Coronavirus live updates: Sunday church services draw scrutiny; US confirmed cases near 1 million

A Georgia mayor is fighting back against relaxed social distancing restrictions by asking religious leaders to not resume in-person services, even though the state says they can. States across the nation are detailing their plans to slowly reopen economies.

And controversial antibody testing is ramping up in the United States.

Georgia Gov. Brian Kemp announced he would reopen barbershops, hair salons, gyms, tattoo shops and nail salons beginning Friday, April 24. Included in the order are religious institutions that can hold services “in accordance with strict social distancing protocols,” according to the governor’s office.

The order has met with mixed reactions from business owners and widespread condemnation from health experts and even President Donald Trump.

Meanwhile, scattered protests are popping up across the nation as some Americans are frustrated with stay-at-home orders that are intended to curb the spread of the virus and save lives. Among those upset: A group of Southern California protesters fed up with beach restrictions, several of whom were arrested on a beach hours before it was set to reopen.

The virus has killed more than 200,000 people globally, according to Johns Hopkins University data. More than 2.8 million confirmed cases have been reported, including 940,000 in the U.S., with more than 53,000 deaths.

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Georgia mayors fight back as businesses reopen

Savannah, Georgia, Mayor Van Johnson is taking steps to keep local churches closed, and Atlanta Mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms is urging residents to stay home, even as the state dramatically rolls back its social distancing restrictions. Johnson asked more than 70 Savannah religious leaders to keep their worship centers closed. None of the leaders said they would reopen. Johnson told the religious leaders he understood the financial burden of the religious institutions being closed but said, “We can reach God without going through a building.”

Meanwhile, Bottoms has repeatedly urged residents to stay home. On Friday, she tweeted coronavirus fatality statistics for the state: “The numbers speak for themselves. PLEASE STAY HOME.”

Georgia has become a high-profile outlier as dozens of states have announced plans to relax social distancing restrictions but few have yet made major changes.

– Asha Gilbert and Joel Shannon

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USNS Comfort wraps up New York City mission

The USNS Comfort, docked at a Manhattan pier since March 30, will soon leave for its homeport in Norfolk, Virginia, Pentagon spokesman Jonathan Hoffman said. The 1,000-bed hospital ship, sent by President Trump at the request of Gov. Andrew Cuom, treated just 182 patients. There wasone patient left on the ship early Sunday. The ship was deployed to care for patients without coronavirus, but the Comfort started accepting them when there was little demand for non-COVI patients while the city’s hospitals became overrun with people suffering from the disease. 

Even if you can find an antibody test, it may not tell you much

From coast to coast, epidemiologists are using some of the many antibody tests that have entered the market recently to determine how much COVID-19 has spread.  The importance of these tests are not lost on Americans, who are itching to go back to work, see loved ones and find out if they have been infected with the virus. With little public data about the tests’ accuracy, experts question whether the tests will give people false reassurances by indicating they have immunity to the disease.

“There is currently no evidence that people who have recovered from COVID-19 and have antibodies are protected from a second infection,” the World Health Organization said in a statement Friday. The tests also “need further validation to determine their accuracy and reliability,” the statement said.

– Adrianna Rodriguez and Grace Hauck

Scattered protests continue across nation

Protests were held in states including California, Kentucky and Rhode Island on Saturday as some Americans expressed frustration with states’ restrictive social distancing orders. In Rhode Island, a protest drew as many as 100 people to the State House with signs telling Gov. Gina Raimondo to “Knock It Off, Gina’” and “Re-open the Rhode Island Economy.” At her daily briefing on the pandemic, she said: “I certainly respect their opinion and their ability to protest. … [But] if they are violating social-distancing rules, then they should knock it off.”

In Southern California, a group of 75 to 100 protesters gathered and three people were arrested, according to a release from the San Diego County Sheriff’s Department. The group was protesting beach closures, even as the county made moves to begin reopening beaches.

Death certificates can’t be trusted

As the U.S. struggles to track coronavirus fatalities amid spotty testing, delayed lab results and inconsistent reporting standards, a more insidious problem could thwart its quest for an accurate death toll. Up to 1 in 3 death certificates nationwide were already wrong before COVID-19, said Bob Anderson, chief of the mortality statistics branch at the National Center for Health Statistics. Experts say the inaccuracies are part and parcel of a patchwork, state-by-state system of medical examiners, coroners and doctors who have disparate medical backgrounds, and in some cases none at all. 

“I’m always worried about getting good data. I think this sort of thing can be an issue even in a pandemic,” Anderson said.

–Jessica Priest

NY man charged with hoarding tons of protective gear

A New York man, accused of amassing tons of scarce protective equipment sought by nurses and doctors treating COVID-19 patients, was charged Friday with hoarding and price gouging related to sales of surgical masks, medical gowns, gloves and hand sanitizer. Federal prosecutors alleged that Amardeep “Bobby” Singh, who previously sold clothing and sneakers, began marketing a new product line in mid-March, as medical professionals scrambled to find gear to shield themselves from the deadly coronavirus.

According to court documents, Singh allegedly offered face shields for $9.99, after acquiring them at a cost of $3.10. Disposable face masks were marked up, from 7 cents each to $1, while boxes of gloves, acquired for as little as $2.50 each, were priced at $7.99.

– Kevin Johnson

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