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How long will Americans be fighting the coronavirus?

WASHINGTON (AP) — In a matter of days, millions of Americans have seen their lives upended by measures to curb the spread of the new coronavirus.

Normally bustling streets are deserted as families hunker down in their homes. Many of those who do venture out try to stay a safe distance from anyone they encounter, even as they line up to buy now-precious commodities like hand sanitizer. Parents juggle childcare as schools close, perhaps for the rest of the school year. And restaurants and bars sit empty as more and more convert to delivery-only options.

How long will this last? Scientists say there isn’t a simple answer.

“In many ways, this situation is unprecedented – we’re trying to take some actions to curb the spread and timing of this pandemic,” said Stephen Morse, a disease researcher at Columbia University in New York.

Yes, there have been past disease outbreaks that scientists can draw some lessons from but, in those cases, the disease was largely allowed to run its course. “So those models don’t precisely apply,” Morse said.

On Monday, President Donald Trump said the U.S. may be managing the outbreak through July or August. And New York Governor Andrew Cuomo said the state’s number of coronavirus cases may peak – not end – in 45 days.

The overall message is that the country will be fighting the virus outbreak for a matter of months, at least, not days or weeks.

Each model of how the disease could spread relies on data and assumptions about population dynamics, demographics, health care capacity and other factors, said Rebecca Katz, a public health expert at Georgetown University.

The challenge for designing models of what will happen next in the U.S. is that limited testing for COVID-19 means researchers don’t know what the starting point is — how many people are already infected.

In simplest terms, scientists say that the epidemic will slow when people with infections don’t pass the virus on to others.

“Basically, if I infect one other person or more ... then the epidemic can take off. If I infect less than one person and everybody infects less than one person, then the epidemic will decline,” said Elizabeth Halloran, a disease researcher at the University of Washington.

Based on data from China and from cruise ships, scientists estimate that unless measures are taken to limit the spread, each infected person will infect about 2 or 3 others, leading to an exponential growth of the virus.

If the virus makes a jump to new person every two to five days, as scientists calculate, then a single infected person could lead to 4,142 total infections within a month — assuming nothing is done to break chains of transmission.

Unless such measures are put in place, scientists estimate that between 40 and 80% of the global population could become infected. Based on an analysis of data from China, scientists found that the majority of new infections are transmitted by people with mild symptoms who may not even know they’re ill, said Jeffrey Shaman, a public health expert at Columbia University.

Even if most people recover and only a fraction of total infections are severe enough to require hospitalization — about 14%, scientists estimate — the sheer scale of the epidemic will put enormous strain on hospitals, healthcare workers and other patients who may see unrelated procedures delayed.

Scientists now agree that measures to break or slow the chains of transmission are crucial to ensure that emergency rooms aren’t quickly overwhelmed by surges in critically ill patients.

If measures like closing schools are successful in slowing disease spread, “we are going to see a hump instead of a peak” in new cases, U.S. government disease expert Dr. Anthony Fauci said in a White House briefing.

In other words, the number of infections will rise more gradually and manageably. But that also means the duration of the outbreak will be prolonged.

“The point of the restrictions we have is actually to stretch this out even longer. We don’t want a big peak to come very quickly,” said Mark Jit, a disease researcher at the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine. “It’s not like a Hollywood movie with a clear ending where everyone is saved, or everyone dies, quickly.”

So how does this end?

Most scientists believe the fight against COVID-19 won’t be over until there’s an effective vaccine. But Fauci and other experts say it will be more than a year before a vaccine can be ready for widespread use.

“The best-case scenario is that we have vaccine in 12 or 18 months and then our lives go back to normal,” Jit said. “The worst-case scenario it takes a long time for a vaccine to be developed, and the world is really changed and our lives aren’t the same again.”

While we wait, are we all shut-ins for more than a year? Almost no one thinks that’s realistic.

“I don’t think we can maintain social distancing as it is right now for the duration of the epidemic,” said Michael Levy, a University of Pennsylvania disease researcher.

