Coronavirus Live Updates: ‘Jaw-Dropping’ Fraud Reported as Jobless Claims Reach 38.6 Million


A fraud network siphoned hundreds of millions of dollars in unemployment funds.

A sophisticated fraud network targeting Washington State’s unemployment system claimed hundreds of millions of dollars before officials were able to identify and crack down on the coordinated attack, state officials said Thursday.

“I realize this is a jaw-dropping figure,” said Suzi LeVine, the commissioner of the state Employment Security Department. The fraudulent claims had been filed on behalf of tens of thousands of people, and many involved individuals who had not lost their jobs, she said.

Officials confirmed the fraud on the same day the federal government reported that another 2.4 million American workers filed for jobless benefits last week, bringing the total to a staggering 38.6 million in nine weeks.

“I hate to say it, but this is going to take longer and look grimmer than we thought,” said Nicholas Bloom, an economist at Stanford University.

The stunning scale of the job losses, and the billions of dollars in benefits approved by Congress to sustain workers without incomes, has made unemployment systems ill-equipped to handle the surge of claims vulnerable to fraud. The U.S. Secret Service said in a memo last week that it appeared that an international group of fraudsters was targeting unemployment systems, particularly in Washington State, but there was also evidence of attacks in Florida, Massachusetts, North Carolina, Oklahoma, Rhode Island and Wyoming.

Investigators said the impostors appeared to be working with an extensive database of personal information stolen in earlier hackings that allowed them to submit claims.

Washington State had moved to make payments available quickly and deliver them to direct-deposit accounts. But the state began realizing the scope of the problem when people who had not filed for unemployment received mail saying that they had.

Ms. LeVine said the state had increased security on its systems and delayed payments to prevent further fraud. That has blocked thousands of other claims worth an additional hundreds of millions of dollars.

To address the problem, the city will increase to 1.5 million the number of meals it distributes each day by next week. A million meals will be delivered; the rest will be available for pickup at schools.

President Trump, who has defiantly refused to wear a mask in public despite the recommendations of federal health officials, toured a Ford plant in Ypsilanti, Mich., on Thursday with his face uncovered. It was against the factory’s guidelines and the urging of Michigan’s attorney general, who had written him earlier that it was “the law of this state.”

“I didn’t want to give the press the pleasure of seeing it,” Mr. Trump said. After his visit, the website TMZ published an unverified photo of Mr. Trump in a mask that it said was taken during the private part of the tour.

The Ford Motor Company later said in a statement that William Clay Ford Jr., its executive chairman, had “encouraged President Trump to wear a mask when he arrived.”

“He wore a mask during a private viewing of three Ford GTs from over the years,” the statement said. “The president later removed the mask for the remainder of the visit.”

Dana Nessel, the state’s attorney general, had sent the president an open letter asking him to wear a face covering during his visit.

“It is not just the policy of Ford, by virtue of the governor’s executive orders,” Ms. Nessel, a Democrat, wrote. “It is currently the law of this state. Michigan has been hit especially hard by the virus, with more than 50,000 confirmed cases and 5,000 deaths.”

The president’s arrival in Michigan, a key swing state where the virus has become a polarizing flash point, came just a day after he threatened to withhold federal funding from the state for taking steps to make it easier to vote by mail amid the pandemic.

After Mr. Trump threatened to withhold federal funding from the state over its efforts to ease absentee voting, White House officials said on Thursday that he had granted Ms. Whitmer’s request, declaring a federal emergency in Michigan. The declaration authorizes federal agencies to coordinate a response to flooding caused when torrential rainfall breached two dams in Central Michigan.

During his visit, Mr. Trump continued to press for the easing of more social-distancing restrictions. He blamed Democrats for keeping the economy closed and suggested voters would punish them in the presidential election and view it as “a November question.”

Ms. Whitmer eased several virus-related restrictions in the state on Thursday, moving to allow gatherings of up to 10 people and saying that beginning May 26, retail businesses would be allowed to see customers by appointment.

