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As exit talks begin, experts warn crisis far from over

Updated April 8, 2020 - 9:53 am

NEW YORK — Even as coronavirus deaths mount across Europe, New York and other hot spots, the U.S. and other governments are beginning to envision an exit strategy and contemplating a staggered and carefully calibrated relaxation of the restrictions designed to curb the scourge.

“To end the confinement, we’re not going to go from black to white; we’re going to go from black to gray,” top French epidemiologist Jean-François Delfraissy said in a radio interview.

At the same time, politicians and health officials emphatically warn that while deaths, hospitalizations and new infections may be leveling off in places like Italy and Spain, and even New York has seen encouraging signs amid the gloom, the crisis is far from over, and a catastrophic second wave could hit if countries let their guard down too soon.

“We are flattening the curve because we are rigorous about social distancing,” New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo said. “But it’s not a time to be complacent. It’s not a time to do anything different than we’ve been doing.”

In a sharp reminder of the danger, New York state on Wednesday recorded its highest one-day increase in deaths, 779, for an overall death toll of almost 6,300.

“The bad news is actually terrible,” Cuomo lamented. Still, the governor said that hospitalizations are decreasing and that many of those now dying fell ill in the outbreak’s earlier stages.

NYC tops 4K deaths

New York City’s death toll from the coronavirus rose past 4,000 on Tuesday, eclipsing the number killed at the World Trade Center on 9/11. In Britain, Prime Minister Boris Johnson lay in intensive care, believed to be the first major world leader hospitalized with the virus.

The twin developments came even as the crisis seemed to be easing or at least stabilizing, by some measures, in New York and parts of Europe, though health officials warned people at nearly every turn not to let their guard down. After 76 days, China finally lifted the lockdown on Wuhan, the city of 11 million where the outbreak began.

COVID-19’s toll in New York City is now more than 1,000 deaths higher than that of the deadliest terror attack on U.S. soil, which killed 2,753 people in the city and 2,977 overall, when hijacked planes slammed into the twin towers, the Pentagon and a Pennsylvania field on Sept. 11, 2001.

New York state recorded 731 new coronavirus deaths, its biggest one-day jump yet, for a statewide toll of nearly 5,500, Cuomo said.

“A lot of pain again today for many New Yorkers,” he said.

But in an encouraging sign, the governor said hospital admissions and the number of those receiving breathing tubes are dropping, indicating that social distancing measures are succeeding.

And alarming as the one-day increase in deaths might sound, the governor said that’s a “lagging indicator,” reflecting people who had been hospitalized before this week. Over the past several days, in fact, the number of deaths in New York appeared to be leveling off.

“You see that plateauing — that’s because of what we are doing. If we don’t do what we are doing, that is a much different curve,” Cuomo said. “So social distancing is working.”

Across the U.S., the death toll neared 13,000, with close to 400,000 confirmed infections. Some of the deadliest hot spots were Detroit, New Orleans and the New York metropolitan area, which includes parts of Long Island, New Jersey and Connecticut. New Jersey recorded over 1,200 dead, most of them in the northern counties where many residents commute into New York City.

UK’s Johnson improving

Britain’s Treasury chief says Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s condition is improving in the intensive care unit of a London hospital.

Rishi Sunak says Johnson has been sitting up in bed and engaging with his doctors at St. Thomas’ Hospital.

Johnson was admitted to the hospital on Sunday, 10 days after being diagnosed with COVID-19. He was transferred to the ICU on Monday when his condition deteriorated.

The British government imposed a lockdown on March 23, initially for three weeks. That period ends next week, and while the government says there will be a review, there is little chance of the measures being eased.

The number of cases and deaths is still rising, and the U.K. reported its biggest daily increase Wednesday to take the death toll to more than 7,000.

Navy carrier has 286 positive cases

The Navy says the number of sailors on the aircraft carrier USS Theodore Roosevelt testing positive for the coronavirus had increased to 286.

The number has been steadily growing since the ship docked in Guam after an outbreak of the virus was discovered.

The Navy said nearly all of the crew has been tested for the virus. But they are still awaiting the results of some of the tests. Crew members who test negative are being sent ashore for quarantine.

First lady releases video

Melania Trump released a brief video message of appreciation directed to the medical personnel and other front-line responders fighting the virus in the United States.

“It is because of you that the people of America are receiving the care and treatment they need,” the first lady says in the video, which was recorded as she stood outside on a White House balcony.