What may be more feasible is a plan for intermittent restrictions and enhanced monitoring to control the disease, an idea explored in a new study from researchers at Imperial College London. Once the number of new cases falls below a certain threshold, schools, offices and restaurants could reopen. But if the number of infections spikes again, restrictions would be reinstated.

“The analogy of pumping car brakes on an icy road is what we should be thinking about,” Levy said. “You push on the brakes to slow things down, then ease up – but if you skid, you have to pump the brakes again.”

Follow Christina Larson on Twitter: @larsonchristina

Smith reported from Providence, R.I.

The Associated Press receives support for health and science coverage from the Howard Hughes Medical Institute’s Department of Science Education. The AP is solely responsible for all content.

Worship Worries - Activities suspended/some worship services cancelled

SEBRING — Amid warnings of congregating in large groups due to the coronavirus, Highlands County churches have taken unprecedented measures including cancelling worship services for the health safety of their congregations.

Faith Lutheran Church Vicar Bill Roberts said people need to maintain their contact with their Lord.

“So we are doing our best not to curtail activities especially worship activities, but we are leaving it up to the people’s choice,” he said. “If they feel comfortable, if they are not at risk;, we encourage them to come. If they feel they are compromised and or they consider themselves at risk that is a matter between them and God as to whether they worship or not.”

Normally during the Lenten, pre-Easter, season the church has dinners prior to Wednesday evening worship service, Roberts explained. The Lenten dinners have been canceled, but the Wednesday and Sunday services are continuing.

“We have a rather large sanctuary and we are asking people to sit with who you live with and asked people to sit on opposite ends of the pews so we will maintain the requested separation between people,” he said.

The Sunday morning worship and Bible study will go on as planned, Roberts said. The church’s board of elders has met a few times recently to make decisions related to the current health/safety concerns.

The church was loaning space to a tax service that helps seniors with their income tax returns, but the group announced they are suspending activity, he said.

The church’s food pantry for those in need has been moved outside for its weekly distribution of food. This Thursday a two-week supply will be offered and the pantry will be closed next week.

“What happens in the future depends on government directives,” Roberts said.

The surplus food location the church goes to for its supplies had a very small amount of food available earlier in the week, he noted.

The First Presbyterian Church in Lake Placid has canceled all activities and services through April 5.

On Tuesday, prior to a meeting of the church elders, First Presbyterian Senior Pastor Ray Cameron said the church would be more guarded on trying to preserve some kind of Sunday gathering. He said the situation could change with the decisions made by the elders.

The church posted the following message on Wednesday: “In light of the most recent CDC recommendations, FPC has decided to cancel all events through Palm Sunday, April 5. This includes all concerts, services, events, pickleball, small groups, youth and children’s activities and Grace Ministry food distribution (after March 20). Sermons will be recorded and added to our website for you to listen to.”

The church is in the process of developing their live streaming capabilities and are expediting that, Cameron said.

Memorial United Methodist Church, Lake Placid, has canceled its church services, but will have a live-stream worship service available Sunday at 10 a.m.

“We received word from the office of Bishop Ken Carter that, in accordance with the recommendations of the Center for Disease Control, Bishop Carter urged congregations to not meet together for at least the next two weeks,” according to a message on the church’s website. “While it is disappointing to us to not be able to gather together, we believe that it is in the best interest of our community that we follow this recommendation.”

New class schedule - staying home for online learning

SEBRING — The Florida Department of Education announced many actions in response to the coronavirus precautions including extending the closure of schools until April 15, cancelling all statewide assessment tests and informing school districts to prepare to extend their educational calendars through June 30.

On March 30, the School Board of Highlands County will begin utilizing virtual learning for the delivery of instruction.

“We have a plan in place as well as mechanisms for delivery,” according to Superintendent Brenda Longshore. “Some aspects are in the final stages of development,” however detailed information can be found at: https://sites.google.com/highlands.k12.fl.us/sbhc/instructional-continuity-plan

All school-related extra-curricular events are cancelled through April 15.

The Sebring High Grad Bash at Universal Studios on April 3 has been canceled and the Sebring High Prom on April 18 has been canceled with the hope of rescheduling.

