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States Move Forward With Plans to Reopen as Coronavirus Case Count Passes 930,000

By Robin Foster and E.J. Mundell
HealthDay Reporters

SUNDAY, April 26, 2020 (HealthDay News) — As the number of U.S. coronavirus cases surged past 938,000 on Sunday, several states continued to plow ahead with plans to reopen parts of their economies.

Georgia is moving the fastest to ease social distancing restrictions, while governors in Tennessee, Idaho and Missouri are preparing to execute their reopening plans soon, the Washington Post reported.

On Friday, Oklahoma loosened some of its social distancing measures, allowing hair and nail salons, barber shops, spas and pet groomers to reopen, The New York Times reported.

In a bit of reassuring news, Dr. Deborah Birx, the response coordinator for the White House’s coronavirus task force, said in an interview with Fox News on Saturday night that she expects the number of coronavirus deaths in the United States to drop dramatically by the end of May.

“We believe that both hospitalizations, the ICU need and, frankly, the number of people who have succumbed to this disease will be dramatically decreased by the end of May,” she said.

Still, even as states start to reopen for business, a new study suggests that many of the tests needed to prove that workers might be immune to the new coronavirus are faulty.

Researchers at the University of California, Berkeley, and UC San Francisco tested 14 of the leading blood antibody tests. These tests look for antibodies proving that a person has already encountered the novel coronavirus and might therefore have some immunity to COVID-19, the Times reported Friday. Such immunity would be crucial in allowing a person to safely return to the workplace.

But the research team found that only three of the 14 tests delivered consistently reliable results, and even those three were not perfect. Just one test was accurate enough that it never delivered a false-positive result (in which a person is identified as having antibodies for the new coronavirus when in fact he or she did not).

Outcomes were worse when it came to false-negative test results, the Times reported. False-negative findings mean that a person is falsely found to have not been exposed to the coronavirus, when in fact he or she has been exposed. Among the best three tests out of the 14 reviewed, testing correctly spotted antibodies in infected people only 90% of the time, the report found.

The study is preliminary and has not undergone peer review. But one of the co-leaders of the test review, UCSF’s Dr. Alexander Marson, told the Times that, overall, the results were encouraging. “There are multiple tests that look reasonable and promising,” he said.

But a scientist unconnected to the report took a different view. “Those numbers are just unacceptable,” Scott Hensley, a microbiologist at the University of Pennsylvania, told the Times. “The tone of the paper is, ‘Look how good the tests are.’ But I look at these data, and I don’t really see that.”

Economic help

In the meantime, economic hardship from the coronavirus-linked lockdown continues. On Thursday, the U.S. House passed a $484 billion deal that would replenish a small business loan program that has run out of funding. The bill also directs more money to hospitals and COVID-19 testing.

President Donald Trump signed the bill into law on Friday. As of Sunday, U.S. coronavirus cases passed 938,000, including more than 53,000 deaths, according to a Johns Hopkins University tally.

The legislation adds $310 billion to the Paycheck Protection Program, the Post reported. It also boosts a separate small business emergency grant and loan program by $60 billion, and directs $75 billion to hospitals and $25 billion to a new coronavirus testing program.

Passage of the stimulus package might take some of the sting out of the latest unemployment numbers, with 4.4 million more Americans added to jobless rolls on Thursday. So far, more than 26 million Americans are out of work due to the coronavirus crisis.

Despite the pain that battling the new coronavirus has exacted on the economy of the United States, a new Associated Press poll finds Americans remain overwhelmingly in favor of stay-at-home orders and other efforts to slow the spread of the coronavirus.

The survey, released Wednesday by the Associated Press-NORC Center for Public Affairs Research, also finds a majority of Americans say it won’t be safe to lift those measures anytime soon.

Sixty-one percent of Americans said stay-at-home orders issued by government officials to prevent COVID-19 infections have been about right. And 56% say conditions are unlikely to be safe enough in a few weeks to start lifting those restrictions, the AP reported.

On Wednesday, Trump signed an executive order stating that the issuance of all green cards in the United States will be suspended for 60 days as the country battles the coronavirus pandemic.

The halt will not stop temporary workers on non-immigrant visas from entering the United States, the Post reported.

“I will be issuing a temporary suspension of immigration into the United States,” Trump said during a coronavirus media briefing. “By pausing, we’ll help put unemployed Americans first in line for jobs.”

Broad restrictions have already been placed on travel from Europe, China and other coronavirus hot spots.

Coronavirus circulating weeks earlier than thought

New research also suggests that the new coronavirus was circulating in the United States weeks earlier than previously believed. California health officials said Tuesday that autopsies show that at least two people who died in early and mid-February had COVID-19. Until now, the earliest case was believed to be in a Seattle suburb on Feb. 26, the Post reported.

What is the Wuhan coronavirus?
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But even as case numbers keep rising, governors across America are crafting plans to start to ease social distancing in the coming weeks.

Those plans are afoot even though new estimates from Harvard University researchers suggest that the United States as a whole cannot safely reopen until health officials triple the number of coronavirus tests now being conducted, the Times reported.

Governors in some of the states that have been hit the hardest are already calling for far more testing in the coming month.

Statistics from New York and New Jersey have been encouraging in recent days. In both states, the curve of new infections appeared to be flattening or dropping, the Times reported.

But New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo emphasized the need for federal help to carry out the widespread coronavirus testing that officials say is necessary to reopen New York’s economy.

Public health experts agreed.

