New York governor closes schools in coronavirus ‘hot spots’

NEW YORK (Reuters) – New York Governor Andrew Cuomo ordered schools to close beginning on Tuesday in several coronavirus “hot spots” in the New York City boroughs of Brooklyn and Queens.

The announcement brings forward a plan by New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio to close schools in 11 neighborhoods beginning on Wednesday after coronavirus test positivity rates rose above 3% in those areas for seven days in a row.

“I am not going to recommend or allow any New York City family to send their child to a school that I wouldn’t send my child,” Cuomo said at a news conference on Monday.

He said the state would take over enforcement of social distancing rules from local authorities in the hot spots.

Cuomo and de Blasio have repeatedly squabbled over government responses to the spread of COVID-19. Cuomo again chastised the mayor on Monday for what he said was lackluster enforcement of social distancing rules.

The two leaders have not appeared together in public in many months, although Cuomo said he spoke by phone with the mayor earlier on Monday.

De Blasio has defended his efforts.

“I think it goes far beyond the question of enforcement,” he told CNN on Monday in response to Cuomo’s comments. “I think here’s a case where we need to really work deeply with communities, with community leaders, to have a bigger turnaround in the way people are handling things.”

Cuomo said he was also concerned about similar rising coronavirus rates in Rockland and Orange counties north of New York City, and that he may consider closing schools there too.

Many of the affected neighborhoods include large, close-knit Orthodox Jewish communities. Cuomo said he planned to meet with community leaders again on Tuesday to seek their help with getting people to comply with the rules.

New York faced one of the nation’s earliest and most devastating outbreaks of the novel coronavirus in the spring, but has since managed to largely curtail its spread.

On Monday, 1.22% of coronavirus tests statewide were reported to be positive, including those from the hot spots, Cuomo said.

(Reporting by Jonathan Allen and Maria Caspani; Editing by Chizu Nomiyama and Bill Berkrot)

Wisconsin faces COVID-19 crisis, positive test rates rise in New York hot spots

By Jonathan Allen and Lisa Shumaker

NEW YORK (Reuters) – COVID-19 trends are all moving in the wrong direction in Wisconsin, where U.S. President Donald Trump will hold rallies over the weekend, while the pandemic’s early U.S. epicenter of New York state reported an uptick of positive coronavirus tests in 20 “hot spots” on Thursday.

New cases of COVID-19 rose in 27 out of 50 U.S. states in September compared with August, with an increase of 111% in Wisconsin, according to a Reuters analysis.

Wisconsin is also dealing with a troubling rise in serious COVID-19 cases that threaten to overwhelm hospitals.

“Our emergency department has had several instances in the past week where it was past capacity and needed to place patients in beds in the hallways,” Bellin Health, which runs a hospital in Green Bay, said in a statement. “Our ICU (intensive care unit) beds have also been full, or nearly full, during the past week.”

Health officials in the state said public gatherings have become even more dangerous than earlier in the pandemic, and Governor Tony Evers issued an emergency order easing licensing rules to increase the number of healthcare workers able to deal with the mounting crisis.

“We are seeing alarming trends here in Wisconsin, with today seeing our highest number of new cases in a single day, and yesterday seeing our highest death count,” Evers said in a statement.

Dr. Ryan Westergaard, chief medical officer at the Wisconsin department of Health Services, said the state’s outbreak started in younger people and has now spread throughout the community.

“Public gatherings of any kind are dangerous right now, more so than they have been at any time during this epidemic,” he told CNN on Thursday.

In New York, which grappled with the world’s most rampant outbreak earlier this the year, officials said they were worried about clusters of cases in 20 ZIP code areas across the state, where the average rate of positive tests rose to 6.5% from 5.5% the day before.

New York Governor Andrew Cuomo and New Jersey Governor Phil Murphy encouraged residents to download onto their smartphones a new voluntary contact-tracing app, COVID Alert, they launched on Thursday. The app uses Bluetooth technology to alert users if they have recently been near someone who later tested positive for the novel coronavirus.

Many of New York’s 20 hot spots – half of which are in New York City – include Orthodox Jewish communities. Cuomo said he talked to community leaders about enforcing social distancing measures.

“A cluster today can become community spread tomorrow,” Cuomo said on a briefing call with reporters. “These ZIP codes are not hermetically sealed.”

He implored local authorities to increase enforcement measures. “If they’re not wearing masks, they should be fined,” Cuomo said.

Wisconsin health officials are urging residents to stay home and avoid large gatherings ahead of Trump’s weekend rallies in La Crosse and Green Bay in the run up to the Nov. 3 election.

