Pressure on overtaxed health systems facing crushing patient loads and struggling to obtain vital supplies of masks and other protective gear
FRESH coronavirus outbreaks are testing public health networks and the resolve of planners to reopen from pandemic shutdowns.
A first case was confirmed among the one million refugees from Myanmar living in dire, overcrowded conditions in southern Bangladesh. Another, a local person living in the Cox’s Bazaar district, also tested positive, refugee commissioner Mahbub Alam Takukder said.
Teams were activated to treat patients and trace, quarantine and test people they may have encountered, Louise Donovan, a spokeswoman for the UN refugee agency, told The Associated Press.
Aid workers have been warning of the potential for a serious outbreak if the virus reached the camps.
Meanwhile, Japan pushed ahead with relaxing its state of emergency in most regions on Friday, 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 north-east.
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 signalled 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 Thursday 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, where 809 people have died and 9 410 have contracted the virus. The numbers are thought to be much higher, experts and local people said, with patients dying at home and often buried in mass graves without having been tested.
In the US, protests and debate persist over how quickly to end shutdowns.
Two weeks into a reopening in Texas, where stay-at-home orders expired on May 1, single-day highs of 58 deaths and 1 458 new cases were reported on Thursday. With more restrictions due to end on Monday, 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 asked Governor Ralph Northam to delay a reopening planned for Friday, saying it’s too early. Kansas’ Democratic Governor Laura Kelly tapped the brakes on reopening her state’s economy, ordering bars and bowling alleys to stay closed until June instead of reopening on Monday. She’s also keeping some coronavirus-inspired restrictions in place until late 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, DC, said the area’s intensive care units “are bursting at the seams”.
“I would say we are the epicentre of the epicentre,” 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.
The first stage of reopening in Maryland begins on Friday 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 after the departure of the lung specialist at Rehoboth McKinley Christian Hospital. So people with acute respiratory symptoms are being 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 fired after warning the Trump administration to prepare for the pandemic, told a congressional panel that the US lacks a viable plan to produce and fairly distribute a coronavirus vaccine once it becomes available.
When lawmakers asked if Congress should be worried, Bright, who wore a protective mask while testifying, responded: “Absolutely.”
President Donald Trump dismissed Bright in a tweet on Thursday 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 US 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 eatery hopes to inspire a convivial ambiance by planting mannequins in its grand dining room.
Virginia restaurants can still only serve dine-in customers outdoors, and the three-Michelin-star, The Inn at Little Washington, has opted to wait until May 29 to resume indoors dining service.
But the mannequins, dressed in fine 1940′s-style attire, already have been seated at the restaurant tucked in the foothills of the Blue Ridge Mountains about 90 minutes from the nation’s capital.
“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.”