By Robin Foster and E.J. Mundell
SATURDAY, March 21, 2020 (HealthDay News) — Governors in a total of five states — California, Connecticut, Illinois, New Jersey and New York — have now advised residents to stay at home indefinitely as of Saturday, meaning that about one in every four Americans now lives under such “shelter in place” orders.
“I don’t come to this decision easily,” Illinois governor J.B Pritzker told residents in a Friday news briefing. “I fully recognize that in some cases, I am choosing between saving people’s lives and saving people’s livelihoods. But ultimately you can’t have a livelihood if you don’t have your life.”
Meanwhile, the federal government warned Americans to avoid international travel and, if they are already abroad, to return home before flights into the United States become unavailable.
And as national coronavirus cases climbed past 18,000, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said during a White House briefing on Friday that the borders with Canada and Mexico will be closed to everyone but essential travelers, beginning at midnight on Saturday.
“We’re going to close the valve, because the rate of increase in the number of cases portends a total overwhelming of our hospital system,” New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo said as cases in that state climbed to more than 8,300, The New York Times reported.
California, which issued its stay at home order Thursday night, will remain that way until “further notice,” the governor’s office said. Residents of San Francisco and Los Angeles were issued similar orders earlier this week. The state has had at least 1,000 coronavirus cases and 19 deaths, CNN reported.
“There’s a social contract here. People I think recognize the need to do more and to meet this moment,” Gov. Gavin Newsom said in a news conference streamed on social media. “People will self-regulate their behavior, they’ll begin to adjust and adapt as they have been quite significantly.”
Hours earlier, the State Department raised its global health advisory to the highest warning level and announced that Americans should not travel outside the country and citizens abroad should either return home or stay in place as the coronavirus pandemic grows, the Times reported.
“If you choose to travel internationally, your travel plans may be severely disrupted, and you may be forced to remain outside of the United States for an indefinite time frame,” the advisory warned.
On Wednesday, President Donald Trump signed an $850 billion coronavirus relief package into law.
The package will provide sick leave, unemployment benefits and free coronavirus testing.
Even as the legislation became law, the drafting of a $1 trillion economic stabilization package is already underway. That package would send $500 billion in direct payments to taxpayers and provide loans to businesses, the Times reported.
Trump also invoked a wartime law on Wednesday that would allow the federal government to direct companies to produce medical supplies if needed.
As countries around the world wonder what is in store for their citizens in the coming months, one glimmer of hope emerged: For the second day since the coronavirus outbreak began, China on Friday reported no new local infections for the previous day, the Times reported.
The country of 1.4 billion is not out of the woods yet, since experts say there will have to be at least 14 consecutive days without new infections for the outbreak to be deemed over. Whether the virus will re-emerge once daily life returns to normal remains to be seen.
The good news in China stood in sharp relief to what is unfolding in Italy, as that European country passed China’s death total on Thursday, the Washington Post reported.
Italy reported a total of 3,405 deaths, the Post said, while the death toll in China is 3,245. The virus has been especially deadly for the European country’s large older population. The health care system has also been stretched to a breaking point, especially in northern Italy.
State, local officials continue shutdowns
Meanwhile, state and local officials across the country continued to order the temporary closings of bars and nightclubs and the placement of seating restrictions on restaurants.
On Monday, the Trump administration ramped up its coronavirus “social distancing” advisory to now discourage gatherings of 10 or more people.
For now, the federal government has recommended less drastic measures for the rest of the country.
“This afternoon we’re announcing new guidelines for every American to follow over the next 15 days,” Trump said during a Monday media briefing.
In addition to advising against group gatherings of more than 10 people, Trump also discouraged eating and drinking at restaurants, bars and food courts, and any discretionary travel.
The prior advisory had discouraged gatherings of 50 or more people. However, Dr. Deborah Birx, a virologist and coronavirus task force coordinator, explained that newer models of the virus’ spread now implicate people who might not even show symptoms as a significant source of “silent” infections.
A computer modeling report from researchers at Imperial College London that predicted 2 million American deaths unless stringent social distancing measures were enacted may have convinced U.S health officials to take the extraordinary step, the Times reported.
Progress on testing
According to Dr. Anthony Fauci, head of the U.S. National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, all Americans need to limit their contact with others to slow the rate of new infections.
“The worst is yet ahead for us,” Fauci warned, and the crisis could continue into the summer. “It’s how we respond [now] to that challenge that will determine what the ultimate endpoint is going to be.”
State officials across America had already begun to enact even tougher restrictions to try to slow the spread of coronavirus, as the country’s case count reached 18,000, with at least 200 deaths, CNN reported.
The president also said his administration is doubling down on testing for COVID-19. Experts, including Fauci, have already called the initial slow rollout of such tests a system failure.
Now, there’s “a new partnership with the private sector to vastly accelerate and test for the coronavirus,” Trump said last Friday.
Stores such as Walmart, CVS and Walgreens will set aside part of their parking lots for drive-through testing.
In a Friday news briefing, Birx said 170,000 Americans have already been tested for COVID-19. “I know that in general our positivity rate is between 9% and 11%,” Birx told CNN.
On Thursday, the U.S. Army prepared mobile military hospitals for deployment in major cities, and motorists waited in long lines for nurses to swab their nostrils at new U.S. drive-thru testing sites, the Associated Press reported.
In the meantime, the public lives of Americans have come to a halt, as the coronavirus pandemic has prompted officials across the country to close, cancel or postpone any event or activity that might foster the spread of COVID-19.
A majority of states have shuttered all public schools, Broadway has gone dark, Disney World and Disneyland were closed, March Madness was canceled, and most professional sports leagues postponed their seasons.
In New York state, Gov. Andrew Cuomo has turned a New York City suburb into a “containment zone.” Schools and houses of worship in the city of New Rochelle will be closed for two weeks. A cluster of more than 538 cases there could be the largest in the nation, and National Guard troops have been ordered to help clean public spaces and deliver food during the containment period, the AP reported.
New York, Washington state and California now have the highest number of coronavirus cases in the United States, the Times reported. New York has 8,300, Washington state has 1,524 cases and California has 1,006.
Meanwhile, officials in Florida closed several popular beaches in the state on Thursday, as young spring breakers ignored social distancing guidelines and partied with abandon on the sand. That state now has 658 cases, with 12 deaths.
As of Saturday, the World Health Organization had reported 234,000 cases of coronavirus in 168 countries and territories, including over 9,840 deaths.
Internationally, hopes of containing the coronavirus are fading fast.
In Asia, South Korea and Iran are each battling major outbreaks of COVID-19. In Europe, Italy has ordered a lockdown of the entire country, some 60 million people, as it tries to contain a major outbreak of COVID-19. By Friday morning, the case count in that country had passed 41,000, CNBC News reported.
On Thursday, Prime Minister Giuseppe Conte said the country’s lockdown will have to be extended past April 3, CNBC reported.
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SOURCES: March 16, 2020, media briefing with: President Donald Trump; March 9, 2020, media briefing with Vice President Mike Pence; U.S. Health and Human Services Secretary Alex Azar, Anthony Fauci, M.D., director, U.S. National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases; CNN; CNBC; Washington Post; Associated Press; The New York Times