By Robin Foster and E.J. Mundell
SUNDAY, April 19, 2020 (HealthDay News) — As governors across America crafted plans to start easing social distancing amid the coronavirus pandemic, U.S. cases topped 728,000 on Sunday while the death toll neared 35,000.
But new estimates from Harvard University researchers suggest the United States as a whole cannot safely reopen unless health officials triple the number of coronavirus tests that are now being conducted, The New York 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.
The statistics from New York and New Jersey were hopeful on Saturday. In both states, the curve of new infections appeared to be flattening or dropping, the Times reported. In New Jersey, the number of new cases and hospitalizations was leveling off, and New York reported its lowest daily death toll in more than two weeks, at 540.
But New York Governor 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, the Times reported.
Talk of reopening America came after President Donald Trump announced new federal guidelines on Thursday that governors could use.
The national plan 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.
Plans to reopen take shape
“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 Thursday.
“America wants to be open and Americans want to be open,” Trump added. “A national shutdown is not a sustainable long-term solution. To preserve the health of our citizens, we must also preserve the health and functioning of our economy.”
Reopening the country has become a critical goal, as the ranks of unemployed Americans swelled to 22 million on Thursday.
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 Thursday.
The governors of California, Oregon and Washington have also announced a similar regional pact, the Associated Press reported.
“This pact is about what do we do after we reduce some of our social distancing stay home initiatives,” said Washington state Gov. Jay Inslee. “It’s more of the issue of how are we going to have consistent-as-we-can testing and contact tracing initiatives. In order for any of these three states to be successful, we simply have to have increased products available with which to do this testing. This is absolutely critical.”
On Thursday, seven Midwestern states followed suit and announced a pact of their own, CNN reported.
States join regional pacts for reopening
Michigan, Ohio, Wisconsin, Minnesota, Illinois, Indiana and Kentucky will work together to reopen their regional economy, Michigan Gov. Gretchen Whitmer announced.
For his part, Trump continued to push for reopening at least part of the U.S. economy in early May as he released the national reopening guidelines.
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 reopen.
- 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 would have to experience another 14-day decline in cases before moving to the next phase, the wire service said.
Still, Dr. Anthony Fauci, the country’s top infectious disease expert, told the AP this week that the United States doesn’t yet have the testing and tracing procedures needed to begin reopening the economy.
“We have to have something in place that is efficient and that we can rely on, and we’re not there yet,” Fauci warned.
Any relaxation of social distancing would have to occur on a “rolling” basis, not all at once, he said, adding that a vaccine might be possible by mid- to late winter, the AP reported.
“Please, let me say this caveat: That is assuming that [a vaccine is] effective. See, that’s the big ‘if,'” Fauci told the wire service. “It’s got to be effective and it’s got to be safe.”
Social distancing, face masks
When Americans do leave their homes, 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 passed 2.3 million.
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 process millions of aid applications from small businesses and the newly jobless, the Washington Post reported.
The legislation is set to 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.
Economic rescue plan
A new federal program to help small businesses during the coronavirus pandemic has already run out of money. Funding for the Paycheck Protection Program was exhausted on Thursday, meaning that the Small Business Administration (SBA) had to stop approving applications, the Post reported. More than 1.4 million loans worth more than $315 billion have already been approved, according to the SBA.
In some good news, millions of Americans have started to see promised tax rebates directly deposited into their bank accounts, though some folks have experienced problems getting the money, the Post reported.
The help comes not a moment too soon, as roughly 90% of Americans are under stay-at-home orders, the AP reported.
New York City remains the center of the coronavirus outbreak in the United States, though the latest statistics show social distancing is working.
On Thursday, New York Governor Andrew Cuomo extended the state’s shutdown to May 15, CBS News reported. The stay-at-home order had been set to expire at the end of April.
“What happens after then? I don’t know,” Cuomo said at his daily coronavirus briefing. “We will see depending on what the data shows.”
Cuomo said social distancing orders have “controlled the beast” in New York, but the state is not yet in the clear. “We have to continue doing what we’re doing,” he said.
Testing is key
To further protect against the spread of COVID-19, Cuomo also 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. Cuomo laid out several situations where people should wear masks, including riding public transit, standing on a subway platform or walking in a busy neighborhood.
“[If] you’re not going to be able to maintain social distancing, you must wear a mask or cloth or an attractive bandana or a color-coordinated bandana, but you have to wear it in those situations,” Cuomo said.
People who violate the order could eventually face fines, but “you’re not going to jail for not wearing a mask,” Cuomo said.
Cuomo said large-scale testing, to find out who has COVID-19 and who has coronavirus antibodies, is the centerpiece of any reopening plan, CBS News reported. The New York State Department of Health has already developed its own antibody test, Cuomo added. “We’ll actually do those tests. We don’t need a private lab,” he said Wednesday.
This week, the state will begin conducting 2,000 finger-prick antibody tests per day. First responders, health care workers and essential workers will be prioritized, he said.
According to the Times tally, as of Sunday morning the top six states in coronavirus cases are: New York with nearly 237,000 cases; New Jersey with more than 81,000; Massachusetts with more than 36,000; Pennsylvania with nearly 32,000; and California and Michigan each approaching 31,000 cases.
California, with its 40 million residents, has seen a consistent drop in COVID-19 patients receiving treatment in intensive care units, the Times reported.
Globally, the situation remains grim. In Europe, Spain reported 20,453 deaths by Sunday, despite signs the infection rate is slowing, a Johns Hopkins University tally showed. Deaths in Italy also remain high at 23,277, although numbers have begun to level off there as well.
Worldwide, the number of reported infections passed 2.3 million on Sunday, with more than 162,000 deaths, according to the Hopkins tally.
Copyright © 2020 HealthDay. All rights reserved.
SOURCES: April 15, 2020, media briefing with President Donald Trump; April 15, 2020, media briefing with N.Y. Gov. Andrew Cuomo; CNN; Associated Press; The New York Times; Washington Post; CBS News