Will Social Distancing Last Through the Summer?

News Picture: Birx Says Social Distancing to Last Through Summer as States Start to Ease RestrictionsBy Robin Foster and E.J. Mundell
HealthDay Reporters

MONDAY, April 27, 2020 -- With states across America beginning to relax stay-at-home orders, White House coronavirus task force coordinator Dr. Deborah Birx reiterated on Sunday that some form of social distancing will still be necessary through the summer.

In an interview on Meet the Press, she stressed that "social distancing will be with us through the summer to really ensure that we protect one another as we move through these [reopening] phases."

A heat wave that blanketed southern California this weekend highlighted the challenges that governors and mayors will face in trying to sustain social distancing efforts in warm weather.

Despite pleas from public officials to stay home, tens of thousands of people flocked to beaches that were open in Orange County on Saturday, The New York Times reported.

On Monday, the number of U.S. coronavirus cases surged past 965,000 and the death toll neared 55,000, the Associated Press reported.

States vary in respect to stay-at-home orders. Governors in hard-hit New York and Michigan are keeping such orders in place until at least mid-May, while their counterparts in Georgia, Oklahoma and Alaska have already allowed certain businesses to reopen, the Associated Press reported.

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

Several states to reopen

Another round of reopenings is set for Monday, when limited in-restaurant dining can resume and movie theaters may open their doors in Georgia. All the businesses have to adhere to restrictions including separating workers and enhanced sanitation, the AP reported.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

Phased-in reopenings

Talk of potentially reopening America came after Trump announced new federal guidelines earlier this month.

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.

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.

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.

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.

Cuomo has 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.

On Sunday, Cuomo said that construction and manufacturing businesses outside of the New York City region might be able to reopen after May 15, when the state's stay-at-home order expires, the Post reported.

Meanwhile, Massachusetts has become a coronavirus hot spot, as the state's death toll more than doubled in the past week, hitting 2,899 on Monday 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 Monday morning are: New York with more than 288,000 cases; New Jersey with more than 109,000; Massachusetts with nearly 55,000; Illinois with 43,903 and California with 43,691.

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."

China, Europe start to see some relief

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.

Elsewhere in the world, the situation remains grim. In Europe, Spain reported 23,190 deaths by Monday, despite signs the infection rate is slowing, the Johns Hopkins University tally showed. Deaths in Italy also remain high at 26,644, although numbers have leveled off there as well. Both countries are cautiously reopening their economies.

After seven weeks in lockdown to contain one of the world's worst outbreaks of COVID-19, Italians are regaining some freedoms.

In a televised address Sunday night, Premier Giuseppe Conte said that starting May 4, public parks and gardens will re-open and people will be able to visit relatives who live in the same region, the AP reported.

Funerals will also be allowed, and athletes can resume training. If all goes well, stores and museums will reopen May 18, and restaurants, cafes and salons can do so on June 1, Conte said.

However, he added that citizens must practice social distancing. In the case of parks, mayors can impose crowd limits. During family visits, people will have to wear masks and can't hold parties. If people don't follow the new measures, Conte says "the curve of contagion can rise again, it will go out of control, deaths will climb and we'll have irreparable damage" to the economy.

In Spain, Prime Minister Pedro Sanchez was to present a detailed plan on Tuesday for the "de-escalation" of his country's lockdown, but said it would be cautious. His French and Greek counterparts were also unveiling their reopening plans Tuesday, the AP reported.

Spain's easing of restrictions kicked off Sunday as children under the age of 14 were allowed to leave the confines of their home for the first time in six weeks, the wire service reported.

The story in Africa is accelerating: 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 neared 3 million on Monday, with over 206,800 deaths, according to the Hopkins tally.

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References
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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