Virus hot spots flare, hospitals tested as economies reopen
The Associated Press
Fresh coronavirus outbreaks are testing public health networks and the resolve of planners to reopen from pandemic shutdowns.
Japan pushed ahead with relaxing its state of emergency in most regions on May 15, not including Tokyo, Osaka and a few other districts. In the Philippines, fears of spreading the virus complicated efforts to evacuate tens of thousands of people ahead of a typhoon that swept through overnight without causing major damage.
There was good news from China, where the virus first appeared and where no deaths have been reported in a month. The country confirmed four new cases linked to previous ones in Jilin, in the northeast.
Increasingly opening up from widespread shutdowns in February and March, China has maintained social distancing precautions and bans on foreigners entering the country. Its leaders have signaled their confidence with plans to hold the annual session of the communist-ruled country's ceremonial legislature later this month.
Elsewhere, the trends were more troubling.
Mexico reported its largest one-day rise so far in coronavirus cases, with 2,409 confirmed, as health officials said the country was facing "the most difficult'' moment in the pandemic. It was the first time in Mexico that the number of new cases has exceeded 2,000 in one day. The country has recorded 4,477 deaths.
The increase in cases on May 14 came just four days before key industries such as mining, construction and auto assembly were due to reopen.
Colombian President Ivan Duque has ordered all residents of the Amazonas Department, near the border with Brazil, to stay inside except to buy food or get medical care. Local hospitals are being overwhelmed as cases rise in a vulnerable part of the Amazon, home to many indigenous groups.
"The Amazon rainforest needs your help,'' teenage climate activist Greta Thunberg said in an online video seeking assistance for Manaus, Brazil's biggest city in the vast region. According to official data, 809 people have died so far in Manaus and 9,410 have contracted the virus. But experts and people on the ground say the numbers are likely to be much higher and that people are dying at home, often buried in mass graves without having been tested and not making it into the official count.
In the U.S., protests and debate persist over how quickly to end shutdowns.
Two weeks into a reopening in Texas, where stay-at-home orders expired May 1, single-day highs of 58 deaths and 1,458 new cases were reported on May 14. With more restrictions due to end on May 18, including reopening gyms, confrontations were brewing between big cities trying to keep some precautions in place and state officials who want to push ahead.
In Virginia, two cities were asking Gov. Ralph Northam to delay the reopening planned for May 15, saying it's still too soon to ease restrictions. Kansas' Democratic Gov. Laura Kelly tapped the brakes on reopening her state's economy, ordering bars and bowling alleys to stay closed through the end of the month instead of reopening on May 15. She's also keeping some coronavirus-inspired restrictions in place until near the end of June.
A key factor behind the fits-and-starts reopenings is pressure on overtaxed health systems facing crushing patient loads and struggling to obtain vital supplies of masks and other protective gear.
The head of a hospital system in Maryland's Prince George's County, a majority black community bordering Washington, D.C., said the area's intensive care units "are bursting at the seams.''
"I would say we are the epicenter of the epicenter,'' said Dr. Joseph Wright, interim CEO of University of Maryland Capital Region Health. He said the three emergency departments his medical system operates are steadily seeing upward of 70 new COVID-19 confirmed and suspected patients every day.
"We are certainly still very much in a very busy phase of this surge,'' Wright said.
Maryland Gov. Larry Hogan has announced the first stage of reopening beginning on May 15 evening, but Prince George's County Executive Angela Alsobrooks said a local order would extend through June 1.
A hospital in Gallup, New Mexico, is on the front lines of a grinding outbreak on the Navajo Nation that recently prompted a 10-day lockdown with police setting up roadblocks to discourage non-emergency shopping.
Medical workers last week staged a protest over inadequate staffing and to urge the CEO of Rehoboth McKinley Christian Hospital to resign. The departure last week of the hospital's lung specialist has limited its ability to treat COVID-19 patients, as people with acute respiratory symptoms are transported to Albuquerque, some two hours away. About 17 nurses were cut from the hospital's workforce in March, at least 32 workers have tested positive for the virus and its intensive care unit is at capacity.
"My staff is physically exhausted, emotionally exhausted and they are suffering from moral injury,'' chief nursing officer Felicia Adams said.
Meanwhile, in Washington, Rick Bright, a vaccine expert who alleges he was ousted from a high-level scientific post after warning the Trump administration to prepare for the pandemic, told a congressional panel that the U.S. lacks a plan to produce and fairly distribute a coronavirus vaccine when it becomes available.
Asked by lawmakers if Congress should be worried, Bright, who wore a protective mask while testifying, responded: "Absolutely.''
President Donald Trump dismissed Bright in a tweet on May 14 as "a disgruntled employee.'' The White House has launched what it calls "Operation Warp Speed'' to produce, distribute and administer a vaccine once it becomes available.
With more than 1.4 million infections and nearly 85,000 deaths, the U.S. has the largest outbreak in the world by far, according to a tally by Johns Hopkins University. Worldwide, the virus has infected more than 4.4 million and killed over 300,000. Experts say the actual numbers are likely far higher.
As restaurants reopen, some with plastic sheeting between customers and wait staff and most with masks for servers and other social distancing precautions, one famous restaurant plans to makes its ambiance more convivial by planting mannequins in its grand dining room.
The mannequins dressed in fine 1940's-style attire already have taken their seats at The Inn at Little Washington, tucked in the foothills of the Blue Ridge Mountains about 90 minutes from the nation's capital.
Virginia restaurants can still only serve dine-in customers outdoors, and the three-Michelin-star restaurant has opted to wait until May 29 to resume indoors dining service.
"We're all craving to gather and see other people right now,'' Patrick O'Connell, chef and proprietor of the restaurant said. "They don't all necessarily need to be real people.''