NEW YORK (AP) — On a weekend when many pandemic-weary people emerged from weeks of lockdown, leaders in the U.S. and Europe weighed the risks and rewards of lifting COVID-19 restrictions, knowing that a vaccine could take years to develop.
In separate stark warnings, two major European leaders bluntly told their citizens that the world needs to adapt to living with the coronavirus and cannot wait to be saved by a vaccine.
"We are confronting this risk, and we need to accept it, otherwise we would never be able to relaunch," Italian Premier Giuseppe Conte said, acceding to a push by regional leaders to allow restaurants, bars and beach facilities to open Monday, weeks ahead of an earlier timetable.
The warnings from Conte and British Prime Minister Boris Johnson came as governments worldwide and many U.S. states struggled with restarting economies blindsided by the pandemic. In the U.S., images of crowded bars, beaches and boardwalks suggested that some weren't heeding warnings to safely enjoy reopened spaces while limiting the risks of spreading infection.
Britain's Johnson, who was hospitalized last month with a serious case of COVID-19, speculated Sunday that a vaccine may not be developed at all, despite the huge global effort to produce one.
"There remains a very long way to go, and I must be frank that a vaccine might not come to fruition," Johnson wrote in the Mail on Sunday newspaper.
President Donald Trump, by contrast, promised Americans a speedy return to normalcy that sounded far more optimistic than most experts say is realistic.
"We're looking at vaccines, we're looking at cures and we are very, very far down the line," he said while calling into a charity golf tournament broadcast Sunday broadcast on NBC. "I think that's not going to be in the very distant future. But even before that, I think we'll be back to normal."
Trump said events would probably resume with small crowds — if any — but said he hopes that, by the time the Masters tournament is played inNovember, the crowds can return.
Health experts, however, say the world could be many months, if not years, away from having a vaccine available to everyone, and they have warned that easing restrictions too quickly could cause the virus to rebound.
With 36 million newly unemployed in the U.S. alone, economic pressures are building even as authorities acknowledge that reopening risks setting off newwaves of infections and deaths.
Federal Reserve Chair Jerome Powell expressed optimism Sunday that the U.S. economy could begin to recover in the second half of the year, assuming there isn't a second wave. But he suggested that a full recovery probably won't be possible before the arrival of a vaccine.
In an interview with CBS's "60 Minutes," Powell said that, once the outbreak has been contained, the economy should be able to rebound "substantially," while warning it would take much longer for the economy to regain its health than it took for it to collapse.
The coronavirus has infected than than 4.7 million people and killed more than 315,000 worldwide, according to a tally by Johns Hopkins University that experts say undercounts the true toll of the pandemic. The U.S. has reported more than 89,000 dead, and Europe has seen at least 160,000 deaths.
For most people, the coronavirus causes mild or moderate symptoms. For some, especially older adults and people with existing health problems, it can cause more severe illness and lead to death.
Some experts noted recent infection surges in Texas, including a 1,800-case jump Saturday, with Amarillo identified as a growing hot spot. Texas officials said increased testing was playing a big role — the more you look for something, the more you find it. Many are watching hospitalizations and death rates in the weeks ahead to see exactly what the new Texas numbers really mean.
But Texas was one of the earliest states to allow stores and restaurants to reopen, and Dr. Michael Saag at the University of Alabama at Birmingham called Texas "a warning shot" for states to closely watch any surges in cases and have plans to swiftly take steps to stop them.
"No one knows for sure exactly the right way forward, and what I think we're witnessing is a giant national experiment," said Saag, an infectious diseases researcher.
In the U.S., many states have lifted stay-at-home orders and other restrictions, allowing some businesses to reopen.
Ohio Gov. Mike DeWine, a Republican, told CNN on Sunday that he was concerned to see images of a crowded bar in Columbus, on the first day that outdoor dining establishments were allowed to reopen.
"We made the decision to start opening up Ohio, and about 90% of our economy is back open, because we thought it was a huge risk not to open," he said. "But we also know it's a huge risk in opening."
In South Carolina, the Isle of Palms beach, saw a rush of visitors this weekend — with Mayor Jimmy Carroll calling Saturday the busiest day he has seen in his more than 60 years there. But police said almost people on the beach and in the ocean were staying a safely apart.
Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis has suggested that early predictions were overblown. On Monday, Florida restaurants will be allowed to operate at 50% capacity, as can retail shops, museums and libraries.
And in New York, Gov. Andrew Cuomo got tested for the coronavirus on live television Sunday. Any New Yorkers experiencing flu-like symptoms or those returning to work can now get tested, Cuomo said.
