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Amid Jumps in COVID-19 Infections, U.S. Health Officials to Testify in Congress

By Robin Foster and E.J. Mundell
HealthDay Reporters

TUESDAY, June 23, 2020 (HealthDay News)

As 29 U.S. states and territories posted spikes in new COVID-19 cases on Monday, the country’s top health officials prepared to testify before Congress on their handling of the coronavirus pandemic.

Dr. Anthony Fauci, the nation’s top infectious disease expert, and Dr. Robert Redfield, director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, will appear before the House Energy and Commerce Committee on Tuesday, The New York Times reported. Adm. Brett Giroir, once the administration’s testing “czar,” and Dr. Stephen Hahn, the commissioner of the Food and Drug Administration, also plan to testify.

In a statement sent to the committee before the hearing, the CDC said that “COVID-19 activity will likely continue for some time,” potentially exacerbating the flu season and straining beleaguered hospitals, the Times reported.

“This could place a tremendous burden on the health care system related to bed occupancy, laboratory testing needs, personal protective equipment and health care worker safety,” the agency wrote.

As health officials continued to worry about future spikes in COVID-19 infections, case counts surged across the country, particularly in the South, Midwest and West.

On Sunday, the World Health Organization recorded the largest single-day worldwide increase in coronavirus cases, with Brazil and the United States logging the biggest jumps in infections.

More than 183,000 new cases were reported around the globe in the past 24 hours, with Brazil’s daily tally hitting 54,771 and the United States following closely behind with 36,617 new cases, CBS News reported. More than two-thirds of new COVID-19 deaths were reported in the Americas, the network reported.

Experts say rising case counts reflect both more testing, as well as the spread of new infections. In the United States, the resurgence in infections isn’t a “second wave,” but instead a continuation of the first wave of outbreaks, they noted.

“When you have 20,000-plus infections per day, how can you talk about a second wave?” Dr. Anthony Fauci, the nation’s top infectious diseases expert, told the Associated Press. “We’re in the first wave. Let’s get out of the first wave before you have a second wave.”

Floridians, in particular, could be in peril, with experts warning it could become the next U.S. epicenter as citizens flocked back to beaches, restaurants and bars. On Monday, the state passed 100,000 cases. In Oklahoma, cases are up 110% from last week, CNN reported.

New study suggests millions infected unknowingly in March

Meanwhile, a new study suggests that as many as 8.7 million Americans came down with coronavirus in March, but more than 80% of them were never diagnosed, CNN reported.

A team of researchers looked at the number of people who went to doctors or clinics with influenza-like illnesses that were never diagnosed as coronavirus, influenza or any of the other viruses that usually circulate in winter. There was a giant spike in these cases in March, according to the study published June 22 in the journal Science Translational Medicine.

Only 100,000 cases were officially reported during that time period, and the United States still reports only 2.3 million cases as of Monday. But there was a shortage of coronavirus testing kits at the time, CNN reported.

The team turned to CDC data collected from each state for influenza-like illness. The agency asks doctors to report all cases of people coming in for treatment for fever, cough and other symptoms caused by influenza.

“We found a clear, anomalous surge in influenza-like illness [ILI] outpatients during the COVID-19 epidemic that correlated with the progression of the [coronavirus] epidemic in multiple states across the U.S.,” the researchers wrote.

“The surge of non-influenza ILI outpatients was much larger than the number of confirmed cases in each state, providing evidence of large numbers of probable symptomatic COVID-19 cases that remained undetected,” they added.

“The findings support a scenario where more than 8.7 million new SARS-CoV-2 infections appeared in the U.S. during March and estimate that more than 80% of these cases remained unidentified as the outbreak rapidly spread,” said Justin Silverman, of Penn State University, and colleagues, CNN reported.

Masking, social distancing

Meanwhile, White House Trade Advisor Peter Navarro said that the federal government was working to replenish the national stockpile of medical equipment and supplies in preparation for another surge of the virus this fall, the newspaper reported.

“We are filling the stockpile in anticipation of a possible problem in the fall,” Navarro told CNN. “We’re doing everything we can.”

Reimposing prior precautions could turn some states’ rising numbers around, experts say.

“Uniform masking would go a long way,” Dr. Scott Gottlieb, former commissioner of the U.S. Food and Drug Administration, said during an appearance on “Morning Joe” on Thursday.

Dr. Peter Hotez, of the Baylor College of Medicine in Houston, said, “I don’t see any option other than to start re-implementing significant levels of social distancing.”

Hotez told CNN, “Things opened up prematurely. We didn’t complete that social distancing period that we needed to do, and now we’re seeing this very sharp acceleration.”

By Tuesday, the U.S. coronavirus case count passed 2.3 million as the death toll passed 120,300, according to a Times tally.

According to the same tally, the top five states in coronavirus cases as of Tuesday were: New York with more than 393,200; California with more than 184,600; New Jersey with over 169,400; Illinois with over 138,600; and Texas with over 119,600.

An old drug brings new hope

There was some good news last week, however. Researchers at Oxford University in England announced that dexamethasone, a widely used, low-cost steroid, appears to cut the death rate for ventilated COVID-19 patients by one-third. It also lowered the death rate for patients who require oxygen (but are not yet on a ventilator) by one-fifth, the Times reported.

“Bottom line is, good news,” Fauci, who directs the U.S. National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, told the AP. “This is a significant improvement in the available therapeutic options that we have.”

On Thursday, another weekly batch of new jobless claims suggested that the damage the pandemic has wrought on the U.S. economy may be slowing. Roughly 1.5 million people filed for state unemployment insurance — bad news, but at least a decline from the 6 million claims seen in a single week in March. More than 45.7 million claims have been filed over the past 13 weeks, NPR reported.

“We’re slowly seeing the labor market recovery begin to take form,” said Robert Rosener, an economist at Morgan Stanley, but “there’s still an enormous amount of layoffs going on.”

Meanwhile, the search for an effective vaccine continues. The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) said in late May that it would provide up to $1.2 billion to the drug company AstraZeneca to develop a potential coronavirus vaccine from Oxford University, in England.

The fourth, and largest, vaccine research agreement funds a clinical trial of the potential vaccine in the United States this summer with about 30,000 volunteers, the Times reported.

The goal? To make at least 300 million doses that could be available as early as October, the HHS said in a statement.

The United States has already agreed to provide up to $483 million to the biotech company Moderna and $500 million to Johnson & Johnson for their vaccine efforts. It is also providing $30 million to a virus vaccine effort led by the French company Sanofi, the Times reported. Moderna said a large clinical trial of its vaccine candidate could begin in July.

Nations grapple with pandemic

Elsewhere in the world, the situation remains challenging.

Even as the pandemic is easing in Europe and some parts of Asia, it is worsening in India. The country has loosened some of the social distancing enacted in the world’s largest lockdown, even as cases surge. As of Tuesday, India had over 440,000 cases, a Johns Hopkins tally shows.

Brazil has also become a hotspot in the coronavirus pandemic, with over 1.1 million confirmed infections by Tuesday, according to the Hopkins tally. U.S. President Donald Trump has issued a ban on all foreign travelers from Brazil because of the burgeoning number of COVID-19 cases in that country, CNN reported.

Cases are also spiking wildly in Russia: As of Tuesday, that country reported the world’s third-highest number of COVID-19 cases, at over 598,800, the Hopkins tally showed.

Worldwide, the number of reported infections passed 9 million on Tuesday, with more than 472,500 deaths, according to the Hopkins tally.

Copyright © 2020 HealthDay. All rights reserved.


SOURCES: Associated Press; The New York Times; CNN; CBS News

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