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Coronavirus Briefing: What Happened Today


  • President Trump said the U.S. would reopen “one careful step at a time,” and told governors they would call the shots about when to lift restrictions in their states.

  • Twenty-two million American workers have filed new unemployment claims in the four weeks since pandemic-prompted shutdowns took hold.

  • The federal loan program intended to help keep small businesses afloat has run out of money.

  • Read the latest updates: World | U.S. | New York | Business

No matter how well we all practice social distancing, Covid-19 is unlikely to completely disappear. So to safely return to something like normalcy, society needs to be able to spot and swiftly contain new cases that pop up.

Rapid, widespread testing, once it becomes available, is the key to the spotting part. But since people can spread the virus before they know they have it, effective containment depends both on isolating those who test positive and on checking everyone they’ve come in contact with recently.

That’s why public health officials say robust contact tracing is a must for reopening the economy, which President Trump hopes will start happening by May 1. But it will be a huge, expensive job.

Mr. Trump is expected to announce as soon as Thursday evening that the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention will hire hundreds of workers to perform contact tracing, and that the federal government will help states pay for their own expanded efforts.

Contact tracing has already helped in Asian countries like South Korea and Singapore, but their systems rely heavily on digital surveillance, using location data from smartphones and other digital footprints to automatically alert contacts — a privacy intrusion that many Americans wouldn’t accept.

So Massachusetts, the first U.S. state to invest in an ambitious new contact-tracing program for Covid-19, is doing it the manual way.

The state is spending $44 million and hiring 1,000 workers to reach out by phone to everyone who has had recent contact with a confirmed case. The workers explain the situation, ask about symptoms, go over quarantine requirements and arrange help if the person needs it.

“This is where the human element of public health comes in,” one of the state’s new contact tracers, David Novak, told our New England correspondent Ellen Barry. “You can use technology to make the humans more efficient, but if you take the humans out of it, how do you ask questions?”

Other places with the same idea: San Francisco is assembling and training 150 volunteers to augment its public health department. Ireland is deploying 1,000 furloughed government workers to do contact tracing.

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More than 5.2 million workers filed new claims for unemployment benefits last week, bringing the four-week total to a staggering 22 million. That’s roughly the net number of jobs created in the decade since the last recession.

But that decade of economic growth was always somewhat misleading: While some people high on the income ladder became very rich, other Americans did not fare as well, and are now less able to weather the current storm. We spoke to Patricia Cohen, who covers the economy for The New York Times, about how workers are struggling in the coronavirus crisis.

How has the pandemic exposed hidden weaknesses in the U.S. economy?

Patricia: I think of it like an X-ray that is revealing all these stress fractures, which we couldn’t see from the outside. On the one hand, we’ve had this record-setting economy, with the lowest jobless rate in 50 years. But the work available is often unsteady, insecure and low-paying. Minimum wage is not enough to support a family and cover the most basic necessities of food, rent and health care. And we have a “just in time” economy: People’s hours fluctuate erratically. It helps businesses make money, but the worker loses that income.

Now that system is being tested in a way it hasn’t before.

Exactly. Many people were already living on a precipice, and any shock can push them over the edge. So what you’re seeing now is incredible hardship: Because they have no savings, they have nothing to fall back on.

What will the recovery look like for workers?

The economy is likely to slowly ramp up, in fits and starts, but a lot of businesses will not come back, and a lot of people will not be rehired. Most analysts think that at this point, we’ll have an 8 or 9 percent unemployment rate into next year, which is where it was in the teeth of the recession.

Emerging research into severe coronavirus cases has found some surprises: Obesity appears to pose a much greater risk than expected, while asthma does the opposite.

People with obesity often have other medical problems as well, but new studies point to obesity itself as the second most significant complicating factor in severe coronavirus cases, after age. Young adults with obesity appear to be at particular risk, even if they have no other health issues.

It’s not yet known why, though doctors note that abdominal obesity can compress the diaphragm, lungs and chest capacity.

Asthma, on the other hand, has turned up in an unexpectedly low percentage of severe cases — just 5 percent in New York, officials said — and European researchers called the scarcity “striking.”

Doctors stressed that people with asthma were still at risk, and said it was important that they continue taking medications that keep their symptoms in check.

Like all viruses, the novel coronavirus is mutating as it replicates in the body and passes from person to person — which can make it harder to develop an effective vaccine.

An essay from our Opinion pages examines the two ways mutations can play out. With some diseases, like measles, a vaccine corners the virus for good, but with others, like influenza, scientists must continually develop new versions of the vaccine to keep up with new strains of the virus.

  • Singapore announced a record jump in coronavirus cases, with most of the 447 new cases arising in crowded dormitories for migrant laborers.

  • In India, which has reported more than 12,000 infections and 414 deaths, health officials have been attacked while attempting to conduct health screenings.

  • Japan declared a national emergency and said it would provide individuals with cash payments of 100,000 yen, or nearly $1,000.

  • The official death count in Spain is closing in on 20,000, but there are signs that the true toll may be far higher. The country is recounting to include any deaths that may have been missed.

Regulate your diet. If the coronavirus has busted your diet — and you’ve busted out the fat pants — here are some tips to get back on track.

Send your condolences. In these times, emailed condolences are fine, but avoid texting; consider your tone, and be direct.

Single, or a single parent? Plan ahead so that friends, neighbors and relatives can help if you fall ill. Stock up on medicines, prepare a go-bag for a hospital stay, and get a medical bracelet if you have special medical conditions.

What if both parents get sick? Identify someone now who could step in, work out a plan for the caretaker, and if you’re not hospitalized, balance your own recovery with child care.

  • The World Health Organization has drawn criticism, but a closer look shows that it responded to the epidemic more forcefully and faster than many national governments.

  • China’s success in taming the coronavirus has given rise to an increasingly strident blend of patriotism, nationalism and xenophobia.

  • Here’s how one small rural hospital with a single doctor on duty caring for inpatients handled a Covid-19 surge.

  • Delivering special education services online is exceedingly difficult. This is what it looks like in New York City, whose public schools serve roughly 200,000 students with disabilities.

  • Britain bought $20 million worth of coronavirus tests from China. They didn’t work.

  • Colombia is trying gender-based social distancing: Men can leave the house to seek out essentials on odd-numbered days, women on even-numbered days.

  • They may be at the epicenter, but they still have their pride: Stuck-at-home New Yorkers compete to see who has the best New York accent.

I am a senior and my boyfriend is 81. He is very nervous about contracting the coronavirus. On Easter, we drove separately to a Thai restaurant and ordered our meals by phone. We picked up the prepared food at the door and ate it in separate cars with the windows rolled down, trying to talk car to car! After lunch, we took a walk and tried to stay six feet apart. Such is life now as a dating senior!

— Marilyn Matteson, Beaverton, Ore.

Let us know how you’re dealing with the outbreak. Send us a response here, and we may feature it in an upcoming newsletter.

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Jonathan Wolfe and Tom Wright-Piersanti helped write today’s newsletter.


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