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White House Coronavirus Task Force: National Parks will begin to reopen

Here is a look at some of the latest news on COVID-19 from the U.S. and around the world on Wednesday.

WASHINGTON — This article contains ongoing U.S. and international updates on the COVID-19 pandemic and its effects. Here are some key updates for Wednesday, April 22, 2020. You can find more details by scrolling through the story.

Key updates:

  • WHO chief hopes US will reconsider funding freeze
  • Two pet cats in New York have tested positive for coronavirus  
  • National Parks will gradually start to reopen
  • NYC July 4th fireworks will go on, in "different way" 
  • Italy tops 25,000 coronavirus-related deaths 
  • USDA: Monthly SNAP benefits increased 40%
  • Health officials say two people died with the coronavirus in California weeks before the first reported US death
  • Washington state likely won't be able to lift much of their lockdown restrictions

There were more than 842,000 confirmed cases of COVID-19 in the United States on Thursday shortly before 12:30 a.m. EDT, after there had been 826,000 by 12:30 p.m. Wednesday, according to Johns Hopkins University. There have been more than 46,000 deaths in the U.S., with 152,000 recoveries. Over 4 million tests have been conducted nationwide.

Worldwide, there have been 2.6 million cases and more than 183,000 deaths.

For most people, the virus causes mild or moderate symptoms, such as fever and cough, that clear up in two to three weeks. For some, especially older adults and people with existing health problems, it can cause more severe illness or death.

RELATED: Trump to demand Harvard, large businesses pay back coronavirus relief money

Trump leads the White House Coronavirus Task Force Wednesday

President Trump started off by introducing CDC Director Robert R. Redfield who clarified previous reporting that said he thought the Winter would be worse for the coronavirus outbreak. Redfield said he commented that the season would be more difficult while dealing with both the flu season and a possible continuation of the coronavirus outbreak. 

Dr. Birx walked to the podium to address the confusion, saying that we now understand the novel coronavirus better now that we did before. Dr. Birx said, "we're hoping that the flu infections also go down," going on to say that health professionals "want you to get your vaccine" but Birx said health professionals still want to prevent people from getting the flu.  

Minnesota has struck a deal with the University of Minnesota and the Mayo Clinic to test as many as 20,000 people per day for the coronavirus.

Gov. John Bel Edwards says masks will be recommended attire for Louisiana residents even when stay-at-home orders and restrictions on business activity are eased.

WHO chief hopes US reconsiders funding freeze  

The World Health Organization chief says he hopes the United States will reconsider its freeze in funding for his agency and vowed to keep working on “saving lives” despite calls for his resignation from some U.S. lawmakers.

WHO Director-General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus says he hopes the U.S. believes WHO is “an important investment, not just to help others, but for the U.S. to stay safe” amid the coronavirus outbreak.

President Donald Trump last week announced a temporary halt to funding for the U.N. health agency from the United States — its biggest donor — alleging a WHO cover-up and missteps handling the outbreak.

On Wednesday, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo reiterated some of the U.S. allegations, while other U.S. officials said the halt involved new funding and was expected to continue for 60 to 90 days.

A group of Republican lawmakers in the House of Representatives last week suggested that Trump condition any voluntary U.S. contributions to the WHO this year on Tedros’ resignation.

Asked about whether he was considering that, Tedros said: “I will continue to work day and night because this is a blessed work, actually, and responsibility saving lives, and I will focus on that.”

National Parks will gradually start to reopen  

During remarks to commemorate the 50th anniversary of Earth Day, President Donald Trump said they his administration will "begin to reopen our national parks and public lands for the American people to enjoy."

US Department of the Interior Secretary David Bernhardt said they will be working with state and local health officials to gradually reopen the parks. 

2 pet cats in New York test positive for virus 

Two pet cats in New York state have tested positive for the coronavirus, marking the first cases in companion animals in the United States, federal officials say.

The cats, which had mild respiratory illnesses and are expected to recover, are thought to have contracted the virus from people in their households or neighborhoods, the U.S. Department of Agriculture and the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention say.

The finding, which comes after positive tests in seven tigers and lions at the Bronx Zoo, add to a small number of confirmed cases of the virus in animals worldwide. U.S. authorities say that while it appears some animals can get the virus from people, there’s no indication the animals are transmitting it to human beings.

