WEDNESDAY, July 8, 2020 (HealthDay News)-- The tally of U.S. coronavirus cases passed 3 million on Tuesday, even as President Donald Trump pushed for schools across the country to reopen in the fall.
The pressure to find a way to resume classes in person was put on governors, mayors and other local officials during a day of conference calls and public events at the White House, The New York Times reported.
"We hope that most schools are going to be open," Trump said Tuesday. "We are very much going to put pressure on governors and everybody else to open the schools to get them open."
In making the argument for a full reopening of schools, White House officials pointed to a recent report from the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) that advised school districts to do everything they can to bring students back to classrooms.
"Children get much more than an education at school," AAP President Sally Goza said during a meeting at the White House on Tuesday, the Washington Post reported. "Being away from peers, teachers and school services has lasting effects for children. Although this will not be easy, pediatricians strongly advocate that we start with the goal of having students physically present at school this fall."
Still, the United States has been averaging roughly 50,000 new cases a day this week -- double what it reported in mid-June, the Times reported.
Sun Belt surge
At the same time, hospitals across the Sun Belt continued to be flooded with COVID-19 patients.
Fifty-two intensive care units across more than a third of Florida's counties had reached capacity by Tuesday, according to data released by the state's Agency for Health Care Administration, the Washington Post reported. Another 17 hospitals had also run out of regular beds.
Arizona is also nearing capacity for ICU beds, as hospitals there rushed to expand capacity and adopted practices similar to those employed at the height of the outbreak in New York City and Italy, the Post reported. Those measures include doubling up hospital beds in rooms, pausing elective surgeries and bringing in health-care workers from other states.
States such as Alabama, California, Georgia, North Carolina, South Carolina and Texas report unprecedented numbers of hospitalizations, as well.
Despite the surge in new cases and hospitalizations, the number of deaths nationwide have stayed steady, the Post reported.
"What we're able to do is when people do get hospitalized and get into the ICU, we're able to save more lives with treatments like remdesivir, with steroids now, which has a big impact on mortality, and innovations in care like using blood thinners on patients and not intubating them as aggressively," Gottlieb explained.
But Dr. Anthony Fauci, the nation's top infectious disease expert, cautioned on Tuesday that it was a "false narrative to take comfort in a lower rate of death," the Times reported.
"There are so many other things that are very dangerous and bad about this virus," Fauci said. "Don't get yourself into false complacency."
Testing centers at capacity
If coronavirus testing centers across the country are any indication of how worried Americans are, hours-long lines are now being seen at many sites, according to the Post. In many cities, a combination of factors are stretching testing centers to their limits: a shortage of key supplies, backlogs at laboratories that perform the tests, and surging infection counts as cases climb in almost 40 states.
Forget any talk about a second wave of COVID-19 infections, because America is "still knee deep in the first wave," Fauci said Monday, the Post reported. Unlike Europe, "we never came down to baseline and now are surging back up," he explained.
Other public health experts have issued similar warnings.
"We're right back where we were at the peak of the epidemic during the New York outbreak," former U.S. Food and Drug Administration commissioner Scott Gottlieb said Sunday on CBS' "Face the Nation," the Post reported. "The difference now is that we really had one epicenter of spread when New York was going through its hardship, now we really have four major epicenters of spread: Los Angeles, cities in Texas, cities in Florida, and Arizona. And Florida looks to be in the worst shape."
Florida's total caseload passed 213,780 on Tuesday, a grim statistic only reached so far by three other states -- New York, California and Texas -- the Times reported.
Regardless, Walt Disney World in Orlando plans to reopen on Saturday, the Times reported. In the state, 7,347 new COVID-19 infections were reported on Tuesday, with 1,179 in the central part of the state, which includes Orlando, the newspaper said. Those numbers are among the highest in the country.
Parades, fireworks and most indoor shows at the park have been suspended, and there will be no hugs with costumed characters, park officials said. Fingerprint scanners will not be used at park entrances, they added.
"COVID is here," said Josh D'Amaro, Disney's theme park chairman. "We have a responsibility to figure out the best approach to safely operate in this new normal."
