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Fauci warns against reopening too quickly at highly anticipated Senate hearing

WASHINGTON — Anthony Fauci, the nation’s top infectious-disease expert, warned of “suffering and death that could be avoided” and further economic damage if states reopen too quickly and said the U.S. death toll from the coronavirus is likely higher than the 80,000 reported.

His comments came during highly anticipated Senate testimony Tuesday as he and other leading federal health officials were pressed on whether the country is ready to reopen. The panel’s chairman and witnesses are appearing remotely in an unusual session that includes the first congressional testimony from Fauci, a key member of the White House task force, since President Donald Trump declared the coronavirus crisis a national emergency March 13.

Appearing with Fauci are Stephen Hahn, head of the Food and Drug Administration; Robert Redfield, director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention; and Brett Giroir, an assistant secretary at the Department of Health and Human Services.

The hearing before the Republican-led Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee is titled “COVID-19: Safely Getting Back to Work and Back to School.” But Democrats are also seizing the opportunity to focus on shortcomings in the Trump administration’s response.

Sen. Lamar Alexander, R-Tenn., the panel’s chairman, began the questioning by asking Fauci whether college and school administrators could feel safe welcoming students back to campus in the fall, and the likelihood of a treatment or vaccine becoming available by then.

“The idea of having treatments available or a vaccine to facilitate re-entry of students into the fall term would be something that would be a bit of a bridge too far,” Fauci said. “The drug that has shown some degree of efficacy was modest and was in hospitalized patients.”

Fauci said whether students will feel safe returning to school will also largely depend on testing capabilities.

Giroir said he expects the country to have the capacity to conduct 25 million to 30 million tests a month by the fall, which could allow schools to have a surveillance strategy in place to quickly identify and isolate confirmed COVID-19 cases.

Pressed by Sen. Patty Murray, D-Wash., Fauci warned that states that fail to obey federal reopening guidelines and move too quickly to restart their economies would put themselves at risk of new outbreaks that could be hard to control.

“If some areas, cities, states or what-have-you jump over those various checkpoints and prematurely open up without having the capability of being able to respond effectively and efficiently, my concern is that we will start to see little spikes that might turn into outbreaks,” said Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases. “I have been very clear in my message — to try to the best extent possible to go by the guidelines, which have been very well thought out and very well delineated.”

Any loosening of restrictions, Fauci added, would lead to new cases, but those new cases could be manageable so long as states have the proper infrastructure in place. “It’s the ability and the capability of responding to those cases with good identification, isolation and contact tracing (that) will determine whether you can continue to go forward as you try to reopen America,” he said.

Murray also pressed Giroir, the federal official overseeing coronavirus testing efforts, on a strategic testing plan required to be submitted later this month to Congress under the terms of recent legislation.

Giroir said that the administration had numerical targets in place for testing in each state but cautioned that they stand to be revised based on the course of the virus’s spread.

“Yes, there will be targets,” he said. “The targets will need to change based on the evidence that we see. … So we really just need to be very humble about this. We need to look at the data.”

Fauci said the U.S. death toll is probably higher than the 80,000 deaths officially reported, and added that the virus will not disappear in the fall or winter, contradicting President Trump’s claims last week that the virus would go away even without a vaccine.

“I feel about vaccines like I feel about tests: This is going to go away without a vaccine,” Trump said Friday, adding that there could be “flare-ups,” including in the fall, but that COVID-19 would go away regardless.

“That is just not going to happen,” Fauci said of the idea that the virus would disappear on its own. “It’s a highly transmissible virus. It is likely there will be virus somewhere on this planet that will likely get back to us.”

Fauci also agreed with Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., who said many experts have said that the death toll is higher than what’s been reported.

Fauci pointed to New York City, where he said the health care system faced an extraordinary challenge during the peak of the outbreak, and people could have died at home of coronavirus without being officially counted.

Several administration officials, including Trump, have questioned whether the death toll is inflated.

Earlier, Hahn, head of the Food and Drug Administration, said the agency is working to “bridge the gap” between now and when a vaccine might be available through therapeutics.

The focus, he said, is speeding development and review of antiviral and antibody drugs as well as convalescent plasma products.

Hahn said the agency has created an emergency program to conduct such reviews and is using “every available authority and flexibility that’s appropriate.”

On testing, he said that the agency has worked with more than 500 developers who have submitted or said they would submit applications for FDA authorization for COVID-19 tests — including some involving technologies never used before.

The agency also is cracking down on fraudulent tests and trying to provide more clarity to the public on which tests have been authorized by the FDA and which ones haven’t, he said.

Later, Sen. Mitt Romney, R-Utah, criticized the Trump administration’s news conference Monday heralding its increased testing capacity.

“I find our testing record nothing to celebrate whatsoever,” Romney told the health officials assembled at the hearing.

