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Science

Coronavirus Today: Science will save us

Good evening. I’m Diya Chacko, and it’s Monday, April 13. Here’s what’s happening with the coronavirus outbreak in California and beyond.

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The U.S. had an early warning about the potential impact of the coronavirus in January, when scientists, public health officials and journalists were cautioning that the coronavirus was set to explode out of China. But it would be months before their warning was widely heard.

Now Americans appear to be looking to science to save the day. At one New York hospital, a team successfully converted a sleep apnea device into a much-needed ventilator in just a few days, in one what doctor dubbed an “Apollo 13 moment,” a reference to NASA’s daring rescue of a damaged spacecraft heading to the moon in 1970. Such efforts are taking place around the country as doctors, engineers, researchers and entrepreneurs confront the nation’s shortages of critical medical supplies and turn their ingenuity to finding solutions.

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Many doctors are following trails of clues to figure out what to try next to help treat COVID-19 patients. The safety and effectiveness of the experimental drug remdesivir are being tested in clinical trials. The medication, designed to disrupt or suppress a virus’ ability to replicate in the body, was originally developed for patients infected with the virus that causes Ebola. And a New York doctor has been trying out a drug called tissue plasminogen activator, or tPA, on the theory that it will break up blood clots clogging the lungs of some particularly sick COVID-19 patients.

Scientists are also dusting off some decades-old vaccines that were developed long before the emergence of the coronavirus to see whether they can provide a little stopgap protection until a more precise vaccine arrives. Shots made using live strains of bacteria or viruses seem to boost the immune system’s first line of defense, and sometimes that translates into at least some cross-protection against other, completely different bugs.

Robots are being put to use disinfecting hospital corridors and helping nurses manage routine tasks; unlike the humans they help, they neither get sick nor need to sleep. They’re also delivering meals to those staying at home and helping police deliver warnings to those who aren’t. And there’s much more they can do if engineers concentrate their efforts on the greatest needs, researchers say. “As epidemics escalate, the potential roles of robotics are becoming increasingly clear,” a group wrote last month in the journal Science Robotics.

And inside a biomedical laboratory at UC Berkeley, a PhD student and a research assistant have been working for nearly a month to produce hand sanitizer for tens of thousands of the Bay Area’s most vulnerable residents. The two have produced hundreds of gallons using products found inside the lab to match a formula designed by the World Health Organization and enlisted an out-of-work carpenter and more than a dozen other volunteers to bottle and distribute it.

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There is little doubt new technology will rise from this epic crisis, and reporter Joe Mozingo details how pandemics and epidemics have shaped history and led to massive advances in public health: germ theory, urban sanitation, vaccination, penicillin, better hygiene, isolation wards and the scientific method, which brought rationality to modern medicine. The coronavirus could revive faith in the inarguable forces of biochemistry.

But beware: Scams peddling fake science have emerged, feeding off the fear and confusion bred by the virus and the fact that there is no cure or vaccine, authorities say. They range from Medicare scammers and identity thieves to purveyors of unorthodox medical treatments and fraudsters soliciting investment in treatments that don’t exist or aren’t recognized by government scientists. Any unsolicited phone call or visit from someone claiming to work for or with Medicare should be “an immediate alarm bell,” said a federal watchdog official.

Weeks after the $2-trillion federal relief package was signed into law, Americans are starting to receive their stimulus payments. The IRS is already making its first round of payments to people who filed their 2018 or 2019 tax returns with direct deposit information. About 60 million checks are expected to be included in this wave. If you didn’t file your taxes in 2018 or 2019 with direct deposit, you can provide the IRS with that information in order to receive your payment more quickly. Visit IRS.gov for more details.

By the numbers

California cases and deaths as of 5:00 p.m. PDT Monday:

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Track the latest numbers and how they break down in California with our graphics.

Where is the coronavirus spreading?

Confirmed COVID-19 cases by country as of 5:00 p.m. PDT Monday, April 13. Click to see the map from Johns Hopkins CSSE.
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Across California

Gov. Gavin Newsom and his counterparts in Washington and Oregon are coordinating their coronavirus responses regionally and will work together to develop a plan to lift restrictions gradually and reopen economies along the West Coast, they announced Monday, outlining a few broad principles but giving no specific details. Newsom said he would provide details Tuesday on California’s strategy to start letting businesses resume functions.