There has been no word yet concerning the proms at Avon Park High and Lake Placid High, and there has been no word yet on the graduation ceremonies.

Longshore said, “I appreciate the patience and support of the community as we work through these challenging times. We will continue to work with state and local agencies.

“Directives to school districts will no doubt change, however we will keep as our priority the delivery of instruction to our students by the safest means possible.”

Commissioner of Education Richard Corcoran related the following information and actions:

• Requirements for graduation and promotion and final course grades will be evaluated as though those assessments which were cancelled did not exist.

• K-12 school grades will not be calculated for 2019-2020 and schools in turnaround may continue their current status for 2020-2021 to avoid disruption to school leadership and operations.

• Eligibility for Florida Bright Futures scholarships shall be based on available data and results. Tests that were not available to be taken shall not be counted.

The directives for funding are:

• The Florida Department of Education and K-12 school districts are instructed to redirect unspent 2019-2020 funds from Reading Scholarship Accounts, the Reading Instruction Allocation, the Digital Classroom Allocation and the Teachers Classroom Supply Assistance Program to help low-income students purchase digital devices and establish Internet services.

• In order to facilitate the remote connection between teachers and students, K-12 school districts are further permitted to redirect unspent Title 2 funds to help low-income students purchase digital devices and establish Internet services.

• K-12 school districts are permitted to redirect unspent 2019-2020 funds from the Safe Schools and Mental Health allocations to virtual and telephonic mental health counseling services for students who need emotional support due to COVID-19.

• All school readiness, voluntary prekindergarten, K-12, career and technical centers and state college programs will receive their full allocation of funding and therefore staff and contractors can be paid fully, through June 30, 2020, as though there was no disruption in education.

Concerning colleges and universities:

• All public state college and university, and private college and university campuses and buildings are closed for the remainder of the spring semester.

• Colleges and universities are encouraged to operate virtually or through other non-classroom-based means to the greatest extent possible.

• Colleges and universities should be prepared to extend their educational calendars through June 30, 2020, to the extent feasible and necessary.

All district school board and state college board of trustees meetings through June 30, 2020, are postponed and may only be scheduled for emergency purposes only by the respective school district superintendent or college president. These meetings must be convened virtually or by telephone.

“The containment of COVID-19 is essential, and this is not a decision we made lightly. Districts have taken action and have instituted distance learning as a necessary precaution to protect students, educators, families, and Florida’s overall public health,” Corcoran said. “We are working with our local school districts to provide guidance and help children who need access food during this time. Our number one priority is keeping our families safe and healthy and stopping the spread of this virus.

“These actions will help mitigate the spread of COVID-19 in Florida. I will continue to work with the Governor, Superintendents, Florida College System and the State University System to do whatever we can to protect our children, our families, and our communities.”

Local business increase safety measures

SEBRING — Day by day everything changes and sometimes it seems hour by hour. That is no different for our local stores and restaurants, with the Center for Disease Control (CDC) coming out with updates and advice on how to stop the spread of COVID-19. Local stores, restaurants, and beauty and spa services are doing their their part to keep customers and employees safe.

Restaurants are doing their best to keep their doors open as long as possible. Golden Corral in Lake Placid has stepped up its cleaning measures to ensure guest and employee safety. Hand sanitizer is now available at the door and throughout the restaurant, serving utensils are changed every hour, employees must wash hands going in and out of the kitchen, and “touch surfaces” are sanitized every 15 minutes. Once a guest has selected a table, the surrounding tables are closed with a reserved sign to promote social distancing. Once the guest leaves the table, condiments, the napkin holder and even the salt and pepper shakers are all sanitized.

Homer’s Original Smorgasbord increased its sanitation as well, but was closed Thursday.

Roserio’s Pizzaria in Spring Lake has closed its dining area and is now pick-up only. Pizza Hut closed its dining area until further notice but pick-up orders and deliveries are still available at all locations.