The president has repeatedly taken aim at Ms. Whitmer during the pandemic, referring to her as “the woman in Michigan” and at one point egging on protesters looking to ease restrictions by tweeting “Liberate Michigan.”

On Thursday, a judge backed Ms. Whitmer’s use of emergency powers to establish sweeping restrictions across the state, tossing out a lawsuit filed by Republican lawmakers over her approach.

President Trump on Thursday night called for flags at the White House, on public grounds across the country and on naval vessels to be flown at half-staff in honor of the victims of the coronavirus, a rare acknowledgment of the lives lost from an administration that typically likes to downplay the death toll and take credit for lives it claims it saved.

“Our nation mourns for every life lost to the coronavirus pandemic, and we share in the suffering of all those who endured pain and illness from the outbreak,” read the proclamation that was signed by Mr. Trump.

Mr. Trump, who had signaled his plans in two tweets on Thursday, ordered American flags to be flown at half-staff through Sunday. The death toll in the United States is expected to pass the grim milestone of 100,000 in the coming days.

On Memorial Day, the president said, the flags at half-staff would be honoring the nation’s war dead.

The announcement came several hours after Speaker Nancy Pelosi and Senator Chuck Schumer, the minority leader, had written to Mr. Trump asking him to fly flags at half-staff on the day the country reached 100,000 Covid-19 deaths.

In their letter to Mr. Trump, Ms. Pelosi and Mr. Schumer called for “a national expression of grief.”

Almost 95,000 people have now died in the United States, according to a tally by The New York Times, and an average of more than 1,000 deaths a day are still being recorded.

Mr. Trump has not led any observance of national mourning since the pandemic began claiming American lives by the thousands. In his recent public comments, he has steered clear of talking about the deaths, focusing instead on the need to reopen the country — a process he describes as a “transition to greatness” — and defending his own handling of the crisis.

Facebook said on Thursday that it would allow many employees to work from home permanently. But there’s a catch: They may not be able to keep their Silicon Valley salaries in more affordable parts of the country.

Mark Zuckerberg, Facebook’s chief executive, told workers during a staff meeting that within a decade as many as half of the company’s more than 48,000 employees would work from home.

Tech executives have long believed that person-to-person communication was a big part of the creativity that went into generating popular products. They built giant campuses that reflected that belief — from the ornate offices of Apple, Google and Facebook in Silicon Valley to the new Amazon headquarters in Seattle — and used free shuttle buses, free cafeterias and personal services like dry cleaning to give employees little reason to go home, let alone avoid the office.

If other giant companies follow Facebook’s lead, tech employment could start to shift away from expensive hubs like Silicon Valley, Seattle and New York. But the option to work from home could have a price for tech workers: Starting in January, Facebook’s employee compensation will be adjusted based on the cost of living in the locations where workers choose to live.

“It’s still amazing to me, like, how can that be the case, that there is not a more systematic way to address a central need?” said Fyodor Urnov, the scientist who oversaw the transformation of the Innovative Genomics Institute into a clinical laboratory.

In recent days, Mr. Trump has delivered a mixed message on testing, saying on May 11 that in ramping up, “we have met the moment and we have prevailed,” while a few days later, he suggested that testing was “overrated” and that the high number of cases in the United States could be traced to more prevalent testing.

Still, the level of testing in the United States is orders of magnitude less than what many epidemiologists say it should be. The country should be doing at least 900,000 tests a day — and as many as 20 million — to yield an accurate picture of the outbreak, they say. The need for extensive testing is even more acute as many governors have reopened their states before the epidemic has crested. Without sufficient testing it will be hard to identify and contain new outbreaks.

Most testing is not done by public health authorities — whose labs have been chronically underfunded — but by hospital laboratories and major for-profit testing companies.

There have been calls for more than a decade to create a national laboratory system that could oversee a testing response in a public health crisis. An effort to create one 10 years ago withered away over time because of a lack of funding.

