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Coronavirus Briefing: What Happened Today

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  • California is expanding testing to include some people who show no symptoms of the virus.

  • Chinese agents helped spread false lockdown messages in the U.S., American officials say.

  • The British Parliament has started holding sessions in cyberspace, breaking with seven centuries of tradition.

  • Get the latest updates here, plus maps and full coverage

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A startling discovery has rewritten the timeline of the pandemic in the United States: A woman who died at home in Santa Clara County, Calif., on Feb. 6 was infected with the coronavirus, and probably caught it sometime in January.

Since the woman had no known exposure from travel, her contraction of the virus suggested that it must already have been spreading in the San Francisco Bay Area long before the federal government began restricting travel from China.

Testing in the U.S. was so limited in February — because of tight restrictions and botched test-kit manufacturing — that officials didn’t identify a case of community transmission until Feb. 26 or a virus-linked death until Feb. 29.

Experts said that if officials had known that the virus already had a foothold in the United States, there would have been more urgency in February to expand testing, prepare hospitals and get more protective gear. Instead, the government’s focus was on quarantining travelers from Asia.

Dr. Sara Cody, the county’s chief medical officer, said that the woman’s death as well as another individual on Feb. 17 were newly linked to the virus and were “probably the tip of an iceberg of unknown size.”

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Genes trace the path: Researchers studying the virus’s genome believe that it had begun to circulate in the New York area by mid-February, coming mainly from Europe, and that it spread undetected in the Seattle area for weeks after arriving there from Wuhan, China.

Mike Baker and Sheri Fink of The Times report about how the genetically unique version of the virus that landed near Seattle has jumped to 14 other states and now accounts for one-quarter of all U.S. cases whose genetic data has been made public.

How many deaths are an acceptable price to pay to restart the economy?

That macabre question confronts political leaders everywhere, writes Peter Baker, our chief White House correspondent, because in the continued absence of either a vaccine or a cure for Covid-19, any move to lift stay-at-home orders and to relax restrictions on commerce will involve a trade-off in some number of additional infections and fatalities.

The shutdowns that have hobbled the economy and thrown 22 million Americans out of work have also clearly saved many thousands of lives. Some models predicted two million deaths in the U.S. if nothing was done; with social distancing precautions, the figure seems headed for something closer to 60,000.

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Assessing whether shutting down — or reopening — is worth the cost means doing something many people find heartless: putting a dollar value on a human life. Government analysts do it all of the time.

For example, 41,000 deaths from opioid overdoses were valued in 2015 at $431.7 billion, or about $10.5 million per person, according to a recent White House report. Using that figure, if the shutdowns around the country were to save roughly two million lives, they would be worth a total of about $21 trillion — more than 10 times the cost of the recent $2 trillion relief package.

Some advocates of rapid reopening have offered a similar cold-eyed calculus, arguing that the immense economic harm being done by the shutdowns far outweigh the value of the additional lives that may be saved by keeping them in place.

Of course, it may not be as simple as that. Reopening the economy earlier may not pay dividends in the long run, and may actually do more economic harm, if the virus came roaring back and shredded public confidence.

And it’s far from clear how many people would be willing to go to the movies, get haircuts or dine out now, even if they could.

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“If you opened every restaurant in New Jersey tomorrow, I don’t think anybody would show up,” Gov. Philip D. Murphy told The Times.

With much of humanity stuck at home, the 50th anniversary of Earth Day arrived on Wednesday without many in-person celebrations but with a silver lining of sorts: The rewilding of some urban areas on a suddenly quieter, less crowded planet.

But the environmental benefits of the crisis are only temporary, the United Nations has warned. And climate change and other ways we disrupt biodiversity, like industrial-scale livestock production, can increase the transmission of “zoonotic” diseases — the ones that move from animals to humans, like Covid-19.

Beware of identity theft. Criminals are using people’s Social Security numbers and other personal information to steal their stimulus checks and unemployment benefits.

Keep your pets healthy. Watch for changes in behavior that could signal stress, like hissing. Don’t overwalk your dog just because you want to get out.

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Want to help? We’ve created a hub for ways you can make an impact, support front-line workers and help your community fight the virus.

In the spirit of recognizing the joy found in small things, our family is making a multicolored paper chain to mark our days at home, and to record daily gratitude. Our paper chain hangs in our kitchen, and is a constant reminder of the steadfast goodness and love that surround us in the midst of these palpably uncertain times.

— Natalie Jackson, Lookout Mountain, Tenn.

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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