Trump and other administration officials Monday regularly pointed to the fact that the United States was conducting more testing per capita than South Korea, which has been widely praised for its early and aggressive testing efforts that helped stem its outbreak.

Romney said U.S. officials were ignoring the fact that South Korea had far higher testing capacity than the United States early in its outbreak, while the United States was “treading water in February.”

South Korea has had fewer than 300 COVID-19 deaths.

Romney also asked why the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s data-collection system was so outdated and the agency’s director what Congress needed to do to help modernize the system.

He also asked Fauci whether it was a “long shot” to hope for a vaccine that would be ready within a year or two.

“It’s definitely not a long shot,” Fauci replied. “It’s clearly much more likely than not that somewhere in that time frame, we will get a vaccine for the virus.”

Sen. Kelly Loeffler, R-Ga., the last senator in line to ask questions, sought assurances from all four witnesses that they don’t have a confrontational relationship with Trump — a notion that she said has been advanced by the news media and some of her colleagues.

“There is certainly not a confrontational relationship between me and the president,” Fauci said. “I give advice, opinion based on evidence-based scientific information. He hears that. He respects it. He gets opinions from a variety of other people, but in no way, in my experience over the last several months, has there been any confrontational relationship between us.”

Redfield, Hahn and Giroir all gave similar answers.

“We have a very productive working relationship with each other,” Giroir said.

Ohio National Guard jets soar over Huntington in salute to health care workers

HUNTINGTON — The thunderous roar of fighter jets flew over Cabell Huntington and St. Mary’s hospitals on Tuesday.

The pilots, members of the 180th Fighter Wing of the Ohio Air National Guard, weren’t conducting a training exercise or responding to an emergency. Instead, they were displaying a show of force as a salute to health care workers battling on the front lines of the COVID-19 epidemic.

Members of the Ohio National Guard’s 180th Fighter Wing conducted flyovers of eight hospitals in the region, mostly in southeast Ohio. In addition to Cabell Huntington Hospital and St. Mary’s Medical Center, pilots flew over King’s Daughters Medical Center in Ashland and Southern Ohio Medical Center in Portsmouth, Ohio.

JoAnn Hawarny, of Huntington, was watching the flyover with her two daughters, Samira, age 9, and Gianna, age 7, near the McDonald’s parking lot on Hal Greer Boulevard.

Hawarny said she’s read news reports about similar flyovers conducted in other cities across the country and wanted to bring her daughters to see it for themselves in their hometown. The flyover was also personal to her family because her sister is a doctor, she said.

“It’s very hard keeping on a mask, all the shielding and protective gear they have to wear for eight to 12 hours. It’s just unreal,” she said. “They are tremendous people and heroes to be taking care of the sick right now.”

Christy Spurlock, of Huntington, was watching the flyover from the hospital’s LEAN Improvement and Training Center parking lot. Spurlock said she had seen flyovers for sporting events, but never a flyover meant specifically for health care workers.

She said attending the event was also her way of showing support for every essential employee placing their lives at risk amid the pandemic.

“We support them 100%,” she said. “They are on the front line and putting their life in danger, and we appreciate it.”

Becky and Mace Sturm, of Huntington, said the flyover meant a lot to them because their daughter is an emergency room nurse in Boone County. The Sturms watched the flyover from the parking lot of G.D. Ritzy’s.

“She has been lucky because they have not seen a case until this week,” Becky Sturm said. “Everything has gone really well. The Boone hospital was very prepared.”

Becky Sturm said Tuesday’s event was also special because it was the first time she got to see her grandchildren in person in two months, although they arrived just a few minutes after the jets flew overhead.

Sturm’s family and everyone else will have a chance to witness another flyover at Cabell Huntington Hospital on Wednesday. This time, members of the West Virginia National Guard 130th Airlift Wing will fly over the hospital at approximately 11:17 a.m.

The 130th Airlift Wing intends to fly over 22 hospitals and medical centers in the state in what it’s calling Operation American Resolve.

Hatfield-McCoy Trail System set to reopen May 21

WILLIAMSON, W.Va. — Residents of the Tug Valley area can expect to start seeing trail riders popping back up in the area in the coming weeks, as West Virginia Gov. Jim Justice announced the reopening of the Hatfield-McCoy Trail System this past week.

In his Friday press briefing, Justice said that as part of his statewide reopening plan, the Hatfield-McCoy Trail System will open with limitations May 21.

Riders will be expected to follow safety guidelines including wearing face masks or face shields while stopped; self-screening for COVID-19 symptoms; taking their temperature prior to arriving at the trails to ensure it doesn’t exceed 100 degrees; avoiding congregating on the trails; practicing proper social distancing; and avoiding sharing UTVs, ATVs or off-road dirt bikes with anyone outside their immediate group or party.

