Coronavirus updates: Social distancing partisan divide on display in DC; FDA expands use of remdesivir without research; MGM Resorts layoffs

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Two events a day apart in Washington, D.C., yet again highlighted the nation's uneven commitment to social distancing guidelines — this as federal officials announced positive news in the race for a vaccine which will hopefully end those restrictions.

When President Donald Trump formally accepted the Republican Party’s nomination for a second term Thursday night, pandemic precautions were largely cast aside at the a made-for-television extravaganza. Chairs set up for the more than 1,000 invited guests were jammed close together. Most of the invitees didn’t wear face masks.

The following day, thousands converged on the nation's capital to march for racial justice, and event organizers took temperatures and required participants to wear face masks. “We are socially distant, but spiritually united,” Martin Luther King III said, as he spoke to the crowd from the Lincoln Memorial.

It's the latest example of a well-documented partisan divide in how the nation is responding to the coronavirus pandemic.

Also on Friday: Federal authorities delivered more positive vaccine news. Operation Warp Speed appears to be on track to have millions of doses of an approved vaccine by the end of 2020.

Some significant developments:

  • The NBA says all team owners who also control their arena property will work with local officials to turn their buildings into a voting location for the 2020 general election to allow for safe, in-person voting.
  • For the first time since July 25, Florida no longer claims the second highest number of coronavirus cases in the nation, according to a coronavirus tracking site operated by Johns Hopkins University. California now leads the nation. 
  • In state and federal prisons, more than 1,000 inmates and staffers have died.

📈 Today's numbers: This week, new case records were set in Hawaii, Iowa, Minnesota, North Dakota and South Dakota, and Hawaii and Guam reported record numbers of deaths, according to a USA TODAY analysis of Johns Hopkins data through late Friday. Meanwhile, the U.S. has reported 5,913,941 cases and 181,800 deaths.

📰 What we're reading: Homeless people are one of the most vulnerable populations in the coronavirus pandemic, yet they’re largely invisible victims. It's a “crisis within a crisis.”

This file will be updated throughout the day. For updates in your inbox, subscribe to the Daily Briefing.

University of Virginia set to begin in-person classes after two week delay

The University of Virginia announced Friday that it plans to offer in-person instruction for the fall semester beginning with the opening of residence halls Sept. 3. UVA officials in Charlottesville said they had initially delayed the start of in-person undergraduate classes by two weeks to assess the spread of COVID-19 and to see how other schools have fared since opening.

The Richmond Times-Dispatch reports that UVA has reported 67 total positive COVID cases since Aug. 17 among students, faculty and staff. Of those, 23 were students who reported a positive test on Thursday, the school’s highest single-day total. Twenty-five students, faculty or staff have been hospitalized.

A look at how other colleges are faring:

  • The University of Alabama reported an additional 481 students have tested positive for COVID-19, bringing the total to more than 1,000 infections since students returned to campus. The university system said no students are hospitalized. 
  • In West Lafyette, Indiana, Purdue University has reported 80 confirmed cases for COVID-19 since Aug. 1, including 60 confirmed in the past week since the school, with an enrollment of around 40,000, reopened. At least three houses with more than 100 students combined — a fraternity, a sorority and cooperative house — are on lockdown and arranging classes remotely at the start of the semester.

FDA expands use of remdesivir without research to back it up

The U.S. Food and Drug Administration late Friday allowed the drug remdesivir to be used on all patients hospitalized with COVID-19, although no published research supports such widespread use. The approval allows doctors freedom to prescribe the antiviral earlier. But it comes less than a week after the agency approved use of convalescent plasma without published scientific support, fueling concerns the agency is yielding to political pressure.

“It seems to be a pattern of approval without science, without data, without evidence,” said Dr. Eric Topol, vice president for research at Scripps Research in La Jolla, California and a national expert on the use of data in medical research.

In May, the FDA allowed remdesivir to be used for hospitalized adults who need oxygen, but not those sick enough to require ventilation. A government study published that month in the New England Journal of Medicine found those patients recovered faster than those who hadn't gotten the drug, though there was no evidence that it saved lives.

Earlier this month, the Journal of the American Medical Association published a study of less severely ill hospitalized adults, showing that five days of treatment with remdesivir was better than standard care, though “the difference was of uncertain clinical importance.”

