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Coronavirus: Houston doctor says ‘we’re heading to pure hell’ as COVID-19 cases spike in Texas

Texas is at the centre of huge spike in coronavirus cases in the US, with hospital admissions quadrupling since the end of May.

Sky News’s special correspondent Alex Crawford has travelled to Houston, the state’s most populous city, where medics are warning that they are becoming stretched.

At the Houston Memorial Medical Centre (HMMC), one doctor told her they are “heading to pure hell”.

One of the first tasks on entering the coronavirus wing at the HMMC is to get your photograph taken.

It’s to hang around your neck so the patients can relate better to you and see what you really look like.

Because after three layers of protective tunics, double gloves, double shoe coverings, a plastic beret, two masks and a full face visor, you look more like an astronaut from the city’s famous Lyndon B Johnson Space Centre than a medic.

The medics at HMMC are not taking any chances

Strict hygiene protocols are among the reasons the hospital team can boast a 100% success rate in treating COVID-19 patients over a period which lasted longer than 80 days.

“Then the lockdown was lifted,” chief medic Dr Joseph Varon told us. “And it changed. We are getting many more patients, they are coming to us much sicker and a few are so sick, we can’t save them.”

Dr Varon says they are 'heading to pure hell'

Still, even the hospital’s reduced success rate of 96% is impressive.

But now Dr Varon, along with the state’s other doctors, is bracing himself for what’s been called the “tsunami” of infections heading this way.

They are already adapting a 30-bed wing to cope with the extra patients they believe will come in the next few weeks.

Staff attend to a patient

The number of coronavirus cases in Texas has nearly tripled in two weeks and there have been days of record high infections in the largest city, Houston.

The city streets around testing centres are filled with vehicles carrying worried people waiting to be swabbed.

Those queues are likely to be a lot longer after the weekend’s Independence Day celebrations, with the doctors frantic about how they’ll cope and city hospitals already nearing capacity.

Dr Varon took the Sky News team around the hospital’s ICU, joining the chorus of medics, scientists and politicians pleading with Texans to be vigilant in not spreading the virus.

“Because if you aren’t, you will die,” Dr Varon said.

“There’s no more Mr Nice Guy now. You must stick to the guidelines, wear a mask and keep social distances because otherwise you are going to get killed or you will kill someone else.”

The team have been trialling a new way of treating patients

Texas was one of the first states to end the stay-at-home measures in order to revive the economy – a decision which Governor Greg Abbott has admitted was a mistake.

That mistake now looks set to make the state the worst affected in the country, with Houston being the epicentre of the new epicentre.

The frustration among the medical staff is acute.

“I’ve been an emergency care nurse for 20 years,” one tells me.

“I’m passionate about my job but I can’t save everyone and if people are ignorant, and not going to take precautions, then they are going to have to die so the rest of us can live.”

A patient receiving oxygen at the hospital

Dr Varon admits he’s “thrown the kitchen sink” at trying to find new ways of beating this virus.

And now he thinks there’s a game-changer.

He and a group of medical colleagues from five different hospitals across America have created a cocktail of commonly but separately-used drugs they’re calling the Math+ protocol – and the combination is having some staggering results.

Alex Crawford speaks to a patient

Math+ includes cortisone steroid, vitamins and anti-coagulants to try to curb the key challenges caused by the virus – blood clotting and inflammation.

“We’ve been doing it for a few months now,’ Dr Varon said, and “it’s working a charm”.

He very much believes the hospital’s 100% success rate for nearly three months is down to Math+.

Inside the medical centre

But the medical team is also using other methods; among them, stem cells and a mechanically-operated “vest”, which constantly vibrates to shift the secretions caused by coronavirus.

But Dr Varon is convinced the real difference is with Maths+.

“No-one needs to die from coronavirus any more,” he said.

“This won’t cure you of coronavirus but it can stop the build-up of problems which can lead to you needing a ventilator and when that happens, your chances of survival are only about 20%.

“Putting someone on a ventilator is like signing their death warrant.

“Finally, we have an option and I think it’s going to work.”

