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U.S. coronavirus death toll surpasses 50,000 as some states relax restrictions

A medical worker looks out onto a line of patients waiting for COVID-19 testing outside Elmhurst Hospital Center, Friday, March 27, 2020, in New York. The new coronavirus causes mild or moderate symptoms for most people, but for some, especially older adults and people with existing health problems, it can cause more severe illness or death. (AP Photo/John Minchillo)

(CNN) — A few states are relaxing restrictions on nonessential businesses on Friday amid the coronavirus pandemic, challenging some health experts who believe it’s too soon.

This comes as the country passes a grim milestone: At least 50,000 people have died of coronavirus in the United States, according to tallies collected by Johns Hopkins University.

Businesses and customers in states starting to reopen are now navigating an interesting test: How will they lean into their new choices, even if allowed?

States easing restrictions Friday include Georgia, which is allowing businesses such as gyms, barber shops, hair salons, tattoo parlors and bowling alleys to reopen, with some guidelines for social distancing.

Restaurants can reopen there Monday, also with distancing restrictions. Ian Winslade, owner of a restaurant in Atlanta, said his establishment will stay closed for now.

“I don’t understand whether or not the public will have confidence to meet with us,” he told CNN Friday

In Texas, the state Friday started a “retail-to-go” approach, allowing retail stores to sell to customers through curbside and delivery.

The Good Records store reopened Friday in Dallas — but only with its owner, Chris Penn, working. He felt comfortable enough serving customers himself, but not yet wanting to expose his employees.

“We’re going to give it our shot. … Hopefully we can make it out the other side,” Penn said Friday.

Other restrictions lifting Friday:

• Alaska: Most areas will allow personal services, like hair salons, and restaurants to reopen Friday, but with restrictions. Restaurants will have to keep distances between tables, and can’t exceed 25% of their normal capacity.

• Oklahoma: Personal care businesses can reopen for appointments Friday. Restaurants, dining rooms, movie theaters, sporting venues and gyms will reopen the following week if they maintain “strict social distancing and sanitation protocols.”

Also Friday, Michigan Gov. Gretchen Whitmer extended the state’s stay-at-home order through May 15 — but also relaxed restrictions so some businesses can reopen and the public can participate in more outdoor activities like golf and motorized boating.

South Carolina allowed some retail stores to reopen earlier this week. States easing restrictions starting next week, in varying degrees, include Colorado, Minnesota, Montana and Tennessee.

The pandemic, which has taken at least 50,373 lives in the US, is far from over. The World Health Organization said it will be “weeks to months” before the world knows what drugs can work against the virus.

The easing generally runs against the advice of experts who point to a University of Washington model, often cited by the White House, suggesting no state should reopen their economies before May 1, and that many states should wait even longer.

In Atlanta, Mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms opposes the Georgia governor’s decision to ease restrictions. She said she hopes many people still will stay home, but suspects some won’t.

“They will go into hair salons and go and get manicures and pedicures as if it is business as usual, and then in a couple of weeks, we will see our numbers continue to rise is in this state,” Bottoms told CNN Friday.

Coronavirus was spreading earlier than thought, research and deaths show

New research andtwoFebruary deaths confirmed as virus-related add to evidence that the novel coronavirus was spreading in the US much earlier than experts initially thought.

The developments suggest many more people have been infected than official tallies show, and that the fatality rate from the virus may be lower than it seemed, public health experts say.

The February 6 death of 57-year-old Patricia Dowd in Northern California is now the earliest known death in the country from the virus and shows the illness was circulating weeks before, a Santa Clara County official told CNN. The county announced the February 17 death of a 69-year-old man and the March 6 death of a third victim were also virus-related.

Dr. Sara Cody,the county’s public health director, said the victims likely would have beenexposed to the virus two to three weeks prior to their deaths. Since none of them had a recent travel history, she said they likely were exposed in that community.

But at the time, officials had reassured the public the risk of catching the virus was low. The three victims had not gotten tested for the virus because testing was very limited, the county said, restricted mainly to people with a related travel history.

This week, California Gov. Gavin Newsom asked coroners across the state to review cases dating back to December to determine whether they were also coronavirus related.

Across the country, a similar message: Researchers from Boston’s Northeastern University now suggest the virus was being transmitted throughout American communities earlier than late February.

The model suggests that by March 1, the median number of infected people in major US cities such as New York, San Francisco and Seattle had reached 28,000.

Even if the country where the virus originated, China, reduced transmission by February, most other countries likely would have had sustained transmission by mid- to late-February, Kate Coronges, executive director of Northeastern University’s Network Science Institute, said Thursday.

“In other words, the seeding of the coronavirus outside mainland China would have already occurred before January,” Coronges said, citing the model.

New York study shows earlier spread

New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo said Thursday that results of a study conducted on 3,000 New Yorkers show the virus was spreading in the region much earlier than previously thought.

About 14% of the state’s residents have antibodies, Cuomo said. Antibodies help show who may have previously had the virus and developed the antibodies as a result.

“It is significantly more widespread than most people had imagined and I think it confirms the point that (coronavirus) spread faster and it got here earlier than we originally believed,” Cuomo said.

But the results may also be a point of reassurance.

When the understood number of people infected is raised, the mortality rate “may not be 3% … it may be in the neighborhood … of 1% or less, which is good,” Dr. Carlos Del Rio, executive associate dean of Emory University School of Medicine in Atlanta, said.

A larger infected population is daunting, given that researchers understand infected people with no apparent symptoms or mild symptoms can spread the disease, Del Rio said.

“It becomes incredibly difficult to control something that you cannot see,” Del Rio said.

A higher-than-understood number of infections also indicates hospitalization rates may be lower, and more people than previously believed may have been developing some immunity, Dr. Amesh Adalja, an infectious disease expert at Johns Hopkins University, said.

The World Health Organization also is tracking a number of studies across the world trying to determine how many people have been infected by the virus globally, according to Dr. Maria Van Kerkhove, the technical lead for the coronavirus response with the agency.

What the WHO is seeing, Van Kerkhove said, is that the number of people with antibodies globally ranges between 2 to 3%, and up to 14%, according to one study in Germany.

‘Weeks to months’ away from effective treatment

The agency is also tracking hundreds of drug trials, looking for a treatment that can help infected patients recover.

But the world is “weeks to months” from knowing what works, Van Kerkhove said.

Other experts warned Friday that coronavirus antibodies would not be a license to stop physical distancing — partly because not enough is known about whether or to what extent the antibodies offer immunity.

“We do not know whether or not patients who have these antibodies are still at risk of reinfection with Covid-19,” Dr. Mary Hayden, spokeswoman for Infectious Diseases Society of America and chief of Rush University Medical Center’s infectious diseases division, said Friday.

“We don’t know even if the antibodies are protective, (or) what degree of protection they provide. So, it could be complete, it could be partial, or (for) how long the antibodies last,” Hayden said, adding: “We know that antibody responses wane over time.”