U.S. Coronavirus Hospitalizations Spiking in South, West

FRIDAY, July 3, 2020 (HealthDay News) -- As the daily toll of new coronavirus cases in the United States broke yet another record and topped 55,000 on Thursday, COVID-19 hospitalizations were also climbing across the South and West.

Mississippi, Tennessee, Texas, Nevada and Arizona all set records for hospitalizations on Thursday, a sobering harbinger of what is yet to come, the Washington Post reported.

The virus appears to be spreading wildly in Arizona, as hospitals 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.

Preparing for the worst, state officials this week activated crisis protocols, which determine for hospitals which patients get ventilators and care as the system becomes overwhelmed under the crush of patients, the Post reported.

"You look at what happened in Lombardy, Italy. What happened in New York. That's what is about to happen here. People are going to die because our system is overwhelmed," said Will Humble, who directed Arizona's Department of Health Services for six years under its previous Republican governor. "It's important for other states to learn from us. This wasn't bad luck. It was avoidable. Don't let this happen to you. You look back at the past few months and we're an example of what not to do."

The rapidly rising infection counts continued to thwart reopening plans: On Thursday, Texas Gov. Greg Abbott mandated the wearing of face masks in public, a sharp reversal from his stance on masks when reopening in early May. On Wednesday, California shut down bars and halted indoor dining at restaurants in much of the state, while New York City decided not to let its restaurants resume indoor service next week.

On Thursday, Florida reported 10,109 new cases, marking a new single-day record for the state. It was the 25th consecutive day that Florida has set a record high in its seven-day rolling average, the Post reported.

Gov. Ron DeSantis acknowledged that perhaps Floridians had been a bit too lax in recent weeks.

"I think the end of May, beginning of June, coronavirus kind of fell off the headlines a little bit and people said, 'Hey, it seems good.' And I think that some of the behaviors that have been preached, I think some of that eroded a little bit," DeSantis said.

In some states, COVID-19 death counts are also rising: Arizona reported a record number of coronavirus-related deaths Wednesday as intensive care units approached 90% capacity, the Post reported.

"There's a lag between confirmed case and hospitalization, and between hospitalization and death. So, you look at the numbers and you can see how hospital capacity could quickly become strained in coming weeks," Saskia Popescu, an epidemiologist at the University of Arizona, told the Post.

As cases skyrocket, 'pooled' testing strategy put on the table

Things could get even worse.

The nation's top infectious disease expert warned that daily case counts could soon top 100,000 a day if the spread of COVID-19 isn't slowed.

"I can't make an accurate prediction, but it is going to be very disturbing, I will guarantee you that, because when you have an outbreak in one part of the country, even though in other parts of the country they are doing well, they are vulnerable," Dr. Anthony Fauci said during a Senate committee hearing on Tuesday.

"We've really got to do something about that, and we need to do it quickly," Fauci testified during questioning on Tuesday from Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.). "Clearly, we are not in total control right now."

One new strategy that U.S. health officials plan to adopt is "pooled" coronavirus testing, The New York 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 now mandate quarantines for travelers coming from states that are experiencing large spikes in new cases, the Times said.

By Friday, the U.S. coronavirus case count sailed passed 2.7 million as the death toll eclipsed 128,800, according to a Times tally.

According to the same tally, the top five states in coronavirus cases as of Friday were: New York with over 399,000; California with over 248,000; Texas with over 182,000; New Jersey with more than 174,200; and Florida with over 169,000.

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, who directs the U.S. National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, 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 manufacturers cited increased demand as a reason for their shortages.

Meanwhile, the search for an effective vaccine continues. The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) has 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.

The fourth, and largest, vaccine 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. Officials in New Delhi plan to test all of the city's 29 million residents in the next week, as the number of coronavirus cases passed 625,500 on Friday and pushed many hospitals to their breaking point, the Times reported.

Brazil has also become a hotspot in the coronavirus pandemic, with well over 1.4 million confirmed infections by Friday, according to the Hopkins tally.

Cases are also spiking wildly in Russia: As of Friday, that country reported the world's third-highest number of COVID-19 cases, at nearly 667,000, the Hopkins tally showed.

Worldwide, the number of reported infections neared 10.9 million on Friday, with more than 521,600 deaths, according to the Hopkins tally.

More information

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

SOURCES: Associated Press; The New York Times; Washington Post

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