Biden tells Sanders he's pushing ahead with VP, cabinet picks

Joe Biden disclosed Friday evening he has told his Democratic rival Bernie Sanders that he is moving forward with cabinet and vice presidential picks.

Biden told donors at a virtual fundraising event his campaign is to unveil a committee to vet potential vice presidential candidates “sometime in the middle of the month," and said he has held discussions with others about potential cabinet positions.

"One of the things I learned a long time ago, and I really mean this, a good leader has to be willing to have people that are smarter than them, know more than they know about a subject, bring in people who in fact have an expertise you don’t have,” Biden said, according to a pool report.

“And so I am in the process and I actually had this discussion with Bernie. He’s a friend. We’re competitors. He’s a friend. I don’t want him to think I’m being presumptuous but you have to start now deciding who you’re going to have background checks done on as potential vice presidential candidates and it takes time,” Biden added.

It was the first time the former vice president has disclosed holding a private conversation with Sanders since the Democratic primary became a two-person race. Conversations have been happening at a staff level between the two camps.

Sanders has said recently he believes he still has a narrow path to the nomination, despite a significant delegate deficit against Biden.

In Friday’s remarks, Biden also disclosed he’s leaned on former President Barack Obama for advice on the process of cabinet picks.

“So I called President Obama, not as to who but how soon you have to start that. Now the convention’s been moved back now another month so there’s more time now,” Biden said. “It’s kind of presumptuous, but sometime in the middle of the month we’re going to announce a committee that’s going to be overseeing the vice presidential selection process.”

How Trump surprised his own team by ruling out Obamacare

As coronavirus ran rampant and record jobless numbers piled up, the nation’s health insurers last week readied for a major announcement: The Trump administration was reopening Obamacare to millions of newly uninsured Americans.

It was an announcement that never came.

The White House instead rejected the prospect of allowing new sign-ups across the 38 Affordable Care Act marketplaces it controls – a decision that shocked the health care industry, triggered widespread criticism and prompted a scramble within the administration to find a new way to care for the growing population left exposed to the pandemic.

It's also one that allowed Trump to sidestep an awkward reckoning with the Affordable Care Act that he’s long vowed to kill, and the health care program bearing the name of his Democratic predecessor. The president personally opposed reopening the Obamacare marketplaces when presented with the option, one person familiar with the decision said – prompting the creation of a new initiative that federal officials are now rushing to construct.

“You have a perfectly good answer in front of you, and instead you’re going to make another one up,” said one Republican close to the administration. “It’s purely ideological.”

On Friday, Trump touted his administration’s plan to cover uninsured patients’ coronavirus treatments by paying hospitals for their costs, on the condition that providers also not stick those people with separate charges.

“This should alleviate any concern uninsured Americans may have about seeking the coronavirus treatment,” Trump said during a press briefing. “So that, I think, answers the question pretty well and very much in favor of our great people.”

The rollout of the new hospital pay program capped a frenetic several days within the administration, prompted by a White House official’s confirmation Tuesday that there would be no reopening of the Obamacare markets.

That declaration surprised even some officials in the Health and Human Services Department, who believed the concept was still under consideration. And amid a crush of criticism from Democrats led by 2020 front runner Joe Biden, it worried officials who viewed the verdict as an unforced error in the middle of a historic pandemic.

“It’s a bad decision optics-wise,” one administration official said in the immediate aftermath. “It politicizes people’s access to health services during a serious national health emergency.”

Over the prior weeks, health officials charged with overseeing Obamacare had debated offering special access to those caught without insurance as the coronavirus spread, officials told POLITICO.

Several states with control over their own health exchanges had already flung their doors open in the last month, in an acknowledgment of the deepening crisis that’s already killed thousands and threatens to persist well into the summer.

“We are in a unique situation,” Michele Eberle, the executive director in charge of Maryland’s Obamacare market, said Wednesday, as the state led by GOP Gov. Larry Hogan announced it would enroll people through June 15. “The decision to extend the enrollment deadline was made to ensure as many people as possible get the coverage they need.”

Health insurers that would be on the hook for covering the new population, including the Blue Cross Blue Shield Association, had also thrown their vocal support behind the idea.

"A Special Enrollment Period would offer much needed coverage to millions of Americans and mitigate the potential impact on providers and hospitals which will be forced to rely on emergency funding," the Association of Community Health Plans wrote in a March letter to Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services Administrator Seema Verma.

The move made sense to many in both the industry and Trump’s own administration, because Americans who lose their health insurance as a result of losing their job are already eligible to sign up for Obamacare outside of the traditional month-long enrollment period. With the coronavirus pandemic straining hospitals and the administration’s projections growing increasingly dire, health officials began signaling to insurers that it was preparing to give the broader pool of uninsured Americans a fresh shot at getting coverage, three people with knowledge of the discussions said.

And by late March, administration officials sent word to insurers that the call would soon be official: They were reopening Obamacare, in an unprecedented move that recognized the depth of the public health emergency.

Major health insurance groups prepped press releases in anticipation of a formal announcement as soon as March 28, two people with knowledge of the arrangements said.

But that Saturday passed quietly, as inside the White House, senior aides to Trump balked at giving the proposal a final sign-off. Among the concerns: That the insurers calling loudly for reopening the markets would return weeks later seeking a bailout, as their new enrollees started to rack up medical expenses, a former senior administration official familiar with the decision said.

White House aides largely agreed it was far better to instead spend that money on hospitals, said two senior administration officials, even after officials at HHS and CMS had signaled plans to reopen the exchanges.

The aides also worried that Obamacare coverage would remain unaffordable for many Americans even if the administration did reopen the markets – introducing a host of new political risks, another former senior administration official added.

By Tuesday, HealthCare.gov's grand reopening was off, with a White House official telling POLITICO that the administration was exploring alternative options.

HHS spokespeople declined to address a series of questions about the decision-making process.

“We do not comment on internal deliberations," an HHS spokesperson said. "This has been publicly addressed during White House press briefings and we would point you to those comments.”

The White House declined comment.

Health and Human Services Secretary Alex Azar on Friday insisted that paying providers directly for coronavirus treatment represented a faster and more targeted solution.

The uninsured will be able to seek treatment immediately, without worrying about first purchasing insurance coverage, Azar said. And hospitals will be reimbursed swiftly for their expenses, on the additional condition that they not stick their patients with surprise bills.

“In many respects it’s better for those uninsured individuals,” Azar said. “What President Trump is doing here with this money is an unprecedented disease-specific support of care for individuals to make sure that people get treatment.”

Yet the announcement comes with fresh questions about how smoothly the administration can run the payment process in the middle of an all-consuming crisis, how much of the $100 billion fund already earmarked for hospitals it will consume and how expansive the coverage for the uninsured will be.

If Trump had chosen instead to reopen the HealthCare.gov website – as 11 largely blue states that control their own markets have already done – people without insurance could buy more comprehensive policies that not only would cover coronavirus but any follow-up treatment, mental-health care, and future check-ups.

Trump, however, has long opposed Obamacare, pledging on the campaign trail to eliminate it and making the law’s repeal and replacement a top priority of his presidency. That aspiration ended in failure in 2017, though the administration has successfully rolled back a central requirement that all Americans purchase health insurance.

The White House has since sought to limit Obamacare’s reach, while backing a lawsuit by GOP-led states to wipe out the law altogether – a position it’s continued to hold as coronavirus cases mount.

The decision not to reopen Obamacare enrollment prompted an immediate rebuke from Democrats and insurers.

"This callous decision will cost lives. Period," former Vice President Joe Biden tweeted on Wednesday.

The White House decision also caught the hospital industry off guard, frustrating executives who spent the past week awaiting guidance for how strained front-line facilities could access the new funding.

“We’re going to provide care to everyone, and we particularly want the uninsured to feel secure that the financing’s not going to get in the way of their care. At the same time, though, the purpose of the $100 billion fund was to keep the doors of hospitals open,” said Chip Kahn, CEO of the Federation of American Hospitals, which represents for-profit hospital systems. “I was a little disappointed that the first thing we hear about the fund is that it’s going to be used for some other purpose.”

Hospital groups are still scrambling for clarity on how much money would be taken from the fund and what the process would look like – warning that creating a whole new system for covering the uninsured might further delay payouts.

“You know what that’s called? That’s called single payer,” one Republican lobbyist said of the plan to directly cover expenses for the uninsured.