The hospital is taking no risks with the outbreak

When I suggest that critics might accuse him of using his patients as guinea pigs, he insists he’s not worried, saying: “They have life!”

But he’s expecting to see many more thousands of infected people needing hospital help in the next fortnight.

“It will be critical and I think we are heading to pure hell.”

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US, China left out as England slashes coronavirus quarantine list

LONDON (AFP) – Travellers from more than 70 “low-risk” countries and territories will no longer have to self-isolate when arriving in England, the British government said on Friday (July 3) in a major easing of its coronavirus quarantine scheme.

The list of exemptions mostly covers Europe – but not Portugal – and the Caribbean, Australia and New Zealand, although the United States and mainland China are notably omitted.

The changes, which come into effect on July 10, represent a significant lifting of the mandatory 14-day self-quarantine imposed one month ago to stop new infections from abroad.

Britain has suffered Europe’s deadliest outbreak of Covid-19, with 44,000 deaths among confirmed cases, but is now slowly coming out of lockdown.

“Today marks the next step in carefully reopening our great nation,” Transport Secretary Grant Shapps said.

Airlines, who had warned the quarantine would cripple an industry already on its knees due to global coronavirus shutdowns, welcomed the easing and three of them dropped a legal challenge.

But the exemptions will only apply to arrivals into England, with Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland so far sticking to the blanket ban.

British ministers had suggested the delay in announcing the list – it had been due earlier in the week – was down to a lack of cooperation from the devolved government in Scotland.

But Scottish First Minister Nicola Sturgeon denied this, and blasted Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s government in London for a “shambolic” effort.

She said the list her government was shown on Thursday had changed by Friday, while adding that Edinburgh would likely publish its own list in the coming days.

AIRLINES WITHDRAW CHALLENGE

Under the new rules, a traffic-light system – red, amber and green – would be used for different countries depending on their prevalence of the coronavirus, Shapps said.

Travellers from the green and amber countries will no longer have to self-isolate on arrival.

The amber countries will have reciprocal arrangements in place with England, while the green countries are deemed to be safer than England, such as New Zealand.

The amber countries include France, Italy and Spain, which are among the most popular summer holiday destinations for Britons, although not Portugal.

The United States will be designated with a red light, requiring mandatory self-quarantine, because “they have got very high numbers of infections”, Shapps said.

British Airways, easyJet and Ryanair had taken legal action over the scheme they said would have a “severe impact on the travel and tourism industry”, which was “already running on fumes”.

But their lawyer told the High Court of England and Wales in London on Friday that they had now agreed to withdraw the claim.

In a statement, budget airline easyJet said the list of exemptions was “an important move in the reopening of aviation, to support the wider UK recovery”.

Patricia Yates, director of tourism body VisitBritain, said allowing easier entry for overseas visitors would provide “a timely boost”.

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Global coronavirus cases exceed 11 million

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – Global coronavirus cases exceeded 11 million on Friday, according to a Reuters tally, marking another milestone in the spread of the disease that has killed more than half a million people in seven months.

The number of cases is more than double the figure for severe influenza illnesses recorded annually, according to the World Health Organization.

Many hard-hit countries are easing lockdowns put in place to slow the spread of the coronavirus while making extensive alterations to work and social life that could last for a year or more until a vaccine is available.

Some countries are experiencing a resurgence in infections, leading authorities to partially reinstate lockdowns, in what experts say could be a recurring pattern into 2021.

The United States reported more than 55,400 new COVID-19 cases on Thursday, a new daily global record as infections rose in a majority of states. Several U.S. governors halted plans to reopen their state economies in the face of a surge in cases.

Almost a quarter of the known global deaths have occurred in the United States – nearly 129,000.

Latin America, where Brazil has 1.5 million cases, makes up 23% of the global total of people infected. India has become the new epicenter in Asia, rising to 625,000 cases.

Asia and the Middle East have around 12% and 9% respectively, according to the Reuters tally, which uses government reports.

In some countries with limited testing capabilities, case numbers reflect a small proportion of total infections. Roughly half of people reported to have been infected are known to have recovered.

