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Health Highlights: April 23, 2020

Last Updated: April 23, 2020.

Here are some of the latest health and medical news developments, compiled by the editors of HealthDay:

NY State May Have 10 Times More Coronavirus Infections Than Thought

A new study suggests that up to 2.7 million people in New York may have been infected with the new coronavirus -- a number 10 times higher than the confirmed cases in the state.

The preliminary findings from the state's first coronavirus antibody study were announced Thursday by Gov. Andrew Cuomo. Nearly 14% of people tested positive, meaning they had the coronavirus at some point and recovered, NBC News reported.

The results are based on 3,000 random samples from 40 locations in 19 counties. While they suggest a much higher rate of infection, they also mean that the state's death rate may be much lower than previously thought.

As of Thursday, there had been nearly 16,000 COVID-19 deaths. With 250,000-plus confirmed cases, the death rate would be as high as 16%, but that falls to about 0.5% with 2.7 million cases, NBC News reported.

However, it's difficult to determine the state's actual COVID-19 death rate because the state's official report counts death in hospitals and nursing homes, but not at-home deaths or other "probable" cases, noted Cuomo, who said that researchers continue to analyze the antibody study data.

A recent study in Los Angeles County, California found the rate of coronavirus infection there could have been 55 times higher than reported, which would also mean a far lower death rate than believed, NBC News reported.


'Health Force' to Combat Pandemic Proposed by U.S. Senators

A bill to create a "Health Force" to help combat the United States' coronavirus outbreak has been announced by two Democratic senators.

Hundreds of thousands of people would be recruited, trained and employed in public health and health care careers, ideally with many coming from the millions who lost their jobs due to the pandemic, NBC News reported.

The bill was announced Wednesday by Sens. Kirsten Gillibrand, D-N.Y., and Michael Bennet, D-Colo., who said the health force would be trained by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and managed by local and state health departments.

Members of the health force would do diagnostic testing for COVID-19, trace patient contacts, and give vaccines if they become available, NBC News reported.

"In the face of this unprecedented crisis, Congress must harness American patriotism, resilience, and ingenuity by establishing a Health Force to combat this deadly virus," Gillibrand said in a statement.


Payment Plan for Care of Uninsured COVID-19 Patients Announced by White House

A plan to begin paying hospitals and doctors who treat uninsured COVID-19 patients was announced by U.S. Health and Human Services Secretary Alex Azar on Wednesday.

He said hospitals and doctors would submit their bills for these patients directly to the government and be paid at Medicare rates, the Associated Press reported.

Azar didn't say what the plan will cost but is confident it will fit within the $100 billion approved by Congress to provide relief for the nation's health care system during the coronavirus pandemic.

A recent estimate by the Kaiser Family Foundation said the cost of treating uninsured COVID-19 patients would be between $14 billion and $48 billion, the AP reported.


Two NY Cats Are First U.S. Pets to Test Positive for Coronavirus

Two pet cats in New York are the first pets in the United States to test positive for the new coronavirus, federal officials say.

The cats were tested after showing respiratory symptoms and are expected make a full recovery. Previously, a lion and a tiger in New York tested positive for the coronavirus, CNN reported.

"These are the first pets in the United States to test positive," the U.S. Department of Agriculture said Wednesday in a joint statement with the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

They stressed that there is no evidence that pets spread the coronavirus and said there "is no justification in taking measures against companion animals that may compromise their welfare," CNN reported.


Top Health Official Says He Lost His Job For Not Supporting Trump's Claims About COVID-19 Treatment

The former director of the U.S. agency fighting the coronavirus pandemic says he lost his job because he refused to support President Donald Trump's unfounded claims that the malaria drug hydroxychloroquine is a remedy for COVID-19.

In a statement Wednesday, Rick Bright said he was removed from his job as head of the Biomedical Advanced Research and Development Authority (BARDA) on Tuesday and reassigned to a lower level position, the Associated Press reported.

BARDA is a unit of the Department of Health and Human Services that's tasked with countering bioterrorism and infectious diseases threats, and has been involved in efforts to find a vaccine for the new coronavirus.

"I am speaking out because to combat this deadly virus, science not politics or cronyism has to lead the way," Bright said in the statement released by his lawyers, the AP reported.

"Specifically, and contrary to misguided directives, I limited the broad use of chloroquine and hydroxychloroquine, promoted by the administration as a panacea, but which clearly lack scientific merit," said Bright, who has a doctoral degree in immunology.

"I also resisted efforts to fund potentially dangerous drugs promoted by those with political connections," he added.

Bright's lawyers, Debra Katz and Lisa Banks, said his removal as head of BARDA is "retaliation plain and simple," the AP reported.

Despite having no scientific evidence to support his claim, Trump has repeatedly touted hydroxychloroquine as a treatment for COVID-19.

When Trump was asked about Bright at Wednesday's briefing, he said he "never heard of him," the AP reported.

"While I am prepared to look at all options and to think 'outside the box' for effective treatments, I rightly resisted efforts to provide an unproven drug on demand to the American public," Bright said in his statement.

Bright and his legal team have asked for investigations by the HHS inspector general and by the Office of Special Counsel, an independent agency charged with protecting government whistleblowers, the AP reported.

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