“Contactless delivery is one of the many ways that we’re working to help provide you — and our employees — the safest experience possible,” stated Pizza Hut. “No matter your location, if you want a more contactless option and prefer your pizza left at the door upon delivery, no problem. Just tell us in the special instructions section as you’re placing your order on PizzaHut.com or the Pizza Hut app.”

A majority of fast food restaurants have decided to go drive-thru only. Burger King is offering free kids meals to its customers.

A few restaurants have even waived delivery fees during this difficult time.

Health and fitness

AdventHealth Wauchula announced Thursday that effective today, it will no longer accept visitors for inpatients or those receiving outpatient services. Exceptions to the rules will be made on a case-by-case basis for those patients who need critical or end-of-life care.

The hospital is recommending alternative methods to connect patients with their families and friends such as email, text, telephone, FaceTime and Skype.

Beauty and spa services are increasing their cleaning measures as well. Top Nail in Sebring is operating during regular business hours with the salon cleaning between each customer with disinfectant wipes, alcohol and other cleaning products to ensure customer and employee safety.

Heal by Touch has not altered its hours and has maintained a thorough cleaning regiment.

“We clean before and after seeing patients as well as making sure our faculty is very clean,” said Tim Wheaton, owner of Heal by Touch. “The one thing different that we are doing is reaching out to the community to let them know of how thorough we clean everything even before the coronavirus and that we are still able to treat people for their aches and pains.”

Planet Fitness has started “Home Work-Ins” that will be streamed live on Planet Fitness’ Facebook page to provide alternatives for everyone to maintain health and exercise during this difficult time. The live workouts are daily at 7 p.m. The classes will be led by Planet Fitness certified trainers, as well as special guests like “The Biggest Loser” coach and fitness trainer Erica Lugo, among others. The classes are 20 minutes and do not require equipment.

Hours change, stores close

There is no doubt that local stores have been shopped hard and are in short supply at times, but local business are working hard to restock shelves and get everyone the products they need. Walmart has seen an increase in customers with a few shelves completely emptied and lines forming for toilet paper and cleaning products. Walmart has adjusted its hours and will now be open from 7 a.m. to 8:30 p.m. and has adjusted their online orders as well as Pick-Up Today. Starting Tuesday, Walmart will have a designated “Senior Hour” to allow the elderly time to shop before the crowds. That hour will be before the store opens to the general public.

“We’re seeing an increase in the number of orders coming in for our pickup and delivery services along with customers in our stores,” stated Casey Staheli, senior manager of National Media Relations of Walmart. “The service has not been suspended, though we have had to cancel a number of orders due to item availability. As such, we’re offering time slots to customer for as soon as the same day and up to one day in advance, rather than time frames further out. This is a shorter window than we typically offer, but it will allow us to better serve our customers during this busy time.”

In an effort to better serve their customers age 65 or older, Publix is designating Tuesday and Wednesdays from 7-8 a.m. as senior shopping hours. This change will begin this Tuesday, March 24, and continue until further notice. The Publix Pharmacy will also be open at 7 a.m. Tuesdays and Wednesdays.

Save A Lot is taking an all-hands-on-deck approach to replenish important items as quickly as possible with a few slight changes. Save A Lot has reduced hours to allow time to clean and restock, placed temporary limits on some items to ensure every customer has access to needed essentials and has increased the frequency of cleaning throughout the store.

Save A Lot is restricting the hour of 7-8 a.m. daily to seniors 65 and older for shopping. Dollar General will dedicate it’s first hour to seniors daily. Winn Dixie will observe 8-9 a.m. Monday-Friday for seniors and those who are most at risk to shop.

A few places have closed until further notice such as Hibachi Buffet in Sebring, China Buffet in Avon Park, AMC Theaters (all tickets purchased online are refundable), B & B Theaters, Bath & Body Works, Cindy’s Nails, TIMI Massage, JCPenny Salon, Belk and a few others for the safety of customers and employees.

Things change by the hour. Be sure to call ahead before heading out to the store or a restaurant to see if hours have changed. For the latest, please visit sebring.org/covid-19-updates or facebook.com/visitlakeplacid or theapcc.net and check the Highlands News-Sun for updates.