Coronavirus update: U.S. death toll tops 71,000, as Trump backs off plan to wind down pandemic task force

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The U.S. death toll from the coronavirus that causes COVID-19 rose above 71,000 on Wednesday, as President Donald Trump appeared to back off his announcement that he would phase out the government task force created to manage the pandemic.

Trump said on a visit to Arizona on Tuesday that he would be winding down the task force, which is headed by Vice President Mike Pence and includes Dr. Anthony Fauci, the nation’s leading expert on infectious diseases, and Dr. Deborah Birx, another public-health expert who is White House Coronavirus Response Coordinator.

On Wednesday, Trump tweeted that the force would continue its work indefinitely, although it may add or subtract members over time as it refocuses on reopening the economy, along with vaccines and therapeutics.

Trump has been pushing to reopen an economy that all but closed down amid stay-at-home orders from governors seeking to contain the spread and avoid overwhelming hospitals and health-care workers. The president has tweeted support for protesters in states including Michigan against restrictions on movement.

Democrats had criticized the plan to wind down the task force, given the U.S. is still seeing increases in case numbers and deaths. Trump acknowledged that reopening would possibly result in more deaths but said, “we can’t sit in the house for the next three years.”

A group of young volunteers recruited by Trump’s son-in-law and senior adviser Jared Kushner that was tasked with securing personal protective equipment, or PPE, for frontline workers were told to prioritize tips from political allies and associates of the president, the New York Times reported.

Citing emails and documents obtained by their reporters, the paper said few of the leads actually panned out and the volunteers, who had no experience in procurement, were confused and overwhelmed by the task. PPE has been in short supply across the U.S. since the start of the outbreak and is reported to have contributed to infections among health-care and other medical workers.

Read: Your genes could determine whether coronavirus puts you in the hospital — and we’re starting to unravel which ones matter

In the U.K., a scientist and top government adviser on the pandemic resigned after he was caught breaking lockdown rules. Prof. Neil Ferguson quit the government’s Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies (Sage), over an “error of judgment,” as the Guardian reported. The move came after a Daily Telegraph report revealed that Ferguson’s lover had crossed London to visit him at least twice after lockdown measures were implemented.

Latest tallies

The U.K. now has the highest death toll in Europe, according to data aggregated by Johns Hopkins University. The U.K. has 193,243 cases and 29,501 deaths, putting its death toll ahead of Italy’s, which was an early hot spot. Official numbers from the U.K. have a slightly different tally.

There are 3.69 million cases of COVID-19 globally and 258,085 people have died. At least 1.2 million people have recovered. The U.S. has the highest case toll at 1.21 million and the highest death toll at 71,152.

Spain has the highest number of cases in Europe at 219,329 and 25,613 deaths. Italy has 213,013 cases and 29,315 deaths.

France has 170,694 cases and 25,538 deaths. Germany has 167,239 cases and 6,993 deaths. Russia has 165,929 cases and 1,537 deaths. Turkey has 129,491 cases and 3,520 deaths, followed by Brazil with 116,299 cases and 7,966 deaths. Iran has 101,650 cases and 6,418 deaths. China, where the disease was first reported late last year, has 83,968 cases and 4,637 deaths.

What’s the latest medical news?

Adaptive Biotechnologies Corp. ADPT, +1.78% has launched a virtual clinical study with Microsoft Corp. MSFT, +1.24% aimed at better understanding the immune response in 1,000 people who have tested positive for COVID-19 or have been exposed to the virus.

The study will use diagnostic tests made by Laboratory Corporation of America Holdings LH, -1.21%, who will send employees to the participants’ homes to collect the samples, which will then be used to examine patients’ T-cells. Adaptive previously announced plans to work on an antibody program with Amgen AMGN, +0.90% that aims to develop a therapy that can prevent or treat COVID-19.

See now:These 21 companies are working on coronavirus treatments or vaccines — here’s where things stand

Related:The FDA tightens rules around antibody tests as companies talk up their value

What’s the economy saying?

Private-sector companies shed a whopping 20.2 million jobs in April as many were forced to shutter during a nationwide shutdown to slow the coronavirus, underscoring the biggest crisis for American workers and the U.S. labor market in nearly a century.

Small employers, defined as having one to 49 workers, shed 6 million jobs in April, according to data from Automatic Data Processing Inc., as MarketWatch’s Jeffry Bartash reported. Mid-size companies, defined as having 50 to 499 workers, shed 5.3 million jobs, large businesses with 500 employees or more axed 8.9 million jobs.

Health-care jobs were not immune as the pandemic causes a steep decline in treatments for non-virus conditions and the postponement of elective procedures, the data show. Health-care companies cut almost a million jobs. The news has bolstered expectations that Friday’s April jobs report will be grim.

Read: Millions of layoffs set to push unemployment rate to highest level since Great Depression

See now:U.S. jobless claims climb 3.8 million in late April to push coronavirus total to 30 million

What are companies saying?

In earnings news, Walt Disney Co. DIS, +0.73% said profit fell more than 90% in its fiscal second quarter, as parks were ordered to close, film production stalled and TV advertising was disrupted. Disney has faced some of the biggest fears from Wall Street about its business during the coronavirus crisis, as its largest units are centered around on-premise interactions that have been shut down during shelter-in-place orders: Theme parks and cruise lines, movies and live sports, for example.

Analysts said the company’s release prompted more questions than answers and criticized the lack of detail on what lies ahead on the earnings call.

“Of course we did not expect Disney to opine on timing of openings for Parks, theaters, sports, or content production,” Bernstein’s Todd Juenger wrote. “However, we had hoped for better clarity on Parks burn rate when closed, margin profile when opened at reduced capacity, operating rules/implications/parameters for operating in a pre-vaccine world.”