An indoor Trump rally in Tulsa, Oklahoma, in July likely contributed to a subsequent rise in cases there, city health officials said.

“This spike we’re seeing in Brown County, Wisconsin should be a wakeup call to anyone who lives here that our community is facing a crisis,” Dr. Paul Casey, medical director of the emergency department at Bellin Hospital, told CNN.

Cases, hospitalizations, positive test rates and deaths are all climbing in Wisconsin, according to a Reuters analysis.

Over the past week, 21% of coronavirus tests on average came back positive and have steadily risen for five weeks in a row from 8% in late August.

The number of hospitalized COVID-19 patients has doubled in the last two weeks hitting a record of 646 on Wednesday, the same day Wisconsin reported its biggest one-day increase in deaths since the pandemic started with 27 lives lost.

Beyond the Midwest, western states were also facing spikes in coronavirus cases. Montana on Friday reported a record increase in cases for the second day in a row and had a record number of hospitalized COVID-19 patients.

(Reporting by Jonathan Allen and Maria Caspani in New York and Lisa Shumaker in Chicago; Editing by Bill Berkrot)

Explainer: Why COVID-19 can run rife in meatpacking plants

(Reuters) – Meat-processing plants around the world are proving coronavirus infection hotspots, with an outbreak at a factory in Germany leading to Guetersloh becoming on Tuesday the first area in the country to be ordered back into lockdown.

More than 1,500 workers at the Guetersloh plant tested positive for the virus that causes COVID-19, while outbreaks have also hit meat and poultry plants in Britain in recent days.

In many rural parts of the United States, meatpacking plants have been the main source of infection. On April 28, President Donald Trump signed an executive order to keep such factories open, warning of a potential threat to the U.S. food supply.

The meat industry is particularly susceptible to coronavirus infections because of the nature of the work: intense physical labor conducted indoors at close proximity to other workers.

“Their work environments – processing lines and other areas in busy plants where they have close contact with coworkers and supervisors – may contribute substantially to their potential exposures,” the U.S. Centers for Disease Control (CDC) says of meatpacking workers.

The CDC maintains a list of recommendations for factories, including steps to keep workers apart such as staggered arrival times and breaks, supplying workers with masks and hand sanitizer and making sure tools are disinfected.

It says factories should take workers’ temperatures on arrival and send those with fevers home.

Conditions on the factory floor itself are also not the only issue. Meatpacking workers often share transportation and housing once their shifts are over.

In Germany, for example, many are migrants from poorer EU countries such as Bulgaria and Romania, often housed in large dormitories where the virus can spread.

“Some of these factories have on-site or nearby accommodation where there are several people in each dormitory, they may be transported on a bus to the site of work, and they will be indoors together all day,” said Michael Head, an expert in global health at England’s University of Southampton.

In the United States, by the end of May, the UFCW labor union estimated that at least 44 meatpacking workers had died of COVID-19, and that at least 30 meatpacking plants had to be temporarily shut down, impacting more than 45,000 workers and contributing to a 40% reduction in pork slaughtering capacity.

(Reporting by Peter Graff; Additional reporting by Kate Kelland; Editing by Pravin Char)

After 100 days, New Yorkers can get haircuts, dine outdoors while virus cases soar in 12 other states

By Maria Caspani

NEW YORK (Reuters) – After more than 100 days of lockdown, New York City residents on Monday celebrated their progress in curbing the coronavirus pandemic by getting their first haircuts in months, shopping at long-closed stores, and dining at outdoor cafes.

Once the epicenter of the global outbreak, New York City was the last region in the state to move into Phase 2 of reopening with restaurants and bars offering outdoor service and many shops reopening. Barber shops and hair salons welcomed customers for the first time since mid-March.

Playgrounds were also due to reopen on Monday in the most populous U.S. city. The pandemic has killed nearly 120,000 Americans.

At the same time, a dozen states in the South and Southwest reported record increases in new coronavirus cases – and often record increases in hospitalizations as well, a metric not affected by more testing.

The number of new cases rose by a record last week in Arizona, California, Florida and Texas, together home to about a third of the U.S. population. Alabama, Georgia, Nevada, Oklahoma, Oregon, South Carolina, Utah and Wyoming also experienced record spikes in cases.

On Saturday more than 6,000 people, mostly without masks, crowded together inside a Tulsa, Oklahoma, arena for a campaign rally by President Donald Trump.