No other studies have been published supporting more widespread use of remdesivir. Yet the FDA said the data is now compelling enough to expand its use to all hospitalized patients, including children.  Read more here

– Karen Weintraub

Vaccine on track for FDA approval by end of 2020, feds say

The U.S. expects to have four coronavirus candidate vaccines in large-scale clinical trials by the middle of September, a remarkable timeline considering the SARS-CoV-2 virus was only discovered in December.

The government is “very pleased” with the progress, Health and Human Services deputy chief of staff Paul Mango told reporters Friday afternoon. Mango is the agency's liaison with Operation Warp Speed, the White House-led task force on coronavirus vaccine and treatment development. Companies are already manufacturing three of the six candidate vaccines Operation Warp Speed has funded.

No doses of candidate vaccines can be distributed until the FDA declares them safe and effective. The first such approval could come as early as October, Mango said, though December is more likely depending on how quickly clinical trials can be completed.

– Elizabeth Weise and Karen Weintraub, USA TODAY

MGM Resorts to lay off 18,000 workers

Thousands of MGM Resorts workers will be out of work Monday, according to a letter CEO Bill Hornbuckle sent to employees.

“For the protection of workers, federal law requires companies to provide a date of separation for furloughed employees who are not recalled within six months,” the Friday letters read. “Regrettably, August 31, marks the date of separation for thousands of MGM Resorts employees whom we have not yet been able to bring back.”

The layoffs come five months after the COVID-19 pandemic shuttered the Las Vegas Strip and resorts across the U.S., bringing the tourism economy to a halt and putting a majority of the hospitality workforce out of jobs.

– Ed Komenda, Reno Gazette Journal

California governor issues new 4-tier framework for reopening businesses

Gov. Gavin Newsom on Friday announced a new framework for reopening California businesses that were shuttered in July amid soaring coronavirus cases and hospitalizations. He called the system “more stringent” but “more steady,” as it will allow counties to modify their activity based on the spread of COVID-19. 

Case rates and test positivity are the crucial metrics to be used by the state within a four-tier system to determine allowable reopening. Newsom said this is a simpler approach than what’s currently used, with a commitment to health equity.

The four tiers include:

  • Purple (widespread): Most nonessential indoor business operations are closed; more than 7 daily new cases per 100,000 residents; a positivity rate of 8% or higher
  • Red (substantial): Some non-essential indoor business operations are closed; 4-7 daily new cases per 100,000 residents; a 5-8% positivity rate
  • Orange (moderate): Some business operations are open with modifications , 1-3.9 daily new cases per 100,000 residents; a 2-4.9% positivity rate
  • Yellow (minimal): Most businesses open with modifications; less than 1 daily new case per 100,000; a positive rate of less than 2%.

If a county fails to meet their current tier’s metrics for two weeks, they will move back to the prior tier, Newsom said.

– Nicole Hayden, Melissa Daniels, Palm Springs Desert Sun

Florida drops to 3rd place in national COVID-19 cases as Texas surges

For the first time since July 25, Florida no longer claims the second highest number of coronavirus cases in the nation, according to a coronavirus tracking site operated by Johns Hopkins University. With 691,821 confirmed cases as of Friday, California leads the nation. It is the most populous state in the country, followed by Texas and then Florida.

Florida, with 611,991, dropped into third place behind California and Texas, with 614,549, after cases in the Lone Star State continued to spike in recent days while those in Florida have held steady.

But Texas' hold on the No. 2 spot is tenuous. On Friday morning, it had reported only about 650 more cases than Florida.

– Jane Musgrave, the Palm Beach Post

In-person vs. in-school learning: What is America doing?

Dr.  Anthony Fauci, the nation's leading infectious disease expert, has said reopening schools is best for kids, but districts shouldn't bring people together if the rate of local positive virus cases exceeds 10%. 

“You go in, people get infected, and – boom – you get shut down,” Fauci said in a webinar hosted by Healthline, a medical news website.

America's schools are lurching into a new pandemic school year over the next few weeks.

Among urban districts, almost 80% will open remote-only, according to a new report from the Center on Reinventing Public Education, an education research organization in Washington. Those districts often serve communities of color, which have been disproportionately hammered by the virus. Polling shows many Black parents would prefer to learn from home. Read more.

– Erin Richards

COVID-19 resources from USA TODAY

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Contributing: The Associated Press

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