“We don’t have the resources in place to do the level of testing and contact tracing we need to make sure we’re monitoring this effectively,” said Jeffrey Shaman, an epidemiologist at Columbia University in New York City, told the Post. “We’re flying blind.”

Plans to reopen take shape

Talk of potentially reopening America came after Trump announced new federal guidelines last week. But the White House is sending mixed signals on the issue: On Thursday, Trump said national social distancing guidelines “may” extend into summer, or perhaps beyond that, CBS News reported.

The national plan for reopening laid out three phases that would slowly return life to a “new normal” that continues to use some of the most fundamental aspects of social distancing.

“We are not opening all at once, but one careful step at a time. And some states will be able to open up sooner than others. Some states are not in the kind of trouble that others are in,” Trump said during a media briefing last week.

Coronavirus cases and deaths in several of America’s early hotspots continued to show signs of plateauing, while governors from those hard-hit states worked on their own regional pacts to help reopen those areas.

New York and six other Northeast states — New Jersey, Connecticut, Pennsylvania, Delaware, Massachusetts and Rhode Island — extended stay-at-home orders through at least May 15 while they work on those plans, CNN reported.

The governors of California, Oregon and Washington have announced a similar regional pact, the AP reported.

And seven Midwestern states have followed suit and announced a pact of their own, CNN reported.

Phased-in reopening

For his part, Trump continued to push for reopening at least part of the U.S. economy in May.

The guidelines lay out three phases:

Phase 1: All vulnerable individuals continue to stay at home. Physical distancing must be practiced in public places and non-essential travel must be minimized. If schools are closed, they should stay closed. Visiting senior living centers is still not allowed.Phase 2: Non-essential travel may resume. People should avoid public gatherings of 50 or more, unless physical distancing is possible. Visits to senior centers would still be prohibited, but schools and day care centers could re-open.Phase 3: This would be the country’s “new normal.” Physical distancing in public places is still recommended, but vulnerable individuals can resume public activities. Visits to senior centers can resume.

There is no set timeline for moving through each of the three phases, according to the AP. Governors will make that decision, but a state or region should experience another 14-day decline in cases before moving to the next phase, the wire service said.

When Americans do leave their homes, federal guidance now urges everyone to wear face coverings in public to curb the spread of COVID-19.

States battle coronavirus

New York remains the epicenter of the coronavirus outbreak in the United States, though key COVID-19 statistics have been leveling off.

In preparation for any reopening in the coming weeks, Cuomo has announced that the state will implement the “most aggressive” antibody testing program in the country over the next week, CBS News reported.

To further protect against the spread of COVID-19, Cuomo issued an executive order stating all New Yorkers must have a mask or mouth and nose covering when they are not maintaining social distancing in public, CBS News reported.

Meanwhile, Massachusetts has become a coronavirus hot spot, as the state’s death toll more than doubled in the past week, hitting 2,730 on Sunday morning, the Times reported.

“We’re right in the middle of the surge now,” Gov. Charlie Baker said last week.

Massachusetts isn’t the only state struggling to control the spread of coronavirus. According to a Times tally, the top five states in coronavirus cases as of Sunday morning are: New York with more than 282,000 cases; New Jersey with more than 105,000; Massachusetts with more than 53,000; California with over 42,000 and Illinois with more than 41,700.

At the same time, several other states have announced plans to reopen in the next week or two.

Some states plan rapid restarts

Amidst much criticism from public health experts, Georgia Gov. Brian Kemp said he planned to restart the state’s economy, the AP reported, and some Georgia businesses cautiously reopened on Friday.

In Tennessee, Gov. Bill Lee also said he would not extend his “safer-at-home” order that’s set to expire on April 30, the Times reported. Businesses in Ohio are expected to reopen on that date as well.

And in South Carolina, Gov. Henry McMaster said that department stores and some other retail businesses that had previously been deemed non-essential would be allowed to reopen this week, though they must adhere to social distancing guidelines.

But even as states move ahead with plans to reopen, the head of the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention warned that a second wave of the novel coronavirus later this year could be more dire because it is likely to coincide with the start of flu season, the Post reported.

“There’s a possibility that the assault of the virus on our nation next winter will actually be even more difficult than the one we just went through,” CDC director Dr. Robert Redfield told the Post. “We’re going to have the flu epidemic and the coronavirus epidemic at the same time.”

On a hopeful note, Chinese health officials said Sunday that Wuhan, the original epicenter of the pandemic in China, has no coronavirus patients in its hospitals. The city was the first to experience total lockdown as its hospitals became overwhelmed with patients. Officials reported 46,452 total infections and 3,869 deaths from Wuhan in a tally published Sunday, though critics believe the actual figures to be higher, the Times reported.

Elsewhere in the world, the situation remains grim. In Europe, Spain reported nearly 23,000 deaths by Sunday, despite signs the infection rate is slowing, the Johns Hopkins University tally showed. Deaths in Italy also remain high at 26,384, although numbers have leveled off there as well. Both countries are cautiously reopening their economies.

The story in Africa is now unfolding: On Sunday, The Africa Centers for Disease Control and Prevention said more than 30,000 confirmed cases of COVID-19 have been reported in the 54 countries of Africa, the AP reported.

Worldwide, the number of reported infections passed 2.9 million on Sunday, with over 203,500 deaths, according to the Hopkins tally.

Copyright © 2020 HealthDay. All rights reserved.

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SOURCES: April 23, 2020, media briefing with President Donald Trump; April 18, 2020, media briefing with N.Y. Gov. Andrew Cuomo; CNN; Associated Press; The New York Times; Washington Post; CBS News

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