Trump defended his response to COVID-19, saying more testing had led to identifying more cases, seemingly to his chagrin.

“When you do testing to that extent, you’re going to … find more cases,” he said. “So, I said to my people, ‘Slow the testing down, please.'” A White House official said he was “obviously kidding” with that remark.

(Reporting by Maria Caspani in New York; Additional reporting by Peter Szekely in New York; Writing by Lisa Shumaker; Editing by Howard Goller)

U.S. coronavirus cases surge in southwestern states

(Reuters) – Twenty-one U.S. states reported weekly increases in new cases of COVID-19, with Arizona, Utah and New Mexico all posting rises of 40% or higher for the week ended June 7 compared with the prior seven days, according to a Reuters analysis.

The three southwestern states joined hot spots in the South to help push the national number of new infections in the first week of June up 3%, the first increase after five weeks of declines, according to the analysis of data from The COVID Tracking Project, a volunteer-run effort to track the outbreak.

(Open https://tmsnrt.rs/2WTOZDR in an external browser for a Reuters interactive)

In New Mexico about half of the new cases were from one prison in Otero County, state health officials said.

Utah said at least 287 of the state’s 2,269 new cases were tied to an outbreak at a meat processing plant in Cache County.

Arizona did not immediately respond when asked to comment.

Many states have ramped up testing for the novel coronavirus in recent weeks. Nationally, over 545,000 tests were reported in a single day last week, a new record.

In Arizona, the percentage of tests that came back positive for the new virus rose to 12% in the week ended June 7, from 7% a month ago, according to the Reuters analysis. In Utah, the positive test rate rose to 9% from 4%.

Nationally, the rate of positive tests has hovered between 4% and 7% for several weeks.

In the South, new cases of COVID-19 in Florida, Arkansas, South Carolina and North Carolina all rose by more than 30% in the past week.

Florida attributed the increase to more testing, while South Carolina was investigating outbreaks in three counties. The other states had no immediate comment. Positive test rates held steady in these states over the past four weeks, the analysis showed.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) has recommended states wait for new COVID-19 cases to fall for 14 days before easing social distancing restrictions.

Sixteen states and the District of Columbia have met that criteria for the week ended June 7, compared with 13 states the prior week, the analysis showed. Pennsylvania and New York lead with eight straight weeks of declines.

Graphic – Tracking the novel coronavirus in the U.S.: https://graphics.reuters.com/HEALTH-CORONAVIRUS-USA/0100B5K8423/index.html

Graphic – World-focused tracker with country-by-country interactive: https://graphics.reuters.com/HEALTH-CORONAVIRUS/COUNTRIES/oakveqlyvrd/index.html?id=united-kingdom

(Reporting by Chris Canipe in Kansas City, Missouri, and Lisa Shumaker in Chicago; Editing by Tiffany Wu)

U.S. has most coronavirus cases in world, next wave aimed at Louisiana

By Maria Caspani and Daniel Trotta

NEW YORK (Reuters) – The number of U.S. coronavirus infections climbed above 82,000 on Thursday, surpassing the national tallies of China and Italy, as New York, New Orleans and other hot spots faced a surge in hospitalizations and looming shortages of supplies, staff and sick beds.

With medical facilities running low on ventilators and protective masks and hampered by limited diagnostic testing capacity, the U.S. death toll from COVID-19, the respiratory disease caused by the virus, rose beyond 1,200.

“Any scenario that is realistic will overwhelm the capacity of the healthcare system,” New York Governor Andrew Cuomo told a news conference. He described the state’s projected shortfall in ventilators – machines that support the respiration of people have cannot breathe on their own – as “astronomical.”

“It’s not like they have them sitting in the warehouse,” Cuomo added. “There is no stockpile available.”

At least one New York City hospital, New York-Presbyterian/Columbia University Medical Center in Manhattan, has begun a trial of sharing single ventilators between two patients.

While New York was the coronavirus epicenter in the United States this week, the next big wave of infections appeared headed for Louisiana, where demand for ventilators has already doubled. In New Orleans, the state’s biggest city, Mardi Gras celebrations late last month are believed to have fueled the outbreak.

Louisiana Governor John Bel Edwards said New Orleans would be out of ventilators by April 2 and potentially out of bed space by April 7 “if we don’t flatten the infection curve soon.”

“It’s not conjecture, it’s not some flimsy theory,” Edwards told a press conference. “This is what is going to happen.”

