Coronavirus updates: Puerto Rico closes 911 centers amid outbreak; New Jersey Gov. Phil Murphy in quarantine; CDC redefines close contact

A Centers for Disease Control and Prevention report shows that, since the coronavirus pandemic began, the U.S. has seen nearly 300,000 more deaths than in recent years.

Usually about 1.9 million deaths are reported from February to September. This year, it’s closer to 2.2 million. The largest increase – 54% – was among Hispanic Americans.

COVID-19 was involved in about two-thirds of the excess deaths, the CDC reported. That appears in line with Johns Hopkins University data putting the U.S. death toll from the coronavirus at more than 222,000.

The CDC also released updated definitions of the parameters of close contact with someone with COVID-19, which shows the coronavirus spreads much easier than previously believed.

Meanwhile, in Washington, the Senate failed by a 51-44 vote on Wednesday to pass a $500 billion emergency aid package that didn't include $1,200 stimulus checks but would have given a federal boost to weekly unemployment benefits, sent $100 billion to schools and allocated funding for testing and vaccine development. The vote was 51-44, short of the 60 votes required to allow the legislation to move forward. Nearly all Democrats opposed it over concerns that more money was needed to combat the virus and help Americans.

Some significant developments:

  • USA TODAY's experts foresee that at least one COVID vaccine will be approved in coming months. Then comes the hard part: Distribution.

  • Idaho is seeing its largest spike in cases since the pandemic began. In the past two weeks, infections are up 46.5%. The governor's plan urges personal responsibility.

  • First lady Melania Trump canceled her first campaign rally in months, citing a "lingering cough" from her coronavirus infection earlier this month.

📈 Today's numbers: The U.S. has reported more than 8.3 million cases and 222,000 deaths, according to Johns Hopkins University data. The global totals: More than 41.1 million cases and 1.1 million deaths.

🗺️ Mapping coronavirus: Track the U.S. outbreak in your state.

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Puerto Rico shutters 911 call centers amid coronavirus outbreak

Both of Puerto Rico's 911 call centers were shut down Wednesday night after several employees tested positive for the coronavirus, officials announced.

Public Safety Secretary Pedro Janer said people should call the island's emergency management agency at 787-724-0124 or police at 787-343-2020 in an emergency. He said both agencies are operating 24 hours a day.

"This is serious," said Nazario Lugo, president of Puerto Rico's Association of Emergency Managers, adding he was shocked at the government's temporary plan to handle emergencies in the U.S. territory of 3.2 million people.

It is the first time Puerto Rico has shut down its primary and secondary 911 call centers. Janer said the buildings will be thoroughly cleaned and that he will soon announce when operations at the 911 call centers will resume. It was unclear how many employees tested positive.

New York weighs major changes to out-of-state travel advisory

New York State is weighing significant changes to its quarantine rules for out-of-state travelers as the prevalence of COVID-19 continues to rise throughout the country, Gov. Andrew Cuomo said Wednesday.

At a news conference, Cuomo suggested the state may swap its 14-day quarantine order for travelers arriving from high-COVID-19 states with new rules that would require the traveler to complete a rapid coronavirus test.

The governor's comments came a day after 43 states and territories met New York's threshold for inclusion on its quarantine list, which requires at least 10 average daily COVID-19 cases per 100,000 residents over the prior week or a 10% test positivity rate.

New York exempted three neighboring states – New Jersey, Connecticut and Pennsylvania – from the list, which dropped the total number of affected states and territories to 40.

– Jon Campbell, (Rochester, N.Y.) Democrat and Chronicle

Arizona seeing surge in coronavirus cases

Arizona is in the midst of a surge in coronavirus cases that resembles the early stages of the summer spike that made the state one of the world’s hardest hit hotspots for COVID-19, a prominent researcher said Wednesday.

Dr. Joshua LaBaer, director of the Biodesign Institute at Arizona State University, attributes the latest spike to fatigue with the social distancing and mask wearing that contained the outbreak in June and July.

“We are kind of looking like we did in mid-June,” LaBaer said. “Not a good place to be.”

Arizona on Wednesday reported 975 new confirmed coronavirus cases and another 17 deaths. The numbers reported by the Arizona Department of Health Services bring the total to 233,912 known cases and 5,854 deaths since the start of the pandemic.

CDC redefines COVID-19 close contact, adds brief encounters

U.S. health officials Wednesday redefined what counts as close contact with someone with COVID-19 to include briefer but repeated encounters.

