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Countries start thinking about easing up on restrictions

NEW YORK — Even as coronavirus deaths mount across Europe and New York, the U.S. and other countries are starting to contemplate an exit strategy and thinking about a staggered and carefully calibrated easing of 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-François Delfraissy said in a radio interview.

Deaths, hospitalizations and new infections are levelling off in places like Italy and Spain, and even New York has seen encouraging signs amid the gloom. At the same time, politicians and health officials warn that the crisis is far from over and a catastrophic second wave could hit if countries let down their guard too soon.

“We are flattening the curve because we are rigorous about social distancing,” New York Gov. 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 are decreasing and that many of those now dying fell ill in the outbreak’s earlier stages.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention said it was issuing new guidelines for some workers who have been within 6 feet of someone with a confirmed or suspected infection to go back on the job if they have no symptoms. The guidelines apply to employees in critical fields such as health care and food supply and require they take their temperature beforehand, wear face masks at all times and practice social distancing.

In other developments:

— Stocks shot 3.4% higher on Wall Street amid the encouraging signs about the outbreak’s trajectory. The Dow Jones Industrial Average gained 780 points.

— U.S. researchers opened another safety test of an experimental COVID-19 vaccine, this one using a skin-deep shot instead of the usual deeper jab. A different vaccine candidate began safety testing in people last month in Seattle.

— British Prime Minister Boris Johnson spent a second night in intensive care but was improving and sitting up in bed, authorities said.

— Saudi Arabian officials announced that the Saudi-led coalition fighting Shiite rebels in Yemen will begin a cease-fire starting Thursday. They said the two-week truce was in response to U.N. calls to halt hostilities around the world amid the epidemic.

In China, the lockdown of Wuhan, the industrial city of 11 million where the global pandemic began, was lifted after 76 days, allowing people to come and go. The country on Thursday announced two additional deaths in Wuhan but no new cases there.

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. Schools remain closed, people are still checked for fever when they enter buildings and masks are strongly encouraged.

Dr. Anthony Fauci, the United States' top infectious-diseases expert, said the Trump administration has been working on plans to eventually reopen the country amid evidence that social distancing is working to stop the virus’s spread.

But he said it's not time to scale back such measures: “Keep your foot on the accelerator because this is what is going to get us through this,” he said at Wednesday's White House briefing.

Vice-President Mike Pence warned that Philadelphia was emerging as a potential hot spot, saying that he spoke to Pennsylvania Gov. Tom Wolf and that Pittsburgh was also being monitored for a possible rise in cases.

The U.S. is also seeing hot spots in such places as Washington, D.C., Louisiana, Chicago, Detroit and Colorado. 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.

Pence said he would speak to leaders in African-American communities who are concerned about disproportionate impacts from the virus. Fauci acknowledged that historic disparities in health care have put African-Americans at risk for diseases that make them more vulnerable in the outbreak, adding that makes it even more imperative for communities of colour to practice social distancing.

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 are less vulnerable 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 María Jesús Montero said Spaniards will progressively regain their “normal life” from April 26 onwards 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 about what measures could be in place once the confinement is relaxed, stressing that they will be dictated by experts

Without giving specifics, French authorities have likewise begun to speak openly of planning the end of the country's confinement period, which is set to expire April 15 but will be extended, according to the president's office. The virus has claimed more than 10,000 lives in France.

Earlier this week, Austria and the Czech Republic jumped out ahead of other European countries and announced plans to relax some restrictions.

Starting Thursday, Czech stores selling construction materials, hobby supplies and bicycles will be allowed to reopen. Only grocery stores, pharmacies and garden stores are up and running. The reopened businesses will have to offer customers disinfectant and disposable gloves and enforce social distancing.

Austria will begin reopening small shops, hardware stores and garden centres on Tuesday, and shopping malls and hair salons could follow two weeks later. People will have to wear face masks.

Austrian Chancellor Sebastian Kurz said authorities will watch carefully and will “pull the emergency brake” if the virus makes a comeback.

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 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 will 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, 1.5 million people have been confirmed infected and around 90,000 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.

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Hinnant reported from Paris. Associated Press journalists around the world contributed.

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Follow AP news coverage of the coronavirus pandemic at http://apnews.com/VirusOutbreak and https://apnews.com/UnderstandingtheOutbreak

Marina Villenueve And Lori Hinnant, The Associated Press