As cases skyrocket, 'pooled' testing strategy tried
One new strategy that U.S. health officials plan to adopt is "pooled" coronavirus testing, the Times reported. The decades-old method would vastly increase the number of virus tests performed in the United States.
Instead of carefully rationing tests to only those with symptoms, pooled testing would allow frequent surveillance of asymptomatic people, the newspaper reported. Mass identification of coronavirus infections could hasten the reopening of schools, offices and factories.
With pooled testing, nasal or saliva swabs are taken from large groups of people. Setting aside part of each individual's sample, a lab then combines the rest into a batch holding five to 10 samples each. If a pooled sample yields a positive result, the lab would retest the reserved parts of each individual sample that went into the pool, pinpointing the infected person, according to the Times.
"We're in intensive discussions about how we're going to do it," Fauci told the Times. "We hope to get this off the ground as soon as possible."
A handful of states have actually brought the virus under control after being slammed in the early stages of the pandemic. Determined to keep case counts low, New York, Connecticut and New Jersey have said they will mandate quarantines for travelers coming from states that are experiencing large spikes in new cases, the Times said.
By Wednesday, the U.S. coronavirus case count passed 3 million as the death toll passed 131,000, according to a Times tally.
According to the same tally, the top five states in coronavirus cases as of Wednesday were: New York with nearly 403,000; California with over 287,700; Texas with more than 219, 000; Florida with nearly 214,000; and New Jersey with more than 175,700.
Vaccines and treatments
There has been some good news in recent weeks, however. Researchers at Oxford University in England announced that dexamethasone, a widely used, low-cost steroid, appears to cut the death rate for ventilated COVID-19 patients by one-third. It also lowered the death rate for patients who require oxygen (but are not yet on a ventilator) by one-fifth, the Times reported.
"Bottom line is, good news," Fauci told the Associated Press. "This is a significant improvement in the available therapeutic options that we have."
But at least three manufacturers of the drug have reported shortages, according to the American Society of Health-System Pharmacists, STAT News reported. Two of the companies cited increased demand as a reason for their shortages.
Meanwhile, the search for an effective vaccine continues.
The federal government will pay Novavax $1.6 billion to speed development of 100 million doses of a coronavirus vaccine by the beginning of next year, the Times reported Tuesday.
The deal is the largest that the Trump administration has made so far with a company as part of Operation Warp Speed, a federal effort to make coronavirus vaccines and treatments available to the American public as quickly as possible, the Times said.
The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) had already said that it would provide up to $1.2 billion to the drug company AstraZeneca to develop a potential coronavirus vaccine from Oxford University, in England.
That research agreement funds a clinical trial of the potential vaccine in the United States this summer with about 30,000 volunteers, the Times reported.
The goal? To make at least 300 million doses that could be available as early as October, the HHS said in a statement.
The United States has already agreed to provide up to $483 million to the biotech company Moderna and $500 million to Johnson & Johnson for their vaccine efforts. It is also providing $30 million to a virus vaccine effort led by the French company Sanofi, the Times reported. Moderna said a large clinical trial of its vaccine candidate could begin in July.
Nations grapple with pandemic
Elsewhere in the world, the situation remains challenging.
Even as the pandemic is easing in Europe and some parts of Asia, it is worsening in India. As officials in New Delhi worked to test all of the city's 29 million residents, the number of coronavirus cases passed 742,000 on Wednesday, making it the country with the third-highest number of COVID-19 cases and pushing many hospitals to their breaking point, the Times reported.
Brazil has also become a hotspot in the coronavirus pandemic, with well over 1.6 million confirmed infections by Wednesday, according to the Hopkins tally. It has the second-highest number of cases, behind only the United States.
Cases are also spiking wildly in Russia: As of Wednesday, that country reported the world's fourth-highest number of COVID-19 cases, at more than 699,000, the Hopkins tally showed.
Worldwide, the number of reported infections passed 11.8 million on Wednesday, with nearly 544,000 deaths, according to the Hopkins tally.
The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has more on the new coronavirus.
SOURCES: The New York Times; Washington Post; Associated Press; STAT News