- The Washington Times - Tuesday, May 26, 2020

Deaths tied to COVID-19 approached the 100,000 mark Tuesday as the U.S. entered a tenuous phase of the outbreak, with lax summertime behavior and rural hot spots sparking new fears even as hard-hit places such as New York and New Jersey reported progress.

New Jersey Gov. Phil Murphy, a Democrat, said metrics from hospitals in his hard-hit state continued to “move in the right direction,” and traders were allowed back onto the floor of the New York Stock Exchange for the first time since late March.

Yet scenes of people packing beaches and bars over the Memorial Day weekend raised hackles from health officials in other states. St. Louis County called for the self-quarantine of travelers who showed “no efforts to follow social distancing practices” in Missouri’s Ozarks.

In Alabama, hospitals were reporting a surge in COVID-19 cases in Montgomery as Gov. Kay Ivey, a Republican, tried to strike a balance between the health and economic aspects of dealing with the outbreak.

Smaller hot spots are popping up. A New York Times page that tracks places with high numbers of cases per capita lists towns across the heartland, including in Tennessee, Nebraska and Indiana.

“As we move into the next phase of this pandemic, it may not be that major cities will be the hot spots,” said Amesh Adalja, a senior scholar at the Johns Hopkins Center for Health Security. “Major cities may have put into place augmented diagnostic testing and contact tracing programs as well as expanded hospital capacity. However, rural areas that may be homes to meatpacking plants as well as large prison populations could become hot spots.”

Democrats blamed the Trump administration for lingering problems as the nationwide death toll approached 100,000, more than twice the officially acknowledged number of any other country.

House lawmakers heard testimony from Christi A. Grimm, a Department of Health and Human Services watchdog who was nudged from her acting position at the top of the inspector general’s office after she issued a March report that found shortages of medical equipment in hospitals.

Ms. Grimm said the inspector general’s office is looking at more than a dozen topics related to the coronavirus, including the roles of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the Food and Drug Administration, in approving, developing and distributing COVID-19 tests. Early stutter-steps in diagnostics have been blamed for the rapid spread of the disease.

“It seems to me that’s got to be a primary focus on your work,” said Rep. Gerald E. Connolly, Virginia Democrat.

Mr. Trump defended his response to the coronavirus outbreak. He tweeted that far more people would have died without his efforts and that he “made most Governors look very good, even great, by getting them the Ventilators, unlimited Testing, and supplies, all of which they should have had in their own stockpiles.”

White House press secretary Kayleigh McEnany said 42 states are reporting positivity rates of less than 10% as they increase testing. Public health experts say places with rates higher than 10% might not be detecting enough cases.

She also said the White House is getting a great reception from world leaders who have been asked to consider a trip to Washington in late June for the Group of Seven summit of representatives from major industrial nations, despite the pandemic.

Mr. Trump said it would be great to hold the G-7 in person at the White House instead of virtually, as currently planned.

“We will protect world leaders who come here just like we protect people in the White House,” Ms. McEnany said. “We want to see it happen, we think it will happen and, so far, foreign leaders are very much on board with the idea.”

Yet widely shared images of people crowded in a pool area near the Lake of the Ozarks in Missouri prompted fears that other places weren’t being cautious.

The St. Louis County Department of Public Health said employers asked the agency how to open their businesses safely since people from the area showed no effort to distance themselves while partying.

“This reckless behavior endangers countless people and risks setting us back substantially from the progress we have made in slowing the spread of COVID-19,” said Sam Page, the St. Louis County executive.

Ms. McEnany said the president wants society and the economy to reopen, “but we do want to do so safely.”

“There are ways to do this,” she said, referring to proper physical distancing and hand-washing. “The president would underscore to everyone, we should be taking into account these measures.”

New York and New Jersey still lead the nation by far in total COVID-19 cases and deaths, though governors of both states reported slow and continued improvement with downward trends in hospitalizations and deaths as they slowly reopen.

Many towns with high numbers of cases per capita are home to settings where infections are rampant, such as prisons and meat-processing plants.

Last month, Mr. Trump signed an executive order requiring an adequate number of meat-processing plants to remain open during the coronavirus crisis to ensure Americans have enough beef, poultry and pork.

Mr. Trump took the action under the Defense Production Act. He declared the plants part of the critical U.S. infrastructure and gave Agriculture Secretary Sonny Perdue the authority to order plants to remain open.

The president said plants have procured protective equipment and taken other steps to ensure the safety of workers, though labor unions and Democrats have said workers remain exposed.

“Did President Trump’s executive order forcing these meat-packing facilities to open hurt their workers?” Senate Minority Leader Charles E. Schumer, New York Democrat, tweeted Tuesday alongside an article about sickened plant workers and potential meat shortages.

In Montgomery, Alabama, a surge in the number of COVID-19 patients prompted fears that hospitals would run out of beds in intensive care units and would need to divert patients to other cities.

“In Montgomery, hospitals are seeing a higher number of COVID-19 patients than they have previously seen, but they are not turning away patients, and to my knowledge, they have not transferred any COVID-19 patients to Birmingham,” said Gina Maiola, a spokeswoman for the governor. “It is a normal practice to transfer patients who need other types of specialty care to Birmingham hospitals, and even still, I understand that space is still available for non-coronavirus patients.”

Ms. Ivey has urged Alabama residents to practice social distancing and take other health precautions as the state tries to reopen its economy while corralling the outbreak. Her office said increased testing capacity “naturally could add to our increase in case count.”

“However, we cannot disregard that transmission of this virus can still occur, and at the same time, we must continue to strike a balance between the health and economic aspects,” Ms. Maiola said. “The governor reminds us that you cannot have a life without a livelihood.”

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