Trump administration health officials are still trying to answer those key questions, too – a sign of how hastily the proposal was assembled, with the White House only granting final approval hours before it was formally announced on Friday.

Still, administration officials maintain that the program represents a better solution than asking people to get their own coverage under Obamacare.

“People who lose their jobs and insurance can buy ACA insurance if they want, but we’re covering Covid testing for free and banning balance billing," said one senior administration official. "What is better than that? People want care, not coverage."

And hospitals could end up warming to the program, depending on whether the government reimburses according to a provision in Congress’s rescue package that mandates higher-than-normal pay rates for treating coronavirus patients.

“Medicare is a mediocre payer,” one lobbyist said, "but they’re a fast mediocre payer.”

Yet it’s not likely to quell criticism from consumer advocates and Democrats, who contend that it will force millions of Americans to remain uninsured – with little assurance so far that the government will similarly cover follow-up doctor visits or treatments for other medical conditions like pneumonia that are linked to coronavirus.

For Democrats in particular, the episode has energized a party that’s struggled in recent weeks to balance attacking Trump over a response they view as catastrophic with wariness over appearing overly political in the midst of a pandemic.

With attention shifting back to Obamacare – which has grown increasingly popular since the GOP’s failed 2017 bid to repeal the law – Democrats have appeared to find stable footing, pillorying the administration over its policy making.

“We have a health crisis, and it looks like we’re going to have a health insurance crisis,” Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.) said in a lengthy Twitter video attacking the White House’s stance. “It’s time for the federal government to just step up and say, ‘We’re going to cover everyone who doesn’t have health insurance.’”

Trump fires intelligence community watchdog who defied him on whistleblower complaint

President Donald Trump has fired the intelligence community’s chief watchdog, Michael Atkinson, who was the first to sound the alarm to Congress last September about an “urgent” complaint he received from an intelligence official involving Trump’s communications with Ukraine’s president.

Atkinson's decision set in motion the congressional probe that culminated in Trump's impeachment and ultimate acquittal in a bruising political and legal drama that consumed Washington for months.

Trump formally notified the Senate and House Intelligence Committees of his intention to fire Atkinson, to take effect 30 days from Friday, according to two congressional officials and a copy of the letter obtained by POLITICO dated April 3.

“This is to advise that I am exercising my power as president to remove from office the inspector general of the intelligence community, effective 30 days from today,” the president wrote.

Trump said in the letter that he “no longer” has the fullest confidence in Atkinson. “As is the case with regard to other positions where I, as president, have the power of appointment, by and with the advice and consent of the Senate, it is vital that I have the fullest confidence in the appointees serving as inspectors general,” he wrote. “That is no longer the case with regard to this inspector general.”

Trump added that he would be submitting a new nominee for the position to the Senate “at a later date.”

Democrats immediately blasted the move as an abuse of power at a dangerous time for the United States.

Sen. Mark Warner (D-Va.), the vice chairman of the Senate Intelligence Committee, called Atkinson’s firing “unconscionable,” and accused the president of an ongoing effort to politicize intelligence.

“In the midst of a national emergency, it is unconscionable that the president is once again attempting to undermine the integrity of the intelligence community by firing yet another intelligence official simply for doing his job,” Warner said in a statement.

House Intelligence Committee Chairman Rep. Adam Schiff (D-Calif.) described the firing as “retribution” coming in the “dead of night” and called it “yet another blatant attempt by the president to gut the independence of the intelligence community and retaliate against those who dare to expose presidential wrongdoing.”

Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.) said Atkinson’s ouster was evidence that Trump “fires people for telling the truth.”

Mark Zaid, a national security lawyer who represented the Ukraine whistleblower, called the firing “delayed retaliatory action” for Atkinson’s “proper handling of a whistleblower complaint.”

“This action is disgraceful and undermines the integrity of the whistleblower system,” Zaid said. “It is time GOP members of the Senate stand up for the rule of law and speak out against this president.”

According to a congressional source, Atkinson was only informed on Friday evening that he had been fired. He was immediately placed on administrative leave, the source added, which allows the Trump administration to “effectively circumvent” a law requiring 30 days notice to the congressional intelligence committees.

The whistleblower complaint effectively kicked off the House’s impeachment inquiry, which began in late September amid allegations that Trump had solicited foreign interference in the 2020 election when he asked Ukraine’s president to investigate his political opponents, including Joe Biden.

Atkinson opposed the decision by then-acting director of national intelligence Joseph Maguire to withhold the whistleblower complaint from the House and Senate intelligence committees — in particular, Maguire’s decision to seek guidance on the issue from the Justice Department, rather than turn it over to Congress as required by law.

The impasse highlighted the fact that whistleblower protection laws never envisioned a scenario in which the director of national intelligence would withhold a complaint from lawmakers — especially one the inspector general had deemed “urgent” after investigating the matter. Nor did they envision a scenario in which an intelligence agent would blow the whistle on the president, whose unique legal status made the situation unprecedented.

Atkinson was nominated by Trump in November 2017 after serving 16 years at the Justice Department. The inspector general conducts investigations and reviews of activities within the purview of the director of national intelligence, and also handles whistleblower complaints from within the intelligence community.

The issue of whistleblower protection was a central focus of Atkinson’s confirmation hearing, where he pledged to establish “a safe program where whistleblowers do not have fear of retaliation and where they’re confident that the system will treat them fairly and impartially.”

Atkinson's removal follows that of Maguire, who was removed after his staff briefed members of Congress about Russian interference in the 2020 campaign.

Maguire was replaced in the acting role by Richard Grenell, Trump's fiercely loyal ambassador to Germany. Weeks into the job, Grenell has plowed ahead with a series of internal changes despite the president announcing a permanent pick for the director of national intelligence post, Rep. John Ratcliffe (R-Texas).

Those moves led to furious denunciations from Democrats and a relatively cool reception from Republicans, who have nonetheless signaled that they will not oppose Ratcliffe.

Trump’s move to oust Atkinson by suspending him and waiting out the 30-day congressional notification period appears to have precedent about a decade ago in President Barack Obama’s removal of Gerald Walpin, the inspector general of the Corporation for National and Community Service.

Obama took action to dismiss Walpin in 2009 after receiving reports that he was “confused, disoriented [and] unable to answer questions” at a meeting of the agency’s board, according to a letter sent to Congress.

While Atkinson had been recently focused on Trump’s conduct, there was no indication Walpin was investigating Obama at the time of his dismissal, although Walpin later said he thought his removal might have been related to an investigation into one of Obama’s prominent supporters.

Sen. Chuck Grassley (R-Iowa) and then-Sen. Claire McCaskill (D-Mo.) both objected to the process Obama used, saying the 30-day period should have been used to consult with Congress rather than removing Walpin immediately.

Kyle Cheney and Josh Gerstein contributed to this report.

Trump taps longtime GSA watchdog as coronavirus relief inspector general

President Donald Trump plans to tap Brian Miller, a White House lawyer and former federal watchdog, to oversee the new $500 billion coronavirus relief fund housed in the Treasury Department.

Miller, who joined Trump's office of White House counsel after a stint in the private sector, spent nearly 10 years as the inspector general of the General Services Administration, where he handled a string of high-profile waste, fraud and abuse cases — including an investigation of a lavish Las Vegas conference hosted by the GSA in 2010.

Miller was nominated to the GSA watchdog post by President George W. Bush in 2004 and won Senate confirmation the next year. He'll need Senate confirmation again to become the new special inspector general for pandemic recovery, a position established in the new $2 trillion coronavirus response law Trump signed last week.

The new post is one of three layers of spending oversight created by the new law. The others include a five-member congressional commission that will be appointed by leaders of the House and Senate, and a two-dozen member committee of current federal inspectors general headed by Pentagon watchdog Glenn Fine.

Upon confirmation, Miller's role will be watched closely because he's tasked with the most direct role in monitoring Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin's decision to dole out the $500 billion to distressed industries, businesses, and local governments. Congress included a provision requiring the new inspector to report directly to lawmakers if he's "unreasonably" blocked from accessing information. But Trump indicated he intends to ignore that provision, calling it an unconstitutional imposition by Congress on the Executive Branch.

Rather, Trump said, the decision to share such information with Congress would be up to him.