Worldwide, there have been more than 520,000 fatalities linked to the disease so far, roughly the same as the number of influenza deaths reported annually.

The first cases of the new coronavirus were confirmed on Jan. 10 in Wuhan in China, before infections and fatalities surged in Europe, then the United States, and later Russia.

The pandemic has now entered a new phase, with India and Brazil battling outbreaks of over 10,000 cases a day, putting a major strain on resources.

Countries including China, New Zealand and Australia have experienced new outbreaks in the past month, despite largely quashing local transmission.

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UK to set out plans for reopening swimming pools and gyms

LONDON (Reuters) – Prime Minister Boris Johnson said he would set out a timetable next week for when sectors of Britain’s economy which remain shuttered – such as indoor gyms, swimming pools and nail bars – would be allowed to reopen from their coronavirus lockdowns.

“Next week we will set out a timetable for their reopening, though of course I can only lift those remaining national restrictions as and when it is safe to do so,” he told reporters on Friday.

Britain allowed non-essential retailers to reopen last month and pubs, restaurants, cinemas and other leisure and hospitality businesses are due to open their doors again on Saturday, as long as they follow social distancing rules.

Johnson said his government would also publish guidelines next week for how amateur cricket matches – a traditional feature of British summertime – can start up again.

“We will be publishing guidelines in the next few days so that cricket can resume in time for next weekend,” he said.

While professional cricket has already been given the green light to restart, government advisors have been worried that the balls used in the sport could act as a vector for spreading the coronavirus.

England’s chief medical officer, Chris Whitty, provided a glimpse of what the new guidelines for amateur games would look like.”Providing people don’t do things that are clearly not sensible, ranging from hugging the bowler if they’ve just bowled someone for a duck through to spitting on the ball, it should be possible,” he said.

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WHO sees first results from COVID drug trials within two weeks

GENEVA/LONDON (Reuters) – The World Health Organization (WHO) should soon get results from clinical trials it is conducting of drugs that might be effective in treating COVID-19 patients, its Director General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus said on Friday.

“Nearly 5,500 patients in 39 countries have so far been recruited into the Solidarity trial,” he told a news briefing, referring to clinical studies the U.N. agency is conducting.

“We expect interim results within the next two weeks.”

The Solidarity Trial started out in five parts looking at possible treatment approaches to COVID-19: standard care; remdesivir; the anti-malaria drug touted by U.S. President Donald Trump, hydroxychloroquine; the HIV drugs lopinavir/ritonavir; and lopanivir/ritonavir combined with interferon.

Earlier this month, it stopped the arm testing hydroxychloroquine, after studies indicated it showed no benefit in those who have the disease, but more work is still needed to see whether it may be effective as a preventative medicine.

Mike Ryan, head of the WHO’s emergencies programme, said it would be unwise to predict when a vaccine could be ready against COVID-19, the respiratory disease caused by the novel coronavirus that has killed more than half a million people.

While a vaccine candidate might show its effectiveness by year’s end, the question was how soon it could be mass produced, he told the U.N. journalists’ association ACANU in Geneva.

There is no proven vaccine against the disease now, while 18 potential candidates are being tested on humans.

WHO officials defended their response to the virus that emerged in China last year, saying they had been driven by the science as it developed. Ryan said what he regretted was that global supply chains had broken, depriving medical staff of protective equipment.

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“I regret that there wasn’t fair, accessible access to COVID tools. I regret that some countries had more than others, and I regret that front-line workers died because of (that),” he said.

He urged countries to get on with identifying new clusters of cases, tracking down infected people and isolating them to help break the transmission chain.

“People who sit around coffee tables and speculate and talk (about transmission) don’t achieve anything. People who go after the virus achieve things,” he said.

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Politics

Coronavirus: First ministers of Scotland and Wales slam ‘shambolic’ air bridges announcement

The first ministers of Scotland and Wales have hit out at the UK government’s handling of its coronavirus travel quarantine.

Downing Street is set to reveal which countries will be exempt from the current requirement for passengers to self-isolate for 14 days upon returning to England.