“We stand united with you and we salute your courageous and compassionate efforts. Our prayers are with all who are fighting this invisible enemy, COVID-19.”

No evidence yet about warm weather helping

Scientific advisers are telling the White House there’s no good evidence yet that the warmer temperatures and higher humidity of spring and summer will really help tamp down the new coronavirus without continued public health measures.

Researchers convened by the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering and Medicine analyzed studies done so far to test virus survival under different laboratory conditions as well as tracking where and how COVID-19 has spread.

“Given that countries currently in ‘summer’ climates, such as Australia and Iran, are experiencing rapid virus spread, a decrease in cases with increases in humidity and temperature elsewhere should not be assumed,” the researchers wrote in response to questions from the White House Office of Science and Technology.

They noted that during 10 previous flu pandemics, regardless of what season they started, all had a peak second wave about six months after the virus first emerged.

Pope warns pandemic profiteers

Pope Francis is denouncing the mafia and all those who are taking advantage of the coronavirus pandemic to make money.

Francis opened his morning Mass on Wednesday by praying that “all those who profit off the needs of others, and sell them” experience spiritual conversion.

In his remarks, Francis said everyone has a “little Judas inside of us” who makes a choice between loyalty to others or self-interest. He said: “Each one of us has the capacity to betray, to sell others, to choose our own interests.”

Speaking of mobsters and money lenders, he said: “May the Lord touch their hearts and convert them.”

Italian officials have warned that organized crime groups are maneuvering to profit off the social and economic disruptions caused by Italy’s virus-induced nationwide shutdown.  

DC-Baltimore outbreak a concern

Pick-up basketball games. Crowds gathering at an outdoor fish market. Family hikes along trails in Rock Creek Park. The warmer weather is bringing violations of social distance guidelines in the nation’s capital, even as health officials predict the city could become one of the next U.S. hot spots in the coronavirus pandemic.

More than 1,200 people have tested positive, with 22 deaths, in Washington. But national and local health officials predict that the worst is yet to come.

Last week, Mayor Muriel Bowser announced that models predict the virus would peak in the District of Columbia in May or June and would result in nearly 1 in 7 Washington residents infected by the end of the year and a high-end death toll over 1,000.

“We are concerned that the next wave … that D.C. could be in the second wave,” Bowser said. “We want the message to get in everybody’s head — that we see a level of infection in our city that if we aren’t strict in our social distancing, the community spread will continue and we will have more people succumb to illness and perhaps death.”

Dr. Deborah Birx, coordinator of the White House coronavirus task force, has repeatedly mentioned the District of Columbia as a potential looming hot spot, along with Chicago, Detroit, Colorado and Pennsylvania. Birx said national health officials have “developing concerns” about the capital, noting that Washington appears to be in the early stages of a now-familiar pattern: a steady daily rise in reported infections that precedes a massive spike that overloads local health systems.

“We are concerned about the metro area of Washington and Baltimore,” Birx said Wednesday on ABC’s “Good Morning America.”

Toyko cases surge

Gov. Yuriko Koike say the Japanese capital has a record 144 new confirmed cases of the coronavirus, bringing the total to 1,339 on Wednesday, one day after a state of emergency was declared in the region.

Prime Minister Shinzo Abe declared a month-long state of emergency in Tokyo and six other hard-hit prefectures to bolster the fight against the coronavirus. Abe said he was expecting widespread compliance despite the lack of legal penalties for violating social distancing and other measures.

However, on Wednesday rush hour trains were still crowded and shops were open as usual. That concerned Koike, who said via internet live streaming that “Asking for the residents to use self-restraint and stay home is not enough. We should restrict use of cluster-causing facilities.”

She has repeatedly said hostess bars, karaoke and other nighttime entertainment spots are main sources of infections, urging the residents to stay away.

Japan has 4,257 confirmed cases and 92 deaths.

757 new deaths in Spain

Spain’s Health Ministry reported Wednesday 757 new deaths of patients with coronavirus and 6,180 new confirmed infections.

Both figures were slightly higher than Tuesday’s, when the first increase in five days was explained by a backlog of test results and fatalities that had gone unreported over the weekend.

But doubts about the statistics are being heard louder as fresh data starts to emerge.

