By Robin Foster and E.J. Mundell
FRIDAY, June 5, 2020 (HealthDay News) — Federal data released Friday offered signs of hope on the economic front, as jobless numbers actually fell — from 14.7 percent in April to 13.3 percent in May.
The economy, hit hard by stay-at-home orders and shuttered businesses tied to the coronavirus crisis, ended up adding 2.5 million job in May, as some Americans warily crept back to work, The New York Times reported.
It was very welcome news: According to the Times the unemployment rate in April was the highest seen since the federal government began keeping record afters World War II.
Many economists expect that unemployment numbers will slow further as states reopen and more employees return to work.
However, none of the good economic news has curbed the onslaught of SARS-CoV-2, the virus behind COVID-19.
By Friday, the U.S. coronavirus case count had topped 1.8 million and the death toll passed 108,000. And a new review shows that crowded protests against police brutality have occurred in every one of the 25 U.S. communities with the highest concentrations of new COVID-19 cases.
The Associated Press analysis also found that some cities — Minneapolis, Chicago, Washington, D.C., and Los Angeles among them — have witnessed protests on multiple days. In some communities, such as Minneapolis where the protests started, the number of people hospitalized with COVID-19 has also been rising, the news agency added.
The close proximity of protesters and their failure in many cases to wear masks, along with police using tear gas, could fuel new transmissions.
Tear gas can cause people to cough and sneeze, as can the smoke from fires set in some instances, the AP said. Both factors can also prompt protesters to remove their masks.
Putting arrested protesters into jail cells can also increase the risk of spread, and an AP tally shows that more than 5,600 people have already been taken into custody.
Many free coronavirus testing sites closed following damage during protests
Protests have also forced 70 free coronavirus testing sites to close because of looting or damage, the Washington Post reported Thursday.
According to figures from the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, at least nine health centers in five states have been damaged, including in Sacramento, Denver and Philadelphia and parts of Minnesota. And at least six health centers in five states have been closed because of their proximity to protests.
The 70 testing sites — there are 424 in the program — that closed are in 17 states, plus the District, the Post reported.
“Our urban areas are being disparately hit by the virus, and then they are getting disparately hit by the violence,” said Michael Caputo, HHS’s assistant secretary for public affairs. “And the result is a community that is truly in need for testing capacity losing that capacity.”
Despite the collateral damage of the protests, a new poll shows that a majority of Americans still think it’s more important to control the virus’ spread than to restart the economy.
While nearly 6 in 10 Americans say the pandemic has taken a heavy economic toll on their communities, a majority still believes that containing COVID-19 infections is paramount, the Post-ABC News poll showed.
And nearly 7 in 10 Americans say they are worried about the possibility of a second wave of coronavirus infections in the fall, the poll showed.
Concerns about hydroxychloroquine continue
Meanwhile, safety concerns over a malaria drug that President Donald Trump has touted as a coronavirus treatment persist.
A new study published Wednesday in the New England Journal of Medicine journal showed that hydroxychloroquine does not live up to its hype.
Unlike some prior studies, this new trial was a “gold standard” prospective, randomized clinical trial. It found that hydroxychloroquine could not prevent COVID-19 any better than a sugar pill.
Worse, 40% of those taking hydroxychloroquine developed side effects including nausea, upset stomach or diarrhea. Fortunately, no serious side effects or heart problems occurred in the study, the researchers noted. An uptick in risk for potentially dangerous heart rhythm abnormalities had been noted in prior studies in which COVID-19 patients received hydroxychloroquine as a treatment.
Regardless, Trump said he took a two-week course of the malaria drug to guard against COVID-19 infection after two White House staffers tested positive for the coronavirus.
And the White House announced this week it has sent 2 million doses of hydroxychloroquine to Brazil to battle the spread of coronavirus in that country. Not only that, the two countries are embarking on a joint research effort to study whether the drug is safe and effective for the prevention and early treatment of COVID-19, the Trump administration said.
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Disappointing drug trials
Hopes for another drug being tested against coronavirus infection have dimmed, after a major new study found the drug on its own won’t be enough to significantly curb cases and deaths.
The study, published in the New England Journal of Medicine, found that, “given high mortality [of patients] despite the use of remdesivir, it is clear that treatment with an antiviral drug alone is not likely to be sufficient.”
The study does suggest that remdesivir works better when given earlier rather than later in the disease course. “Our findings highlight the need to identify COVID-19 cases and start antiviral treatment before the pulmonary disease progresses to require mechanical ventilation,” the researchers said.
Early evidence had suggested that remdesivir might help fight coronavirus illness, so the U.S. Food and Drug Administration gave it “emergency use authorization.”
Already, combinations of remdesivir and other drugs are being tried, to see if dual-drug treatments might boost outcomes even more. For example, one federally funded clinical trial is combining remdesivir with a potent anti-inflammatory drug called baricitinib, while a trial from biotech firm CytoDyn is pairing it with an antiviral called leronlimab.
Vaccine efforts continue
Meanwhile, the search for an effective vaccine goes on. 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.
On Wednesday, Dr. Anthony Fauci, the nation’s top infectious diseases expert, sounded a note of optimism about a future vaccine for coronavirus.
He told the American Medical Association that 100 million doses of a coronavirus vaccine will be available by year’s end, CNN reported.
“Then, by the beginning of 2021, we hope to have a couple hundred million doses,” Fauci added.
It’s still not clear which vaccine will be effective, but “I’m cautiously optimistic that with the multiple candidates we have with different platforms, that we are going to have a vaccine that will make it deployable,” Fauci said.
According to a Times tally, the top five states in coronavirus cases as of Friday are: New York with nearly 380,000; New Jersey with over 162,500; Illinois with over 125,000; California with more than 122,000, and Massachusetts with over 102,000.
Nations grapple with pandemic
In Asia, where the coronavirus first struck, several countries are finally returning to a new normal.
In the Chinese city of Wuhan, where the coronavirus first emerged, officials said Wednesday that they had finished a massive effort to test almost all of its 11 million residents, the Times reported.
Nearly 9.9 million people were tested during the drive, which began in mid-May and has not been matched in scale or speed elsewhere. The result? Only about 300 asymptomatic infections were detected.
Meanwhile, South Korea has seen a spike in new cases, the AP reported.
The Korea Centers for Disease Control and Prevention said 67 of the 79 new cases reported were from the Seoul metropolitan area, where about half of South Korea’s 51 million people live. The government has shut public facilities such as parks, museums and state-run theaters in the metropolitan area for the next two weeks, to stem any further spread of the virus.
Elsewhere, the situation remains challenging. On Friday, the United Kingdom’s coronavirus death count neared 40,000, the second highest in the world, according to a Johns Hopkins University tally. Britain has now surpassed Italy, Spain and France for COVID-19 deaths in Europe. With Prime Minister Boris Johnson easing lockdown measures, schools across England reopened this week amid fierce debate over whether the move is premature, the Post reported.
Brazil has become a hotspot in the coronavirus pandemic. By Friday, the South American country had reported over 34,000 deaths and nearly 620,000 confirmed infections, according to the Hopkins tally. Only the United States has more cases. 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 Friday, that country reported the world’s third-highest number of COVID-19 cases, at over 449,000, the Hopkins tally showed.
Worldwide, the number of reported infections passed 6.6 million on Friday, with more than 391,500 deaths, according to the Hopkins tally.
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