Over 80 million Americans under virtual lockdown as restrictions tighten

Here are the latest updates from around the world.
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A beach entrance is cordoned off in Surfside, Fla., on March 21, 2020.Wilfredo Lee / AP

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The number of Americans under virtual lockdown grew Saturday to over 80 million, with New Jersey joining the list of states issuing a stay-at-home order or other sweeping mandates to fight the spread of the new coronavirus.

“We must flatten the curve and ensure residents are practicing social distancing," New Jersey Gov. Phil Murphy said, adding, “Even with this order in effect … life in New Jersey does not have to come to a complete standstill.”

New Jersey's stay-at-home order applies to nearly all of its 9 million residents. It comes after Illinois issued a similar mandate Friday for its 13 million residents and following California's stay-at-home order for its population of 40 million.

In New York, with a population of over 19 million, the governor has ordered that all nonessential businesses keep their workers home. Pennsylvania's governor has also ordered that all businesses that are not "life-sustaining" close.

New York also announced Saturday that the number of coronavirus cases there now tops 10,000.

Worldwide, there are now more than 275,000 confirmed cases of the coronavirus, according to Johns Hopkins University.

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China gives first COVID-19 vaccine to volunteers, local media reports

Clinical trials of coronavirus vaccines are being conducted on volunteers, local media in China reported on Saturday. 

Chen Wei, the project leader — a member of the Chinese Academy of Engineering — explained the process to the Tech Daily newspaper as constructing the vaccine using genetic engineering methods to "express the new coronavirus antigen."

There are not many volunteers required for Phase I trials, the newspaper reported. They are limited to residents of Wuhan, and residents of the Wuchang, Hongshan and Donghu Scenic Areas are preferred.

Volunteers will be divided into three groups of low-dose, medium-dose and high-dose groups, with 36 people in each group, Tech Daily said.

Hundreds of thousands defy Iraq's curfew to visit martyred imam's shrine

The Iraqi government has been forced to deploy troops after hundreds of thousands of people defied coronavirus and attempted to visit a shrine sacred to Shiite Muslims, two senior security sources with knowledge of the situation told NBC News.

An estimated 300,000 to 400,000 people arrived at the shrine of Musa al-Kadhim, the seventh of the 12 imams who are considered to be the spiritual and political successors of the Prophet Muhammad, to the north of the country’s capital Baghdad, one of the sources said Friday. More were expected Saturday.

“Security forces closed the area around the shrine in order to prevent people from entering them, gathering inside,” he said, adding: “We believe that the number of infected people will increase next week because of this visit.”

Iraq imposed a weeklong curfew Monday after 10 deaths were recorded in the country. Another three people have since died from COVID-19, the illness caused by the coronavirus, and 195 cases have been confirmed.

Read the full story here.

WHO partners with WhatsApp for health alert messaging service

The World Health Organization partnered with social messaging platforms WhatsApp and Facebook to launch a “WHO Health Alert” messaging service to provide the latest news and information on COVID-19, including details on symptoms and how people can protect themselves. 

The “easy-to-use” messaging service has the potential to reach 2 billion people — from government leaders to health workers and family and friends, the WHO said in a press release Friday.

Similarly, on Saturday Alphabet Inc’s Google said it launched a United States — focused website with information about coronavirus guidance and testing, as the country works on slowing the outbreak.

The site (google.com/covid19) will be available in more languages and countries in coming days, Google said in a blog post.

National Spelling Bee called off

Co-champions hold up the trophy during the championship of the Scripps National Spelling Bee in 2019 in National Harbor, Maryland.Alex Wong / Getty Images

The Scripps National Spelling Bee won’t be held as scheduled this year because of the coronavirus, meaning years of preparation by some of the country’s top spellers could be for naught.

Scripps cited both state and federal recommendations against large gatherings Friday, as it canceled plans to hold the contest during the week of May 24. Scripps said it would try to reschedule but did not commit to a new date — it’s possible the bee won’t be held at all.