For months, the CDC said close contact meant spending a solid 15 minutes within 6 feet of someone who tested positive for coronavirus. On Wednesday, the CDC changed it to a total of 15 minutes or more – so shorter but repeated contacts that add up to 15 minutes over a 24-hour period now count.

The CDC advises anyone who has been in close contact with a COVID-19 patient to quarantine for two weeks.

The change may prompt health departments to do contact tracing in cases where an exposure might previously have been considered too brief, said Dr. William Schaffner, a Vanderbilt University infectious diseases expert.

It also serves notice that the coronavirus can spread more easily than many people realize, he added.

New Jersey Gov. Phil Murphy goes into quarantine

New Jersey Gov. Phil Murphy said Wednesday he will quarantine after coming "in close proximity" with a member of his senior staff who tested positive for the coronavirus. "I will now, unfortunately, have to take myself off the field," Murphy said before leaving an event in Camden County.

Murphy, 63, tested negative for the virus Monday and said he had no symptoms. But that does not clear him because the virus can take several days to incubate, a point he has been pressing in his regular briefings. The Democrat and his wife were tested later Wednesday and the results came back negative, his communications director said.

– Dustin Racioppi, The Bergen Record

Ohio sets case records as infections surge in most states

Ohio is among the many states experiencing a surge in COVID-19 cases, setting a record for new infections for the second time in less than a week. Another 2,366 Ohioans tested positive for the coronavirus as of Wednesday, according to the state's health department. The new high is 132 more than the previous mark of 2,234 daily cases set Oct. 17.

As of Tuesday, 43 states had more cases in the latest week than they did in the week before, according to Johns Hopkins University data, and it's not just because of increased testing. In 39 states, test positivity rates were higher in the most recent week than the previous one.

North Dakota is now reporting cases at almost double the per-person rate of any state in the spring or summer surges. Wisconsin, Montana and South Dakota also were reporting cases at a faster per-person rate than any state did in the spring or summer.

Max Filby, The Columbus Dispatch, and Michael Stucka, USA TODAY

Montana, South Dakota leaders chart different courses as outbreaks deepen

Montana and South Dakota had a record number of deaths in the seven-day period that ended Tuesday, while those states and 13 others set records for new cases in a week. Montana Gov. Steve Bullock, a Democrat, has seen enough. He tweeted a quote Tuesday from ER nurse Charlotte Skinner: “I'm asking you to stop segregating yourselves into maskers and anti-maskers and to stand with us on the common ground of science and evidence, which is clearly telling us that masking works."

Republican Kristi Noem, however, has converted criticism for refusing to issue lockdowns or mandate masks into political capital – literally. Noem's campaign committee, Kristi for Governor, raised more than $850,000 between May 17 and Oct. 14 in part because of her newfound financial support from people outside of South Dakota. That's more than six times what she raised in the first part of the year.

Michael Stucka, USA TODAY; Joe Sneve, Sioux Falls Argus Leader

DC mayor urges residents to opt into contact tracing phone software

District of Columbia Mayor Muriel Bowser is urging residents with Apple or Android smartphones to opt in to the new DC COVID Alert Notice system, or DC CAN. Bowser called it “a quick and easy way to know if you might have been exposed to COVID-19," adding that it can help protect family, friends and the entire community.

The new Exposure Notification Express model is a major tweak to existing Google-Apple contact tracing software that became available earlier this year. But that tool was not readily embraced by health departments in part because it required jurisdictions to build and maintain their own apps. The new system claims to be simpler and doesn’t require iPhone users to download an app.

Experts say once a vaccine is available, distribution will be complex

Science is making remarkable progress toward a COVID-19 vaccine, but as approval nears – potentially as early as December – worry has shifted to the complexity of distribution. USA TODAY has been regularly surveying a panel of experts, who this month had an overall hopeful projection. After five months, the panel's countdown clock to a widely available vaccine skipped forward another hour, to 8 a.m.

Companies and observers generally expect at least one COVID-19 candidate vaccine soon will receive a regulatory thumbs-up. Dr. Francis Collins, director of the National Institutes of Health, joined the chorus Tuesday when he told NPR he was "guardedly optimistic" one or more of the current vaccine candidates will be judged safe and effective by the end of the year.

But reality is setting in about how hard it will be to get an approved vaccine to everyone who wants it. Read more here.