Authorities have already acknowledged that a scarcity of testing kits and a bottleneck in the number of tests that laboratories can conduct on a daily basis are giving an underestimated contagion tally, which rose to 146,000 on Wednesday. A nationwide survey of 30,000 households has been launched to figure out what is the more approximate extent of the epidemic beyond hospitals and nursing homes.

Health Minister Salvador Illa said Tuesday that his department can only account for those who die and were tested. There have been few instances of post-mortem testing.

To rein in the data divide, Spain’s Justice Ministry issued an order on Wednesday requiring more than 4,000 civil registries across the country to provide new and revised data.

Some African leaders critical of Trump’s WHO remarks

Some African leaders are bristling at President Donald Trump’s attack on the WHO chief, especially after Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus spoke up this week against “racist” comments by two French doctors who said a coronavirus vaccine could be tested in Africa.

Tedros condemned the remarks as leftovers of a “colonial mentality.” Tedros is from Ethiopia and is the first African to lead the World Health Organization.

“Surprised to learn of a campaign by the U.S. govt against WHO’s global leadership. The African Union fully supports WHO and Dr. Tedros,” the chair of the AU Commission, Moussa Faki Mahamat, tweeted.

“I agree with you, my brother. WHO, under the stewardship of Dr. Tedros, has shown itself to be a true flag-bearer of multilateralism when global solidarity has become critical,” Namibia’s President Hage Geingob responded in a tweet.

Warning about new surge of cases

The head of the World Health Organization’s Europe office says a trend of decline in the rate of increase in new coronavirus cases does not mean it’s time to relax measures aimed to stop its spread.

Dr. Hans Kluge, WHO’s regional director for Europe, also said some countries “are experiencing a rapid increase in cases or a fresh surge,” and called for continued vigilance. He noted measures taken in many countries to shut schools and businesses.

“We still have a long way to go in the marathon and the progress we have made so far in fighting the virus is extremely fragile,” he said. “To think we are coming close to an endpoint would be a dangerous thing to do. The virus leaves no room for error or complacency.”

He said countries that any prospect of easing lockdowns or physical distancing measures “requires very careful consideration,” such as by considering if health systems are prepared.

“Many of us are looking forward to celebrating Easter with better weather but this is not the time to lower our guard,” Kluge told a video news conference from Copenhagen. “We must soldier on.”

Possible outbreak on French carrier

France’s defense ministry announced that French aircraft carrier Charles de Gaulle is heading back to port amid a possible virus outbreak onboard.

The ministry said in a statement Wednesday that around 40 troops are presenting symptoms compatible with the COVID-19 disease. They have been placed under strict medical observation.

A medical team equipped with tests will get onboard Wednesday in order to confirm the potential cases and prevent the virus from further spreading, the ministry said.

The aircraft carrier, which was on a mission in the Atlantic Ocean, is returning immediately to its base in the port of Toulon, on the Mediterranean coast, where it was initially expected to dock on April 23. Its crew is composed of about 1,900 troops.

The announcement comes after a coronavirus outbreak hit U.S. aircraft carrier USS Theodore Roosevelt, now at port in Guam. As of Tuesday, the U.S. Navy said at least 230 crew had been tested positive. The firing last week of the Roosevelt’s captain created a combustible controversy in the country.

Benefit from US-China cooperation

China says the struggle against the global coronavirus pandemic provides a “platform for China-U.S. cooperation,” despite sniping between the sides over blame and responsibility.

Citing recent comments between Chinese leader Xi Jinping and President Donald Trump, Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Zhao Lijian told reporters at a briefing Wednesday that the sides would “benefit from cooperation and stand to lose from conflict, and cooperation is the only correct choice.”

Some in Congress are calling for China to be held accountable for initially covering up the outbreak, an accusation Beijing strongly denies despite growing evidence. Anticipating a backlash, China’s official Xinhua News Agency has suggested Beijing could retaliate against the U.S. by banning the export of medical products that would leave the U.S. stuck in the “ocean of viruses.”

Zhao drew attention last month when he suggested without evidence that the U.S. military transported the virus to Wuhan or that the virus was released from a U.S. lab.

“It might be US army who brought the epidemic to Wuhan. Be transparent! Make public your data! US owe us an explanation!” Zhao tweeted March 12.

Asked about the tweet on Tuesday, Zhao said it had been “a response to the stigmatization some US politicians made against China previously, and it also reflected the indignation of many Chinese people about these practices.”

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