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Live Coronavirus News Updates and Analysis

2020-05-21 01:00:49
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Disease modelers find that tens of thousands of U.S. deaths could have been prevented with earlier lockdowns.

If the United States had begun imposing social-distancing measures one week earlier in March, about 36,000 fewer people would have died in the pandemic, according to new estimates from Columbia University disease modelers.

And if the country had begun locking down cities and limiting social contact on March 1, two weeks earlier than when most people started staying home, a vast majority of the nation’s deaths — about 84 percent — would have been avoided, the researchers estimated.

The enormous cost of waiting to take action reflects the unforgiving dynamics of the outbreak that swept through American cities in early March. Even small differences in timing would have prevented the worst exponential growth, which by April had subsumed New York City, New Orleans and other major cities, the researchers found.

“It’s a big, big difference,” said Jeffrey Shaman, an epidemiologist at Columbia and the leader of the research team. “That small moment in time, catching it in that growth phase, is incredibly critical in reducing the number of deaths.”

The findings are based on infectious-disease modeling that gauges how reduced contact between people starting in mid-March slowed transmission of the virus.

On March 16, President Trump urged Americans to limit travel, avoid groups and stay home from school. Mayor Bill de Blasio of New York City closed schools on March 15, and Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo of New York issued a stay-at-home order that took effect on March 22.

But in cities like New York, where the virus arrived early and spread quickly, those actions were too late to avoid a calamity. Dr. Shaman’s team modeled what would have happened if those same changes had taken place one or two weeks earlier and estimated the spread of infections and deaths until May 3.

The results show that as states reopen — all 50 states had eased restrictions somewhat as of Wednesday — outbreaks can easily get out of control unless officials closely monitor infections and immediately clamp down on new flare-ups.

And they show that each day that officials waited to impose restrictions in early March came at a great cost.

In a medical research project nearly unrivaled in its ambition and scope, volunteers around the world are rolling up their sleeves to receive experimental vaccines against the coronavirus only months after it was discovered.

Companies like Inovio and Pfizer have begun early tests of candidates in people to determine whether the vaccines are safe. Researchers at the University of Oxford in Britain say they could have a vaccine ready for emergency use as soon as September.

In labs around the world, there is now cautious optimism that a vaccine, and perhaps more than one, will be ready sometime next year. With many states and nations anxious to ease restrictions and reopen their economies despite the risk of further outbreaks, the race to create and manufacture a vaccine is more urgent than ever.

Scientists are exploring at least four approaches to creating a vaccine. The urgency is so great that they are combining trial phases and shortening a process that usually takes years.

“What people don’t realize is that normally vaccine development takes many years, sometimes decades,” said Dr. Dan Barouch, a virologist at Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center in Boston. “And so trying to compress the whole vaccine process into 12 to 18 months is really unheard-of.”

“If that happens,” he added, “it will be the fastest vaccine development program ever in history.”

Even if scientists develop a vaccine that proves to be safe and effective, hurdles will remain. With nearly all of humanity vulnerable to the virus, officials will have to figure out how to speed the mass production of vaccines.

But signs of progress continue to appear. Researchers reported Wednesday that a prototype vaccine had protected monkeys from the virus, a finding that offered new hope for effective human vaccines.

“To me, this is convincing that a vaccine is possible,” said Dr. Nelson Michael, the director of the Center for Infectious Diseases Research at Walter Reed Army Institute of Research.

In Connecticut, flags that had been lowered to half-staff during the somber peak of the pandemic were raised high again to signal the state’s return to business.

And across Alaska, restaurants, bars and gyms, which have already been seeing customers for weeks, were getting ready to rev back up to full capacity. “It will all be open,” Gov. Mike Dunleavy said, “just like it was prior to the virus.”

The dynamic has left many business owners and customers to decide for themselves what they think is safe.

“It is still a little scary, considering we don’t exactly know what this is,” said Ipakoi Grigoriadis, whose family owns Pop’s Family Restaurant in Milford, Conn., a diner that reopened its outdoor seating on Wednesday morning.

“It is quite exciting to see our customers we haven’t seen in a while,” she said. But it was not business as usual: Pop’s, like other Connecticut restaurants, now offers only outdoor seating and plans to gradually ramp up to 50 percent capacity. Servers are gloved and masked, and patrons are expected to wear masks as well, except when they are eating and drinking.

Catholic and Lutheran churches say they will defy Minnesota’s governor and resume in-person services.

