National Coronavirus Testing Strategy Announced as States Reopen

TUESDAY, April 28, 2020 (HealthDay News) — While health experts continued to call for a national strategy to test more Americans for coronavirus, President Donald Trump on Monday announced a “blueprint” for boosting testing capacity as some states began reopening their economies.

But 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.

Trump was joined at the media briefing by some major retailers who said they had ramped up both testing and the production of medical supplies. They predicted they would doubling both their rate of testing and the number of sites that would be available to the public in the next month.

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.

“Now there are big believers in testing, and then there are some governors that don’t feel as strongly about it at all, you understand, that they feel much differently about it, but we’re going with maximum testing because it’s something we’re very capable of doing but will be much more than doubled,” Trump said during the Monday briefing.

States start to reopen

On Tuesday, the number of U.S. coronavirus cases neared one million while the death toll was almost 56,000, the Post 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 Post reported.

Another round of reopenings went into effect on 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 New York Times reported last week. 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.

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 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.

Sixty-one % 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 last week 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.

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 Monday briefing.

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.

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.

Meanwhile, Massachusetts has become a coronavirus hot spot, as the state’s death toll more than doubled in the past week, passing 3,000 by Tuesday 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 Tuesday morning are: New York with more than 292,000 cases; New Jersey with more than 111,000; Massachusetts with more than 56,000; Illinois with 45,883 and California with 44,188.

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 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 challenging. In Europe, Spain reported 23,521 deaths by Tuesday, despite signs the infection rate is slowing, the Johns Hopkins University tally showed. Deaths in Italy also remain high at 26,977, 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.

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 Tuesday, the country had reported 4,600 deaths and 67,000 confirmed infections, the AP reported. But the true numbers are believed to be vastly higher.

The story in Africa is also 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 passed 3 million on Monday, with over 211,000 deaths, according to the Hopkins tally.

More information

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