US to Waive Student Loan Interest as Pandemic Panic Simmers

WASHINGTON (CN) — Shortages of lifesaving equipment are plaguing U.S. hospitals and health care facilities grappling with the Covid-19 pandemic, but economic relief took priority when President Donald Trump announced Friday that the Department of Education will temporarily waive interest on all federally held student loans.

Education Secretary Betsy DeVos has instructed federal lenders to waive interest fees for 60 days.

“If we need more, we’ll extend that,” Trump said Friday during what has become a daily briefing of the White House coronavirus task force.

Ivanka Trump, the daughter and assistant to President Donald Trump, listens as President Donald Trump speaks during a Friday briefing of the coronavirus task force at the White House. (AP Photo/Evan Vucci)

The president said borrowers should also contact their lenders directly for more information. It is not clear whether the waiver will end any new interest that would accrue. A representative from the department did not immediately return a request for comment.

Trump additionally touted the Education Department’s ending of standardized-testing requirements for students from elementary school to high school through the remainder of the school year.

According to the Johns Hopkins University of Medicine’s Covid-19 tracker, the confirmed case rate in the United States surpassed 14,000 on Friday, with more than 200 people dead. Worldwide, the death toll has exceeded 10,000 while roughly 247,000 cases have been confirmed by Johns Hopkins.

Having lagged on reporting these numbers for over a week, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reports lower case rates with just over 10,000 cases recorded and the death count frozen at 150. The CDC also stops reporting at 4 p.m. ET, and culls statistics Monday through Friday only.

Testing availability across the U.S. is still strained, though capability is slowly increasing. In New York state, Governor Andrew Cuomo said during a now regular morning briefing on the coronavirus that capacity shot up considerably over just 24 hours. The governor had predicted Thursday that New York would be able to test only 6,000 people yet capacity hit 10,000 on Friday morning.

On the nation’s broader testing capability, Anthony Fauci, virologist and director of the National Institute for Allergy and Infectious Diseases, spoke plainly at the White House briefing.

“We’re not there yet because otherwise people would never be calling up and saying they can’t get a test,” he said.

Striking a rosier tone just a moment later, fellow taskforce member Vice President Mike Pence said Friday he “can’t emphasize enough the incredible progress” that has been made on testing.

On recommendation by Fauci and U.S. Surgeon General Jerome Adams, not every American should be tested for Covd-19. If very sick and concerned that you might have it, Fauci said, consult your physician first and determine next steps.

For now, Fauci said, people should act is if they already have the virus, whether they do or not, and use commonsense recommendations like self-isolating, staying at home and washing hands to stop the spread.

“I don’t see how testing everyone in the country will help,” Fauci said. “Testing is important, but let’s not conflate testing with what you can do to protect against the virus.”

Health and Human Services Secretary Alex Azar said Friday the department has been in contact with public and private labs, as well as health care providers across the U.S., indicating they are in the midst of scaling up on test kits and related supplies.

But the secretary has also said he has heard repeatedly from public and private laboratories and state officials that supply shortages are curtailing their response and testing efforts. He dismissed their general alarm on Friday.

“Usually lab people do not understand there are alternative supplies they can use,” Azar said before mentioning a recent call he received from a governor panicked about the lack of swabs available in his state.

A large monitor displaying a map of Asia and a tally of total coronavirus cases, deaths and recovered is visible behind Vice President Mike Pence, center, and Health and Human Services Secretary Alex Azar, left, as they tour the Operations Center at the Department of Health and Human Services following a February meeting of the coronavirus task force. (AP Photo/Andrew Harnik)

Azar said the government has ordered 200,000 swabs to be dispersed to companies on the “open market,” but the problem is that state and local officials aren’t heeding federal advice.

“They aren’t listening or checking with us about all the freedom, all the capacities out there,” Azar said. “So sometimes there’s a lab that doesn’t understand how much flexibility they have.”

Eric Blank, senior director of the Association of Public Health Laboratories, told the Associated Press on Friday that there is an “acute, serious” shortage of supplies across the globe and across the board.

Blank also told the AP that, with government labs in the U.S. competing for supplies with larger commercial labs both domestically and internationally, if supplies aren’t shored up, they may have to shut down testing within a matter of days.

At a video conference with Trump and Federal Emergency Management Agency officials on Thursday, similar concerns over competition were aired when Massachusetts Governor Charlie Baker and New Mexico Governor Michelle Lujan Grisham both expressed concern that they will not be able to outbid the federal government for protective equipment.

As to lifesaving equipment like ventilators, Pence said Friday “tens of thousands” were put on order with major companies, though neither he nor President Trump would get into specifics about who was producing them or exactly how soon they would be available.

Manufacturing giant 3M said in a statement Friday that it doubled its global output of N95 masks over the last two months. 3M CEO Mike Roman said that in a typical year, the company produces 1.1 billion masks. Production to confront the pandemic was ramped up to 100 million masks per month since the outbreak began in January.

Trump has underlined repeatedly that it is up to states to develop solutions for supply shortages. In that vein, New York Governor Cuomo got creative Friday when he announced the state would begin offering financial incentives to businesses to make supplies like masks, bibs, uniforms and gloves.

As supplies for medical professionals on the frontlines dwindle, there is still considerable murkiness over whether Trump has officially invoked the Defense Production Act, legislation that allows the federal government to increase supply production during times of great crisis.

“We invoked it the day before, we signed it the evening of the day before and invoked it yesterday,” Trump said. “We have a lot of people working very hard to do ventilators and various other things.”

Travelers wear protective mask as they walk through in terminal 5 at O’Hare International Airport in Chicago on March 1, 2020. (AP Photo/Nam Y. Huh)

But during Friday’s briefing, Trump stirred more confusion in suggesting that invoking the act may not be necessary yet, saying that the government has been “besieged in a beautiful way” by companies eager to strike up contracts.

The White House did not return multiple requests for comment. According to a White House readout of a call between Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer and Trump, Schumer urged the president early this morning to immediately invoke the law to get ventilators and other important equipment to those who need it.

Trump said he would and then, according to the readout, “yelled to someone in his office to do it now.”

While states like California and New York issue strict restrictions to curb the spread of Covid-19, Chad Wolf, acting secretary of the Department of Homeland Security, announced Friday that nonessential travel over the U.S.-Mexico border will be stopped.

“We want to make sure cargo continues, trade continues, healthcare workers continue and are able to traverse that border,” Wolf said. “But tourism, some recreational activities need to stop during the crisis.”

Designs for a broader national lockdown are still unclear, though the White House has indicated such restrictions will largely be left to states to determine. Trump approved Friday of Cuomo’s decision to order 100% stoppage to all nonessential work.

The decision to close the border was reached mutually by the U.S., Mexico and Canada, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said Friday.

Pompeo also raised travel advisories for Americans, recommending that U.S. citizens should avoid international travel and if already abroad, make arrangements to return home immediately unless they are prepared to remain abroad for an extended period of time.

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