A pandemic, even a powerful one that has sickened millions, killed hundreds of thousands, and grounded global economics, can't stop the baby from coming.
Nor can it keep apart two sisters, one a first-time expectant mother in Omaha and the other, a professional photographer in NewYork City with a plane ticket and plans to document the momentous occasion.
Some things must still go on. They just happen differently than planned. So it was on April 11 when Lena Watson entered Methodist Women's Hospital with high blood pressure and a doctor's order to be induced more than two weeks ahead of schedule. Only her husband, Will, could be there in person under hospital rules as the contagious novel coronavirus raged in Omaha and the world.
Some 1,250 miles away was Lena's little sister, Anna.
Anna had moved to New York
City last November to expand her Omaha-based photography business there. She had found a fourmonth sublease on a pretty street in Brooklyn. The apartment was above a bookstore. She was 30, fresh off a summer photography workshop inMaine that had boosted her skills and confidence, and ready to take this next big step in the Big Apple.
Anna had planned to straddle New York and her hometown Omaha, booking photography gigs in both cities, including a spring trip to Omaha for Lena's first baby.
Lena, 32 on Monday, had always wanted to be a mother and had envisioned herself with tons of kids. That journey was not easy and she was grateful — albeit a bit anxious — about this first child growing inside her.
She and Will decided not to learn the gender in advance. They wanted their baby, the first grandchild on Lena's side of the family and second on Will's to be a real surprise. They had booked Anna, who wouldn't have missed this anyway. The due date was April 29.
Anna spent January and February trying to meet people and network in New York, to as she put it, "get my name out there."
Then came March and life in America's biggest city turned upside down as schools and businesses closed and hospitals filled up and people died.
Reflecting on this a few days ago, Anna said she couldn't yet express what it was like to live there and bear helpless witness to so much suffering.
"I don't feel like I've processed," she said.
Anna canceled a planned photo shoot in Omaha for a 90th birthday party in late March. She felt terrible for saying no, but didn't think it would be safe or responsible to travel, either by plane or car. Eventually, she shelved all plans to return.
"It became very clear that the safest thing for me to do would be to try to stay put," she said.
At the time, she and Lena held out hope that things could improve in time for Anna to get to Omaha for the baby.
But Omaha's coronavirus trajectory was only beginning to rise. Lena's health was speeding up the delivery date. And because of the pandemic, Anna wouldn't have been allowed inside the hospital anyway to take photos.
So Anna pitched an idea to her sister: What if they tried photography by Zoom?
It wouldn't be the same, of course, just as school, business meetings and friend happy hours aren't the same when seen on a Brady Bunch-like grid. But it would be something.
Lena signed off but with a few rules. First, the focus would be on the birth and not the process of recording it. Fine, Anna said. She never wants the camera to intrude. Lena and Anna agreed that theywould not interruptmedicine and nature for the sake of art. Anna promised she'd put herself on "mute" and close the Zoom portal whenever Lena requested.
The sisters did a dry run the night before. They positioned Will's iPad in the living room and then the nursery and then in the bedroom. Lena in Omaha and Anna in New York clicked on the same link.
Behold the wonders of technology. A portal opened to Omaha. Anna readied her camera in New York. Click and the expectant parents on birth eve. Click and a beautiful silhouette of the expectant mother, her belly a giant curve against the window.
The next day, Will set up the iPad in Lena's hospital room at Methodist Women's. Anna rested her Canon atop the thickest book she could find in this subleased apartment in Brooklyn. It was a Rolling Stone anthology of rock music. She wanted the camera absolutely steady as she aimed at her screen.
Labor was long. The baby did not immediately come. After more than 12 hours, Lena was prepped for a C-section. Anna captured all of it through that marathon Zoom.
As she clicked in New York, Anna wept, using that precious coronavirus commodity, a roll of toilet paper, to mop up her tears. As she birthed in Omaha, Lena wept.
Anna couldn't believe how quickly the medical team got to work: Cutting, yanking, pulling out a baby boy. Lena couldn't believe she was a mother.
At 10:55 p.m., Desi Matteo Watson took his first breaths outside the womb. He weighed 7 pounds, 14 ounces. He stretched 19 inches long. His skin was dark pink and he had a mop of dark hair on his head. Anna clicked and clicked and clicked.
Outside her apartment in New York and that hospital room in Omaha was a lot of pandemic dread. A drumbeat of bad news. Uncertainty about the future. A lot of fear.
