As U.S. coronavirus death toll nears 200,000, signs of progress but threat of resurgence

As the death toll from the novel coronavirus approached 200,000 in the United States on Saturday, signs of progress continued to mingle with threats of a resurgence.

“There’s been progress in learning how to treat patients with infections that have moderate to severe illness,” Boston University infectious diseases specialist Davidson Hamer said.

The science of treating COVID-19 has come a long way since the virus took hold in the U.S. some six months ago. Hamer cited steroids and remdesivir, the antiviral that has been shown to help shorten hospital recovery times, as helpful treatments. Putting patients in a “prone position” — having them lay face-down — has also been shown to improve oxygenation in severely ill patients.

“We’ve learned more that will help reduce mortality going forward, but we don’t have a cure-all, we don’t have a great fix,” Hamer told the Herald. “So the real thing to do is to try to prevent as much as possible.”

Stopping the spread remains a challenge as the coronavirus surges once more across Europe, raising alarm this week from a top World Health Organization official, who reportedly called it a “very serious situation.”

New infections have slowed in the U.S. after a spike earlier in the summer predominantly across the Sun Belt. But cases are ticking up in the Great Plains and in some southern states, data show.

The U.S. has recorded the highest number of coronavirus infections in the world, accounting for more than 6.7 million of the 30 million cases across the globe, according to the Johns Hopkins University tracker.

Key metrics have been relatively stable in Massachusetts recently. The seven-day average positive test rate remained at 0.8% as of Saturday and has stayed under 2% after ticking back above that threshold in July. The three-day average number of hospitalizations continues to fluctuate in the low- to mid-300s, down from a high of 3,707 on May 1. The three-day average of coronavirus deaths has dropped from 161 in May to 16 now. The state Department of Public Health reported another 569 cases Saturday and 26 new deaths.

“What’s worrisome is what happens when we have schools partially reopening and people spending more time indoors,” Hamer said.

In order to control the spread of the disease, people are likely “going to have to remain in a partially opened state for many months to come where we have a lot more people working from home, a lot more education from home,” Hamer said.

State and local officials have been ramping up enforcement of public health rules in some of the Bay State’s poorer, more densely populated cities packed with essential workers that are still struggling to stop the spread of the virus.

With an increasing number of cities and towns popping on and off the state’s high-risk list — usually due to clusters of cases emerging from gatherings or medical facilities that push a city above the threshold of an average daily case rate of eight per 100,000 residents — testing and awareness efforts are now expanding to places like Dedham and Worcester.

Hamer said if the state can remain effective in “mandating prevention matters like isolation, quarantine, good contact tracing, then it’s feasible to keep things under control to try to prevent another resurgence.”

Gov. Charlie Baker offered a rough outline this week of who might first receive a COVID-19 vaccine when one becomes available, saying in a press conference Thursday that there would be a “focus on particular high-risk individuals, which would mean, in Massachusetts, health care workers, long-term care workers, people in communities of color that have been particularly hard-hit by the virus.”


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