Some Catholic and Lutheran churches in Minnesota plan to resume in-person worship services later this month in defiance of the governor’s orders, becoming the latest religious organizations applying pressure on political leaders to allow large religious gatherings.

“We have concluded that many of our parishes are ready to safely resume Mass, albeit in a limited way, next week,” Archbishop Hebda wrote. The presidents of Minnesota’s two districts of the Lutheran Church-Missouri Synod wrote a similar letter to the governor, saying they were allowing Lutheran churches to reopen next Tuesday and to worship next Sunday, May 31.

Becket, a religious liberty group whose lawyers are among those representing the Minnesota churches, said in a statement that Minnesotans needed church services.

“If malls, casinos, liquor stores, bars and restaurants are reopening, why can’t Minnesota churches?” Eric Rassbach, a vice president and senior lawyer at Becket.

A spokesman for Mr. Walz, a Democrat, did not immediately respond to questions about the churches’ letters.

The Minnesota churches joined opponents to restrictions on religious gatherings in several states, including in North Carolina, where a federal judge last weekend sided with churches who had sued over Gov. Roy Cooper’s efforts to restrict religious gatherings to 10 people. Mr. Cooper, a Democrat, said he would not appeal the ruling.

“I think that even at this time of stress and when people are so anxious and so confused, I think those religious ceremonies can be very comforting,” Mr. Cuomo said. “But we need to find out how to do it, and do it safely and do it smartly.”

And five lawyers with the Justice Department said in a letter to California on Tuesday that the state’s restrictions to combat the virus discriminated against religious institutions. The lawyers, which included all four U.S. attorneys assigned to California, objected to the state’s reopening plan, which seemed to allow restaurants and shopping malls to reopen before religious institutions could hold in-person services. They also objected to the state’s current policy limiting how members of the clergy could be classified as essential workers.

As lockdowns are lifted, bacteria that built up internally in stagnant water, especially in the plumbing, may cause health problems for returning workers if the issue is not properly addressed by facilities managers. Employees and guests at hotels, gyms and other kinds of buildings may also be at risk.

A single small outbreak can sicken many people. The deaths of 12 people from Legionnaires’ disease were linked to the water crisis that started in Flint, Mich., in 2014 after the city changed its water source and officials failed to inform the public of quality problems.

Most worrying, Legionnaires’ disease tends to affect people with compromised immune systems. “Covid patients and survivors could be more vulnerable to this, so when they go back to work we might be concerned about another infection,” said Caitlin Proctor, a postdoctoral fellow at Purdue University.

In Chicago, two employees were sent home on Tuesday after showing symptoms of the illness; tests later confirmed that they had the virus. Both worked at a parts building about a mile from the main plant. The building they worked in was sanitized and its operations halted, forcing production to stop at the assembly plant.

Production at the Chicago plant was halted a second time on Wednesday after a nearby parts factory stopped deliveries to Ford because of an infection there.

In Dearborn, a single Ford employee tested positive on Wednesday. “We are deep cleaning and disinfecting the work area, equipment, team area and the path that team member took,” Ford said in a statement. The company said it expected the Dearborn plant to resume production Wednesday evening.

In both locations, the affected employees and any others they had contact with were sent home to prevent further spread of illness.

Ford, General Motors and Fiat Chrysler all began restarting their plants on Monday in the United States and Canada after keeping them idled for nearly 60 days. The companies have modified shift schedules, put up barriers between employees, required the use of masks and taken other steps to reduce contact between workers.

The president is scheduled to visit a Ford plant on Thursday in Ypsilanti, Mich., that is manufacturing ventilators.

It was unclear how closely the guidelines would be followed. The C.D.C. said that restaurants “may consider” a number of strategies to maintain healthy environments, including: “Avoid offering any self-serve food or drink options, such as buffets, salad bars and drink stations.”

When Vice President Mike Pence visited Beth’s Burger Bar in Orlando, Fla., on Wednesday with Gov. Ron DeSantis to call attention to restaurants reopening, he was filmed filling his own cup at a self-serve soda fountain. Mr. Pence — who leads the White House’s coronavirus task force and whose press secretary, Katie Miller, tested positive for the virus this month — was not wearing a mask.

Here are some key elements from the C.D.C. guidance:

  • If a person in a school building tests positive, schools should evaluate the risk and consider a brief dismissal of about two to five days, to clean and disinfect the building, coordinate with local health officials and contact trace. The C.D.C. offers different measures based on the level of community spread.

