Officials: Easing shutdowns will come down to one thing

More than 640,000 people have tested positive in the US with at least 31,000 deaths linked to the virus, according to a tally by Johns Hopkins University. About 4,811 deaths were reported Wednesday alone.

In total, 22 million people have filed first-time claims since mid-March as the pandemic forces businesses to close and lay off workers.

Also Thursday, the Small Business Association says it has run out money for the Paycheck Protection Program.

“The SBA is currently unable to accept new applications for the Paycheck Protection Program based on available appropriations funding,” a notice on the SBA’s website reads. “Similarly, we are unable to enroll new PPP lenders at this time.”

With the $349 billion emergency small business lending program out of funds,Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin and Democrats will reconvene Thursday on a package to increase funding immediately.

President Donald Trump is set to unveil new guidelines on Thursday meant to help states loosen their social distancing guidelines even as business leaders and governors warn persistent testing shortfalls could hamper any effort to reopen the country.

Trump said Wednesday the nation had “passed the peak on new cases” and was ready for a new set of federal recommendations on how to reopen certain parts of the country. He acknowledged that some states would be able to open more quickly than others. He insisted his chief concern was the safety and health of Americans.

Still, he said there were risks inherent in keeping the country shut down.

“There has to be a balance,” he said. “You know, there’s also death involved in keeping it closed.”

When to get back to work?

New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo said Thursday the state will extend its social distancing plan to May 15.

“What happens after then, I don’t know. We will see depending on what the data shows,” he said.

Hospitalization, ICU admission, and intubation rates are all down, Cuomo said.

“The good news is we can control the virus … we can control the spread,” he said.

Before social distancing mandates are relaxed, experts say that increased coronavirus testing will have to be conducted nationwide to track how much the virus has penetrated communities and enable officials to separate those who are infected.

“It does us no good to send everybody back to work and then get everybody sick,” Minnesota Gov. Tim Walz said. “What it does do us good is to be able to send people back to work who, one, may be immune because they’ve had it, two, have just been tested and they’re symptom free, and, three, we have the resources necessary should someone get sick that it doesn’t become a hot spot. That’s what all of the experts and people are trying to get to … Because otherwise you are sending people back out there with a chance to get this thing.”

In addition to testing to proactively contain the virus, frontline workers need adequate supplies of protective gear to prevent its spread, said Jeff Johnson, the state director of Florida’s AARP.

Washington Gov. Jay Inslee also called rapid testing the key to determining when emergency restrictions can be lifted. “We need to build the equivalent of a fire brigade,” he said.

While Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti has said his city will likely not permit public sporting events and concerts until next year, Inslee was not ready to go that far yet.

“I wish I had a crystal ball to say when, why, what game, what day, what sport,” the governor said. “I can’t do that.”

The streets of Manhattan stand nearly empty due to the coronavirus epidemic in New York City.

The streets of Manhattan stand nearly empty due to the coronavirus epidemic in New York City.

The streets of Manhattan stand nearly empty due to the coronavirus epidemic in New York City.

Former Vice President Joe Biden called choosing between reopening the economy and ending the pandemic a “false choice” Thursday morning. In an interview on MSNBC, Biden — the presumptive Democratic presidential nominee — was asked by Joe Scarborough what he would say to those who want to go back to work as soon as possible.

“I’d say we should not send you back to work until it’s safe to send you back to work,” Biden said. “This is a false choice. The way you revive the economy is you defeat the disease.”

Protesters rally against restrictions in two states

Medical experts have emphasized that the key to fewer coronavirus cases is for people to practice social distancing. As a result, all but seven states are under stay-at-home orders from their governors.

But in at least two states, protesters rallied against the social distancing mandates, calling them a violation of individual freedoms.

In Lansing, Michigan, vehicles jammed several streets around the capitol in a protest organized by conservative groups against Democratic Gov. Gretchen Whitmer.

“It’s time for our state to be opened up. We’re tired of not being able to buy the things that we need,” Brenda Essman of Kalamazoo told CNN affiliate WLNS. “We need to open our businesses.”

And in Raleigh, North Carolina, demonstrators gathered outside the state legislative building Tuesday to protest the state’s stay-at-home order, CNN affiliate WRAL reported. Police officers told them they were defying social distancing rules by standing too close together, and asked them to disperse. Most left.

Michigan is one of the hardest-hit states with nearly 2,000 deaths reported while North Carolina has had 135.

Protesters for "Michiganders Against Excessive Quarantine" at the state capitol in Lansing.

Protesters for "Michiganders Against Excessive Quarantine" at the state capitol in Lansing.

Protesters for “Michiganders Against Excessive Quarantine” at the state capitol in Lansing.

Alaska starts rolling back restrictions

In Alaska, state officials have started easing some restrictions. The state has reported nine deaths to coronavirus.

As governments fumbled their coronavirus response, these four got it right. Here's how.

As governments fumbled their coronavirus response, these four got it right. Here's how.

Residents will be allowed to have nonurgent doctors’ appointments again starting Monday, Gov. Mike Dunleavy announced. Regular checkups, chiropractic procedures and physical therapy will be among the procedures allowed. Two weeks later, on May 4, most elective medical procedures will be allowed under the same provisions, the governor’s order says.

Before going to the doctor’s office, patients will be prescreened to make sure they’re not experiencing Covid-19 symptoms, Health Commissioner Adam Crum said at a news conference.

“We’ve been looking at the curve in Alaska, we’ve been able to flatten that curve because Alaskans are doing a good job,” Crum said.

The state has built up testing assets and is maximizing its use of personal protective equipment, officials said.

Companies report changes in testing

Some commercial lab companies say they’ve seen some recent decline in demand for coronavirus tests following weeks of increases.

Quest Diagnostics said demand declined in recent days, allowing the company to wipe out the remnants of its coronavirus test backlog. Its average turnaround time is now less than two days.

Another company, Eurofins USA, said its labs have excess testing capacity, in part because many hospitals are now testing in-house. A company spokesperson said another contributing factor is some of its labs have been denied entry into some insurance plan networks.

Officials are optimistic but with a caveat

Despite the daily rising death tolls, the number of infections nationwide is flattening out, said Dr. Anthony Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases.

But officials are warning that states shouldn’t yet ease up on social distancing measures because a resurgence of the virus is highly likely once Americans begin getting out of the house again.

Finding the right time to reopen the country is still a work in progress.

A team led by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention along with the Federal Emergency Management Agency has drafted a strategy that includes guidance for local and state governments on how to reopen safely and in phases, the Washington Post reported.

With many stay-at-home orders set to expire at the end of the month, governors have started discussions on the first steps toward reopening their economies.

CNN’s Elizabeth Joseph, Kevin Liptak, Lauren Fox, Phil Mattingly, Joe Sutton, Dave Alsup, Andy Rose and Ben Tinker contributed to this report

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