monitoring how to best to keep their 65,000 missionaries safe, especially in Asian countries hit hard by the virus. Earlier this month, the faith transferred 113 missionaries from its Hong Kong mission to other places. Missionaries who were set to go to Japan, Cambodia, Korea, Singapore and Thailand will either postpone or be sent to another country and those nearing the end of their time will be sent home early, the church said Thursday. Missionaries in Mongolia who aren't from there will be transferred elsewhere. Missionaries already in these countries are being told to mostly stay inside, stay 6 feet (1.8 meters) away from people when they go outside and to do their proselytizing by phone or online. Any missionary returning home from these Asian countries will be asked to self-isolate for 14 days, per instructions from the World Health Organization, the faith said. In the faith’s home base of Utah, where nearly two-thirds of the state belongs to the religion, health officials say they haven’t had any cases yet, despite investigating 12 potential infections. They do expect the virus to come to the state eventually, but say they’re ready. “There is potential for significant disruption to our daily lives in the near future,” said Utah state epidemiologist Angela Dunn. The faith's young men serve as missionaries for two years while young women serve for 18 months. The missions are voluntary but considered rites of passage. ____ Associated Press writer Lindsay Whitehurst contributed to this report.
  • Health officials confronted tough questions and doubts Thursday about testing to intercept the fast-spreading virus, with scrutiny focused on a four-day delay in screening an infected California woman despite her doctors’ early calls to do so. The questions are global: not just who, when and how to test for the illness, but how to make sure that working test kits get out to the labs that need them. All those issues apparently came in to play in the treatment of the woman in northern California, a case officials say may be the first community-spread instance of the disease in the U.S. “This was a clear gap in our preparedness, and the virus went right through the gap,” said Dr. Ali Khan, dean of the University of Nebraska College of Public Health. In the wake of the latest California case, U.S. health officials on Thursday expanded their criteria for who should get tested, and took steps to increase testing. The debate over testing has taken on added urgency as the number of cases worldwide climbed past 82,000, including 2,800 reported deaths. The rapid spread pushed officials in Saudi Arabia to cut travel to Islam's holiest sites, triggered tougher penalties in South Korea for people who break quarantines and ratcheted up pressure on investors as U.S. stock markets extended their week-long plunge. The Dow Jones Industrial Average sank nearly 1,200 points Thursday, it's worst one-day drop since 2011. With the illness rippling across 47 nations in every continent but Antarctica, public health officials emphasized the need for rapid intervention. “Aggressive early measures can prevent transmission before the virus gets a foothold,” World Health Organization chief Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus said. He cited a study in China of more than 320,000 test samples that enabled health officials to zero in on the 0.14 percent that screened positive for COVID-19, the disease caused by the virus. But catching the disease early will require countries to invest in rapid diagnostics, said Dr. Gagandeep Kang, a microbiologist who heads the Translational Health Science And Technology Institute in India. Test kits used by the World Health Organization cost less than $5 each, said Michael Ryan, the group's emergencies programs director. But that figure does not include the expense of medical staff and validation screening, and making such investments effective goes well beyond the expense involved. 'As we can see from the new sparks on Italy, Iran, Korea, is that early identification of cases is crucial. There, the first persons with infection were missed,' said Marion Koopmans of the Erasmus Medical Center in the Netherlands. Doctors at the University of California Davis Medical Center were mindful of the need for early identification on Feb. 19 when the hospital admitted a female patient on a ventilator who showed symptoms of a viral infection. They asked public health officials to test her for the new coronavirus, according to an email hospital officials sent to their employees, but a test was not administered because she did not fit federal test criteria. The test was not done until four days later, on Feb. 23, and the results did not come back until Wednesday, a full week after she was admitted, the hospital said. The federal agency in charge of testing, the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, took issue with that account late Thursday. The agency said it was still investigating, but that a preliminary review showed it had not been informed of the case until Feb. 23, when it requested specimens for testing. It said criteria in place at the time could have allowed the woman to be tested earlier. The case highlights the fact that most testing in U.S. up to now has been limited to those who, in addition to showing symptoms, have a history of travel to countries affected by the disease or contact with those who have done so, said Lauren Sauer, director of operations at Johns Hopkins University’s Office of Critical Event Preparedness and Response. “In the U.S., people are sticking pretty closely to that definition,” Sauer said. But the increasing cases on other continents “are demonstrating we need to do a better job than just where the outbreak originated.” On Thursday, the CDC updated its testing criteria on its website — a move that had been in the works for days, according to a federal official familiar with the change. The CDC will continue to advise testing people who have traveled to certain outbreak areas and have fever and certain other symptoms. But now testing is also appropriate if such symptoms exist and flu and other respiratory illnesses have been ruled out and no source of exposure has been identified. As part of that, CDC has expanded the list of countries that are red flags for testing to include not only China but Iran, Italy, South Korea and Japan. Last month, the CDC said it had developed a test kit that could be sent to state and big city public health labs, so they could broaden testing to more people. Early this month, the agency got authorization to begin distribution of the kit to government public health labs in the 50 states