It has already been revealed that more than 50 countries will be on the list, including Spain, France, Italy and Germany.

Greece and the US will not be exempt, however.

But a row has broken out between Westminster and the devolved administrations over the policy, with the Department for Transport saying Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland will “set out their own approach”.

Scotland’s Nicola Sturgeon said the way Boris Johnson’s government has gone about setting up air bridges has been “shambolic”.

She said: “When so much is at stake as it is right now, we can’t allow ourselves to be dragged along in the wake of, to be quite frank about it, another government’s shambolic decision process.

“We want to welcome visitors again from around the world and we also want to allow our own citizens to travel.

“We also want, if possible for obvious practical reasons, to have alignment on these matters with the rest of the UK.”

This was echoed by Welsh First Minister Mark Drakeford, who said dealing with Westminster in the last few days had been an “utterly shambolic experience”.

“If ever there was an example of making an announcement first and then trying to work out what you meant by it – that is what we have seen since this announcement was first trailed in the press,” he said.

“And day after day we have attempted to get a sensible answer from the UK government on how they intend to make these changes, which countries they intend to extend the arrangements to, and I just have to say it’s been an impossible experience to follow.”

Transport Secretary Grant Shapps told Sky News “we haven’t managed to get the devolved administrations to sign up to it yet”.

But he added: “This won’t come in until 10 July, so there’s still an opportunity for them to do that. It’s obviously a decision for them to make.”

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Spain's banks look to make lockdown branch closures permanent

MADRID (Reuters) – As Spain reopens after the COVID-19 crisis, its banking industry is seizing the opportunity to shrink its swollen branch network which has long been a drag on profitability, with just four banks so far planning at least 800 branch closures this year.

Despite significant cuts since the 2008 financial crisis and more than 2,000 last year, Spain’s 24,000 bank branches still give it one of the highest ratios to people in the world, according to the International Monetary Fund, trailing just San Marino, Mongolia and Luxembourg.

Union opposition to closures and a population more reliant on using in-branch services than others in Europe have slowed Spanish banks’ progress in closing branches despite their running costs being a major drag on profitability.

But after shutting down huge parts of their networks during the lockdown, lenders are examining whether changes to consumer behaviour mean more branches can remain shut.

“Many of the even older clients will have discovered that you can do things quite quickly and cheaply online. I am not sure they would go back to doing things the same way as before,” said Nick Hill, managing director at rating agency Moody’s.

Bankia (BKIA.MC) and Sabadell (SABE.MC) both plan not to reopen some of the branches they closed during the lockdown imposed in Spain to curb the pandemic, according to sources.

Sabadell and Bankia are closing 235 and 140 branches this year, respectively, while Unicaja is reducing its traditional network by 100 in the next three years. Oscar Arce, the Bank of Spain’s director general for economics, told a news briefing this week that it would be up to each bank to decide on branch closures but said “there were elements in every bank’s network that were not profitable.”

In a sector grappling with higher loan-loss provisions to cope with the pandemic, financial consultant Kearney believes Spanish banks will need to reduce costs by between 2 billion to 3 billion euros in the medium-term to improve profitability – and branch closures are likely to be central to that.

MCDONALD’S MODEL

Around 35% of bank branches across Europe have closed in the last 10 years according to Kearney, as lenders slashed costs and customers switched to digital platforms.

But in Spain around 65% of product and service contracts are still agreed in branches, compared to less than 50% in Europe as a whole. That’s left Spanish lenders wary about cutting off access to branch services, particularly in rural areas.

Instead some are set to accelerate a model they were trying before the crisis – using a McDonald’s style franchise to outsource branch services.

Lenders like Unicaja (UNI.MC) and Liberbank have started using self-employed agents to run branches and sell the bank’s products. The ‘financial agent’ is responsible for rent, electricity and water supply bills while the bank provides the technology and the financial products, Jonathan Joaquin de Velasco, the head of strategy and risk policy at Liberbank, told Reuters.