But inside this too-bright surgical room was a miracle of new life. A baby was born. A woman and man had become Mom and Dad. A sister was a new aunt. And though physical distance separated them, screens and a camera put them into the same time and space.
Anna dutifully documented it all, taking care to frame her shots to include the fact she was shooting what she saw on her laptop. The pandemic is a part of Baby Desi's story. Physical separation is part of it, too, which is what makes the final shot so poignant.
It shows four squares of a Zoom meeting, four scenes of four Finocchiaro women sharing in the birth.
Starting in the top left corner is the new mother, teary Lena, in the hospital with a surgical cap on her head and newborn son in her arms. Working counterclockwise, we see the new nana, family matriarch Lisa Finocchiaro, smiling from her Omaha pillow. Then there's new aunt Maria Finocchiaro, a nurse practitioner in Omaha wearing a big, happy grin. Finally, in the upper right corner is a portrait of the artist, Aunt Anna, squinting behind the Canon perched on a rock-and-roll book in an apartment in a distant city that, right at that moment, was not so far away.
A pandemic can do a lot of terrible things. But at that moment, not even the mighty coronavirus could keep this family apart.
Nor could it stop the cycle of life.
While most Nebraska families remain hunkered down at home to avoid the coronavirus, pediatricians say there’s one place parents still should be taking their children.
Doctors who specialize in caring for kids say they’re concerned that their young patients are missing out on needed vaccinations and timely well checks, as well as sick visits and checkups for chronic conditions.
The American Academy of Pediatrics, in fact, has received reports from pediatricians across the country indicating that roughly 70% to 80% of children are not visiting their doctors right now, said Laura Polak, executive director of the group’s Nebraska chapter.
The national organization plans to launch a campaign this week to encourage parents to bring their children in for needed shots, checkups and other care, under the hashtag #CallYourPediatrician. The Nebraska chapter will join the call.
A key message will be that pediatricians’ offices, like other clinics and hospitals, have established practices to keep kids, parents and providers safe from the virus so families can feel comfortable coming back in for needed care and checkups.
Also high on doctors’ lists of needed interventions are the behavioral health screenings that now are an important part of well checks for older children. With school out and restrictions limiting youths’ access to friends and other coping mechanisms, health care providers are seeing more anxiety and depression among their patients.
“We’ve worked through all the kinks in the system so we can bring (children) in with minimal to no risk of transmission,” said Dr. Phil Boucher of the Lincoln Pediatric Group in Lincoln.
Many practices now require masks for patients, parents and staff. They also have designated separate locations for sick kids and healthy ones or have separated the two by designating different hours or building entrances. Waiting rooms are sitting empty, with providers often calling patients in one by one from their cars and ushering them directly into exam rooms. Many also made a quick pivot to providing telehealth options for patients whose concerns can be handled remotely.
“There’s less interaction than you’d have at a grocery store,” Boucher said.
But some care can happen only in person. Babies need vaccinations and well checks at regular intervals in order to ward off vaccine-preventable illnesses and catch developmental delays or concerns.
The federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention posted guidance in late March emphasizing the importance of keeping kids, particularly those under age 2, up to date on routine well care and immunizations.
But a study posted last week by the CDC indicated a substantial decline in ordering of vaccines by physicians in nine large health systems following the COVID-19 emergency declaration, a sign that fewer kids were getting their shots.
Data from the Nebraska Department of Health and Human Services shows that childhood vaccinations also are down in Nebraska. From January through Friday, immunizations — not counting influenza shots — were down nearly 9.7% for children under 2; 30.3% for kids ages 2 to 7; and 35.5% for those 7 to 17, compared with the same period last year.
Boucher said providers in his practice gave 26% fewer vaccinations in April than they did in the same month last year.
Dr. Melissa St. Germain, a pediatrician at Children’s Physicians’ West Village Pointe clinic in Omaha, said well visits for kids under a year old were down 20% in April from April 2018 across the system. They were down 50% for kids 1 to 4 years old and 60% for those 5 to 18 years of age.
Vaccinations for pertussis, or whooping cough, were down 20% in April compared with the same month last year. Measles shots were down 40% over the same time frame.
That’s a concern, said St. Germain, president-elect of Nebraska chapter of the pediatricians group, because outbreaks of those two highly infectious diseases could occur if the number of vaccine-protected kids drops too low.
While Nebraska hasn’t seen measles outbreaks like those reported last winter in places such as New York, Michigan and Oregon, the state sees cases of whooping cough every year. It’s an illness that hits babies particularly hard.