and some cities and counties. But most of the kits proved to be faulty, providing inconclusive results to test samples that should have tested positive. The problem was blamed on one of three reagents used in the testing. CDC said it was trying to manufacture new reagents, but gave no firm timetable for when that would occur. Only about a half dozen state and local public health labs had fully functional kits as of early this week. As weeks passed, the problem became more and more frustrating, said Scott Becker, the chief executive of the Association of Public Health Laboratories. On Monday, Becker's organization sent a letter to the U.S. Food and Drug Administration, basically asking permission for state labs to develop their own tests. On Wednesday, FDA officials responded that labs would be allowed to rely on the two other reagents, meaning that as many as 40 state and local labs could be up and running with their tests in the next few days, Becker said. The California case, and remarks by Italian officials that they were rethinking how to classify people who test positive for the illness but show no symptoms, highlighted the questions that surround large-scale screening for the disease. The test being used by U.S. health officials takes just four to six hours to perform once it’s in a lab. But up to now, those tests have been sent to federal testing centers, often significantly extending the time to get results. “Testing protocols have been a point of frustration,” California Gov. Gavin Newsom said Thursday. He said federal officials had assured their state counterparts that capacity to test will be growing “exponentially” in the next few days, but he wasn’t more specific. Federal official likely limited testing early on because of concerns about a deluge of false positives, which could panic communities and become counterproductive, said Khan, a former top disease investigator for the CDC. But he suggested that a tiered testing system might be the answer, in which a positive test would have to be verified by another lab before a case is diagnosed and counted. The challenge is complicated by a slowness to distribute test kits. Newsom said Thursday the state had just 200 testing kits on hand and “that’s simply inadequate.” He said he spoke to CDC officials and they assured him they were working to make testing more broadly available in California. In Italy, where an outbreak has depressed tourism and fueled panic, officials said Thursday they would change their reporting and testing practices in ways that could lower the country's reported caseload. Italian authorities plan from now on to distinguish between people who test positive for the virus and patients showing symptoms, since the majority of the people in Italy with confirmed infections aren’t actually sick. They said they would follow urging by the WHO and hold off on certifying cases screened only at a regional level, until they can be confirmed by national officials. “The cases that emerge from the regions are still considered suspect and unconfirmed,” said Walter Ricciardi, a WHO adviser to the Italian government. But U.S. experts said the crisis requires more rapid testing, and a willingness by officials to revise their criteria. Sauer pointed to a case in Canada, where officials zeroed in on a traveler from Iran with COVID-19 soon after that country announced its first cases. “Let our really smart doctors do what they do really well,' Khan said. 'If they are really suspicious that a pneumonia or influenza-like illness does not quite look like an influenza-like illness, allow them to test!” ___ Associated Press writers Lauran Neergaard in Washington, Frank Jordans and Kirsten Grieshaber in Berlin, Aniruddha Ghosal in New Delhi, Olga Rodriguez in San Francisco, and Frances D’Emilio and Nicole Winfield in Rome contributed to this report.
  • Billionaire Mike Bloomberg said Thursday that he might not spend money to assist Bernie Sanders if Sanders is the Democratic presidential nominee, a walk back of previous comments that he would use his fortune to boost whoever faces President Donald Trump in November. Bloomberg's comments come after Sanders adviser Jeff Weaver said several days ago that it would be a “hard no” on accepting Bloomberg's financial assistance. “What do you mean, I'm going to send a check to somebody and they're not going to cash the check? I think I wouldn't bother to send the check,” Bloomberg told the Houston Chronicle on Thursday. The back-and-forth is part of a larger escalation between the two campaigns as a slew of Tuesday primaries approach, marking the first time Bloomberg will appear on ballots. Fourteen states vote on “Super Tuesday,” and Bloomberg is hoping he can pick up enough delegates to blunt Sanders' rise. Bloomberg, the former New York City mayor, is worth an estimated $60 billion, wealth built from the financial data and media company he started in the 1980s. He's already spent more than $500 million on his presidential campaign. But he's pledged to keep campaign offices open and staffed in general election battleground states through the fall. “I said that I would help, I'm going to keep our campaign offices, the main ones anyways, open until Nov. 3,” Bloomberg told the Chronicle. “And if they don't want to use them, then fine. Then we'll close them.” It's a reversal from his comments in a CNN town hall on Wednesday, when Bloomberg was asked specifically if he would give financial help to Sanders. He committed that he would keep the offices open so whoever is the nominee can use them. Asked to clarify the campaign's position, Bloomberg spokesman Stu Loeser said “we'll see” on whether Bloomberg spends on Sanders' behalf. For Sanders, Bloomberg serves as a clear foil in his argument that the American economy is skewed in favor of billionaires who can manipulate the system in a way regular Americans cannot. Weaver said the Sanders campaign would rather rely on small-dollar donations. Also on Thursday, Bloomberg's campaign released new details about his cardio health and urged the Sanders campaign to do the same. A letter signed by Bloomberg’s doctor says he underwent cardiac stress testing and an echocardiogram in July. It shows normal function of his left ventricular, “excellent exercise capacity,” and a left ventricular ejection fraction of 60 to 65%, which is in the normal range. The letter notes that Bloomberg had a stent placed for a blocked coronary artery in 2000. Sanders' health has been under scrutiny since he suffered a heart attack in October. Both men are 78. ___ Catch up on the 2020 election campaign with AP experts on our weekly politics podcast, “Ground Game.”