Though inspectors general technically serve as Executive Branch officials, they typically occupy an independent lane insulated from politics. Trump's pick of a current White House lawyer, despite his history as an inspector general, quickly raised alarms for some worried about Miller's independence from the president.

"No one who has served in this WH or any WH should be eligible to serve in this role," said Michael Bromwich, a former Justice Department inspector general. "The job requires complete independence from politics. This nomination should be dead on arrival."

Prior to becoming the GSA inspector general, Miller was a senior adviser to the deputy attorney general in the Bush Justice Department, and he also was an assistant U.S. attorney in the Eastern District of Virginia.

Trump used his late Friday announcement to fill out the ranks of the inspectors general in his administration, indicating his intent to appoint new watchdogs for the CIA, Department of Education. Tennessee Valley Authority and Pentagon, where Fine — a former longtime Justice Department inspector general — had been serving in an acting capacity.

Trump's pick for the CIA, Peter Thompson, is a white-collar criminal defense attorney who previously worked as a Justice Department prosecutor for more than two decades. His pick for the DOE, Andrew De Mello, is currently a trial attorney for the Justice Department's Tax Division and has been detailed to the Homeland Security Department's inspector general since last year. The president's pick to succeed Fine at the Pentagon, Jason Abend, is a senior policy advisser to Customs and Border Protection. And Trump's pick for the TVA, Katherine Crutzer, is currently an acting deputy assistant attorney general in DOJ's Office of Legal Policy.

Barr to speed releases at federal prisons hard hit by virus

Attorney General Bill Barr is ordering federal prison officials to intensify their efforts to release “vulnerable” inmates at three prison complexes that are struggling to contain major outbreaks of the coronavirus.

Barr said he’s seeking to speed the process of sending selected inmates at prisons in Danbury, Conn., Oakdale, La., and Elkton, Ohio to home confinement because of the danger serious levels of infection at those facilities pose to elderly prisoners and those with pre-existing health conditions.

“We are experiencing significant levels of infection at several of our facilities,” Barr said in the new memo dated Friday and obtained by POLITICO Friday night. “We have to move with dispatch in using home confinement, where appropriate, to move vulnerable inmates out of these institutions.”

Barr also said he was exercising for the first time expanded release authority Congress granted him in the stimulus bill known as the Cares Act that was signed into law by President Donald Trump last Friday.

Under previous law, federal prisoners were only eligible for home confinement after they’d completed 90 percent of their sentences. However, the new legislation allows for earlier releases if the attorney general formally declares an emergency, which he did Friday.

“The CARES Act now authorizes me to expand the cohort of inmates who can be considered for home release upon my finding that emergency conditions are materially affecting the functioning of the Bureau of Prisons,” Barr wrote. “I hereby make that finding and direct that … you give priority in implementing these new standards to the most vulnerable inmates at the most affected facilities.”

Seven federal prisoners have died from COVID-19 so far: five at the Louisiana prison Barr is prioritizing and two at the Ohio facility.

The tallies of infected inmates and prison staff have grown daily. As of Friday, 91 federal inmates were confirmed to be infected with the virus, up from 75 a day earlier. Confirmed staff infections rose to 50 from 39.

Barr announced last Thursday that he was instructing the Bureau of Prisons to increase early releases, particularly for older inmates who “no longer pose a threat.”

A total of 522 inmates were moved to home confinement following Barr’s directive last week, according to the Bureau of Prisons.

Barr’s public comments supporting early releases for some inmates seemed to be in tension with remarks Trump made Thursday, where he lashed out at state and local officials for endangering the public by releasing convicted criminals and said he might even step in to try to halt such releases.

Asked about what he was doing to protect prisoners, Trump seemed to downplay the danger to most inmates, arguing that many are young. He also appeared to boast that the federal government had not followed the states' lead of making additional releases due to the pandemic.

“I have not done that at all, but some states are letting people out of prison. Some people are getting out that are very serious criminals, in some states. And I don't like that. I don't like it,” Trump said during a regular White House briefing. “But it's a city or state thing in certain cases, as you know. I think maybe Philadelphia comes to mind. ... We don't like it. The people don't like it. And we're looking in to see if I have the right to stop it in some cases.”

Spokespeople for the Justice Department and the White House did not immediately respond to requests for comment on Trump’s view on early release for federal inmates and whether he was consulted on the Justice Department’s release plans.

Barr's new directive stresses that public safety concerns must be taken into account when considering whom to release.

"While we have a solemn obligation to protect the people in BOP custody, we also have an obligation to protect the public," the attorney general wrote. "That means we cannot simply release prison populations en masse into the streets. Doing so would pose profound risks to the public from released prisoners engaging in additional criminal activity, potentially including violence or heinous sex offenses."

While Barr emphasized that early releases must be assessed on a case-by-case basis, he said that some precautions normally taken in such situations could be waived in the current crisis, such as GPS monitoring for those being sent home.

Nearly 175,000 people are in federal criminal custody, chiefly in federally run prisons and centers run by private contractors. However, the vast majority of those incarcerated in the U.S. — roughly 2 million people — are in state and local criminal justice systems and serve in those prisons or jails.

Barr's latest move to step up releases came as lawmakers, criminal justice reform advocates and lawyers for inmates pressed the department to move more quickly to reduce the danger of coronavirus sweeping through federal prisons.

Two leaders of the House Judiciary Committee wrote to him Monday to urge more widespread releases as well as other steps to limit the virus' spread.

“We hope you will institute aggressive measures to release medically compromised, elderly and pregnant prisoners, as well as universal testing in BOP facilities — to protect everyone. … Urgent action is required because lives depend on it,” wrote Judiciary Committee Chairman Jerrold Nadler (D-N.Y.) and Rep. Karen Bass (D-Calif.), chair of the Crime, Terrorism and Homeland Security subcommittee.

Despite Barr's move Friday, the Justice Department has continued to resist efforts by lawyers to involve the courts in making early release decisions. Prosecutors have argued for strict enforcement of a provision in federal law that says prisoners cannot seek release through a judge until their requests for release have been pending at the Bureau of Prisons for at least 30 days, or until the prison system makes a decision and internal appeals are exhausted.

"That process is particularly important at a time when the BOP is facing an influx of similar requests, and there is a pronounced need for the orderly and consistent resolution of these requests on the timeline that Congress enacted in the statute," federal prosecutors in New York wrote in one such case Thursday.

At a press conference last week where Barr discussed his desire to increase early releases, he said he wanted all inmates to be quarantined for 14 days before release in order to make sure they were not carrying the virus out of prison into the community. It was not immediately clear how hundreds of inmates had been released in the past week while accommodating those concerns.

Northwell memo calls for rationing ventilators to 'patients most likely to benefit'

One of New York state's biggest hospital systems released guidelines Friday directing medical professionals on how to manage the limited supply of life-sparing ventilators as the coronavirus continues its deadly stampede through New York.

“The goal of this institutional process is to allocate scarce critical care resources to those patients most likely to benefit,” Northwell Health wrote in a six-page memo titled “Public Health Emergency: Life Sustaining Treatment Decisions for all Patients” and distributed to medical staff.

The guidance, which was obtained by POLITICO, recommends that medical teams reevaluate patients with advanced illnesses who are breathing through a ventilator for three days if they show no “no clinical improvement.” At that point, the team should consult palliative care specialists to discuss whether to unplug the breathing device — a step the memo describes as “compassionate extubation” — and confer with the hospital’s “clinical triage team.”

The instructions laid out the same steps for patients with prior advanced health problems — chronic illness or some combination of malnutrition, organ dysfunction, cancer and declining functional status — who do not improve within seven days. Those who have been readmitted to a hospital more than three times in the prior six months are also granted “advanced illness” status.

After patients are removed from ventilators, they should be provided medicine “to prevent and treat distressful symptoms” in their final hours, according to the guidance.

Otherwise healthy patients who are intubated should be evaluated by a critical care team after seven days.

Any patient likely to die regardless of medical assistance “should not be offered interventions such as CPR and intubation,” the memo advised.

“Both patient needs and resource shortages can fluctuate daily or even more frequently. Therefore patient re-assessment should occur daily and be documented,” it concluded.

Hospital executives worked with a number of experts last week to create the guidelines for the novel coronavirus, which has thus far claimed more than 1,800 lives in the city, and a Northwell spokesperson said the system is using 75 percent of its ventilators.

