NEW YORK - Even as coronavirus deaths mount across Europe, New York and other hot spots, the U.S. and other governments are beginning to envision an exit strategy and contemplating a staggered and carefully calibrated relaxation of the restrictions designed to curb the scourge.
"To end the confinement, we're not going to go from black to white; we're going to go from black to gray," top French epidemiologist Jean-Francois Delfraissy said in a radio interview.
At the same time, politicians and health officials emphatically warn that while deaths, hospitalizations and new infections may be leveling off in places like Italy and Spain, and even New York has seen encouraging signs amid the gloom, the crisis is far from over, and a catastrophic second wave could hit if countries let their guard down too soon.
"We are flattening the curve because we are rigorous about social distancing," New York Governor Andrew Cuomo said. "But it's not a time to be complacent. It's not a time to do anything different than we've been doing."
In a sharp reminder of the danger, New York state on Wednesday recorded its highest one-day increase in deaths, 779, for an overall death toll of almost 6,300.
"The bad news is actually terrible," Cuomo lamented. Still, the governor said that hospitalizations were decreasing and that many of those now dying fell ill in the outbreak's earlier stages.
In Britain, meanwhile, Prime Minister Boris Johnson spent a second night in intensive care but was improving and sitting up in bed, authorities said.
In China, the lockdown against Wuhan, the industrial city of 11 million where the global pandemic began, was lifted after 76 days, allowing people to come and go. The reopening was seen as a positive sign but also reflected the communist state's extensive surveillance apparatus and powers of coercion.
Wuhan residents will have to use a smartphone app showing that they are healthy and have not been in recent contact with anyone confirmed to have the virus. Even then, schools remain closed, people are still checked for fever when they enter buildings, and masks are strongly encouraged.
In the U.S., with more than 14,000 deaths and more than 400,000 infections, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention was considering changing self-isolation guidelines to make it easier for those exposed to someone with the virus to return to work if they have no symptoms.
Under the proposed guidance, aimed at workers in critical fields, such people would be allowed back on the job if they take their temperature twice a day and wear a mask, said a person who was familiar with the draft but was not authorized to discuss it and spoke on condition of anonymity.
'Glimmers of hope'
Dr. Anthony Fauci, the nation's top infectious-diseases expert, said that the Trump administration has been working on plans to eventually reopen the country and restart the economy amid "glimmers of hope" that social distancing is working to stop the virus's spread.
"That doesn't mean we're going to do it right now," he said on Fox News. "But it means we need to be prepared to ease into that. And there's a lot of activity going on."
The U.S. is seeing burgeoning hot spots in such places as Washington, D.C., Louisiana, Chicago, Detroit, Colorado and Pennsylvania. The New York metropolitan area, which includes northern New Jersey, Long Island and lower Connecticut, accounts for about half of all virus deaths in the U.S.
In Europe, Italian Premier Giuseppe Conte is expected to announce in the coming days how long the country's lockdown will remain in place amid expectations that some restrictions could be eased. Discussions are focused first on opening more of the country's industries.
Proposals being floated in Italy include the issuing of immunity certificates, which would require antibody blood tests, and allowing younger workers to return first, as they show less vulnerability to the virus.
Italy, the hardest-hit country, recorded its biggest one-day jump yet in people counted as recovered and had its smallest one-day increase in deaths in more than a month. Nearly 18,000 have died there.
In Spain, which has tallied more than 14,000 dead, Budget Minister Maria Jesús Montero said that Spaniards would progressively recover their "normal life" from April 26 onward but warned that the "de-escalation" of the lockdown will be "very orderly to avoid a return to the contagion."
The government has been tight-lipped so far about what measures could be in place once the confinement is relaxed, stressing that they will be dictated by experts.
French authorities have likewise begun to speak openly of planning the end of the confinement period currently set to expire April 15, without giving specifics. The virus has claimed nearly 11,000 lives in France.
Three necessary conditions
France's Delfraissy, who leads the scientific council advising the president, said three things are necessary for people to start leaving home regularly: intensive care beds need to be freed up; the spread of the virus must slow; and there have to be multiple tests to see if people are or have been infected and to trace them. He said the French would also need to wear masks in public.
British government officials, beset with a rising death toll of more than 7,000, said there is little chance the nationwide lockdown there will be eased when its current period ends next week.
The European Union expressed privacy concerns about virus-tracking mobile apps that governments are developing. The apps use smartphone location data to monitor the movements of virus carriers under quarantine - technology the EU said raises questions of "fundamental rights and freedoms."
The desire to get back to normal is driven in part by the damage to world economies.
The Bank of France said the French economy has entered recession, with an estimated 6% drop in the first quarter compared with the previous three months, while Germany, Europe's economic powerhouse, is also facing a deep recession. Expert said its economy would shrink 4.2% this year.
Japan, the world's third-largest economy, could contract by a record 25% this quarter, the highest since gross domestic product began to be tracked in 1955.
Worldwide, nearly 1.5 million people have been confirmed infected and over 80,000 have died, according to Johns Hopkins University. The true numbers are almost certainly much higher, because of limited testing, different rules for counting the dead and concealment by some governments.
For most, the virus causes mild to moderate symptoms such as fever and cough. But for some older adults and the infirm, it can cause pneumonia and death. Over 300,000 people have recovered.