Health officials testify at Senate hearing; some discharged COVID-19 patients report relapses — 6 updates

The U.S. COVID-19 death toll has surpassed 80,000, with 80,684 COVID-19 deaths and 1,347,936 cases confirmed as of 8 a.m. CDT May 12. Globally, there have been 4,197,142 reported cases and 286,669 deaths, while 1,466,075 have recovered.

Six updates: 

1. Four top health officials testified May 12 to the Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee about reopening the U.S.

During his five-minute testimony, Anthony Fauci, MD, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, emphasized the modest, though statistically significant, efficacy of the drug remdesivir. Dr. Fauci added that there are at least eight vaccine candidates in clinical development. While there's no guarantee a vaccine will be effective, Dr. Fauci said he is "cautiously optimistic" researchers can develop a candidate with a high enough degree of efficacy to achieve herd immunity.

Dr. Fauci said the virus is not likely to disappear, citing its highly transmissible nature, though he touted the combined efforts of the CDC, HHS and FDA to combat the spread. Per The New York Times, Dr. Fauci said reopening too soon could trigger an uncontrollable outbreak, adding that it would not only lead to deaths but would set economic recovery back as well. Dr. Fauci said he has consistently urged states not to skip over checkpoints in the "Opening Up America Again" guidelines. He said he becomes concerned when areas move to phase one before confirming a gradual decrease in COVID-19 cases for at least 14 days.

CDC Director Robert Redfield, MD, said each state's reopening should be different and determined by local needs. He said rapid testing and contact tracing are essential aspects of reopening.

Assistant Secretary for Health Adm. Brett Giroir, MD, said HHS has opened 240 community testing sites in 33 states. He said the federal government is set to distribute 12.9 million tests over the next four weeks, and called the commercial supply of testing materials "now robust."

FDA Commissioner Stephen Hahn, MD, emphasized the need for testing and said the FDA has administered 92 emergency use authorizations for test kits so far. The agency is monitoring the market for fraudulent tests and working to provide more clarity about which tests have been reviewed and which have not.

2. The White House is recommending comprehensive testing for the nation's 15,000 nursing homes nationwide, according to CBS News. Vice President Mike Pence made the recommendation during a May 11 call with governors. Deborah Birx, MD, coordinator of the White House's COVID-19 task force, said all 1 million nursing home residents nationwide, along with staff members, should get tested over the next two weeks, according to ABC News.

3. COVID-19 cases have spiked in many smaller communities across the U.S., according to an internal White House document obtained by NBC News. The May 7 COVID-19 task force report includes undisclosed data on the 10 counties with the largest increase in cases, produced by the group's data and analytics unit. Each area reported a week-to-week increase of 72.4 percent or higher. Central City, Ky., came in at No. 1, with a 650 percent increase in cases. Other locations on the list included Des Moines, Iowa; Nashville, Tenn., and Amarillo, Texas.

4. The White House implemented a mask policy for most West Wing employees May 11, according to The New York Times. Everyone who enters the West Wing must wear a mask or face covering, unless they are sitting at their desks and appropriately separated from other colleagues. Government aides told The Washington Post that President Donald Trump is not expected to wear a mask inside the White House. The new policy comes after Katie Miller, Mr. Pence's press secretary, and a military valet both tested positive for COVID-19 last week.

5. Some discharged COVID-19 patients report relapses or a "long struggle" to full health, World Health Organization officials said during a May 11 news briefing.

"There have been some reported cases of putative relapse," said Mike Ryan, MD, WHO's executive director of health emergencies. He added that researchers are investigating whether relapses are reinfections or just a chronic part of the condition, though he said there is little evidence to suggest people are persistently suffering from COVID-19.

Dr. Ryan said the disease appears to affect many vital organs, such as the liver and kidneys, and many COVID-19 patients "remain quite frail, quite without energy and struggle to get back to full health."

6. An allegedly overloaded ventilator exploded in a Russia hospital, killing five COVID-19 patients, BBC reports. The intensive care patients died at a St. Petersburg hospital early May 12 in a fire apparently started by a short-circuited ventilator, news agencies in Russia reported. The fire was quickly doused and 150 people were evacuated, though it is unclear how many patients were injured. All the patients who died had been on ventilators.

After the U.S., Russia has the highest number of COVID-19 cases in the world, with 232,243 cases as of May 12.

Editor's note: This article was updated May 12 at 9:45 a.m. CDT.

More articles on public health:
Hundreds flock to Colorado restaurant open against state orders
15,000 tested for coronavirus antibodies erroneously told they're immune from reinfection
How the pandemic is affecting cancer research

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