“It’s obviously not going to be in place until that situation arises,” said spokesperson Terry Lynam. “I do want to underscore that we have an adequate supply of ventilators right now, and we’re working with our supply channels to purchase more.”

Meanwhile the state is developing its own standards and Northwell may update its guidelines to match those, he added.

Northwell emailed the guidelines to staff members a day after Gov. Andrew Cuomo warned the state is expected to run out of ventilators in a matter of days. Medical experts have pushed for hospitals to put in place such systems so physicians aren’t forced to make those decisions on their own.

Cuomo plans to deploy the National Guard to seize supplies from hospitals that don’t have an immediate need for them.

“If you thought physician burnout is bad now, wait until that starts happening — you’re going to get the equivalent of battlefield shell shock,” said Art Fougner, a medical doctor and president of the Medical Society of New York. “Can you imagine carrying the weight of that burden on your shoulders?”

Other health systems like Maimonides Medical Center and SUNY Downstate have not issued guidance for how to prioritize patients for ventilators.

“We are providing every patient who comes to us all of the care they need to give them the best chance of recovery, without regard to age or previous health status,” said SUNY Downstate, which has been designated as a coronavirus-only facility, in a statement. “Decisions with regard to Do Not Resuscitate orders are left entirely to the patient and their family. We do not hold back life-saving care, including ventilation and resuscitation.”

Arthur Caplan, a bioethicist at the NYU School of Medicine, said those types of policies don’t make any sense.

“You are going to wind up treating people impossible to help — futile,” he said. “The policy of the places I’m familiar with is not ‘first come, first serve,’ but ‘maximize the number of lives you can save.’ That's what you do with organ transplants. People die every day because they are waiting for a liver or a heart. The nation has accepted that system. It has been in place for 40 years.”

He added that policies like Northwell’s allow medical professionals to emotionally prepare for making tough decisions before the tsunami hits.

State guidelines from 2015 proposed ways to “ethically allocate limited resources (i.e., ventilators) during a severe influenza pandemic while saving the most lives,” according to an introductory letter from State Health Commissioner Howard Zucker.

“It is my sincere hope that these Guidelines will never need to be implemented,” Zucker wrote at the time. “But as a physician and servant in public health, I know that such preparations are essential should we ever experience an influenza pandemic.”

'No problem whatsoever': Trump downplays Fauci absence at coronavirus briefing

President Donald Trump on Friday dismissed suggestions that his relationship with Anthony Fauci, the nation’s top infectious diseases expert, might have soured, after Fauci was conspicuously absent from Friday’s news briefing by the White House coronavirus task force.

“I don’t know. But every time you ask that question, whenever he’s not here, you say, look, where is he? And you’ll say, is there a problem? No problem whatsoever,” Trump told CNN’s Jim Acosta, who inquired about Fauci’s absence, after his network reported Fauci was removed from the group of briefers at the last minute.

“Every time he’s not here — sometimes I’ll ask him to come, because that's the first question you and a few others from the fake news establishment ask is, where is Dr. Fauci? We’re doing great work together. Except we are covering a different subject today,” the president continued.

Minutes earlier, however, a White House official chalked up Fauci’s disappearance from the daily briefing to a matter of having limited space onstage in the briefing room.

"We had to social distance. We are announcing [Centers for Disease Control and Prevention] guidance so we have the director of the CDC and Surgeon General,” the official said. There were individuals on each side of the stage, which the official said went to Deborah Birx, the White House coronavirus response coordinator, and Health and Human Services Secretary Alex Azar, who spoke about how the government was attempting to close insurance gaps for the unemployed.

Fauci has become one of the most prominent faces of the Trump administration’s coronavirus response, earning plaudits — as well as some vitriol — for his occasionally brutal honesty, and leading to raised eyebrows when he’s not in attendance at the daily briefing.

The last time Fauci was mysteriously out of sight for White House coronavirus events, rumors swirled that the president’s patience with the doctor, who has been more willing than most administration officials to publicly contradict the president, was wearing thin. Trump denied that there was any friction. But Fauci’s absences coincided with a series of rather candid interviews Fauci had given about how he deals with Trump’s misinformation about the virus.

And though Trump again downplayed signs of possible tension with Fauci on Friday, his absence came a day after Fauci flatly asked why the country wasn’t under a nationwide stay-at-home order from Trump.

“If you look at what’s going on in this country, I just don’t understand why we’re not doing that,” he told CNN anchor Anderson Cooper, adding: “We really should be.”

Trump has repeatedly defended his deference to governors and local leaders on whether to order residents to stay home, even as more than three dozen state leaders have handed down such orders.

Asked whether all states have to be “on the same page” in terms of issuing those directives, Fauci told CNN Thursday, “I don’t understand why that’s not happening,” and acknowledged the Trump administration’s hesitance to encroach upon local authorities.

Earlier Friday, Fauci also appeared on “Fox & Friends,” one of the president’s favorite shows on cable, where he threw cold water on studies featuring antimalarial drugs that Trump has often hyped as a potential cure for coronavirus.

“Granted there is a suggestion that there's a benefit, I think we have to be careful that we don't make that leap to assume this is a knockout drug,” Fauci warned.

Supreme Court postpones more arguments amid coronavirus outbreak

The Supreme Court has postponed the remainder of its cases that were set to be argued this term, leaving open the possibility that a number of high-profile disputes could go unresolved into the fall.

Among the cases put off Friday were a fight over the Trump administration’s policy offering exemptions from Obamacare to religious objectors and another over states’ power to control the votes of presidential electors.

The cases were set to be argued during the court’s final scheduled round of arguments in late April. The court previously postponed cases from its March sitting, including disputes over efforts by House committees and a New York grand jury to subpoena President Donald Trump’s financial records.

The statement issued by the high court Friday was vague about whether it might use unconventional methods to hold arguments in some of the cases but suggested that some of the disputes will be put off until the next term, which begins in October.

“The Court will consider rescheduling some cases from the March and April sessions before the end of the Term, if circumstances permit in light of public health and safety guidance at that time,” the statement said. “The Court will consider a range of scheduling options and other alternatives if arguments cannot be held in the Courtroom before the end of the Term.”

The justices’ statement stressed that they’re continuing with day-to-day work and they vowed to resolve all cases already argued. For the past two weeks, the court has released opinions online without physically taking the bench.

Chief Justice John Roberts has been convening the justices’ private conferences from the court, with other justices joining remotely, according to a court spokesperson.

The coronavirus’ disproportionate impact on the elderly has raised concerns about the justices, six of whom are 65 or older. Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg is 87 and has suffered from several bouts of cancer. Justice Stephen Breyer is 81.

All the justices are in good health, a spokesperson told reporters Friday.

Transparency advocates are urging the court to use audio or video conference technology to proceed with arguments — something many justices may be reluctant to do because of their longstanding resistance to camera coverage of the court’s proceedings.

“This is getting ridiculous. If the Supreme Court can conduct its weekly conferences remotely, which it has been doing for weeks, it can conduct its remaining arguments remotely and allow the public to listen in,” said Gabe Roth, executive director of the website Fix the Court.

"The country has adapted to working over Zoom, Skype and Google Hangouts, and dozens of state and federal courts are keeping the wheels of justice moving via teleconferencing in spite of the pandemic. The Supreme Court should be no different,” Roth added.

Trump invokes DPA to prevent export of medical goods

President Trump on Friday said he had invoked the Defense Production Act, a federal emergency law, to prevent hoarding or export of critical medical gear needed to combat the coronavirus outbreak.

“The Secretary of Homeland Security will work with FEMA to prevent the export of N95 [respirators] and surgical masks, gloves, and other personal equipment,” Trump said at his daily coronavirus news conference. “We need these items immediately for domestic use.”

The Trump administration had previously refrained from imposing export restrictions on medical supplies, despite calls from some members of Congress. But around the world, at least 68 countries have imposed export restrictions since the beginning of the year, according to the Geneva-based Global Trade Alert.

Earlier today, the World Trade Organization released a report showing the United States is one of the top exporters of medical supplies, along with Germany and Switzerland.

Trump’s announcement came a day after the president invoked the DPA against manufacturer 3M and six major medical device makers, seeking to spur the production and distribution of ventilators and other medical gear. Though he did not detail which companies or industries were covered by the latest order, Trump said the White House has already used the act to seize and distribute medical gear held by private companies.

