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Health Highlights: March 19, 2020

Here are some of the latest health and medical news developments, compiled by the editors of HealthDay:

Antiviral Drug Combo Ineffective Against Coronavirus

An antiviral drug combination tested as a treatment for the coronavirus was ineffective, researchers say.

The study of Kaletra, a combination of the antiviral medicines lopinavir and ritonavir, included 199 adults, ages 48 to 68, in China who were hospitalized and severely ill, The New York Times reported.

"No benefit was observed," wrote the authors of the study in the New England Journal of Medicine.

The two antiviral drugs are normally used to treat HIV.

While the study results were disappointing, the researchers suggested that more studies might determine if the drugs would be effective if given at an earlier stage of the illness or in combination with other medicines, The Times reported.

There is no proven drug treatment for the new coronavirus. Several antiviral drugs have been considered possible treatments, but so far none have been shown to be effective.

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USDA to Appeal Judge's Ruling Halting Food Stamp Changes During Coronavirus Pandemic

A judge's decision that moving forward with food stamp changes during the coronavirus pandemic would be "arbitrary and capricious," is being appealed by the U.S. Agriculture Department.

Federal Judge Beryl Howell's ruling late last week halted changes that would have taken effect on April 1 and could force thousands of people from the program, the Associated Press reported.

"Especially now, as a global pandemic poses widespread health risks, guaranteeing that government officials at both the federal and state levels have flexibility to address the nutritional needs of residents and ensure their well-being through programs like SNAP, is essential," Howell wrote in her ruling.

On Wednesday, an Agriculture Department spokesperson told the AP in an email that the "USDA disagrees with the court's reasoning and will appeal its decision."

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U.S. Colleges Preparing Empty Dorms to House Coronavirus Patients

Some U.S. colleges are converting empty dorms into temporary housing for coronavirus patients.

That could prove crucial if hospitals nationwide are swamped with a surge of coronavirus cases that push them beyond their capacity, the Associated Press reported.

On Wednesday, Tufts University in Massachusetts said it's making hundreds of vacant dorm rooms available in coming weeks to help relieve "unprecedented stress" on the health care system.

The school's president called on other U.S. universities to do the same, saying they have a civic duty to help in times of crisis, the AP reported.

Middlebury College in Vermont is offering some of its buildings, and New York University is asking students who live near campus clear out their dorm rooms in case they're needed to house coronavirus patients.

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Supply Shortages Hinder Coronavirus Testing in U.S.

Shortages of face masks for health care workers, swabs and other supplies are hampering efforts to increase coronavirus testing in the United States.

Testing is crucial to identifying the spread of the coronavirus, but these shortages are affecting the ability of health care workers to collect samples and for laboratories to analyze the samples, the Washington Post reported.

The face mask shortage prompted the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention to suggest the use of bandannas, if necessary.

"In settings where face masks are not available, [health-care providers] might use homemade masks (e.g., bandana, scarf) for care of patients with COVID-19 as a last resort," the CDC said this week, the Post reported.

"Caution should be exercised when considering this option," the CDC added.

In response to mask shortages, some hospitals in Seattle and Washington, D.C., are asking doctors and patients to reuse masks instead of disposing of them as CDC protocol typically requires, even after contact with infected patients.

Staff at Rush University Medical Center in Chicago have started using washable lab goggles for eye protection, rather than throwing away face shields, the Post reported.

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Flu Drug Effective Against Coronavirus: Chinese Researchers

The flu drug favipiravir is "clearly effective" in treating coronavirus patients, Chinese researchers say.

Their trial of favipiravir included 340 coronavirus patients patients in China. Those who received the drug recovered quicker and showed greater lung improvement than those who didn't get the drug, the U.K.'s Daily Mail reported.

It's believed that favipiravir blocks the coronavirus from replicating in the body.

Favipiravir was effective in helping coronavirus patients recover, and caused no obvious side effects, Zhang Xinmin, an official at China's Science and Technology Ministry, said at a news conference Tuesday, the Daily Mail reported.

However, other clinical trials suggest favipiravir doesn't help coronavirus patients with more severe illness, the Daily Mail reported.

Favipiravir is the active ingredient in a Japanese flu drug called Avigan, but it's not known if that was the drug given to the Chinese patients.

Currently, there is no treatment for the coronavirus. Most people develop mild symptoms and recover at home within a week, the Daily Mail reported.

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U.S. May Not Have Enough Ventilators For Coronavirus Patients

There may not be enough ventilators in the United States to cope with the number of coronavirus patients who will require them due to pneumonia and other serious respiratory problems, experts say.

About 960,000 coronavirus patients may need to be put on ventilators at some point but the United States has only about 200,000 machines, according to the Society of Critical Care Medicine, the Associated Press reported.

The organization also said that about half of the ventilators are older models that may not be optimal for the most severely ill patients, and added that many ventilators are already in use by other patients with serious health conditions not associated with the coronavirus.

Ventilator manufacturers have boosted production, but it's not clear if that will meet the demand in the United States and other countries.

"The real issue is how to rapidly increase ventilator production when your need exceeds the supply," Dr. Lewis Kaplan, president of the critical care society, told the AP. "For that, I don't have a very good answer."

"If everyone in the country wants to order some, that will get rapidly depleted in a heartbeat," Kaplan added.

Another problem is the lack of health care workers to operate ventilators, according to the critical care society.

It said the United States has only enough respiratory therapists, specialist nurses and doctors with the proper training for about 135,000 patients to be put on ventilators at any one time, the AP reported.

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