WEDNESDAY, April 29, 2020 (HealthDay News) -- As the U.S. coronavirus case count climbed past 1 million and the death toll neared 60,000, President Donald Trump signed an executive order on Tuesday that forces beleaguered meat processing plants to stay open so the country's food supply isn't threatened.
The order used the Defense Production Act to classify meat processing as critical infrastructure, to try to keep chicken, pork and other meat flowing to supermarket coolers, the Associated Press reported.
More than 20 meatpacking plants have been shuttered under pressure from local authorities and their own workers because of the virus. Others have slowed production as workers have fallen ill or stayed home to avoid getting sick, the wire service said.
But unions representing workers in those plants quickly fired back at the order, saying the White House was prioritizing cold cuts over workers' health, the AP reported.
Meanwhile, a troubling study out of China found evidence that the novel coronavirus can spread through air.
That had been demonstrated in lab experiments, but now Chinese scientists say they captured tiny droplets containing genetic markers for the virus in real-world conditions, The New York Times reported.
"Those [droplets] are going to stay in the air floating around for at least two hours," said Linsey Marr, a professor of civil and environmental engineering at Virginia Tech who was not involved with the Chinese study. "It strongly suggests that there is potential for airborne transmission."
Still, the researchers stressed that because the droplets only contain tiny genetic traces of coronavirus, it's not certain they are capable of infection.
National guidance for reopening stresses testing
On Monday, Trump announced a "blueprint" for boosting testing capacity nationwide.
The national guidance says states must develop their own testing plans and rapid-response programs while the White House provides "strategic direction and technical assistance," and helps "align laboratory testing supplies and capacity with existing and anticipated laboratory needs," the Washington Post reported.
Admiral Brett Giroir, the assistant secretary for health, told CBS News that the Trump administration is prepared to send all 50 states enough tests to screen 2% of their population per month for the virus, roughly 6.6 million people.
By Sunday, the United States had conducted about 5.5 million tests, according to the Covid Tracking Project, which compiles those figures from individual states. But that number is only equivalent to about 1.7 % of the U.S. population, the Post reported.
In contrast, Germany increased testing earlier than the United States did and had tested 2.5% of its population by April 21, the newspaper reported.
States start to reopen
Social distancing orders remain a patchwork across the United States. Governors in hard-hit New York and Michigan are keeping stay-at-home orders in place until at least mid-May, while their counterparts in Georgia, Oklahoma and Alaska have already allowed certain businesses to reopen, the AP reported.
Georgia is moving the fastest to ease social distancing restrictions, while governors in Tennessee, Idaho and Missouri will launch their reopening plans soon, the Post 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 have some immunity to COVID-19, the Times reported. 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.
In the meantime, economic hardship from the coronavirus-linked lockdown continues. The U.S. House passed a $484 billion deal last week 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.
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. 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, an AP poll found Americans remain overwhelmingly in favor of stay-at-home orders and other efforts to slow the spread of the coronavirus.
The survey, released last week 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.
But even as case numbers keep rising, governors across America are crafting plans to start to ease social distancing in the coming weeks.
Reopenings to unfold in phases
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.
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.
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.
The state has started to contemplate a gradual reopening in some areas in May.
"We are turning the valves on reopening," Cuomo said in a briefing this week.
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, 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.
Cuomo also said the state's stay-at-home order will probably be extended past May 15 in many parts of the state, but restrictions could be eased in some places if there have enough hospital capacity and other criteria are met, CBS News reported.
According to a Times tally, the top five states in coronavirus cases as of Wednesday morning are: New York with more than 295,000 cases; New Jersey with more than 113,800; Massachusetts with more than 58,000; Illinois with more than 48,000 and California with 46,570.
At the same time, several other states have announced plans to reopen in the next week or two.
China, Europe start to see some relief
On a hopeful note, Chinese health officials said this week that Wuhan, the original epicenter of the pandemic in China, has no coronavirus patients in its hospitals.
Elsewhere in the world, the situation remains challenging. In Europe, Spain reported almost 24,000 deaths by Wednesday, despite signs the infection rate is slowing, the Johns Hopkins University tally showed. Deaths in Italy also remain high at more than 27,000, 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.
If all goes well, stores and museums will reopen May 18, and restaurants, cafes and salons can do so on June 1, Conte said.
In Spain, Prime Minister Pedro Sanchez presented a plan on Tuesday for the "de-escalation" of his country's lockdown, but said it would be cautious. His French and Greek counterparts also unveiled 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.
Signs emerged that the virus has been all but vanquished in New Zealand and Australia, while Brazil looks like it could become the next hotspot in the coronavirus pandemic, the AP reported.
By Wednesday, the country had reported more than 5,000 deaths and over 73,000 confirmed infections, according to a Johns Hopkins tally. But the true numbers are believed to be vastly higher.
Worldwide, the number of reported infections passed 3 million on Wednesday, with over 217,500 deaths, according to the Hopkins tally.
The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has more on the new coronavirus.