“Under that authority, this week at the Department of Health and Human Services working with the Department of Justice took custody of nearly 200,000 N95 respirators and 130,000 surgical masks, 600,000 gloves as well as bottles and disinfectant sprays that were being hoarded,” Trump said at the news conference. “All of this material is now being given to health care workers.”

Trump’s decision to expand application of the DPA comes a week after he first invoked it to direct automaker General Motors to produce ventilators. The moves come after weeks of mounting pressure from Congressional Democrats and governors of states hard-hit by the coronavirus to use the federal emergency law.

‘Lord of the Flies: PPE Edition’: U.S. cast as culprit in global scrum over coronavirus supplies

The coronavirus pandemic is pushing countries around the world into a cutthroat competition for medical resources – and the United States is being cast as a leading villain.

President Donald Trump’s administration stands accused of effectively hijacking shipments of masks and additional crucial supplies meant for other countries, including U.S. allies, and strong-arming private firms to prioritize America over other parts of the world.

Developing countries, where Covid-19 has yet to fully wreak havoc, are terrified of being left behind in the race for personal protective equipment, or PPE, and other materials because they cannot match the purchasing power of the U.S. and other wealthy countries.

Independent aid organizations that cater to the neediest corners of the globe are finding themselves competing for attention from medical goods manufacturers. The Trump administration has even asked aid groups to share those supplies with the U.S. government, in a bizarre reversal of the usual dynamic between the world’s leading power and those it typically helps.

“It’s ‘Lord of the Flies: PPE Edition’,” said Jeremy Konyndyk, a former U.S. official who specializes in disaster response. “We need some global solidarity, and instead we have global competition.”

The international scramble mirrors the beggar-thy-neighbor competition among U.S. states for ventilators and other items considered vital to halting the spread of infections. It’s a reflection of the astonishing dearth of coordination among world leaders on the response to the virus, which has appeared in more than 180 countries.

It also could exacerbate and extend the crisis: If poorer countries are unable to stop the virus, it is even more likely re-emerge in more developed parts of the world that thought they had defeated it.

Some inside the Trump administration are keenly aware of the risks. In a strategy document obtained by POLITICO and crafted by the State Department and the U.S. Agency for International Development, U.S. officials argue that mitigating the virus in poorer countries “is critical for the safety and security of the American people.” Failing to do so could derail U.S. efforts to help other countries become more financially sound and independent, they add.

“The pace and rapid spread of COVID-19 will likely surpass local response capacity and existing resources in many countries that are important to U.S. interests,” the document asserts. “Depending on the severity in each country, COVID-19 is expected to cause significant economic and social disruption.”

The document, labeled “sensitive but unclassified,” adds that “longer-term impacts could reverse valuable economic and development gains made over many years, which could slow a country’s Journey to Self-Reliance and undermine billions of dollars of investments by American taxpayers that have resulted in tremendous health gains.”

But the United States faces criticism that its behavior during the pandemic is simply making the global situation worse.

Multiple reports emerged this week in which foreign officials accused Americans – including U.S. government representatives – of essentially commandeering shipments of medical supplies meant for other countries, among them generally well-off U.S. allies in Europe.

In one case, according to a report in The Guardian, American buyers managed to “wrest control” of a shipment of masks from China that was supposed to go to France by offering three times the selling price. In another report, a German official accused the U.S. of an “act of modern piracy” after a shipment of masks from China that were meant for Berlin were seized and diverted to the U.S. while en route in Thailand. Similar reports emerged from Brazil, where a top official said China had set aside his country’s orders for equipment after the U.S. sent some 20 planes to pick up materials for itself.

It wasn’t always clear whether the U.S. government had authorized such diversions of goods. In a statement to POLITICO, a senior Trump administration official asserted that the reports of U.S. malfeasance are “completely false.”

“The United States government has not confiscated or taken any masks intended for delivery to or ordered by any other country,” the official said. “We are producing vast quantities of materials domestically and are working through the appropriate channels to purchase supplies from other nations to meet our needs.”

But there’s no question the U.S. is trying to procure as much medical equipment as it possibly can.

One company caught in the middle is U.S.-based manufacturer 3M. Trump has invoked the Defense Production Act to demand more N95 respirators from 3M, and the company has been the target of a threatening tweet from the president.

In a statement Friday, 3M expressed concern that the Trump administration had asked it to stop exporting certain respirators to Canada and Latin America and instead respond to growing demand in the United States.

“There are… significant humanitarian implications of ceasing respirator supplies to healthcare workers in Canada and Latin America, where we are a critical supplier of respirators,” the company said.

It also argued that other countries could retaliate by halting exports of crucial materials to the United States. That’s a key point that aid experts make as they try to predict the future; some note that the fight for medical equipment now could evolve into a battle for the elements that make therapeutics and vaccines.

Trump’s pressure on 3M prompted a rebuke from Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, who noted that U.S.-Canadian trade goes both ways.

“These are things that Americans rely on and it would be a mistake to create blockages or reduce the amount of back-and-forth trade of essential goods and services, including medical goods, across our border,” he said.

Still, there are signs that imposing controls on what the U.S. sends overseas will have bipartisan support in Washington.

On Friday, House Foreign Affairs Chairman Eliot Engel (D-N.Y.) asked the Trump administration to place export restrictions on medical supplies “without further delay.”

“There is mounting evidence that the critical shortages of surgical masks and other personal protective equipment are being exacerbated by the unregulated export of such medical supplies from the United States.,” Engel wrote to Vice President Mike Pence, who leads the administration’s coronavirus task force.

There already are more than 1 million confirmed cases of coronavirus worldwide, with at least 55,000 deaths. But the epicenters of the disease have primarily been in better-off countries – China, the United States, Spain and Italy.

U.S. officials, global health analysts and others say the worst may be yet to come, in less-well off places like India, Nigeria, Bangladesh and parts of Latin America. The health infrastructure in many of these countries is already weak, and sparse in rural areas in particular. Some of them also have large, densely concentrated urban populations that make it hard to exercise “social distancing” rules.

Yet these countries are caught up in the global competition for medical supplies even though they have less cash to spread around.

Earlier this week, tech entrepreneur Elon Musk, a founder of Tesla, tweeted that the car company has “extra FDA-approved ventilators. Will ship to hospitals worldwide within Tesla delivery regions. Device & shipping cost are free.”

One respondent was Bashir Ahmad, a top aide to the president of Nigeria, who wrote to Musk: “Nigeria, my dear country is in need. Kindly send 100s here, we really need them, thanks!”

The State Department and USAID have been caught in the middle, grappling with what often feel like contradictory impulses by the Trump administration.

One impulse is characterized by the “America First” philosophy, which says the U.S. must put its needs ahead of other countries and that other governments should share more of the global burden of humanitarian aid. The other is the desire to project continued U.S. dominance worldwide – the notion that America remains indispensable to any global effort.

On the one hand, the U.S. is trumpeting that it has made available some $274 million worth of aid to help other countries afflicted by the coronavirus. Those aid announcements come as U.S. adversary China, the original epicenter of the illness, has been on a public relations spree touting the expertise and equipment it is sending to other countries to help them battle the virus.

On the other, as POLITICO first reported earlier this week, the vice president’s office has ordered a review of U.S. assistance to ensure that personal protective equipment needed in America isn’t heading to other countries – at least not so long as there’s need in the U.S.
Aid experts gave some leeway to the Trump administration’s approach.

They noted that such a worldwide crisis was highly unusual, not least because the U.S. itself is one of the hardest hit zones. The idea that the U.S. is in crisis – with official projections of 100,000 to 240,000 dead – is hard to digest for aid workers who are used to viewing America as a safe harbor.

“I would really doubt that any other administration would be different about prioritizing American needs when they’re looking at a quarter of a
million people dying in the next few months,” said Nicole Widdersheim, a former National Security Council official with expertise in Africa.
Non-governmental aid groups also are caught in the competition for medical supplies.

Chris Skopec, a top official with Project HOPE, said his group recently put in a $500,000 order for 200,000 masks from a Chinese manufacturer. The masks were going to be sent to countries like Colombia, Ethiopia and the Philippines. But word soon came that the manufacturer had taken another order from another source for 20 million masks to be sent to the U.S. and Europe, Skopec said.

“So our modest order got sidelined and deprioritized,” he said. Project HOPE managed to find another manufacturer.