The deal with AstraZeneca is the fourth and by far the largest vaccine research agreement that the department has disclosed. The money will pay for a clinical trial of the potential vaccine in the United States this summer with about 30,000 volunteers.

The H.H.S. statement said the agency and AstraZeneca “are collaborating to make available at least 300 million doses,” and projected that the first doses could be available as early as October.

AstraZeneca said it was also discussing deals for simultaneous production by other companies, including the giant Serum Institute of India, a major supplier of vaccines to the developing world.

The U.S. is distributing billions of dollars to companies to develop vaccines through the Biomedical Advanced Research and Development Authority.

In addition to the money for AstraZeneca, the authority, known as Barda, has already agreed to provide up to $483 million to the biotech company Moderna and $500 million to Johnson & Johnson for their separate vaccine efforts. It has also agreed to provide $30 million to a virus vaccine effort by the French company Sanofi.

Scores of vaccine efforts are underway around the world, and several potential vaccines are now in at least small-scale clinical trials.

Mr. Trump reorganized vaccine and treatment efforts after the head of Barda, Rick Bright, protested his ouster as head of the agency a few weeks ago, filing a whistle-blower complaint that contended he had been pressured to seek approval for certain treatments. Just last week, Mr. Trump named Moncef Slaoui, a venture capitalist who was a longtime vaccine executive at GlaxoSmithKline and most recently also a board member for Moderna, to help oversee “Operation Warp Speed,” the federal drive to accelerate ways to combat the virus.

Mr. Trump is continuing to rail against voting by mail, which is increasingly viewed as a necessary option for voting amid a pandemic.

His antipathy, however, has done little so far, to slow its growth as an option in both Democratic and Republican states, Michael Wines reports. Eleven of the 16 states that limit who can vote absentee have eased their election rules this spring to let anyone cast an absentee ballot in upcoming primary elections — and in some cases, in November as well. Another state, Texas, is fighting a court order to do so.

Four of those 11 states are mailing ballot applications to registered voters. And that doesn’t count 34 other states and the District of Columbia that already allow anyone to cast an absentee ballot, including five states in which vote-by-mail is the preferred method by law.

Part of the growth is because of the specter of people voting and getting sick amid the pandemic, as happened in Wisconsin last month. But part reflects the growth of voting by mail as an increasingly desired option even before the coronavirus. In 2016, nearly one in four voters cast absentee or mail ballots, twice the share just 16 years ago, in 2004.

Many of the states that have relaxed their rules have done so only for pending primary elections, leaving the possibility that they could refuse to relax them in November. And some conservative groups plan to sue to limit its use. Like Mr. Trump they cite largely undocumented allegations of fraud.

But Daniel A. Smith, a University of Florida political scientist and expert on mail ballots, said it’s unlikely states that allowed mailing voting in primaries will forbid it in November.

“The horse is out of the barn whether it’s primaries or the general election,” he said. “The optics are such that states will be under enormous pressure to continue to allow mail voting in the fall.”

The coming Atlantic hurricane season is “expected to be a busy one,” with the likelihood of as many as 19 named storms, including as many as six major hurricanes, a federal weather scientist said Thursday. The forecast could be further complicated by the pandemic, which is hobbling relief agencies and could turn evacuation shelters into disease hot spots.

Gerry Bell, the lead hurricane season forecaster with the climate prediction center of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, delivered the forecast as part of the annual announcement of the agency’s hurricane season outlook.

The pandemic will add to the challenges of the season: There are worries about shelters and how to protect people evacuating without exposing them to the virus. Relevant work forces have been strained, too, with just 38 percent of staff members from the Federal Emergency Management Agency available to be deployed to a disaster zone.

A spokeswoman for the American Red Cross, which manages most of the country’s shelters, said the organization is “prioritizing individual hotel rooms over congregate shelters.”