Los Angeles Unified School District campuses will remain closed throughout the summer, and no student will get a failing grade on their spring report card, the district announced Monday. In a district where 80% of students come from low-income families, educators have been concerned about the family hardships that impede remote learning.

California drivers and business owners should get refunds on at least two months’ worth of insurance premiums. With people driving fewer miles and many businesses closed, the state insurance commissioner has ordered companies to adjust March and April premiums, and maybe May. Customers should get the refunds no later than August.

The highly infectious coronavirus has shed light on one of Hollywood’s dirtiest secrets: the often questionable sanitary conditions that have long existed on sets. Debate over on-set cleanliness practices has raised broader concerns about the definition of safe workspaces in Hollywood, particularly among production crews who are often the most exposed. “Nobody cleans sets,” one camera operator said. “They call wrap and everyone leaves and they lock the doors.”

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How to stay safe

Wash your hands for at least 20 seconds! Here’s a super-fun how-to video.
Stop touching your face, and keep your phone clean.
— Watch for symptoms including fever, cough and shortness of breath. If you’re worried you might be infected, call your doctor or urgent care clinic before going.
— Practice social distancing, such as maintaining a six-foot radius of personal space in public.
Wear a mask if you leave home for essential activities. Here’s how to do it right.
— Here’s how to care for someone with COVID-19, from monitoring their symptoms to preventing the virus’ spread.

How to stay sane

— Was your job affected by the coronavirus? Here’s how to file for unemployment.
— Here are all the ways to stay virtually connected with your friends.
— Visit our free games and puzzles page for daily crosswords, card games, arcade games and more.
— Here are some free resources for restaurant workers and entertainment industry professionals having trouble making ends meet.
— Advice for helping kids navigate pandemic life includes being honest about uncertainties, acknowledging their feelings and sticking to a routine. Here’s guidance from the CDC.

Around the nation and the world

The Supreme Court will hear oral arguments next month over the telephone and allow a live audio broadcast of the proceeding — both firsts. The announcement clears the way for the justices to decide by the summer whether President Trump has “absolute immunity” from being forced to disclose his tax returns to a House committee or a New York grand jury.

The death rate across much of Western Europe appears to be beginning to level off. Spain began easing parts of its coronavirus lockdown Monday, and Italy and Austria appeared poised to follow suit with fewer restrictions on public activities. However, the World Heath Organization warned countries against moving too fast. “Control measures can only be lifted if the right public-health measures are in place,” said WHO chief Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus.

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The coronavirus has catalyzed a new shared language worldwide, as words like “asymptomatic,” “droplets” and “super-spreader” become part of regular conversation along with phrases such as “red zone,” “social distancing” and “flattening the curve.” Suddenly we’re all epidemiology savants, writes Mark Z. Barabak.

Burning Man has been canceled. Instead of holding the annual festival in the Nevada desert starting Aug. 30, organizers said they will hold a virtual alternative. They said they were “committed to providing refunds to those who need them” but also asked ticket holders to consider donating their value. Those tickets already sold started at $475.

Your questions answered

Today’s question comes from readers who asked: What will it take for businesses to reopen? Reporter Ron Lin explored this question as part of a story on what “back to normal” might look like for California.

Experts in California and around the country talk about a gradual relaxation of stay-at-home orders — an intermediate step that should not be skipped until an effective vaccine is available. Keeping disease levels low in the coming weeks and months will also give doctors and researchers more time to identify lifesaving drugs that can be used in the interim.

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Once we see a sharp decline in new cases, “then you can start thinking about how we can keep it that way and prevent it from resurging,” said Dr. Anthony Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases.

One UC San Francisco epidemiologist speculated that manufacturing and construction jobs might come back first. Nonessential retail stores might follow a bit later, then restaurants some time after that. “And then maybe everybody who can telecommute would just sit tight for a while,” he said.

As restrictions are eased, officials will need to monitor the number of new coronavirus cases to spot any early signs of a flare-up.

Got a question? Our reporters covering the coronavirus outbreak want to hear from you. Email us your questions, and we’ll do our best to answer them. You can find more answers in our Frequently Asked Questions roundup, and in our morning briefing.

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For the most up-to-date coronavirus coverage from The Times, visit our live updates page, visit our Health section and follow us on Twitter and on Instagram.


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