On March 27, USAID issued an extraordinary “urgent request” asking aid groups around the world to see if they have personal protective gear and other medical supplies that could be given to the United States.

In a note to the organizations, a USAID official attached a spreadsheet in which they could tabulate the items they could spare, including endotracheal tubes, biohazard bags and nasal cannula. NBC News first reported the request. USAID officials did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

U.S. officials and health experts say it’s likely the Trump administration will focus more on what it can do for other countries once it feels it has the situation in the United States under control.

A senior State Department official said that that’s definitely the plan as far as donating PPE to other countries. “This is a global challenge, and we have to respond globally as well,” the official said. “We’re not going to just fix it at home and then seal the borders.”

The problem with that, others say, is that by the time America’s health crisis is under control, its economy might be in such poor shape that giving aid to other countries would be even less politically palatable than it is now.

And besides, it might be too late for many less developed countries.

Some poorer countries are trying to impose social distancing and other measures to prevent the virus from gaining too big a foothold. India, which has more than 1 billion residents, on March 24 announced a three-week nationwide lockdown. The number of confirmed cases in neighboring Pakistan has ticked past 2,600.

Still, with densely packed areas and limited access to health care, it’s hard to tell how truly widespread the infection already is in many of those countries. By the time enough equipment arrives from overseas, the death tolls could be staggering.

All that means it will be even more likely the virus could find its way back to the United States and other countries that thought they had brought it under control.

“If there are countries that are raging fires, and we’ve still got kindling at home, then we’ve still got a problem,” Konyndyk said.

Trump administration recommends Americans wear cloth masks amid pandemic

President Donald Trump on Friday said his administration is recommending that Americans wear face coverings to curb the spread of the coronavirus but added he wouldn't follow the recommendation.

The guidance from the Centers for Disease Control encourages use of cloth masks when outside the home. Health experts say the practice, which is common in parts of Asia, would reduce the risk of exposed individuals not exhibiting symptoms spreading the disease.

"You do not have to do it. They suggest it for a period of time," Trump said. "But this is voluntary. I don't think I'm going to be doing it."

The president added that the CDC did not recommend that the public use "medical grade or surgical grade masks," which should be saved for medical workers.

Administration officials debated the recommendation for days, worried about the risk of sending mixed messages on public health and inadvertently encouraging hoarding of protective gear that health workers desperately need.

Public health experts have cautioned that homemade masks aren't enough to protect the wearer from contracting the virus, although some studies suggest that they can prevent asymptomatic people from infecting others.

Senior Trump officials like Surgeon General Jerome Adams had previously urged Americans not to wear masks, saying it could increase disease spread by leading people to more frequently touch their faces to adjust the coverings.

But they began to rethink the recommendation this week in light of more data on the extent the virus is being spread by people not showing symptoms, Adams said at the White House briefing.

"In light of the new evidence, CDC recommends and the task force recommends wearing cloth face coverings in public settings where other social distancing measures are difficult to maintain," Adams said. "These include places like grocery stores and pharmacies."

He emphasized that wearing coverings is not a substitute for maintaining social distancing and following other guidelines to curb the virus' spread.

New Jersey likely 1 week behind New York on coronavirus surge

It’s been one month since New Jersey recorded its first coronavirus case. Since then, almost 650 residents have died and roughly 30,000 have tested positive for the virus — a total that only reflects a sample of patients experiencing symptoms.

The worst is yet to come.

On Friday, Gov. Phil Murphy said Dr. Anthony Fauci, America’s top infectious disease expert and a key member of the Trump administration’s response to the pandemic, told him New Jersey is roughly a week away from experiencing a wave of cases similar to those seen in New York City, which has become the epicenter of the pandemic. Also on Friday, the Covid-19 death toll in New York City surpassed that of 9/11.

“[Fauci] didn’t want to hang his hat on this, but it looked to him like we’re a week-ish behind New York,” Murphy said at his daily press briefing, adding that the projection is generally in line with what New Jersey state officials are expecting.

None of this is especially surprising.

Over the last month, Murphy and state Health Commissioner Judith Persichilli have warned that New Jersey — particularly the urban and suburban communities around New York City — will likely experience major outbreaks in line with what’s played out in New York.

The outlook from hospitals across the Hudson River has been bleak.

Some physicians and medical staff have already been instructed to use their own judgment to decide which patients should be hooked up to ventilators. The life-saving machines are in short supply as an ever-growing number of Covid-19 patients require hospitalization and treatment for respiratory distress. Temporary hospitals originally built to accommodate the overflow of patients with unrelated ailments are now being asked to take in those with Covid-19.

New Jersey’s preparing for the same reality.

At least nine New Jersey hospitals have reported to the state Department of Health that they don’t have enough ventilators to treat all of their patients, Persichilli said Friday. While the state has so far been able to divert machines to those facilities, its current supply won’t be anywhere near enough when Covid-19 hospitalizations inevitably spike.

The state’s acute care hospitals have around 2,400 ventilators, roughly 1,600 of which are in use, Persichilli said. The state requested 2,500 machines from the dwindling federal stockpile. It has received just 850.

While Murphy and Persichilli have said they have enough ventilators to meet the current demand, the request of 1,650 additional machines isn’t close to the number necessary to treat patients at the pandemic’s peak.

“Our estimated gap ... is that we need 6,000 more,” Persichilli said during Friday’s briefing.

With limited testing supplies and long backlogs at commercial labs, state officials have been reluctant to offer an exact projection on when the number of cases in New Jersey will peak. Hospitals in the northern part of the state are already seeing a surge in coronavirus-related hospitalizations, with several facilities diverting patients after reaching capacity over the last three days.

On Thursday, Murphy toured the first of four expected “pop-up” hospitals at the Meadowlands Exposition Center in Secaucus — about two miles from the entrance to the Lincoln Tunnel. The hospital was constructed with the Federal Emergency Management Agency to hold 250 non-coronavirus patients. On Friday, Persichilli said the administration may have to reassess that plan, given the number of coronavirus patients who’ve already flooded the state’s hospitals.

For the first time on Friday, Persichilli provided clear numbers on the number of Covid-19 patients being treated in New Jersey hospitals.

Roughly 3,000 patients — representing 12 percent of the total hospitalizations in the state — have tested positive for the virus. A similar number are suspected of having the virus, but have yet to receive test results.

Of the positive cases that are hospitalized, roughly 41 percent are on ventilators.

“I had thought in the beginning it would be 50 percent,” Persichilli said. “We are planning for every critical care bed, a ventilator. We have to break down how many are in critical care, how many are not, but 41 percent is to me, a number that we can work with."

Murphy said he expected to hold a more “moneyball”-oriented briefing early next week to discuss how the state is projecting future case totals, and how those projections mesh with persistent supply shortages.

Those shortages run the gamut.

With labs straining at capacity, state officials haven’t received data on new positive cases in a timely manner. New Jersey has spent around $27 million on roughly 10 million pieces of personal protective equipment, with 75 percent reimbursement from FEMA. Hundreds of thousands of additional pieces came in the form of donations from entities ranging from Horizon Blue Cross Blue Shield of New Jersey to the International Longshoremen’s Association.

New Jersey also began working to source PPE from China, Taiwan and Germany, where Murphy served as ambassador during the Obama administration.

Health systems across the state are reopening closed wings to expand their capacity of acute care beds. With the health care workforce straining to meet the needs of patients, particularly in North Jersey, 7,539 individuals with medical backgrounds have volunteered their services to the state.

Murphy on Friday said he continues to solicit support from the federal government, going so far as to offer shout-outs to Trump administration stalwarts like Jared Kushner and Kellyanne Conway — both New Jersey natives — but said the state will need more as it faces down the single greatest public health crisis of the last century.

“Whether or not we’re getting all we need [from the Trump administration] is a separate question and separate matter from, are folks laying down anything remotely partisan,” Murphy said. “It’s my experience, we all are.”

Carly Sitrin contributed to this report.

‘It is terrifying’: Wisconsin leaders warn of coronavirus disaster with Tuesday’s vote

Voting-rights advocates are doing the unthinkable in Wisconsin: urging voters not to go to the polls on Tuesday.