  • Opera star Placido Domingo amended his apology to the multiple women who have accused him of sexual misconduct, adding several caveats Thursday to a statement two days earlier in which he said he took “full responsibility” for his actions. In a statement on his Facebook page, posted as several European concert halls moved to cancel his appearances, the legendary tenor said he wanted “to correct the false impression generated by my apology.' “My apology was sincere and heartfelt, to any colleague who I have made to feel uncomfortable, or hurt in any manner, by anything I have said or done,' he wrote. “But I know what I have not done, and I'll deny it again. I have never behaved aggressively toward anyone, and I have never done anything to obstruct or hurt anyone's career.” In his Tuesday statement, Domingo had said: 'I respect that these women finally felt comfortable enough to speak out, and I want them to know that I am truly sorry for the hurt that I caused them. I accept full responsibility for my actions, and I have grown from this experience.' Domingo's spokeswoman, Nancy Seltzer, offered no immediate comment when asked how to reconcile the dual statements. The star's initial statement came in response to the findings of an investigation by the U.S. union representing opera performers, which found the star had behaved inappropriately over the course of two decades when he held senior management positions at Washington National Opera and Los Angeles Opera. His words set off a backlash in Spain, which became the first country in Europe to cancel on the megastar since the sexual harassment allegations surfaced last year in two stories by The Associated Press. On Thursday, Madrid's main opera house, Teatro Real, said it had scheduled a meeting to decide what to do about Domingo's five upcoming appearances in May, but that the singer then withdrew from the performances. The company added that it “reaffirms its policy of zero tolerance of harassment and abuse of any kind, and its permanent solidarity with the victims.” The announcement came as other Spanish public institutions and theaters severed ties with the 79-year-old singer, a native son who has long been a source of pride for many in the country. Many commentators, politicians and fellow artists in Spain had defended Domingo, as did concert halls across Europe, even as U.S. companies swiftly moved to cancel performances and sever ties with the singer in the wake of the harassment allegations. The first to take action in Spain was the government itself. On Wednesday, the Spanish Culture Ministry said it was calling off two mid-May performances by Domingo at Madrid's Teatro de la Zarzuela light opera house. The ministry said that “given the seriousness of the deeds,” it was acting “in solidarity with women affected' to take a stand against sexual harassment. More cancellations followed Thursday. A musical association in the Spanish city of Úbeda said it was canceling Domingo's May 3 performance in light of the week's developments, and the Palau de les Arts, a publicly funded, state-of-the-art opera house in the eastern Spanish city of Valencia, said that, “in line with the values of the institution,” it would strip the tenor's name from its popular training program for opera singers. It also ruled out any future contracts with Domingo. “The institution considers that any conduct against the integrity of women, whether moral, sexual ... is intolerable,' a statement said. The full results of the investigation by the American Guild of Musical Artists have not been made public, but people familiar with the findings who spoke on condition of anonymity told the AP that investigators found 27 people who said they were sexually harassed or witnessed inappropriate behavior by Domingo. They said the allegations included unsolicited physical touching that ranged from kisses on the mouth to groping, late-night phone calls in which Domingo asked women to come to his residence, and inviting women to go out with him socially with such persistence that some felt they were being stalked. The leak of the report's findings has prompted an internal investigation at AGMA, whose leaders say it upended an agreement they had been negotiating with Domingo, according to internal emails obtained by the AP. The emails said the agreement called for Domingo to pay the union a $500,000 fine, issue a public apology, take mandatory sexual harassment training and agree to an 18-month suspension from the union, “premised on AGMA's promise to maintain confidentiality over the details” of the investigation. Another investigation, still ongoing, was launched by LA Opera, where Domingo had been general director since 2003 before resigning in October. There have been no other performance cancellations in Europe, where Domingo's next scheduled show is March 22 in Hamburg, Germany. On Thursday, Italy's Verona Arena said its policy is to not cancel events already on the published program and for which tickets have been on sale for 10 months. Domingo is scheduled to conduct “Aida” there on June 25 and to sing in a gala dedicated to him on July 7. ___ AP writer Aritz Parra contributed from Madrid and Colleen Barry contributed from Milan.