Lodging providers will also have to follow guidelines, including providing guests with proper face coverings and gloves upon check-in if they do not already have them and providing a copy of all applicable safety guidelines by the Hatfield McCoy Recreational Trail Authority to all overnight guests.

While trails will be open, all trailhead buildings (the fixed facilities at each trail system where riders can purchase permits, merchandise and use public restrooms) will remain closed.

These facilities will not reopen until further notice as their size prohibits social distancing.

The sites, when open, lead to congregations of trail riders, according to a statement by the H&M Trails. The parking areas used by trail riders at these locations will remain open as normal.

The trail system has been closed since late March after Justice shut it down in an attempt to keep out-of-state tourists from coming into West Virginia to ride the trails.

Guidelines being developed to reopen malls in WV

HUNTINGTON — Guidelines are being prepared for indoor shopping malls to reopen in West Virginia.

Gov. Jim Justice announced during his press briefing Tuesday that progress is being made toward setting guidelines and scheduling a date for the reopening of indoor shopping malls in West Virginia, according to a release. Justice said the businesses must work with the medical community to establish a safe system for reopening.

“We’re working diligently with our indoor malls to see if we can get some really good guidance from them as to how they’re going to protect the people as they enter the malls and they go into a smaller type of an area,” Justice said in the release. “As soon as we can get our health experts on board, I’d like us to bring back our indoor malls as soon as we can.”

The Huntington Mall in Barboursville has been closed since March 24. At that time, some businesses remained open and operating at the mall complex because they were considered essential. Many of the restaurants around the mall complex also remained open on a pickup and/or delivery basis.

As of 5 p.m. Tuesday, there were 1,378 positive cases of COVID-19 reported in the state, according to the West Virginia Department of Health and Human Resources (DHHR). There have been 65,708 laboratory results received for the virus, with 64,330 negative and 58 deaths.

The most recent death was a 78-year-old man from Berkeley County.

Confirmed cases by county are: Barbour (seven), Berkeley (191), Boone (nine), Braxton (two), Brooke (three), Cabell (53), Clay (two), Fayette (34), Gilmer (eight), Grant (three), Greenbrier (eight), Hampshire (10), Hancock (12), Hardy (17), Harrison (34), Jackson (136), Jefferson (88), Kanawha (186), Lewis (four), Lincoln (five), Logan (14), Marion (46), Marshall (22), Mason (14), McDowell (six), Mercer (12), Mineral (23), Mingo (three), Monongalia (114), Monroe (six), Morgan (17), Nicholas (eight), Ohio (37), Pendleton (five), Pleasants (two), Pocahontas (two), Preston (14), Putnam (28), Raleigh (10), Randolph (five), Ritchie (one), Roane (eight), Summers (one), Taylor (eight), Tucker (four), Tyler (three), Upshur (six), Wayne (93), Wetzel (six), Wirt (three), Wood (44) and Wyoming (one).

In Ohio, Gov. Mike DeWine said the Ohio Department of Job and Family Services had received approval from the U.S. Department of Agriculture for its Pandemic EBT plan, which will allow OJFS to distribute SNAP benefits to 850,000 students across Ohio who relied on free or reduced-price meal programs when school was in session to have access to a hot, nutritious meal.

The benefits will be mailed directly to students, and families do not need to apply to be eligible, according to a release. Families will receive approximately $300 to purchase healthy and nutritious food to feed their children, the release said.

More than 25,000 cases of COVID-19 have been reported in Ohio, with a total of 25,250 cases in the state as of 2 p.m. Tuesday. There have been 1,436 deaths related to the virus.

In Kentucky, Gov. Andy Beshear gave an update on the coronavirus in children after it was reported that a 10-year-old child in the state was suffering from a rare but not unknown complication related to COVID-19. Beshear said the child was on a ventilator after becoming ill with COVID-19, but that the child was improving.

“Doctors are hopeful that in the days to come the child can be removed from the ventilator,” Beshear said in a release.

Beshear said a 16-year-old in the state had also been hospitalized with the virus but was not relying on a ventilator to breathe.

Dr. Steven Slack, public health commissioner for Kentucky, said in a release that the new syndrome recognized as being related to the coronavirus causes the immune systems of young people to become overactive, sparking an inflammatory response in their bodies.

As of 5 p.m. Tuesday, there were 6,853 cases of COVID-19 in Kentucky, 191 of which were newly confirmed. The state also reported 10 new deaths, raising the total to 321.

At least 2,546 Kentuckians have recovered from the virus.

Across the U.S., 1,342,594 total cases of COVID-19 have been confirmed as of Tuesday, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. There have been 80,820 deaths related to the virus.

The Associated Press reports that for most people, the novel coronavirus causes only mild or moderate symptoms, such as fever and cough. For some, especially older adults and people with existing health problems, it can cause more severe illness, including pneumonia. The vast majority of people recover from the new virus.