The coronavirus epidemic has turned their calculations upside down in the state, where the federal government has declared a "major disaster," Gov. Tony Evers has ordered residents to stay home — and in-person voting is still scheduled to take place Tuesday in the presidential primary and state and local elections, barring a last-minute intervention from the state Legislature, which Evers called into a Saturday special session.

A federal judge on Thursday ordered the state to expand absentee voting ahead of Tuesday's elections, but he declined to postpone the election because he said he did not have the authority to do so. That has left a number of politicians and voting-rights advocates having to weigh a public health crisis colliding with a crisis of democracy — and they are coming down on the health side.

Milwaukee Mayor Tom Barrett, who is running for reelection, urged voters not to go to the polls Tuesday, a call joined by some other local elected officials and activists. Jay Heck, director of Common Cause Wisconsin, a voting-rights group, likened the spring election to a cosmic calamity.

"The upcoming election is hurtling toward the state of Wisconsin like some unstoppable meteor," said Heck. "It is terrifying, because nobody knows what's going to happen."

Evers announced Friday that he would call a special session of the Legislature the next day and asked legislators to take an “up-or-down vote to send a ballot to every registered voter by May 19 … and to extend the time for those ballots to be received by May 26.” Evers had in the past rejected calls for postponing the election, infuriating Democrats in the state, but has previously called for a mail-in election on April 7. The governor called for the vast majority of in-person voting to be suspended, save for limited availability for disabled voters and voters who struggle with reading or writing in English.

The governor has maintained that his hands were tied by the Republicans who control the Legislature. They have bucked calls to postpone the election. But Sam Munger, a Democratic political consultant and former aide to Evers who has talked with several Democratic legislators, said “nobody thinks that it is very likely that the Republican Legislature will seriously take up the governor’s proposal.”

Wisconsin House Speaker Robin Vos and state Senate Majority Leader Scott Fitzgerald released a joint statement rejecting Evers’ call, calling the governor’s leadership “feckless” and ineffective.

“Hundreds of thousands of workers are going to their jobs every day, serving in essential roles in our society. There’s no question that an election is just as important as getting take-out food,” they said. “We continue to support what Gov. Evers has supported for weeks: The election should continue as planned on Tuesday.”

Tuesday’s election could potentially disenfranchise scores of thousands voters who will be unable to obtain or return an absentee ballot in time and fear going to the polls.

“What this is going to do is further disenfranchise voters from participating in electoral politics,” said Marcelia Nicholson, a Milwaukee County supervisor. The city of Milwaukee usually has 1,400 election workers spread across 180 voting sites. Now, the city is down to just 350 poll workers, and will have in-person voting centers at just five sites, the Milwaukee Election Commission announced on Friday. The city of Green Bay will have just two in-person voting sites instead of the usual 31.

“Despite this pandemic, despite Milwaukee’s [high coronavirus case rate] … you telling them that they need to go to the polls and vote and is akin to telling them to go vote in a hurricane. It is crazy,” Nicholson said.

Both Heck and Nicholson said they can’t in good conscience tell people to go to the polls in person on Tuesday, and encouraged voters to request an absentee ballot, as many other officials in the state had. The deadline to request the absentee ballot is Friday evening, and that was after a court-ordered extension.

A record-smashing 1.2 million people had requested an absentee ballot as of Friday morning, according to data from the state elections board. But that’s well short of the 2.1 million people who voted in the spring election in 2016, when both parties had a competitive presidential primary, meaning potentially tens of thousands of voters, if not more, could be be forced to go to the polls.

U.S. District Judge William Conley also extended the deadline for absentee ballots to be returned to 4 p.m. on April 13, and waived a witness signature requirement for voters who were unable to “safely obtain a witness certification despite reasonable efforts to do so.”

The Republican National Committee, state Republican Party and the GOP-controlled Legislature all appealed the order. In its appeal, the Legislature argued that Conley’s order was a “belated judicial rewrite of Wisconsin’s voting laws” that opened up the process to fraud and effectively allowed voters to cast ballots after Election Day, because ballots had only a time they were required to be returned but no postmark deadline.

Across the state, election clerks are facing a dramatic shortage of poll workers that could exacerbate the health risk to workers and voters. A report from the Wisconsin Elections Commission on Tuesday found that nearly 60 percent of Wisconsin’s municipalities were reporting a shortage of poll workers, and the situation has continued to deteriorate in some areas in the state.

“Voting will be occurring in some of the city’s hot spots and we’re very concerned about the public having to choose between voting and their personal safety, but also the election itself acting as a hot spot of spreading the virus,” Neil Albrecht, executive director of the Milwaukee Election Commission, said. Albrecht has called for in-person voting to be canceled.

Albrecht estimated that around 100,000 voters in the city will vote in this year’s election, down from nearly 168,000 in the 2016 spring election. So far, 75,000 Milwaukee residents have already voted via absentee, and Albrecht expects somewhere between 3,000 and 4,000 people to vote in person on Election Day.

“Voting is important and democracy is important,” he continued. “But when you think about the number of people that will be disenfranchised in an election that’s occurring in a pandemic, and when you think about the public health risk, this is not democracy.”

White House mandates coronavirus test for anyone in 'close proximity' to Trump or Pence

The White House is administering a rapid coronavirus test to anyone coming into contact with President Donald Trump or Vice President Mike Pence, Deputy Press Secretary Judd Deere confirmed to POLITICO on Friday.

“As the Physician to the President and White House Operations continue to protect the health and safety of the President and the Vice President, starting today anyone who is expected to be in close proximity to either of them will be administered a COVID-19 test to evaluate for pre-symptomatic or asymptomatic carriers status to limit inadvertent transmission,” Deere said in a statement.

The definition of “close proximity” is unclear, but a White House official confirmed that the testing protocol does not include reporters at this time. The White House has been taking the temperature of those close to Trump and Pence — including reporters attending daily briefings at the White House — since March 14.

Reporters asked the president about the new testing requirement during his meeting with oil executives Friday afternoon. Trump turned to the group attending the meeting and asked if any of them wanted to be tested.

“If anyone wants to be tested, they’ll be tested,” the president said. He did not address the reasons behind the new directive.

Trump, himself, tested negative for coronavirus for the second time, the White House physician announced on Thursday. The president was tested using “a new, rapid point-of-care test capability” and the negative result came back in 15 minutes, according to a letter from Dr. Sean Conley. Conley also said that the president was healthy and doesn’t have any symptoms.

The president unveiled a new rapid test kit from Abbott Laboratories in the Rose Garden earlier this week, touting the administration's efforts on testing. On Monday, Trump said the U.S. has reached 1 million tests, what he called a "historic milestone" in the battle against Covid-19, the disease caused by the unique coronavirus.

But those milestones came after some early stumbles, with delayed health providers' ability to conduct widespread testing as the virus first began to spread across the United States. The Centers for Disease and Control and Prevention opted not to use coronavirus tests from the World Health Organization early on in the crisis, instead developing an American test that did not initially work properly. That contributed to a lag in testing, which made it harder for doctors and scientists to contain the pandemic.

Daniel Lippman contributed to this report.

New York considers loosening requirements for funeral directors as bodies pile up

NEW YORK — In a move that could ease the passage of bodies from refrigerated morgues to cemeteries, Gov. Andrew Cuomo is considering allowing out-of-state funeral directors to work in New York under the license of an existing practitioner, a state official told POLITICO.

The potential executive order would dovetail with an existing effort by the state's Funeral Directors Association to recruit upstate funeral directors to New York City to help their overwhelmed colleagues. Overburdened funeral homes are running out of space to process bodies, with the lockdown forcing them to abbreviate mourning rituals — an idea no one seems to relish.

"All of these families want to have a funeral. And they can’t," said Anthony Cassieri, who runs Brooklyn Funeral Home and Cremation Service in Brownsville. "You can’t celebrate somebody’s life. It’s a sin. It really is a sin.”

On Wednesday night, the state association issued a "call of action” to funeral directors from around the state asking them to come to New York City to help process the dead, said Mike Lanotte, the executive director and CEO of the New York State Funeral Directors Association.

Lanotte's action is both a call to call to arms and a death knell, as New York's coronavirus fatality toll on Friday leapt past the death toll the state sustained on Sept. 11, 2001.

“I’ve talked to funeral directors who've been practicing for 30 or 40 years who said they've never seen anything like this in their life,” Lanotte said.