The two cats live in different parts of the state; the USDA and CDC wouldn’t say where specifically.

Authorities are recommending that any pet owners with COVID-19 avoid contact with their animals as much as possible, including wearing a face covering while caring for them.

New York Gov. Cuomo to form "tracing army" 

Gov. Andrew Cuomo said he’s enlisted former Mayor Mike Bloomberg to help create a “tracing army” that will find infected people and get them into isolation.

The coronavirus has sunk major New York City events from the St. Patrick’s Day Parade to the 50th anniversary LGBT Pride march, but its famous July Fourth fireworks extravaganza will happen -- in some form. 

West Point said President Donald Trump will speak at a graduation ceremony being designed to keep cadets safe from the coronavirus.

“It all has to be coordinated. There is no tracing that can work with one jurisdiction,” Cuomo said at his daily briefing.

Italy tops 25,000 deaths  

Deaths in Italy related to the coronavirus pandemic topped 25,000 on Wednesday.

The number of dead and new positives continue to plateau for Italy, the first western country to be hit by the crisis. The civil protection agency reported 437 people had died with the virus in the last 25 hours, a 1.7% increase in the death toll to 25,085. The number of positive cases rose 1.5% to 183,857.

Pressure on health services continued to ease, with fewer people both hospitalized and in intensive care. Italy’s interior minister, meanwhile, confirmed that none of some 150 migrants rescued by an aid group and quarantined at sea have tested positive for the virus.

USDA: Monthly SNAP benefits increased by 40% due to virus 

The U.S. Secretary of Agriculture announced Wednesday morning that emergency benefit increases have reached $2 billion per month for Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) households across the country.

The emergency benefits brought on by the coronavirus pandemic represent a 40% increase in overall monthly food stamp benefits, Secretary Sonny Perdue said

“These are unprecedented times for American families who are facing joblessness and hunger. USDA is providing a 40% increase in SNAP benefits to ensure that low-income individuals have enough food to feed themselves and their families during this national emergency,” said Secretary Perdue. 

All SNAP households that are receiving less than the maximum benefit will receive the emergency allotment supplement to bring them up to the maximum. 

NYC July 4th fireworks will go on, in 'different way' 

The coronavirus has sunk major New York City events from the St. Patrick’s Day Parade to the 50th anniversary Pride march, but the famous July Fourth fireworks extravaganza will happen in some form, Mayor Bill de Blasio said Wednesday.

“One way or another, the show will go on,” he said. “There’s no day like the Fourth of July ... and even if we have to do something different, we have to mark it in a meaningful way.”

He said fireworks sponsor Macy’s agrees. A message requesting comment was sent Wednesday to spokespeople for the department store chain.

De Blasio said it remains to be decided how and when the show can happen in light of whatever social distancing may still be necessary by Independence Day.

“We’re going to figure out something we can do. We have to make sure it’s safe,” the Democrat said. But he cast the plan as “part of our effort to fight back — to recognize a day of this importance, but to do it in a different way.”

Greta Thunberg urges world leaders to cooperate

Swedish climate activist Greta Thunberg is urging world leaders to act together to cope with crises and to listen to science experts.

The 17-year-old Swede says the climate crisis “may not be as immediate as the corona crisis but we need to tackle this now otherwise it will be irreversible.” She calls the virus outbreak “a tragedy.”

She says world leaders must put differences aside and make decisions that “in the long run may be necessary.”

She spoke during a conversation with Johan Rockstrom, co-director of Germany’s Potsdam Institute for Climate Impact Research, in a live online event to mark the 50th anniversary of Earth Day.

Many large cities are smog-free after shutdowns caused by the coronavirus pandemic. Major cities have seen reductions of deadly particulate matter from the previous year.

Dixie Chicks postpone new album 'Gaslighter'

The country music group the Dixie Chicks have decided to postpone the release of their first studio album in 14 years saying "additional details are forthcoming," according to a press release obtained by Entertainment Weekly

The group say they do not know exactly how long the album's release will be postponed. 

Pope Francis parallels virus and the environment

Pope Francis is urging world leaders draw lessons from the coronavirus pandemic and work together to protect the planet and the most vulnerable from environmental destruction and exploitation.

