By Robin Foster and E.J. Mundell
SUNDAY, April 12, 2020 (HealthDay News) — Easter Sunday dawned with grim news for Americans: The United States now leads the world in fatal cases of COVID-19.
In better news, researchers on Friday reported that the experimental drug remdesivir helped a majority of critically ill COVID-19 patients in a small trial.
There were 20,614 confirmed deaths in the United States as of Sunday morning, The New York Times reported, while Italy has 19,468 confirmed deaths. Until Saturday, Italy had had more lives lost to the new coronavirus than any other country.
But there was one glimmer of hope for better treatment. On Friday, the New England Journal of Medicine published a small study involving the “compassionate use” of the antiviral remdesivir. The medicine has been viewed by global health experts as the best early shot for treating the disease, the Washington Post reported.
More than two-thirds of 53 severely ill patients showed improvement in oxygen support, the researchers said. Seventeen of 30 patients who were on ventilators were able to be taken off the life-support machines, the study showed.
“We cannot draw definitive conclusions from these data, but the observations from this group of hospitalized patients who received remdesivir are hopeful,” study author Dr. Jonathan Grein, hospital epidemiology director at Cedars-Sinai Medical Center in Los Angeles, told the Post.
While 68% of the patients showed improvement in the level of oxygen support they needed, 13% of those in the study died, but that is lower than the mortality rates of 17% to 78% in China among severely ill patients, the authors wrote.
Dr. Amesh Adalja, a senior scholar at the Center for Health Security at Johns Hopkins University’s Bloomberg School of Public Health in Baltimore, called the results “encouraging,” while cautioning that they needed to be kept in perspective, the Post reported.
The good news was tempered by Dr. Anthony Fauci, the nation’s top infectious disease expert, saying Friday that he hopes for “a real degree of normality” only by November.
Still, reports have surfaced that the Trump administration is pushing to re-open much of the country in May.
White House pushing for relaxation of social distancing in May
According to the Post, President Donald Trump has asked for a plan to resume business activity by May 1. This strategy concerns health experts, who fear a possible resurgence of coronavirus if life returns to normal before the virus is truly beaten, the newspaper said.
Right now, federal recommendations to avoid social gatherings and work from home expire at the end of April.
During a media briefing on Thursday, Trump said the United States was at the “top of the hill” and added, “Hopefully, we’re going to be opening up — you could call it opening — very, very, very, very soon, I hope.”
The White House cannot unilaterally reopen the country, however. Though the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has issued national social distancing guidelines, state officials are the ones who enforce those guidelines. And state directives across the country have varied widely in timing and severity.
During the Thursday media briefing, Fauci, director of the U.S. National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, said some places might reopen sooner than others, and that places like hard-hit New York shouldn’t loosen social distancing restrictions until there was a “very steep decline” in infections.
“It’s not going to be one-size-fits-all,” he added.
Health experts said that ending the shutdown prematurely would be disastrous because the restrictions have hardly had time to work, and the country does not yet have the mass testing, large-scale contact tracing and targeted quarantines that have been used in other countries to suppress the virus, the Post reported.
Economy is tanking
Still, Trump plans to announce the creation of a second, smaller coronavirus task force next week that will be aimed at countering the economic fallout from the virus, people familiar with the plans told the Post.
The economy is in sore need of stimulation: On Thursday, Americans faced more bleak news on unemployment numbers.
U.S. Labor Department statistics released Thursday morning showed that 6.6 million more workers joined the jobless rolls in the past week, the Associated Press reported. That comes on top of 10 million jobless claims that were filed in the previous two weeks.
It’s as if “the economy as a whole has fallen into some sudden black hole,” Kathy Bostjancic, chief U.S. financial economist at Oxford Economics, told the wire service.
Meanwhile, a new analysis found that COVID-19 is infecting and killing black Americans at a disproportionately high rate. A Post review of early data from across the country shows that counties that are mostly black have three times the rate of infections and almost six times the rate of deaths as counties where white residents are in the majority.
Trump acknowledged the racial disparity during a coronavirus task force briefing Tuesday.
“We are doing everything in our power to address this challenge, and it’s a tremendous challenge,” Trump said. “It’s terrible.”
“Why is it three or four times more so for the black community as opposed to other people?” Trump said. “It doesn’t make sense, and I don’t like it, and we are going to have statistics over the next probably two to three days.”
What is the Wuhan coronavirus?
Face coverings in public
If Americans do leave their homes this week, new federal guidance now urges everyone to wear face coverings in public to curb the spread of COVID-19.