As of Thursday night, Covid-19 had taken 1,562 lives in New York City. The city's four crematories can now work 24 hours a day. The city has established at least 45 mobile morgues to supplement the existing body storage capacity. The U.S. Department of Defense is reportedly sending dozens of mortuary affairs officers to help run the new morgues.

At Hart Island, the city potter's field administered by the Department of Correction, the number of burials has increased from 30 or fewer a week to 100 a week, the department confirmed.

“If everybody stops dying for two months, we’ll still be working like this for six to eight months,” Cassieri said.

Funeral directors are a key link in the chain that connects coronavirus victims to their final resting places. When a patient dies, the funeral directors speak with the family, provide caskets, stage whatever wakes or funerals they can and then transport the deceased to the cemetery or crematorium.

They number of deceased is overwhelming their systems — so, too, is a shortage of workers at both crematories and cemeteries, where workers are getting sick, and where operators, in an effort to protect their workers, have moved people into shifts.

In pre-Covid-19 times, when Cassieri needed to cremate a body, he’d call up the crematory and take the body there at his leisure. Now, crematories are requiring appointments, sometimes more than a week in advance.

Cassieri thinks the state should grant funeral directors access to mobile crematories, so “we could start cremating our own work,” he said. He imagines setting one up in a parking lot or a garage.

To that end, he sought help from Council Member Justin Brannan, who represents Bay Ridge and passed on his request to the authorities.

“The grim reality is they have 40 or 50 people that need to be waked at their funeral homes and they have nowhere to store the bodies,” Brannan said.

At the moment, state law restricts crematory operations to cemeteries, according to David Fleming, the director of legislative affairs at the New York State Association of Cemeteries.

But mobile crematories — or “retorts,” as they are known — have been “part of the mass casualty planning that’s around for a while,” Fleming said. “These retorts are available and they would most likely be run by cemeteries and Department of Defense employees.”

Fleming said that the city’s four crematories are now “hovering around capacity,” and have had to dispatch some bodies outside of the city.

He suggested funeral directors could help increase that capacity by encasing bodies in cardboard “cremation containers,” rather than heavy wooden caskets.

“Obviously the flame has to consume the casket, as well as the body,” Fleming said. “It slows us down significantly when funeral directors are selling ornate caskets to people during a pandemic.”

Some capacity issues, however, are harder to control. Funeral, cemetery and crematory workers aren’t just processing those killed by the coronavirus. They’re getting infected, too.

It remains unclear how long a body riddled with the coronavirus remains infectious, but workers are getting sick.

“The belief is that you really have to be expelling droplets or that sort of thing, [but] those things can still happen with the decedent,” Fleming said. “We have had funeral directors who have contracted Covid-19.”

Absent a smooth protocol for processing the dead, authorities may have no recourse but to send bodies to the city’s potter’s field on Hart Island.

“Hart Island has plenty of burial space and city burials are much faster than cremation,” said Melinda Hunt, president of the Hart Island Project, which advocates for greater access to the island. “[The Department of Correction] can bury 25 bodies in an hour on Hart Island. This will be the only option for many of the Covid-19 victims because there is not anywhere near enough capacity at crematoriums or private cemeteries. Funeral directors won’t be able to handle the number of bodies.”

Key GOP senator warns that U.S. needs millions of coronavirus tests by August

The United States will need to produce hundreds of millions of coronavirus tests in order to give parents and students the confidence they need to return to school in the fall, Sen. Lamar Alexander said in an interview on Friday.

As chairman for the Senate’s Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee, the Republican lawmaker said he is spending his days and nights at home in Tennessee “trying to encourage a Manhattan Project for testing” so that every American later this year will have access to a test.

The effort is critical to allowing some semblance of normalcy this fall by letting kids go back to school in time for the fall semester. And that’s going to be a difficult task, Alexander said, unless the government, Congress and the private sector do everything they can to increase test production in the next month.

“My fear is that we’ll get to August and the government says we can all go back to school or back to college,” Alexander said by telephone. “And a lot of people won’t want to do it unless they can be assured that they don't have the disease, but just as important, that the classmate next to them doesn’t have the disease.”

The scale of the effort is essentially unheard of, but is key for the country to move beyond social distancing that will plague the economy until the government and companies boost their testing or find a vaccine. Alexander said Congress and the administration had stumbled by putting up roadblocks and regulations that made developing new tests and treatments more difficult.

“The big test for the administration right now is: Can you scale up the production of hundreds of millions of tests, several new treatments and hundreds of millions of doses of an effective vaccine as quickly as possible?” Alexander said.

The timeline is tight, warned Alexander, who said Congress’s role right now will be to lean on the Food and Drug Administration to speed up approvals of new, 15-minute tests as well as on the private sector to develop them. Congress delivered money in recent aid packages to help facilitate widespread testing, but now the solution might be to get out of the way, the retiring Republican chairman said.

“We’ve appropriated the dollars, the issue is the government’s not usually really good at fast production of anything,” Alexander said. “We need to create an environment where somebody outside the government can make the scientific discoveries and turn them into tens of millions and eventually hundreds of millions of tests.”

If that could happen, Alexander envisioned tests being available to everyone headed back to school by August, treatments by the fall and a vaccine being ready for at least frontline health care workers as soon as wintertime. He said the country has been caught flatfooted on testing “but that’s not the president’s fault.”

“The major reason we don't have enough tests is because Congress and the Food and Drug Administration have restricted development of tests by everyone except the Centers for Disease Control,” Alexander said. “Let’s just say that’s everybody’s fault.”

New York Republicans lash out over Cuomo’s plan to reallocate medical equipment

ALBANY, N.Y. — A dozen prominent Republicans are attacking New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s decision to seize medical equipment from upstate facilities and send it to downstate hospitals.

“[W]e have an increase in cases, hospitalizations and deaths in other parts of New York,” the Republicans said in a statement distributed by Rep. Tom Reed’s office. “Taking our ventilators by force leaves our people without protection and our hospitals unable to save lives today or respond to a coming surge. We stand together opposing the Governor’s very dangerous and reckless action. He is leaving our communities in a terrible position which will cost lives.”

Most Republicans have previously been relatively muted in their comments on Cuomo’s handling of the coronavirus pandemic. A recent Siena poll found that 75 percent of self-identified conservatives approve of the job he’s done handling the pandemic, a number not that far off from the 79 percent who approved of President Donald Trump’s handling.

But there are always tensions between upstate and downstate lying near the surface of New York politics, with numerous upstaters believing their region is shortchanged by politicians from the city. In the first weeks of the crisis, there has been some grumbling that upstate cities are being slighted on items like tests, though it hasn’t been deafening due to the universal agreement that New York City is the epicenter or the pandemic.

As the virus spreads elsewhere, it’s a safe assumption that there will more regularly be backlash against decisions like the one Cuomo made on Friday, regardless of how many net lives the triaging of equipment ultimately saves. Some of the people who have grumbled in the past will certainly get louder.

“If I was an upstate New York sheriff, I would immediately put every ventilator and all the medical supplies in my county under armed guard,” conservative Rochester radio host Bob Lonsberry tweeted Friday afternoon. “In another era among a freer people, Andy’s theft of the medical supplies necessary to save our people would be met with forcible resistance.”

Cuomo said the medical supplies that would be redistributed would come from places such as “who are not dealing with Covid” and “are seeing very low activity.”

"In addressing the coronavirus pandemic, it is essential that we all work together,” Cuomo adviser Rich Azzopardi said. "Ventilators literally save lives. They will be returned or reimbursed to those hospitals. Moreover, when the pandemic wave hits upstate New York, the governor will ask downstate hospitals for similar help. We are not upstate or downstate, we are one state and we act that way."

In addition to Reed, the statement was signed by Rep. Elise Stefanik; state Sens. Rob Ortt, George Borrello, Chris Jacobs, Pamela Helming, Rich Funke and Fred Akshar; and members of the Assembly Phil Palmesano, Christopher Friend, Andy Goodell and Marjorie Byrnes.

Wisconsin governor makes last-minute plea to delay Tuesday election

In a reversal, Wisconsin Gov. Tony Evers announced he wants to postpone his state's Tuesday election. He called the state legislature into a special session on Saturday to take up legislation that would avoid in-person voting and create an all-mail election with a deadline of May 26 to return ballots.

The Republican-led legislature has previously rejected a call from Evers, a Democrat, to send ballots to every voter who hadn’t already requested one.