For more, see:Disney earnings leave more questions than answers as COVID-19 pressures theme parks and more

There was better news from videogame makers Activision Blizzard Inc. ATVI, +5.14% and Electronic Arts Inc. EA, -4.85%, which both reported healthy increases in sales and profit as Americans sheltering in place switched to the virtual world for entertainment.

The companies don’t expect much change: EA predicted profits this quarter would triple from the year before to more than a quarter-billion dollars, while Activision forecast adjusted profit of more than $500 million, a 67% increase.

See also:Videogames are flourishing in the pandemic, and game makers aren’t scared of the future

Beyond Meat Inc. BYND, +19.97% said disruption in the meat supply chain as facilities with infected worker are forced to close has been a boost to its lineup of meat substitutes and plant-based products. Beyond Meat reported fiscal first-quarter results that blew past Wall Street estimates, sending its shares up 7% in extended trading. Shares have surged 85% since March 18, as retailers request “expedited” deliveries to refill shelves across the country, a company spokesperson said.

Rival Impossible Foods, which is privately held for now, also reported business that was “full steam ahead.”

For more, read:Impossible Foods, Beyond Meat see spike in demand as coronavirus wreaks havoc on meat supply

General Motors Co. GM, +4.32% delivered another surprise with the car maker beating expectations for profit and revenue despite the steep slowdown in car sales during the pandemic.

Here’s the latest things companies are saying about COVID-19:

• Abercrombie & Fitch Co. A, +2.68% has started to reopen stores that were shuttered because of the coronavirus pandemic in those locations where regulations allow it. “We are optimistic for the future and we’re happy to announce that we have begun to open select stores globally on a rolling basis and will continue to do so in the weeks ahead,” Chief Executive Fran Horowitz said in a regulatory filing. “We will open stores as State and local regulations allow and as we are able to meet the applicable safety and health standards.”

• Bunge Ltd. BG, -12.33% reported a surprise first-quarter loss, revenue that fell below expectations and provided a downbeat full-year outlook, saying that while it didn’t experience a significant disruption to its business from the pandemic, it did start to see the negative impact of a change in consumer behavior in its edible oils business in March. “Our underlying business performed well during the quarter, and the mark-to-market adjustments we incurred are expected to reverse in the coming quarters,” said Chief Executive Greg Heckman. The company said it expects 2020 EPS to be lower than its original expectation.

• CVS Health Corp. CVS, +1.68% reported better-than-expected profit and revenue, as its pharmacy and retail business got a boost from the COVID-19 pandemic. The pharmacy businesses benefited from greater use of 90-day prescriptions and early refills amid the pandemic and retail benefit from increased store volume as consumers prepared for COVID-19-related lockdowns. CVS affirmed its 2020 adjusted EPS guidance range of $7.04 to $7.17, which is above the current FactSet consensus.

• General Motors reported first-quarter profit and revenue that fell, as the COVID-19 pandemic led to suspended operations, but beat expectations as U.S. truck sales rose sharply. GM’s U.S. sales fell 7%, driven by the negative effects of the pandemic, but sales of full-size pickups rose 27%, with market share increasing to 41%. Among actions GM has taken to preserve cash during the pandemic include suspension of its dividend and share repurchases, salary cuts and drawing on its credit facilities.

• Office Depot Inc. ODP, +17.56% posted first-quarter earnings that blew past estimates. Boca Raton, Fla.-based Office Depot had liquidity of $1.7 billion at quarter end, its highest net cash position in two years. “Our B2B focus is helping businesses remain operational in the home or at the office, our facilities have largely remained open serving customers with enhanced sanitation and safety protocols, and our e-commerce platform and retail stores are proving to be trusted means for customers to access the critical products and services they need,” Chief Executive Gerry Smith said in a statement. Same-store sales rose 2% in the quarter and e-commerce sales saw a strong jump in demand, he said. The company is withdrawing its 2020 guidance given the uncertainty around the pandemic and is suspending temporarily its share buybacks and dividend payments. Separately, it announced that it has adopted a shareholder rights plan, also known as a poison pill, to block any party from taking advantage of a falling share price to build a stake in the company.

• Spirit AeroSystems Holdings Inc. SPR, -6.01% swung to a narrower-than-expected loss in the first quarter on revenue that fell less than forecast. The suspension of Boeing Co’s BA, -2.79% production of the 737 MAX plane led to lower margins as given “abnormal” costs associated with the pandemic. Actions the company has taken to preserve liquidity and cut costs amid the 737 MAX groundings and the COVID-19 pandemic include cutting the dividend, suspending share buybacks, deferring repayments of an advance from Boeing and cutting jobs and work schedules. The company will not provide 2020 financial guidance given the continued uncertainties surrounding the 737 MAX grounding and pandemic.

• United Airlines Inc. UAL, -6.96% is offering $2.25 billion in senior secured notes in a private offering. The bonds will be offered in two tranches maturing in 2023 and 2025. Proceeds of the deal will be used to repay a $2.0 billion term loan entered into in March and for general corporate purposes. Airlines have been tapping credit lines and government relief plans with most fleets grounded during the pandemic.

• Wendy’s Co. WEN, +7.23% reported first-quarter earnings that fell short of estimates. Wendy’s had a cash balance of $365 million as of May 3 after fully drawing down its revolving financing facility, reducing its second-quarter dividend and taking other measures due to the pandemic. Nearly all (96%) of Wendy’s restaurants are operating, including 99% in the U.S., with drive-through and delivery only. Wendy’s has said that disruptions to the beef supply chain has put limits on the availability of certain menu items.

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