(CNN) — Despite frequent warnings from health officials that big gatherings can spread COVID-19, large groups continue to congregate across the United States leading to outbreaks in communities, on college campuses and beyond.
Universities in at least 19 states have reported outbreaks, some tied to large group gatherings.
Following what the dean of students and head of public safety called “incredibly reckless behavior,” 23 Syracuse University students were suspended Thursday after gathering on the campus quad at night. The next day, citing “a rapidly escalating increase” in the percentage of people testing positive for the virus, the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill announced that testing would be implemented for three residence halls.
Meanwhile, at least 26 cases of coronavirus in three states are being linked to the Sturgis Motorcycle Rally, which drew thousands of people to South Dakota earlier this month.
And an individual who tested positive for the virus after a Maine wedding reception has died according to a statement Saturday from Robert Peterson, CEO of Millinocket Regional Hospital. At least 32 positive cases were linked to the August 7 wedding, CNN has previously reported.
“We are sorry to share that this patient passed away early (Friday) afternoon. Our thoughts and sympathies are with her family as they cope with this difficult loss,” Peterson said.
Masks could save 70,000 lives, Murray says
To prevent outbreaks from becoming even more widespread, Dr. Chris Murray said it’s time for local governments to enforce more stringent mask rules.
“It will take a concerted effort but the impact is extraordinary, it’s really quite extraordinary what it could achieve,” Murray, chief of the University of Washington’s Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation, told CNN’s Anderson Cooper on Friday night. “It really depends on what our leaders do, (both) as individuals, and what governments do.”
IHME projected that if nothing about the nation’s approach to prevention changed, death rates would dip in September but rise later in the fall, and the total would reach about 310,000 by December 1.
But if significantly more people — about 95% of the U.S. population — wore masks, the projection of total deaths from now to December would drop by almost 70,000, he said.
On the other hand, if governments ease current social distancing restrictions and mask mandates, the daily U.S. death toll could reach 6,000 by December, up from his current prediction of 2,000 daily, Murray said.
More than 176,000 people have died of COVID-19 in the U.S. since the pandemic began, and more than 5.6 million have been infected, according to data from Johns Hopkins University.
Coronavirus case rates have been dropping for weeks in parts of the U.S., but death rates have been relatively elevated.
Convalescent plasma for COVID-19 treatment
The U.S. Food and Drug Administration on Sunday issued an emergency use authorization for convalescent plasma for the treatment of COVID-19 in hospitalized patients.
Convalescent plasma is created from the blood of people who have recovered from COVID-19, and it has shown some success in two other deadly coronaviruses: MERS and SARS. It has also been used to treat flu and Ebola.
The agency said it concluded that it may be effective in treating COVID-19 and that “the known and potential benefits of the product outweigh the known and potential risks of the product.”
“At the same time, we will continue to work with researchers to continue randomized clinical trials to study the safety and effectiveness of convalescent plasma in treating patients infected with the novel coronavirus,” FDA Commissioner Dr. Stephen Hahn said in a statement.
President Donald Trump said during a briefing Sunday the emergency use authorization of convalescent plasma to treat COVID-19 patients will “save countless lives.”
“Today’s action will dramatically increase access to this treatment,” Trump said.
Patients who were treated with convalescent plasma that contained high levels of antibodies within three days of their diagnoses benefited the most from treatment, Health and Human Services Secretary Alex Azar said during the briefing.
“We dream in drug development of something like a 35% mortality reduction. This is a major advance in the treatment of patients,” Azar said.
Emergency use authorization from the FDA does not require the same level of evidence as full FDA approval. At the end of March, the FDA created a pathway for scientists to try convalescent plasma with patients and study its impact.
Physicians have been using the treatment since. So far, more than 60,000 people in the United States have been treated with convalescent plasma.
Some states see positive changes
New York and New Jersey were early hotspots of the coronavirus pandemic but both reported encouraging signs this week.
New Jersey Gov. Phil Murphy tweeted Saturday afternoon that the state saw its lowest number of coronavirus-related hospitalizations since March 24.
“It’s incredible what we’ve achieved by pulling together as one New Jersey family, but we’re not over the finish line yet. Keep it up,” he posted.
And New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s office reported in a news release Saturday that the infection rate in the state stayed below 1% for 15 straight days, setting a new record low.
For the first time in two months, the number of coronavirus-related hospitalizations in Mississippi dropped below 1,000, according to Gov. Tate Reeves.
Meanwhile, other states are reaching troubling milestones.
California’s death toll is nearing 12,000, the California Department of Public Health said Saturday. With 95 deaths reported Saturday, Georgia broke 5,000 coronavirus deaths.
Concerns and questions around the new school year
The start of a new school year with in-person classes has brought trepidation to some Americans as more young people suffer infections.
In Florida, a 6-year-old girl became the youngest person in the state to die from coronavirus complications. Health officials say they still don’t know if the child contracted the virus from a known case or if it was travel related.
Many schools across the country have implemented increased measures to protect students and staff against the virus, even though researchers are still learning how the virus spreads among young children.
For older students, universities have responded to rising numbers with more preventative measures.
On Sunday, Georgia Tech reported 33 new cases of COVID-19, including 17 members of a Greek organization. This brings the total number of coronavirus cases at George Tech to 251.
The University of Miami reported four students in its Hecht Residential College had tested positive for COVID-19, officials said on the university’s COVID-19 website. Those students, and several others “who have shown symptoms,” were immediately removed from their floors and are in isolation, officials said.
At Florida Atlantic University in Boca Raton, students began moving into campus dorms on a staggered schedule with designated hours to promote social distancing.
“I think it’s everywhere. I don’t think there’s any hiding from it. I think just protecting yourself is the best thing you can do,” Kari Thronson, the parent of a college freshman, said.
Many colleges have already reversed plans for in-person classes and returned to remote learning after coronavirus cases were detected on campus, leading to quarantines.
Towson University in Baltimore County, Maryland, is temporarily moving to online classes after 55 people tested positive for COVID-19 on campus over two days last week, the university said Saturday.
At East Carolina University, interim Chancellor Ron Mitchelson said in a letter Sunday that the university is moving to online classes due to a “rapid acceleration” of cases and “multiple clusters.” The move comes two weeks after students returned to campus.
The University of Notre Dame in Indiana announced Tuesday that undergraduates would be learning remotely for the next two weeks after a spike in COVID-19 cases since students returned to campus on August 3. Since August 3, more than 408 students have tested positive, according to Notre Dame’s online health dashboard.