Another concern is a recent decision by the Nebraska School Activities Association temporarily lifting the requirement that high school students get physicals each year to be eligible for athletics. Only incoming freshmen will need them in order to meet insurance requirements.
Polak said the pediatricians group still recommends that kids get those physicals, particularly if they have a health condition such as asthma.
St. Germain noted that doctors check for a host of other concerns during such visits, including behavioral health issues and substance abuse. “Those sorts of screenings are really important,” she said.
Boucher said it can be difficult for parents to distinguish between normal teen angst and more serious problems. And teens may not be willing to communicate such things to their parents.
Checkups also give pediatricians a chance to check for signs of mental or physical abuse at a time when families are under added stress and kids aren’t under regular observation by teachers and other school staff.
“If we can talk with them,” Boucher said, “we can uncover a lot more serious stuff that’s going on.”
As high school administrators and coaches in Nebraska plan for this fall, they do so amid much uncertainty during the coronavirus pandemic.
While in-person learning may not be a necessity for schools to resume activities, how social distancing guidelines evolve will dictate what’s possible for football and other sports and activities.
Definitely the directives will be a trickle-down, from Gov. Pete Ricketts’ office to Matt Blomstedt, the state’s commissioner of education, to the Nebraska School Activities Association and its executive director, Jay Bellar.
What Bellar said he’s hearing from school administrators is that they are concerned about when the NSAA activities will start, “but more of them are talking about how we can start school at this point in time.”
The first step in Nebraska toward resuming activities — there were no spring sports — comes June 1. That’s the day the governor said school weight rooms and gyms can open for strength and conditioning work and youth baseball and softball teams can begin practice.
The hope is that, if there’s no spike in COVID-19 and social distancing guidelines can be relaxed further, more summertime activities can be brought on board. Based on the governor’s comments, evaluation by his office of each step may take three weeks after implementation.
The first big date on the NSAA’s 2020-21 calendar is Aug. 10, when team practices can begin in fall sports — football, volleyball, softball, girls golf, boys tennis and girls and boys cross country. Softball and girls golf can begin their seasons on Aug. 20, a week ahead of the other four sports.
Football, of course, drives the conversation. Finances are a reason. Bellevue West football coach Mike Huffman said 80% of the school’s athletic revenue comes from gate receipts and NSAA reimbursements for football.
Bellar said the NSAA staff is contemplating the scenarios for football that could range from having a normal season to not having a season at all. What will have to be done for player safety first and fan access later? What happens if schools can’t open until September or in-person learning is delayed?
Bellar said Thursday night during the governor’s weekly town hall meeting on NET that it’s possible sports could start even if schools open under distance learning.
“If we would open on Sept. 8 and we were able to have our conditioning, which hopefully we can beforehand, that first game wouldn’t be until Sept. 11,” Bellar said. “Then what does that season look like? Is it going to be a shortened season of six or seven games and then the playoffs and stay in our time frame, or are we going to have a regular nine-game season that goes into December with the playoffs?”
He said that a COVID-19 committee will be formed to address those questions and others, including player safety guidelines, and that the national governing body for high school activities will release its reopening guidelines this week.
Not knowing what could be allowed in June, let alone in August, has individual schools trying to keep abreast with developments.
“We’re just playing it by ear and just seeing what everybody else is doing above us who are on the secondary level,” Millard South Athletic Director Steve Throne said. “There’s just been so many moving parts that you want to think about it but you don’t want to concentrate on it because you don’t want to waste a lot of time for something that’s not going to happen, but you want to be prepared.”
Throne said the worst case scenarios for him are not playing at all in the fall or delaying the start of the season.
“You know when you maybe say middle of September for starting, now you’ve lost four weeks of whatever sport might be. Like that would kill softball.”
Norris Athletic Director Mitchell Stine said what happens with strength and conditioning will tell a lot as to what’s possible.
“I don’t have a great pulse on what this fall will look like,’’ he said. “I just know that we’re planning right now for June 1 and looking forward to that, planning a safe environment for kids getting back into shape, and we’ll just see how summer progresses from there.”
Bellevue West’s Huffman, whose team is the returning Class A state champion, said he also wonders about what football will look like this year.
“It’s impossible to keep social distance when you’re playing football. I’m not sure how that’s going to work,’’ he said. “Is the game going to be the game? Will the fans be all spread out?”
In some communities with eight-man or six-man football, they’ve long had the answer to social distancing of fans: It’s vehicles pulled up to the field’s perimeter.