Nurse Tina Nguyen administers a nasal swab at a coronavirus testing site outside International Community Health Services in the Chinatown-International District during the coronavirus disease (COVID-19) outbreak in Seattle, Washington, U.S. March 26, 2020. REUTERS/Lindsey Wasson

About 80% of Louisiana’s intensive care patients are now on breathing machines, up from the normal rate of 30-40%, said Warner Thomas, chief executive of Ochsner Health System, the state’s hospital group.

Scarcities of protective masks, gloves, gowns and eyewear for doctors and nurses – reports abound of healthcare workers recycling old face masks, making their own or even using trash bags to shield themselves – have emerged as a national problem.

“Our nurses across the country do not have the personal protective equipment that is necessary to care for COVID patients, or any of their patients,” Bonnie Castillo, head of the largest U.S. nurses union, National Nurses United, told MSNBC.

In an ominous milestone for the United States as a whole, at least 82,153 people nationwide were infected as of Thursday, according to a Reuters tally from state and local public health agencies. China, where the global pandemic emerged late last year, had the second highest number of cases, 81,285, followed by Italy with 80,539.

At least 1,204 Americans have died from COVID-19, which has proven especially dangerous to the elderly and people with underlying chronic health conditions, Reuters’ tally showed.

MORE BEDS NEEDED

For New York state, Cuomo said a key goal was rapidly to expand the number of available hospital beds from 53,000 to 140,000.

New York hospitals were racing to comply with Cuomo’s directive to increase capacity by at least 50%. At Mount Sinai Hospital’s Upper East Side location, rooms were being constructed within an atrium to open up more space for beds.

At Elmhurst Hospital in New York’s borough of Queens, about a hundred people, many wearing masks with their hoods pulled up, lined up behind barriers outside the emergency room entrance, waiting to enter a tent to be screened for the coronavirus.

The city coroner’s office has posted refrigerated trucks outside Elmhurst and Bellevue Hospital to temporarily store bodies of the deceased.

Deborah White, vice chair of emergency medicine at Jack D. Weiler Hospital in the city’s Bronx borough, said 80% of its emergency room visits were patients with coronavirus-like symptoms.

A ventilator shortfall and surge in hospitalizations has already raised the prospect of rationing healthcare.

Asked about guidelines being drafted on how to allocate ventilators to patients in case of a shortage, New Jersey Governor Phil Murphy told reporters such bioethical discussions “haunted him” but were unavoidable.

Outside New York and New Orleans, other hot spots appeared to be emerging around the country, including Detroit.

Brandon Allen, 48, was buying groceries in Detroit for his 72-year-old mother, who has tested positive and was self-quarantining at home.

“It’s surreal,” Allen said. “People around me I know are dying. I know of a couple people who have died. I know a couple of people who are fighting for their lives. Everyday you hear of another person who has it.”

RECORD UNEMPLOYMENT CLAIMS

Desperate to slow virus transmissions by limiting physical contact among people, state and local governments have issued stay-at-home orders covering about half the U.S. population. A major side effect has been the strangulation of the economy, and a wave of layoffs.

The U.S. Labor Department reported Thursday the number of Americans filing claims for unemployment benefits last week soared to a record of nearly 3.28 million – almost five times the previous weekly peak of 695,000 during the 1982 recession.

Dr. Anthony Fauci, director of the U.S. National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, said warmer weather may help tamp down the U.S. outbreak as summer approaches, though the virus could re-emerge in the winter.

“We hope we get a respite as we get into April, May and June,” Fauci said on WNYC public radio.

Washington state Governor Jay Inslee said he may extend a stay-at-home order tentatively set to expire April 6, encouraged by what he called a “very modest improvement” in the Seattle area.

Washington experienced the first major U.S. outbreak of COVID-19 and has been among the hardest-hit states. As of Thursday the state reported about 3,200 cases and 147 deaths.

In California’s Coachella Valley, a region rife with retirees who are especially vulnerable, 25 members of the state’s National Guard helped a non-profit distribute food to people stuck in their homes, as most of the regular volunteers are senior citizens.

More than 10,000 troops have been deployed in 50 states to provide humanitarian aid during the pandemic.

(Reporting by Maria Caspani in New York and Daniel Trotta in Milan; Additional reporting by Gabriella Borter, Catherine Koppel, Lucia Mutikani, Doina Chiacu, Susan Heavey, Nathan Layne, Lisa Lambert, Michael Martina, Rebecca Cook, Barbara Goldberg, Rich McKay and Dan Whitcomb; Writing by Will Dunham and Steve Gorman; Editing by Howard Goller, Bill Tarrant, Cynthia Osterman and Daniel Wallis)