By Barbara Goldberg and Tom Polansek
NEW YORK/CHICAGO (Reuters) – Americans spent Easter Sunday on lockdown as the U.S. toll from the novel coronavirus pandemic surpassed 21,300 deaths and more than half a million confirmed cases.
In the latest sign of the disruption wrought by the disease, one of the nation’s largest pork processing plants was shuttered after workers fell ill, and its owner warned the country was moving “perilously close to the edge” in supplies for grocers.
“It is impossible to keep our grocery stores stocked if our plants are not running,” Ken Sullivan, chief executive of Smithfield Foods, said in a statement on Sunday.
With almost all Americans kept indoors under stay-at-home orders to curb the spread of the disease, many turned to online church services to mark the holiest day in the Christian calendar.
The United States has recorded more fatalities from the COVID-19 disease caused by the coronavirus than any other country in the world. Roughly 2,000 deaths a day were reported for the last four days in a row, the largest number in and around New York City. Even that is viewed as understated, as New York is still figuring out how best to include a surge in deaths at home in its official statistics.
(Graphic: Tracking the novel coronavirus in the U.S. – https://graphics.reuters.com/HEALTH-CORONAVIRUS-USA/0100B5K8423/index.html)
As the death toll has mounted, President Donald Trump mulled over when the country might begin to see a return to normality.
The sweeping restrictions on non-essential movement that were imposed in recent weeks across 42 states have taken a huge toll on commerce and raised questions over how long business closures and travel curbs can be sustained.
The number of Americans seeking unemployment benefits in the last three weeks surpassed 16 million.
The Trump administration sees May 1 as a target date for relaxing the stay-at-home restrictions, the commissioner of the Food and Drug Administration, Stephen Hahn, said on Sunday. But he cautioned that it was still too early to say whether that goal would be met.
“We see light at the end of the tunnel,” Hahn told ABC’s “This Week,” adding, “Public safety and the welfare of the American people has to come first. That has to ultimately drive these decisions.”
Most states have issued broad stay-at-home orders that prohibit any large gatherings. In some states, that has sparked legal battles over whether there should be exceptions to attend Easter services in person.
On Saturday, the Kansas Supreme Court upheld an executive order barring more than 10 people from gathering for religious and funeral services. The decision, a victory for Democratic Governor Laura Kelly, followed an attempt by a Republican-led legislative body to overturn the order.
Some religious leaders plan to defy coronavirus bans, saying their right to worship outweighed the warnings.
Reverend Tony Spell told Reuters he expected more than 2,000 to congregate for services on Sunday at his evangelical Life Tabernacle megachurch near Baton Rouge, Louisiana.
U.S. Attorney General William Barr will be monitoring the regulation of religious services, Department of Justice spokeswoman Kerri Kupac wrote on Twitter on Saturday.
“While social distancing policies are appropriate during this emergency, they must be applied evenhandedly & not single out religious orgs,” Kupac wrote. “Expect action from DOJ next week!”
In recent days, U.S. public health experts and some governors have pointed to signs that the country is starting to see a turnaround in the fight against the outbreak.
Dr. Anthony Fauci, the country’s top U.S. infectious disease expert, said he was cautiously optimistic and pointed to the New York metropolitan area, which had its highest daily death toll last week but also saw a decrease in hospitalizations, intensive care admissions and the need to intubate critically ill patients.
“Once you turn that corner, hopefully you’ll see a very sharp decline and then you can start thinking about how we can keep it that way,” Fauci said on CNN’s “State of the Union.”
“If all of a sudden we decide ‘OK, it’s May whatever,’ and we just turn the switch on, that could be a real problem.”
Fauci and other public health experts say widespread testing will be key to efforts to reopen the economy, including antibody tests to find out who has already had the disease and could be safe to return to work.
The FDA’s Hahn said he was concerned that some antibody tests on the market that had not gone through the FDA scientific review process “may not be as accurate as we’d like them to be.”
“I can assure the American people that what we’re doing is using data and science to look at those tests to make sure that they’re valid, they’re accurate and they’re reproducible,” he said.
New government data shows a summer surge in infections if stay-at-home orders are lifted after only 30 days, according to projections first reported by the New York Times and confirmed by a Department of Homeland Security official.
(Reporting by Barbara Goldberg, Tom Polansek, Katie Paul, Doina Chiacu, Ross Colvin, Noeleen Walder, Christopher Bing and Lisa Shumaker; Writing by Daniel Wallis; editing by Diane Craft)