These face coverings can be non-medical masks, T-shirts or bandanas and they can be used while out at everyday shopping spots such as the grocery store, pharmacy or gas station, the AP reported. Medical-grade masks would be reserved for those dealing directly with the sick.
Any additional COVID-19 prevention measures are welcome, as the number of coronavirus cases worldwide neared 1.8 million.
Meanwhile, the death toll in the United States topped 20,000 on Sunday and it continued to outpace other nations with over 530,000 confirmed infections, the Times reported.
New York remains the hardest hit area of the country. More than 8,600 people have died in New York as of Sunday, according to the Times. But other measures of the pandemic have been slowing.
New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo said Thursday that hospitalizations and intensive-care admissions in the state have fallen, suggesting progress. But he stressed that he did not know when New Yorkers would be able to begin a return to normal life, the Post reported.
“We’re not going to go from red to green; we’re going to go from red to yellow,” Cuomo said.
And New York City emergency responders report that they are inundated with 911 calls, the Times reported.
The fire department said it is seeing more than 300 cardiac arrest calls per day, with well over 200 of those patients dying, the newspaper said. A year ago, the department averaged 64 calls for cardiac arrest per day.
“The worst thing is taking a call and hearing somebody screaming because their loved one has stopped breathing or they’re in distress and they don’t know what to do,” said dispatcher Virginia Creary, who is also an EMT. “You just feel utterly helpless.”
Economic help slow in coming
As the U.S. economy continues to falter, Americans have struggled to find out if they can receive benefits from a $2 trillion stimulus package that was passed into law in March. The financial relief is just starting to be felt as state and federal agencies struggle to process millions of aid applications from small businesses and the newly jobless, the Post reported.
The legislation should send $1,200 to millions of Americans, including those earning up to $75,000, along with $500 per child. It will also give an additional 13 weeks in unemployment aid and a four-month enhancement of jobless benefits, the Times reported.
Hospitals on the front lines of the pandemic will also get $100 billion, the Times reported.
The help comes not a moment too soon, as roughly 90% of Americans are under stay-at-home orders, the AP reported.
Cases are spiking elsewhere, particularly in the South: Louisiana, Florida and Georgia are facing alarming increases, with over 51,000 cases and at least 1,683 deaths reported in those three states alone, the Times reported Sunday.
Some health officials are warning that parts of Michigan, Colorado and Illinois could be the next epicenters of the coronavirus pandemic, CNN reported. By Sunday, Michigan had almost 24,000 cases and 1,391 deaths, the Times reported.
As different nations wonder what is in store for their citizens in the coming months, one glimmer of hope has emerged:
All restrictions in the Chinese city of Wuhan — the first to go into lockdown back in January — were lifted as the city’s 11 million residents returned to their jobs and schools.
The good news in China stood in sharp relief to what is unfolding in Europe.
On Sunday, Spain reported almost 17,000 deaths, despite signs the infection rate is slowing, a Johns Hopkins tally showed. Deaths in Italy remain high, although numbers have begun to level off.
In Japan, Prime Minister Shinzo Abe has declared a state of emergency in seven prefectures that include the country’s largest population centers as cases there are on the rise, the Times reported. Abe also announced an economic stimulus package worth nearly $1 trillion.
In the United Kingdom, British Prime Minister Boris Johnson was released from St. Thomas’ Hospital in London after been treated for more than a week for persistent COVID-19 symptoms. According to the Times he will recover at Chequers, the British prime minister’s country estate.
In the meantime, the public lives of Americans have come to a halt, as the coronavirus pandemic has prompted officials across the country to close, cancel or postpone any event or activity that might foster the spread of COVID-19.
New York, New Jersey and California have been hard hit by coronavirus cases in the United States. By Sunday, New York had over 180,000 cases, New Jersey had more than 58,000 and California’s case count was over 22,000, according to the Times.
However, California earlier this week recorded its first drop in COVID-19 patients receiving treatment in intensive care units, the Times reported.
California Gov. Gavin Newsom said Thursday he was encouraged by the drop, but isn’t drawing any hard conclusions from one day of data.
“One data point is not a trend,” Newsom warned. “One data point is not a headline, so I caution anybody to read too much into that one point of data, but nonetheless it is encouraging.”
Worldwide, the number of reported infections neared 1.8 million on Sunday, with over 110,000 deaths, according to the Hopkins tally.
Copyright © 2020 HealthDay. All rights reserved.
SOURCES: U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, news release, April 3, 2020; April 9, 2020, media briefing with President Donald Trump; April 9, 2020, media briefing with N.Y. Gov. Andrew Cuomo; CNN; Associated Press; The New York Times; Washington Post