New U.S. COVID-19 cases surpass peak set in April as states rethink strategy


As the coronavirus pandemic is about to enter its seventh month, COVID-19 continues to surge in parts of the U.S. — even as it eases in some states and other countries — setting record highs and filling up hospitals across numerous states.

On Thursday, the governor of Texas, one of the hardest-hit states, said he would pause the process of reopening businesses and institutions.

According to tracking from NBC News, Wednesday saw the U.S.’s highest-ever single-day number of new cases, with more than 45,000. The previous peak was on April 26. There is positive news in that the death rate is declining, possibly reflecting the fact that many of the new patients are younger. But deaths lag new cases by several weeks to months, and there is a worrisome sign in the rise in cases requiring hospitalization. According to tracking numbers from Johns Hopkins University, the U.S. has had more than 122,000 deaths and 2.4 million positive cases, far more than any other nation. As cases in Europe fall, calls to ban travel from the U.S. until the virus is under control here have increased.

Among the states setting new daily records this week are California, Arizona, Texas and Florida. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention documents obtained by Yahoo News show that most counties in these states were on a downward trajectory a month ago but now are almost all showing the opposite. Another map, by the Departments of Health and Human Services and Homeland Security, shows that as of June 21, 19 states had at least partially reopened (or never had statewide closures in the first place) while cases were still rising, despite CDC guidelines calling for at least two weeks of falling case numbers before the process was started.

Days of Decrease and Stay-at-Home Orders (CDC)
Centers for Disease Control and Prevention

At this point the virus is not spiking in places that were previously hit hard, such as New York state, where cases continue to drop — despite concerns earlier this month that the massive Black Lives Matter protests would result in a new spike.

Multiple outlets reported Wednesday that the White House planned to close 13 federally funded testing sites at the end of the month. This news comes amid reports that testing capacity in some states is “overwhelmed.” The New York Times reported that last Friday the largest lab in Arizona received more than twice as many samples as it could process, and that hundreds of appointments at a large testing facility on the state fairgrounds are reserved within minutes of opening every morning.

Despite the rise in cases across the state, a couple of hundred demonstrators turned out in Scottsdale to protest the city’s new mandatory mask rule. A city councilman, Guy Phillips, removed his mask, saying, “I can’t breathe” — mocking both the public health order and the Black Lives Matter protests over the death of George Floyd in Minneapolis. Republican Gov. Doug Ducey called Phillips’s comments “just flat out wrong” and said that “despicable doesn’t go far enough” in describing them. Ducey has refused to mandate mask wearing, instead merely suggesting that citizens don them. He called it “an issue of personal responsibility” and “[asked] Arizonans to make responsible decisions to protect the most vulnerable in our communities.”

Seven of the federal testing sites set to close are in Texas, which has been ravaged by the disease in recent weeks. As some of the state’s ICUs approach full capacity, Republican Gov. Greg Abbott issued an executive order Thursday morning attempting to increase the number of hospital beds in the state’s largest counties by banning elective surgeries. While Abbott has urged Texans to both wear masks and stay home while allowing local authorities to require them for employees and patrons of businesses, he has not issued a statewide mandate.

The Texas Tribune noted that the test positivity-rate benchmark Abbott set when reopening the state in May has been breached, with more than 10 percent of tests coming back positive, a marker he had previously called a “warning flag.” Abbott began reopening Texas on May 1, making him one of the first governors to take that step. On Thursday he announced a “temporary pause” in reopening but will allow businesses already open — including bars, bowing alleys and amusement parks — to remain so.

“The outlook is not good,” said Rebecca Fischer, an infectious disease epidemiologist at the Texas A&M University School of Public Health. “We are in a super-dire situation.”

On Tuesday, Florida recorded 5,508 positive tests, shattering the previous single-day high by more than 1,400 and setting a record-high infection rate of 15.9 percent. The state’s hospital beds are beginning to fill. About 81 percent of adult intensive care unit beds were full as of Wednesday.

While the Palm Beach County commissioners voted to make masks mandatory, a clip from their meeting went viral Wednesday showing citizens opposing masks by promoting wild conspiracy theories.

U.S. President Donald Trump speaks during a rally in Tulsa, Oklahoma, U.S., on Saturday, June 20, 2020. (Go Nakamura/Bloomberg via Getty Images)
President Trump at a rally in Tulsa, Okla., last Saturday. (Go Nakamura/Bloomberg via Getty Images)

Tulsa, Okla., also saw a record daily high of new cases on Wednesday, days after President Trump held an indoor rally in the city despite pleas by city health officials to postpone the event, which was held in a 19,000-seat arena that was two-thirds empty. Tulsa Health Department Executive Director Bruce Dart said it was too soon to know the full effect of the rally, but the Washington Post reported Wednesday that dozens of Secret Service officers will be quarantined after two tested positive for the virus.

Trump has taken to minimizing and joking about the pandemic, complaining — illogically, in light of the rising rate of positive tests — that the increase in cases is an artifact of doing more testing, and calling it the “kung flu” to call attention to its origins in China.

At a rally in Arizona Tuesday, he pretended, or admitted, he didn’t understand the name for the disease: “COVID. COVID-19. COVID. I said, ‘What's the 19?’ ‘COVID-19.’ Some people can’t explain what the 19 — give me the — COVID-19. I said, ‘That’s an odd name.’ I could give you many, many names. Some people call it the ‘Chinese flu,’ the ‘China flu.’ Right? They call it the ‘China,’ as opposed to ‘Chi-’ — the ‘China.’ I’ve never seen anything like it.”

The name is a contraction of “coronavirus disease 2019,” reflecting the year the first cases were discovered.

As he has continually done throughout the pandemic, Trump predicted that it and the resulting lockdowns would end soon — his first target date was Easter — and that the economy would bounce back. “But here’s the story: We are going to be stronger than ever before, and it’s going to be soon,” he said.

* Jana Winter contributed reporting.


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Originally published