  • As restrictions across the country on restaurants and bars ease, the C.D.C. recommends owners give workers at a higher risk of getting sick a job that limits the person’s interaction with customers. The agency also suggests opening initially with limited seating to allow for social distancing. Once fully reopened, the C.D.C. recommends having a clear policy about when employees should stay home if sick and rules on hygiene, including at times wearing face coverings.

  • When mass transit resumes its full service, the agency recommends being prepared to adjust routes based on the different levels of virus spread and to coordinate with local health officials about prevention strategies, such as wearing a face covering.

  • For businesses that provide child care during the pandemic, the C.D.C. recommends having plans in place, for example, to have substitute workers if staff members are sick, and requiring staff and children older than 2 to wear face coverings.

The guidance describes the balance of slowing the virus’s spread with the economic threat of shuttering most businesses, and largely mirrors a draft version that was previously shelved by the White House, but with some changes.

The document omits a section on “communities of faith” that had troubled Trump administration officials and also tones down the guidance in several instances. For example, language that initially directed schools to “ensure social distancing” became “promote social distancing,” and the phrase “if possible” was added in several sentences.

Severe flooding struck Central Michigan on Wednesday after two dams were breached by rain-swollen waters, forcing the evacuation of thousands of residents when many were wary of leaving their homes during the pandemic.

Gov. Gretchen Whitmer implored residents to take the threat seriously and evacuate immediately. But she added that they should continue to observe precautions related to the virus, including wearing masks and maintaining social distancing — something she acknowledged would be difficult in temporary shelters.

“To go through this in the midst of a global pandemic is almost unthinkable,” she said. “But we are here, and to the best of our ability we are going to navigate this together.”

There have been at least 52,337 cases in Michigan, and at least 5,017 people have died.

The failures on Tuesday of the Edenville Dam and the Sanford Dam, about 140 miles northwest of Detroit, led the National Weather Service to issue a flash flood warning for areas near the Tittabawassee River. Residents in nearby towns, including Edenville, Sanford and Midland, were evacuated

As news of the disaster spread, Mr. Trump threatened on Twitter to withhold federal funds to Michigan if the state proceeded to expand vote-by-mail efforts. The president then followed up by saying that the Federal Emergency Management Agency and the military had been deployed to Michigan to assist with disaster response.

The president is scheduled to visit the state for the first time since January and comes as his campaign advisers are increasingly concerned about his re-election chances there.

There was a 14 percent increase in fatality rates per miles driven in March compared with the year before, according to preliminary data reports released by the National Safety Council.

There were 8 percent fewer roadway deaths over all, and the number of miles driven fell 18.6 percent.

It is possible that speeding and reckless driving on emptier roads — as people follow stay-at-home orders — have led to a disproportionate number of deaths.

“Disturbingly, we have open lanes of traffic and an apparent open season on reckless driving,” Lorraine M. Martin, the council’s chief executive, said in a statement on Wednesday. She added that law enforcement and health care workers “are rightly focused on coronavirus patients and should not be overwhelmed by preventable car crashes.”

Less than a week after lawmakers approved a major rule change, Speaker Nancy Pelosi on Wednesday formally initiated the remote work period for the House, jump-starting a 45-day period when remote voting can be used in the chamber.

With the move, the House will now be able to use proxy voting, which allows lawmakers to give specific instructions on each vote to a colleague authorized to vote on their behalf. Votes are expected in the chamber next week, and several lawmakers had previously expressed frustration with the need to travel to Washington during the pandemic.

The announcement came after the sergeant-at-arms, in consultation with Dr. Brian P. Monahan, the Capitol physician, sent Ms. Pelosi a letter formally notifying her of “an ongoing public health emergency.”

In direct contrast, however, Senator Mitch McConnell of Kentucky on Wednesday highlighted the Senate’s ongoing presence in Washington, outlining how “over here in the United States Senate, the lights are on, the doors are open, and we are working for the American people.”

Mr. McConnell, the majority leader, thanked Dr. Monahan — a Navy doctor whose office is responsible for the care of both chambers and the Supreme Court — for his continued guidance, saying that it had allowed the Senate to operate “smartly and safely” during the pandemic.

Hospital executives and doctors, wary of what comes next, are asking whether this is a lull before a new wave of cases or a less chaotic slog. At hospitals, staff members are preparing for both possibilities.

Elmhurst is decontaminating rooms as managers try to persuade residents to come in now for emergencies and elective surgery as soon the governor lifts a ban imposed in March. Brooklyn Hospital Center is nervously waiting for those numbers to rise again.