But, she said, individual rooms might not be an option in large-scale disasters, so the organization would instead rely on “additional safety precautions” for group shelters, such as health screenings, masks, additional space between cots and extra cleaning and disinfecting.

The Atlantic hurricane season starts June 1 and runs through Nov. 30, though the emergence of Tropical Storm Arthur this month made this the sixth year in a row in which a named storm has slipped in before the official beginning of the season.

New York State is now investigating 157 cases of a severe inflammatory syndrome affecting children that appears to be linked to the virus — a 53 percent increase over the last nine days, Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo said on Thursday.

“The more we look, the more we find it,” he said.

The condition, which the C.D.C. is calling multisystem inflammatory syndrome in children, often appears weeks after infection in children who did not experience first-phase virus symptoms. Instead of targeting the lungs as the primary virus infection does, it causes inflammation throughout the body and can cripple the heart.

A majority of the children in the state found to have the illness so far have tested positive for the virus or antibodies, the governor said. Researchers were now examining whether the infected children were genetically predisposed to the syndrome, he added. As of last week, there were three deaths.

In New York City, nearly one in four people does not have enough food, Mayor Bill de Blasio said Thursday. Officials said the city would boost the amount of food it distributes to 1.5 million meals daily by next week; 32 million meals have been handed out already in the crisis.

Before the virus hit, the mayor said, officials believed that “somewhere over a million people in the city” needed food more at some point in the year. That number is now thought to be two million or more, he said.

Separately, the family of every public school student in New York City will soon receive more than $400 per student to help pay for food while school buildings are shut down, regardless of income, through a federal relief program.

For some people, the Memorial Day weekend is typically a time to pay respects to the dead. For others, the three-day weekend is a time to travel or hit the beach.

This year, the pandemic is ensuring that nothing will be quite the same.

Some places will have scaled-down observances, such as a virtual “flag garden” in Massachusetts and streamed service in Minnesota. In Berks County, Pa., veterans’ groups and volunteers will plant 50,000 flags at the graves of fallen veterans, after the state waived restrictions meant to curb the spread of the virus.

Airports will be less crowded but transformed. The Transportation Security Administration said Thursday that passengers would be asked to scan their own boarding passes and place any food in their luggage in a separate bin during screening to limit cross contamination. And it is relaxing the 3.4 ounce rule: Passengers will be allowed to bring up to 12 ounces of hand sanitizer with them on their journey.

In many states, the beaches are open or opening for Memorial Day weekend, in many cases with new rules. Since no activity is risk-free, here are some things to remember when planning a beach day: Know the rules, keep moving or stay far away from others, use your own gear and check out the restroom facilities when you arrive.

China imposes a quarantine in its northeast.

The latest outbreak in China is concentrated in Jilin, a northeastern province of 27 million people near the borders with Russia and North Korea. Jilin has reported only about 130 cases and two deaths, but experts there have warned of a potential “big explosion.”

Want some tips for biking as a family?

The humble bicycle is the surprise star of lockdown. With youth sports on hold, car traffic down 75 percent or more throughout the United States and cooped-up children doing parkour on the living room furniture, family bike rides have never sounded better. Here are some tips for a safe and successful trip.

Reporting was contributed by Mike Baker, Karen Barrow, Katie Benner, Julie Bosman, Niraj Chokshi, Emily Cochrane, Patricia Cohen, Michael Cooper, Andrew Das, Luis Ferré-Sadurní, Christopher Flavelle, Chaseedaw Giles, James Glanz, Matthew Goldstein, Abby Goodnough, Kathleen Gray, Maggie Haberman, Sheila Kaplan, Annie Karni, David Kirkpatrick, Heather Murphy, Andy Newman, Azi Paybarah, Linda Qiu, William K. Rashbaum, Campbell Robertson, John Schwartz, Anna Schaverien, Lauren Sloss, Kaly Soto, Chris Stanford, Alexandra Stevenson, Eileen Sullivan, Vanessa Swales, Katie Thomas and Benjamin Weiser.