“We get rid of all the fixed costs, we turn them into variable costs, and this obviously has a very relevant impact on efficiency over time,” Joaquin de Velasco said.

When Liberbank first launched this model with one ‘pilot’ ‘financial agency’ in September of 2016, it had 992 traditional branches. As of the end of the second quarter, the lender will have 560 traditional branches and 200 financial agencies.

Though Velasco did not give a breakdown on the cost-savings arising from this model, he said its implementation would on average improve the efficiency ratio by almost three times that of an equivalent branch in size.

Banks can also use the model to incentivize the sale of higher margin products for wealthier customers, making the remaining outposts more profitable.

“Downsizing the network is a long established trend, but more than just downsizing it is the transformation of branches, that will continue”, said Caixabank’s Chief Executive Officer Gonzalo Gortazar during a business school event on June 18.

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England puts United States on 'red-list', will quarantine arrivals

LONDON (Reuters) – Passengers arriving into England from the United States will not be exempted from quarantine rules, Britain’s transport minister Grant Shapps said on Friday.

Asked whether the United States would be on a ‘red-list’ of countries to which a 14-day quarantine period will apply, Shapps said: “I’m afraid it will be.”

“The U.S. from a very early stage banned flights from the UK and from Europe so there isn’t a reciprocal arrangement in place,” he told the BBC.

England is relaxing its quarantine rules for around 50 other countries.

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UK PM's father Stanley Johnson within rights to visit Greece: minister

LONDON (Reuters) – Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s father, who travelled to Greece likely via Bulgaria despite current advice for British nationals to avoid all but essential international travel, was within his rights to do so, Britain’s transport minister said on Friday.

“It’s advice so everyone can decide what to do with the advice,” Grant Shapps told Sky News.

Asked whether Stanley Johnson was within his rights to travel to Greece, Shapps said: “Yes, the Foreign and Commonwealth Office make it clear. They issue travel advice.”

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Beaches beckon as England to end quarantine for more than 50 countries

LONDON (Reuters) – England’s coronavirus quarantine rules for more than 50 countries including Germany, France, Spain and Italy is to end, the British government said on Friday, allowing millions of holidaymakers to head to Europe’s beaches for a summer break.

From July 10 passengers visiting places viewed as low risk will not need to self-isolate when they return, while those from higher risk countries will have to quarantine for 14-days under a rule which has infuriated airlines and the travel industry.

Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s government has struggled to scrap the rules and has so far failed to convince the devolved administrations in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland to immediately follow suit.

“There will be a list of 50 plus countries and if you add in the overseas territories, 60 something or other that we will publish later today,” Transport Secretary Grant Shapps said.

“Today marks the next step in carefully reopening our great nation,” he said.

The full list has not yet been published by the government which has been debating for days how to lift the quarantine. New Zealand is included in the list as are the Vatican and Britain’s overseas territories such as the Falkland Islands and Gibraltar.

Britain’s foreign ministry will also set out exemptions from its global advisory against “all but essential” international travel from July 4, a key to normal insurance being valid.

The government said it expected countries included on the quarantine-free list for England would reciprocate by relaxing their own travel restrictions.

The move to ditch the quarantine comes as England’s High Court is due start hearing a legal challenge by British Airways, a move backed by low-cost rivals Ryanair and easyJet.

All the airlines as well as others in the travel sector have announced thousands of job losses as a result of the coronavirus pandemic, and had said the quarantine had no scientific basis and was unworkable in practice.

Britain said it would still require all travellers, except those from the exempted countries, to provide their contact information including their travel history on arrival. People who have been in or transited through non-exempt countries will still have to self isolate for 14 days.

England and Northern Ireland will reopen pubs this weekend, signalling a gradual reopening of its economy. Scotland will allow pubs to reopen fully later in July. Wales will allow pubs to serve outside on July 13.

But Prime Minister Boris Johnson has warned people to maintain social distancing rules and is expected to repeat that caution at a news conference on Friday.

“Anyone who flouts social distancing and COVID-Secure rules is not only putting us all at risk but letting down those businesses and workers who have done so much to prepare for this new normal,” he will say.

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