“Canceling the bee would cause an emotional breakdown for most spellers,” Navneeth Murali, a 14-year-old bee veteran from Edison, New Jersey, told The Associated Press. “It would basically be crushing their dreams.”

Most nationally competitive spellers devote years of their lives to mastering the dictionary and learning roots and language patterns, hoping for a win before they age out. Navneeth — who finished fifth in 2018 and 11th last year — is among the eighth-graders preparing for their last shot at the title.

Overseas passengers flying to Beijing may be quarantined in Inner Mongolia

Overseas passengers flying to Beijing may have to quarantine in Inner Mongolia — an autonomous region of northern China — if they have the coronavirus or have been in close contact with anyone that does, local news reported Saturday.

The Chinese capital is rerouting flights to three other cities as it tries to prevent fresh outbreaks started by infected people arriving from abroad. One is Hohhot — the capital of China’s Inner Mongolia region — about 250 miles northwest of Beijing. The other cities are Tianjin and Taiyuan.

This comes as China has recently reported a slow-down in domestic cases, and more internationally imported cases — more than 80 in recent weeks.

As of Saturday, Wuhan — the virus outbreak’s epicenter — reported no new or suspected cases for a third straight day. It even allowed some businesses to reopen.

Weekend curfew begins in Sri Lanka as South Asia accelerates battle against virus

Mosques in Sri Lanka were shut indefinitely on Friday, as the island imposed a countrywide curfew across the whole weekend until Monday, as South Asian countries step up efforts to check the spread of COVID-19 cases.

The densely populated region of some 1.9 billion people has been less badly affected than other parts of the world, but new cases in Pakistan, India and Sri Lanka have all been accelerating recently. The total cases across South Asia now exceeding 850 and seven people have died in the region.

India’s western state of Maharashtra has also decided to close all shops and offices except those providing essential services — including in India’s financial capital Mumbai — until the end of the month.

Authorities worry that these countries could be especially at risk, should the virus begin to spread locally, due to poor health facilities and infrastructure in much of the region.

Priest celebrates Mass with pews full of parishioners' pictures

U.N. officials warn of risk to 100M people in war zones

The United Nations says consequences of the coronavirus could be devastating for the 100 million people living in war zones and other emergency settings.

It noted many people are living in cramped conditions with little or no access to proper sanitation and basic health services.

U.N. spokesman Stephane Dujarric said humanitarian officials are concerned people who depend on U.N. assistance are able to keep getting life-saving help while trying to avoid “the catastrophic impact that the COVID-19 outbreak could have on them.”

He said U.N. humanitarian officials will be launching an appeal for funds early next week to deal with the coronavirus threat. The U.N. has already released $15 million from its emergency fund to deal with the coronavirus in vulnerable areas, and U.N.-managed funds in Afghanistan, Sudan and Jordan have also been released to scale up preparedness.

Wuhan to allow some businesses to re-open

BEIJING — While entry and exit from Wuhan remains tightly restricted, businesses such as supermarkets, convenience stores and shops selling fresh fruit, vegetables and other daily necessities can re-open.

Only one person per household bearing a special pass can go out each day, with shopping time limited to two hours.

Wuhan, the virus outbreak’s epicenter, reported no new or suspected cases for a third straight day.

Meanwhile, Premier Li Keqiang on Friday urged “efforts to stabilize and support market entities to strengthen the engines for economic recovery,” according to the official Xinhua News Agency. Li “stressed a stronger sense of urgency on the work and production resumption, as well as the recovery of economic and social order,” including financial assistance to small and medium-size enterprises that form a core source of employment and key links in supply chains.

“Unreasonable restrictions that hinder the resumption of work” should be lifted, Li said. “With effective prevention and control measures, necessary health monitoring and emergency response forces in place, epidemic prevention and work resumption can be advanced in a synchronized way.”

Among measures to help people find new jobs, the central government has launched a website that it hopes will help fill 10 million vacancies by the end of June.