US faces long road on COVID-19 amid signs of improvement

US faces long road on COVID-19 amid signs of improvement
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Coronavirus cases nationally are falling from their July peaks and some hard-hit states are showing signs of improvement, a hopeful sign even as the country deals with about 1,000 COVID-19 deaths every day.

The positive news is still dwarfed by the negative reality of the pandemic’s hold over the country.

Though the situation is not as bad as it was in July, when cases peaked around 70,000 per day, the virus is still circulating around United States at a very high level, with around 40,000 new cases per day, according to the COVID Tracking Project. 

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And while some other countries are now seeing resurgences, the U.S. is faring far worse than the rest of the developed world. The European Union, for example, with about 100 million more people than the U.S., has well less than half the daily new cases, according to Our World in Data. 

The overall situation is no longer getting worse nationally in the U.S. though, and mitigation measures are starting to show their effects. Governors in many of the hardest-hit states, such as Arizona, Florida and Texas, after initially resisting action, put in place measures like closing bars and allowing local mask mandates, steps that experts say have helped those states improve. 

The situation comes as Republicans seek to put a positive spin on the experience with the pandemic at their convention this week. Democrats bashed figures like President TrumpDonald John TrumpObama calls on Senate not to fill Ginsburg's vacancy until after election Planned Parenthood: 'The fate of our rights' depends on Ginsburg replacement Progressive group to spend M in ad campaign on Supreme Court vacancy MORE’s economic adviser Larry KudlowLarry KudlowMORE for referring to the pandemic in the past tense. 

Marta Wosińska, a health expert at Duke University who works on the Covid Exit Strategy, a project tracking the spread of the virus in the U.S., said many states are “doing better than they were, but they're still in this dark red zone.”

“Obviously you could do much better,” she added. “This is a very high level of spread.”

To date, there have been more than 5.8 million cases in the U.S. and more than 179,000 deaths, according to Johns Hopkins University. The U.S. has about 4 percent of the world’s population but about 25 percent of its cases. 

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Experts stressed that some of the improvement is from people starting to take the virus more seriously and more widespread mask wearing, after early mixed signals on that front, and that any complacency or letting up could cause another spike. 

Arizona, once one of the hardest-hit states, has seen a dramatic improvement after Gov. Doug DuceyDoug DuceyKelly's lead widens to 10 points in Arizona Senate race: poll Polls show trust in scientific, political institutions eroding Coronavirus victim's daughter: Dad could have been spared if Trump told public what he told Woodward MORE (R), who initially resisted stronger measures, closed bars and allowed localities to require masks. 

New cases have fallen from around 3,500 per day in early July to less than 1,000 per day now, according to the COVID Tracking Project. The state has even fallen off of New York’s quarantine list for incoming travelers. 

“Definitely things are improving and they're actually improving quite dramatically,” Joe Gerald, a health expert at the University of Arizona, said of the state’s situation.

“Of course, they could turn a dime,” he added. “We saw what happened when we lose vigilance and allow things to kind of go back to normal.”

And compared to the rest of the developed world, he said, the U.S. is way behind. “Everyone has done better than us; not just a little better  they’ve done a lot better.”

But he said more widespread mask-wearing has definitely helped in Arizona, as has closing bars, and that it is hard to see how bars will be able to reopen safely while the pandemic is still raging. 

Another major question is how bad the fall will be. The coming flu season combining with the coronavirus, as students go back to school and colder weather forces more activity indoors into tighter spaces, has led to fears of another resurgence.

There is uncertainty, though, as to exactly how much of an effect these factors will have. Some factors point the other way. If people are now more accustomed to precautions and are adhering better to mask guidelines and avoiding crowds, that would help reduce the spread of both the coronavirus and the flu. 

There have been warning signs from the reopening of schools, though, and particularly from colleges, where parties can spread the virus rapidly.

The University of Alabama has reported more than 500 cases since classes resumed. The University of North Carolina switched to virtual classes after 177 of 954 tested students were put into isolation after testing positive.  

“We’re still at a really high level,” said Catherine Troisi, an epidemiologist at UTHealth School of Public Health in Houston. “[It’s] headed in the right direction but honestly I’m concerned about schools.”

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Experts said the school experience remains uncertain and likely depends on how bad the outbreak is in the surrounding area, as well as how well the school implements safety guidelines. 

Gerald, of the University of Arizona, said he is “cautiously optimistic” that the country can get through the fall without having to revert to full stay-at-home orders, if people continue to wear masks, socially distance and more targeted measures like bar closures stay in place. 

Just 12 out of 50 states saw an increase in the level of new cases per day over the past two weeks, according to Covid Exit Strategy. While the Sun Belt states are faring better, cases are increasing in some Midwestern states like Illinois and Iowa. The most cases per capita are in Southern states like Georgia, Mississippi and Alabama.   

But experts warned loosening restrictions or people getting complacent and less careful in their daily lives would lead to new spikes. 

“Nationally the numbers do seem to be coming down a bit,” said Robert Bednarczyk, an assistant professor at Emory University’s Rollins School of Public Health. “Just because we're starting to see a decline doesn’t mean that we’ve passed the point that we can start loosening those restrictions.”