Francis issued the appeal Wednesday as he marked the 50th anniversary of Earth Day.

RELATED: As people stay home, Earth turns wilder and cleaner

RELATED: Ways you can celebrate Earth Day 2020 amid coronavirus social distancing

Francis has made environmentalism one of the hallmarks of his papacy, dedicating an entire encyclical to the need to protect God’s Creation. He denounced how a “structurally perverse” economic system allowed the rich to exploit the poor and turn the Earth into an “immense pile of filth.”

On Wednesday, he said: “As the tragic coronavirus pandemic has taught us, we can overcome global challenges only by showing solidarity with one another and embracing the most vulnerable in our midst.” Francis has marked the lockdown period by praying each day for different sectors affected by the pandemic, from doctors and nurses to inmates and the elderly.

Francis cheered initiatives of young people to remind older generations of their failure to protect the planet, agreeing that: “We have no future if we destroy the very environment that sustains us.”

2 people died with virus weeks before 1st US death

Health officials say two people died with the coronavirus in California weeks before the first reported death in the United States from the disease.

Santa Clara County officials said Tuesday the people died at home Feb. 6 and Feb. 17. The first reported death in the nation from the virus was on Feb. 29 in Kirkland, Washington.

The Medical Examiner-Coroner received confirmation Tuesday that tissue samples sent to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention tested positive for the virus, officials said.

RELATED: CDC: First US coronavirus deaths happened weeks earlier than previously believed

The announcement came after California Gov. Gavin Newsom promised a “deep dive” update Wednesday of the state’s ability to test for the coronavirus and to track and isolate people who have it. That is one of the six indicators he says is key to lifting a “stay-at-home” order that has slowed the spread of the disease while forcing millions of people to file for unemployment benefits.

“This will go to the obvious questions and queries that all of us are asking: When? ... When do you see a little bit of a release in the valve so that we can let out a little of this pressure,” Newsom said Tuesday.

RELATED: Two people died in California from COVID-19 weeks before first reported death in US

Washington state likely won't be able to lift much of their lockdown restrictions

Washington Gov. Jay Inslee says the state won't be able to lift many of the stay-at-home restrictions implemented to fight the coronavirus by May 4, when the current directive is set to expire.

But he hopes health modeling in the coming days will allow the resumption of some activities such as elective surgeries and outdoor recreation.

In a televised address Tuesday evening, Inslee also announced a plan to have about 1,500 workers focused solely on contact tracing in place by the second week of May. The effort would involve state employees from the Department of Health, local health jurisdictions, members of the Washington National Guard and volunteer health care providers.

The Seattle area saw the nation’s first large COVID-19 outbreak, and so far Washington state has more than 12,280 confirmed cases and at least 682 deaths.

China reported no new deaths

China on Wednesday again reported no new deaths from the coronavirus but registered 30 more cases — 23 of them brought from abroad.

Of the domestic cases, all seven were reported in Heilongjiang province near the Russian border where a field hospital has been set up to deal with a new flare-up related to people coming home from abroad. Just over 1,000 people are hospitalized for treatment, while about the same number are under isolation and monitoring as either suspected cases or after testing positive but showing no symptoms.

China has reported a total of 4,632 deaths among 82,788 cases, the bulk of them in Wuhan where officials recently raised the death toll by 50% after a review of records.

Barr threatens legal actions against states going 'too far' in stay-at-home order

During a radio interview with Hugh Hewitt on Tuesday, Attorney General William Barr discussed the state's "stay-at-home" restrictions amid the coronavirus pandemic.

He claimed some orders were "disturbingly close to house arrest." Barr said he will consider legal action if governors start to civil liberty restrictions "too far."

"These are unprecedented burdens on civil liberties right now. You know, the idea that you have to stay in your house is disturbingly close to house arrest," Barr said. "I’m not saying it wasn’t justified. I’m not saying in some places it might still be justified."

During the interview, Barr also praised how President Donald Trump was handling the crisis. 

Credit: AP
White House, Wednesday, April 22, 2020, in Washington, as Dr. Deborah Birx, White House coronavirus response coordinator, walks from the podium. (AP)