At the same time, a new survey of nearly 23,000 nurses across the country shows continued concern over inadequate personal protective equipment as well as a lack of widespread testing among health care workers.

Many nurses remain fearful of becoming ill because they do not have the equipment they need to remain safe, according to the union that conducted the survey, National Nurses United, which has more than 150,000 members in the United States.

The survey, conducted from April 15 through May 10, includes responses from both union members and nonunion nurses in all 50 states. It found that a vast majority of nurses, 87 percent, reported having to reuse personal protective equipment, including respirators, a practice that the nurses said would not have been allowed before the pandemic.

More than 100 nurses have died of the disease, according to the union, and at least 500 of those surveyed said they had already tested positive. Eighty-four percent of those surveyed reported they had not yet been tested.

The aircraft carrier Theodore Roosevelt returned to sea after its deployment to the western Pacific was derailed by the outbreak, military officials said late Wednesday.

“Theodore Roosevelt is underway for the first time since arriving in Guam March 27,” the Navy said in a statement, adding that the ship entered the Philippine Sea on Thursday.

The Roosevelt had been docked in Guam for nearly two months, with much of its crew isolated in hotels and on the U.S. naval on the island. About 1,100 sailors from the Roosevelt have been infected since the outbreak began in March.

The College Board has been sued over flaws in online Advanced Placement tests.

As the virus swept the country, the College Board announced that it would introduce an online version of its Advanced Placement tests, which students use to show their mastery of subjects like physics and government.

For the first time, college applicants could take the tests at home, the board said, and submit their answers online.

Now a group of students, their parents and FairTest, a nonprofit critical of standardized testing, have sued the College Board and its partner in administering the exams, the Educational Testing Service, saying that technical problems prevented them from submitting answers, and that when they complained, they were told they would have to take makeup exams.

“Students are entitled to the valid and reliable exam they signed up and paid for, absent the severe stress and anxiety associated with the new format,” said the complaint, filed Tuesday in federal court in Los Angeles.

In an email on Wednesday, the College Board said that nearly three million A.P. exams had been given over the last 10 days, and that only a small fraction of the students who took them during the first few days — perhaps 1 percent — had run into problems. It called the lawsuit a “P.R. stunt masquerading as a legal complaint.”

The lawsuit disputes the 1 percent figure, saying that schools have reported that the failure rate for students trying to submit their answers was more like 5 to 20 percent, and as high as 30 percent. It claims breach of contract and negligence, among other accusations, and asks for restitution and damages.

The lawsuit said that after vigorously defending the way the test was being administered for a week, the College Board finally acknowledged that there was a problem. On Monday, the board began providing a backup email option for students who could not submit their answers, but the fix was not retroactive.

It is unclear whether Mr. Trump has discussed the idea with other Group of 7 leaders and how willing they would be to travel abroad with the large staff and security entourages they require.

The French government said that President Emmanuel Macron was “prepared to go to Camp David, health conditions permitting,” given the importance of the group in the pandemic response.

Keep up with global coverage.

A cyclone was bearing down on India and Bangladesh, disrupting responses to the virus. Taiwan’s president began a new term with high approval ratings for her handling of the pandemic.

Aching neck? Sore back? We can help.

If you have been working from home for many weeks now, your body may be feeling the effects of a not-so-ideal setup. The good news: It doesn’t take much to fix your situation. Here are some stretches and simple work-from-home tricks that can help.

Reporting was contributed by Reed Abelson, Mike Baker, Karen Barrow, Katie Benner, Alan Blinder, Nicholas Bogel-Burroughs, Ben Casselman, Emily Cochrane, Michael Cooper, Nick Corasaniti, Michael Crowley, Elizabeth Dias, Caitlin Dickerson, Reid J. Epstein, Sheri Fink, Neil Genzlinger, Thomas Gibbons-Neff, James Glanz, Michael Gold, Max Horberry, Anemona Hartocollis, Shawn Hubler, Annie Karni, Dan Levin, Sarah Mervosh, Andy Newman, Sarah Maslin Nir, Jan Ransom, Campbell Robertson, Anna Schaverien, Knvul Sheikh, Kaly Soto, Chris Stanford, Sheryl Gay Stolberg, Eileen Sullivan, Vanessa Swales, Hiroko Tabuchi, Jim Tankersley, Daniel Victor, David Waldstein, Noah Weiland and Carl Zimmer.


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