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Officials see signs U.S. virus death toll may not match direst projections

U.S. authorities on Tuesday reported 29,000 more people infected with the novel coronavirus and more than 1,800 more deaths - the highest daily death toll so far. 

But amid the grim data, some officials said they saw grounds for hope that the pandemic's devastation would at least not be as bad as the direst projections.

New York, the state hit hardest by the virus, reported its highest-ever daily death toll: 731. But Democratic Gov. Andrew Cuomo said the number of new patients admitted to hospitals appeared to be trending downward.

"Right now we're projecting that we are reaching a plateau in the total number of hospitalizations, and you can see the growth and you see it starting to flatten," Cuomo told reporters Tuesday. "Change in daily ICU admissions is way down, and that's good news. The daily intubations number is down, and that's good news. The discharge rate is right about where it was."

But Cuomo also warned that Americans should not let up on social distancing, saying that was largely responsible for the improved outlook. "This is not an act of God we're looking at," Cuomo said. "It's an act of what society actually does."

Nationwide, one computer model of the disease's future spread - relied upon by governors and the White House - shifted its estimate of COVID-19's U.S. death toll downward this week. Instead of roughly 94,000 deaths as estimated a week ago, the University of Washington model now predicts about 82,000 by late summer.

In another positive sign, several West Coast states announced this week they are sending ventilators to New York since their need is now less urgent. California Gov. Gavin Newsom, a Democrat, said he will send 500; Oregon is contributing 140; and Washington state - which was an early epicenter - is dispatching 400 ventilators.

"Even during this painful week, we see glimmers of very, very strong hope," President Donald Trump told reporters Tuesday. Vice President Mike Pence added that "we continue to see evidence of stabilization" in hard-hit areas.

Still, what is passing for good news still means about 70,000 Americans alive today may die by August. The models predict the worst day for deaths will be around April 16, meaning daily death tolls will grow higher until then.

Yet the tone of some of the nation's top experts has changed in the past 48 hours.

"You're starting to see that we may be actually - in a series of communities outside of New York, New Jersey and Connecticut - creating a much flatter graph, a much flatter curve," said Deborah Birx, director of the White House coronavirus response. Citing figures in Detroit and Chicago, she said, "It really gives us great heart."

That echoed Anthony Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, a day earlier.

"Everybody who knows me knows I'm very conservative about making projections, but those are the kind of good signs that you look for," Fauci said of the New York figures. "You never even begin to think about claiming victory prematurely, but that's the first thing you see when you start to see the turnaround."

While the number of deaths remains high, that figure can lag behind the number of hospital admissions, which are a better predictor of the outbreak's future course, experts said.

But some experts urged caution. Marynia Kolak, assistant director of health informatics at the University of Chicago's Center for Spatial Data Science, is part of a team that has been studying county-level data on the outbreak. She said their data does not show that the United States has gotten through the worst of the crisis.

"From all the data we have, it suggests we're just beginning to approach the peak for several regions of the country," Kolak said. She said she is worried about future surges in tribal areas in the Southwest, and in areas of the South where social distancing measures were implemented just recently.

Still, some leaders in the United States and abroad signaled Tuesday that they had at least begun thinking about how and when to move haltingly toward a more normal routine.

"We're working on a plan with Connecticut and New Jersey, because when we go back, we go back together," Cuomo said. He suggested that those who have tested negative or developed immunity, or perhaps younger people, could see their restrictions lifted first. "If it's waves, I think those are the waves," he said.

But there was no sense that relief could come anytime soon, especially given the danger that opening up prematurely could prompt new spikes of infection. Even in New York, leaders said the virus is still spreading, just not as fast as it was.

And other states may be next to suffer serious blows, especially if people see New York's optimism and begin to let their guard down.

"The pandemic is only just getting its boots on in other places," said William Hanage, an epidemiologist at the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health. Hanage said he remains "incredibly anxious" about smaller communities around the nation.

"They can be hit as hard, or harder than, urban areas, because they lack resources to deal and probably won't be testing until too late," Hanage said.

Columbia University researchers said they believe the next outbreaks will be in the South and then the Midwest.

Elsewhere in the world, the city where the outbreak began - Wuhan, China - took another step back toward normal, as authorities reopened the roads connecting it to the outside world after 11 weeks of lockdown.

In Europe, the virus-ravaged countries of Italy and Spain seemed to be on the far side of the pandemic's peak, with infection rates growing far more slowly.

But new epicenters cropped up to replace the old. In France, the health minister warned that the country was still in the "worsening phase of the epidemic," and Paris banned all outdoor exercise during much of the day.

And despite the muted optimism by some in the United States, it was far from certain whether the country was nearing the peak of the virus's damage or merely pausing before another upward climb.

The answer could depend in large part on whether the rest of the country learned enough from the pain suffered by the first-hit states - Washington, Louisiana, New York - to avoid repeating it elsewhere.

In the New York area, the flashes of good news were buried beneath bad news Tuesday, as New York state, New Jersey and Connecticut all reported their highest-ever death tolls.

"It's almost unfathomable, when you think about it," said New Jersey Gov. Phil Murphy, a Democrat, announcing that the state's death toll had risen by 232, to a total of 1,232. More than three-quarters of the state's deaths related to the coronavirus happened in the past week.

After New York, New Jersey has the highest death and infection totals in the United States.

Michigan, which ranks third, reported its own record death toll on Tuesday: 118 people lost, breaking a record set the day earlier.

"We are still in the early up-slope of what is going to hit Michigan incredibly hard," Gov. Gretchen Whitmer, a Democrat, said in a call with reporters, according to the Detroit Free Press.

"Each of these numbers is a person," Whitmer said. "It's a Michigander who had a story and has a family who can't mourn the way that we're used to mourning because they can't get together safely."

Also in Michigan, the Henry Ford hospital system - one of the largest in the state - said that at least 700 members of its staff have tested positive for the virus, according to news reports.

The U.S. outbreak is already the largest in the world in terms of the number of people infected, although China's government has been accused of significantly undercounting both infections and deaths.

 

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