After a hard fall that has left hospitals struggling, some Midwestern states are seeing a decrease in new coronavirus cases. But signs of improvement are matched by the virus’s rapid spread to the coasts: In California, officials have scrambled to distribute body bags and deploy mobile mortuaries as infections increase at an alarming rate.
States, including Iowa, Michigan, Minnesota and Nebraska, have seen a decrease in the number of people who test positive for COVID-19 over the past two weeks. However, everyone is still suffering from an alarming number of deaths and hospitalizations due to the premature increase in the number of cases.
Doctors and public health officials say the winter weather is driving people indoors, as the virus spreads more easily, so there is no guarantee that the improvement will remain dynamic.
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“We have a vaccine that is rolling out, but that doesn’t change the public picture,” Dr. James Lawler of the Nebraska Medical Center Global Health Security Center told the Omaha World Herald. “Things could turn south quite easily.”
But the numbers encouraged him and others. In Iowa, for example, the number of new virus cases reported daily over the past two weeks has decreased from about 1,800 to about 1,250. In Nebraska, it has gone from about 1,800 per day to just under 1,300.
“My fingers are crossed now,” said Dr. Stacy Marlow, an emergency room physician at UnityPoint Allen Hospital in Waterloo, Iowa. “The COVID patients I see are very sick. But there are … fewer of them.”
Deaths from the virus in Iowa have continued to rise sharply, to an average of 79 per day, compared to 28 two weeks ago.
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The hope, of course, is that the decrease in infections will translate into a decrease in deaths, but that may take time. Many of those who have now died from COVID-19 may have been infected weeks earlier
Nationwide, the death toll has surpassed 300,000, with more than 16 million confirmed infections. On average, the United States sees about 2,400 deaths and more than 215,000 new cases per day. A influential model from the University of Washington says the death toll could reach 502,000 by April 1, even with a vaccine in place.
Lawler said it appears that more Nebraska residents are following warnings to limit eating out and wearing masks in public. He said it helps that a number of Nebraska cities have recently passed mask mandates.
But he said it was important for Nebraskans to remain vigilant about maintaining social distancing while they wait for vaccines to become widely available in the spring.
In a call with governors this week, White House coronavirus task force member Dr. Deborah Birx said progress in the Midwest states was being matched by a “worsening situation” on the coasts.
Nationwide, the number of people infected with the virus in hospital has reached an all-time high of more than 110,000, according to the COVID Tracking Project.
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California Gov. Gavin Newsom said on Tuesday that hospital admissions in California are now doubling the peak of summer and threatening to overwhelm the system. The supply of beds is dwindling in intensive care units as the average number of new cases is more than 31,000 per day. State officials are distributing 5,000 body bags, most of them to the hard-hit Los Angeles and San Diego areas, and have 60 refrigerated trailers standing in place as makeshift morgue in anticipation of an increase in coronavirus deaths.
In Orange County, health officials said they plan to send large tents to four hospitals to help deal with patients’ cases.
“We have found more cases than all previous records,” said Van de Rinoso, Santa Barbara County’s director of public health. “It is imperative that everyone takes action now and stays at home. We have reached a point where we can see on the horizon bypassing our healthcare system.”
In New York City, officials stopped indoor eating at restaurants on Monday as the number of infections continued to rise. State and city officials have warned that a wider lockdown could be necessary if things continue to deteriorate.
Mayor Bill de Blasio said: “We cannot let this virus continue to grow, especially when we finally get the vaccine and we can get past the corner.”
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About 370 coronavirus patients were in intensive care in the city this week, three times the number a month ago, but a fraction of the more than 3,100 patients who filled intensive care units in April. Across the state, new confirmed cases have risen from around 6,500 a day to more than 10,100 in the past two weeks.
In New Jersey, the rise in the number of new cases from about 4,000 cases per day at the end of November to an average of 4,900 cases has raised concerns among officials and health service providers. But the dynamic is very different from the crisis of last spring.
“People are still dying from the disease but certainly not in the numbers we were seeing at the time,” said Dr. John Poonamo, chief medical officer and quality at RWJ Barnabas Health, a large hospital operator in the state.