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With Many States Reopening, Coronavirus Testing Levels Still Too Low, Experts Say

By
HealthDay Reporters

SUNDAY, May 3, 2020 (HealthDay News) -- A new analysis finds inadequate levels of testing for the coronavirus in 60% of states, many of which are actively reopening after weeks of lockdown.

The analysis, conducted by the Associated Press, uses a 2% testing rate per month -- a rate advised by federal officials that many public health experts still feel falls short.

In a recent White House briefing, officials said each state would receive enough testing materials to test 2.6% of their populations in both May and June. Representatives of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services also offered another number -- 2% -- without explaining the reason for the discrepancy between the two rates.

But according to the AP analysis, right now just 40% of states can even meet the lower 2% threshold for testing. The news agency's analysis is based on data on the average number of new daily tests conducted over the past seven days in a particular state. Data comes from the COVID Tracking Project and includes numbers up to April 30.

Many states that are either already actively reopening businesses or plan to soon -- Colorado, Florida, South Carolina, Texas and Georgia -- have not met the 2% testing threshold, the AP analysis finds.

Many health experts believe the 2% and 2.6% testing thresholds offered up by the government are insufficient to help monitor and curb coronavirus spread, and don't take into account current U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention guidelines on who should be tested.

"Why don't they say, 'We'll test everybody with any symptoms of coronavirus and all their contacts?'" Dr. James Curran, a former assistant U.S. surgeon general who worked at CDC for 25 years, told the AP. "If that amounts to 2% that's fine, but the guidelines are not to test 2%. The guidelines are to test who needs it."

Promise of remdesivir

U.S. coronavirus cases passed 1.1 million on Sunday as the death toll neared 66,500, according to The New York Times.

There was one note of good news: On Friday, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration approved emergency use of the first drug that seems to boost recovery among COVID-19 patients.

Remdesivir, Gilead Sciences' intravenous antiviral medication, is to be used for hospitalized patients with "severe disease," such as those who need supplemental oxygen or ventilators to breathe, the AP reported.

"This was lightning speed in terms of getting something approved," FDA Commissioner Stephen Hahn said during a media briefing Friday, calling the drug "an important clinical advance."

The agency based its decision on the results of a government study that showed remdesivir shortened the time to recovery by 31% for COVID-19 patients in the hospital, the AP reported.

Those given the drug were able to leave the hospital in 11 days, on average, versus 15 days for the comparison group. The drug may also help avoid deaths, but there is not yet enough evidence to prove that definitively, the AP reported.

That wasn't the only good news to come from the medical front of the coronavirus pandemic this week.

On Thursday, the White House announced an initiative that hopes to produce a COVID-19 vaccine that could be available nationwide by January.

President Donald Trump said it is not too optimistic to try to produce roughly 300 million doses of vaccine in eight months, enough for all Americans, the Washington Post reported.

A vaccine for all by January?

"No, I'm not overpromising. I don't know who said it, but whatever the maximum is, whatever you can humanly do, we're going to have. And we hope we're going to come up with a good vaccine," Trump said during a coronavirus task force briefing Thursday.

Even the shorter timeline still means there would be no full protection from the new coronavirus until after most Americans are likely to have returned to work or school.

Dubbed "Operation Warp Speed," the goal is to produce hundreds of millions of doses by January, Dr. Anthony Fauci, the nation's top infectious diseases expert, said Thursday.

"We want to go quickly, but we want to make sure it's safe and it's effective," he said on the "Today" show. "I think that is doable if things fall in the right place."

That's likely welcome news to the millions of businesses that have had to shut down or curtail operations during six weeks of stay-at-home orders, with 3.8 million Americans added to the nation's jobless rolls on Thursday. That brings the six-week total to more than 30 million newly unemployed, the Times reported.

Trump also signed an executive order earlier this week 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 AP 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.

To reopen or not 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.

New York remains the epicenter of the coronavirus outbreak in the United States, though deaths and hospitalizations continued to decline, CBS News reported. The Navy hospital ship Comfort left New York City's harbor this week after treating 182 patients during its 30-day mission.

In preparation for a reopening in the coming weeks, New York Governor Andrew Cuomo has announced the state will implement the "most aggressive" antibody testing program in the country, CBS News reported.

He 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.

According to a Times tally, the top five states in coronavirus cases as of Sunday are: New York with over 318,000 cases; New Jersey with nearly 124,000; Massachusetts with more than 66,000; Illinois with over 58,000; and California with more than 54,000.

Gov. Gavin Newsom announced the re-closure of beaches in Orange County on Friday. Crowds had formed on those beaches last weekend, stoking renewed fears of viral transmission.

"My job as governor is to keep you safe," Newsom said. "And when our health folks tell me they can't promise that if we promote another weekend like we had, then I have to make this adjustment."

However, Newsom sounded a positive note about the state's reopening plans on Friday, the Post reported.

"We said 'weeks, not months,' about four or five days ago," Newsom said during his daily briefing. "I want to say 'many days, not weeks.' As long as we continue to be prudent and thoughtful in certain modifications, I think we'll be making some announcements."

Countries around the world grapple with coronavirus

In Asia, where the coronavirus first struck, several countries are finally returning to a new normal.

Chinese health officials said this week that Wuhan, the original epicenter of the pandemic in China, has no coronavirus patients in its hospitals.

South Korea and Hong Kong also appear to have curbed coronavirus for now: This week, South Korea reported that for the first time since the virus' Feb. 29 peak, there were no new domestic cases and only four travel-related ones. The story was similar in Hong Kong, which reported no new cases for five straight days, the Times said. The city had a resurgence in infections in late March that prompted strict lockdowns on travel, social distancing measures and the widespread adoption of work-from-home policies, the newspaper said.

Elsewhere in the world, the situation remains challenging. After publishing new numbers that now include deaths outside of hospitals, the United Kingdom posted the third-highest coronavirus death toll in the world on Sunday, at 28,205, according to a Johns Hopkins University tally. Britain has now surpassed Spain and France for COVID-19 deaths in Europe, with only Italy still ahead at 28,710 deaths.

Spain reported over 25,000 COVID-19 deaths by Sunday, despite signs the infection rate is slowing there, the Hopkins tally showed. While deaths in Italy remain high, numbers have leveled off there as well. Both countries are cautiously reopening their economies.

Meanwhile, signs emerged that the virus has been all but vanquished in New Zealand and Australia.

Brazil looks like it could become the next hotspot in the coronavirus pandemic, however. By Sunday, the South American country had reported nearly 6,800 deaths and over 97,000 confirmed infections, according to the Hopkins tally. But the true numbers are believed to be vastly higher.

Russia was also struggling to contain the spread of coronavirus, as the case count in that country neared 135,000 on Sunday, the Hopkins tally showed. Moscow remains the most virus-stricken part of the country, but there are growing concerns that infections could surge in more remote regions with weaker health systems, the Post reported.

Worldwide, the number of reported infections neared 3.5 million on Sunday, with more than 244,000 deaths, according to the Hopkins tally.

More information

The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has more on the new coronavirus.

SOURCES: April 30, 2020, media briefing with President Donald Trump; Associated Press; The New York Times; Washington Post; CBS News

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