US takes more big pandemic response steps; Europe COVID-19 cases soar

National Guard
National Guard

National Guard members register people for mobile COVID-19 testing in New Rochelle, NY., New York National Guard/Flickr cc

The number of COVID-19 cases in other parts of the world today topped China's total, fueled by surges in Europe—especially in Italy—and Iran, plus outbreaks picking up steam in other nations, including the United States, where New York City today shuttered its schools and the Federal Reserve slashed its interest rate again.

Coming just a day after the global total of novel coronavirus cases passed 150,000, the Johns Hopkins online tracker shows 162,687 cases today, with 81,003 reported in China. As testing capacity slowly ramps up in the United States, about 600 more cases were reported, putting the nation's total at 3,244, according to the Johns Hopkins tracker. So far, West Virginia is the only state that hasn't confirmed any cases, according to the New York Times case map.

Feds, states take more bold steps

In two new big breaking developments, New York City announced that its public schools—the nation's largest school system—will close until Apr 20, and the Federal Reserve today announced that it cut the target interest rate to near zero to support the economy during the pandemic.

In other developments, New York Governor Andrew Cuomo urged private businesses to aggressively consider voluntary closures and called on the federal government to deploy the military to help retrofit existing buildings to medical facilities to free up hospital beds. "It is only a matter of time before ICU beds are full," he said on Twitter, adding that only the federal government has the ability to do that fast enough. As of today, New York has reported 729 cases, which includes 329 in New York City and 196 in Westchester County.

Ahead of St Patrick's Day celebrations, several US cities announced measures to curb crowds. For example, Boston Mayor Marty Walsh today announced that until further notice, restaurants, bars, and nightclubs must reduce capacity by 50%, follow social distancing guidance, and not allow lines outside. The city also loosened rules for places that serve food to allow for delivery services.

Meanwhile, Illinois and Ohio ordered the temporary closure of all indoor bars and restaurants. The mayor of Providence, Rhode Island, also shuttered bars and clubs.

Other locations announced curfews to slow the spread of the virus. For example, in New Jersey, Hoboken officials announced a curfew between the hours of 10 pm and 5 am.

Maryland's Governor Larry Hogan today closed casinos, race tracks, and simulcast betting facilities, and the state's lawmakers announced that the General Assembly will adjourn on Mar 18 and will reconvene in late May to address critical issues.

Early signals from US syndromic surveillance

In another development, researchers who monitor syndromic surveillance systems reported some of the first signals that might reflect increased activity due to COVID-19. On Twitter, Marc Lipsitch, DPhil, a professor of epidemiology at Harvard University, noted that the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) flulike illness latest chart shows a slight increase, though flu testing is declining. "Only one week so far but best evidence I know for widespread COVID-19 in the absence of viral testing," he said. "Something to watch carefully in each region."

In a related development, Caitlin Rivers, PhD, an epidemiologist with the Johns Hopkins Center for Health Security, with Nicholas Reich, PhD, associate professor of biostatistics at the University of Massachusetts Amherst, and others examined the most recent trends of flulike illness not due to influenza by Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) region and noted some changes this week.

On Twitter, Rivers said regions 7 (Iowa, Kansas, Missouri, and Nebraska) and 10 (which includes Washington) and a number of states show some changes, especially in California and Missouri, but with some key caveats—including fewer than usual provider reports from Missouri. They cautioned that the results don't necessarily mean that the virus is circulating in those two states, but syndromic surveillance data are useful for guiding further investigation.

Regarding the latest confirmed cases, the Minnesota Department of Health today reported its first three community transmission cases and said the state's overall total is at 35.

Italy sees biggest 1-day jump; infections spike in Malaysia

Italy today reported its biggest 1-day jump, with 3,590 new cases and 368 more deaths, raising its respective totals to 24,747 and 1,809, according to the health ministry's latest update. In Spain, the death count jumped from 86 to 213 today, with cases rising by 2,000 to 7,753, according to El Pais, which also reported that the government has deployed the military to patrol affected areas and ordered the military pharmacy to increase disinfectant production.

France's total climbed to 5,400 cases, 120 of them fatal, Le Monde reported today. And the United Kingdom's totals are now at 1,372 cases, 35 of them fatal.

Elsewhere, Iran's health ministry today reported 1,209 cases, along with 133 more deaths, boosting its respective totals to 13,938 cases and 724 deaths.

In Asia, cases declined in most areas, except for Malaysia, which reported 190 new cases today, most of them related to a religious event at a mosque outside of Kuala Lumpur that drew about 10,000 people from several countries, the South China Morning Post reported. Malaysia saw an earlier wave of infections shortly after the virus struck China, but activity is increasing again, with 428 cases now reported.

This week's top reads