– Karen Weintraub, Elizabeth Weise

Pandemic has caused 300,000 more deaths than expected in a typical year

A new government report shows that since the coronavirus pandemic began, the U.S. has seen 300,000 more deaths than it usually would. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention found a 14.5% increase in reported deaths, from the usual 1.9 million between the beginning of February and the end of September to this year's nearly 2.2 million.

The CDC estimated 299,028 excess deaths in the nation occurred from late January through October 3, 2020, and 198,081 (66%) were attributed to COVID-19. The overall total of excess deaths by now has surpassed 300,000.

CDC officials say it’s likely the virus was a factor in many other deaths besides the 200,000-plus directly attributed to it. For example, someone with heart attack symptoms may have hesitated to go to a hospital that was busy with coronavirus patients.

Idaho Gov. Brad Little: Individuals responsible for themselves amid 46.5% spike

Idaho is seeing its largest coronavirus increase since the pandemic began: The number of new cases has increased 46.5% over the past two weeks. That has some health care experts urging Gov. Brad Little to take additional action to slow the spread of the virus.

Dr. Bart Hill with the St. Luke’s Regional Health System said Idaho’s current approach hasn’t worked to change the trajectory of the pandemic. He said hospital officials are meeting with the governor to encourage additional steps like statewide information campaigns targeting teens and young adults.

The governor has said the responsibility for efforts to slow the virus falls on individuals. He urges people to wear masks, practice social distancing and wash their hands.

California private school fined $15K for defying order to keep classrooms closed

After a three-month legal battle with state and county officials, a California private school will have to pay a $15,000 fine for defying a judge's health order to keep classrooms closed during the coronavirus pandemic. Fresno County Superior Court Judge D. Tyler Tharpe said there was "overwhelming" evidence that Immanuel Schools, a private K-12 Christian school in the state's Central Valley, violated his Sept. 15 order.

The judge originally fined the school $50,000, but then later dropped it to $15,000 after the school committed to following stricter state and local requirements for in-person instruction. If the school fails to do so, Tharpe said he will require the school to pay the full $50,000.

New Orleans Saints can have 3,000 fans in attendance for Sunday's game

It will not be close to full, but there will be 3,000 New Orleans Saints fans allowed into the Mercedes-Benz Superdome on Sunday when the Saints host the Carolina Panthers.

New Orleans Mayor LaToya Cantrell decided on Tuesday to allow a minimal amount of fans in the 73,000-seat stadium, according to a statement from the Saints. Only about 700 family members, friends and staff members were allowed in the team's first three home games this season because of COVID-19 concerns.

The number of fans could grow to 6,000 for the Saints' home game against San Francisco on Nov. 15 and for Atlanta on Nov. 22 should there be no changes in the COVID-19 health and safety guidelines.

– Glenn Guilbeau, Lafayette Daily Advertiser

Live shows are returning to Las Vegas Strip on Nov. 6

MGM Resorts in Las Vegas will soon bring back several top entertainment acts to The Strip – including David Copperfield, Carrot Top and Jabbawockeez. The shows are set to return Nov. 6.

“After eight months, it’s time to bring entertainment back to the Entertainment Capital of the World,” said George Kliavkoff, MGM Resorts’ President of Entertainment and Sports, in a statement. “While there is still a long road in our city’s recovery, the reintroduction of these shows is an important first step."

Nevada Gov. Steve Sisolak last month issued an executive order loosening the state's 50-person cap on gatherings and relaxing a host of other business restrictions imposed during the pandemic. Gatherings of up to 250 people – as well as many live entertainment events, trade shows, concerts and conventions – are now allowed to resume.

– Ed Komenda, Reno Gazette Journal

Target to offer another round of incentives to its employees

Target will offer its employees another $200 bonus because of the COVID-19 pandemic, according to a statement by the company. The second round of incentives is directed toward Target's 350,000 eligible in-store, distribution and customer service employees. Hourly and seasonal workers are eligible for the bonus.

Target's bonuses won't apply to contract workers who work for the company's grocery delivery service, Shipt. The move comes as Americans begin their holiday shopping and many retailers begin to hire seasonal workers. The initiative will cost the Minneapolis-based company over $70 million.

– Coral Murphy

COVID resources from USA TODAY

Contributing: The Associated Press

This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: COVID news and updates: CDC redefines close contact; NJ Gov. Murphy