A coronavirus resurgence is wiping out two months of progress in the US and sending infections to dire new levels across the nation’s south and west, with hospital administrators and health experts warning that politicians and a tired-of-being-cooped-up public are letting a disaster unfold.
Coronavirus cases are climbing rapidly among young adults in a number of US states where bars, stores and restaurants have reopened – a disturbing generational shift that not only puts them in greater peril than many realise but poses an even bigger danger to older people who cross their paths.
The US recorded a one-day total of 34,700 new confirmed COVID-19 cases, the highest level since late April, when the number peaked at 36,400, according to a count kept by Johns Hopkins University. The Washington Post recorded 38,115 US infections on Wednesday, more than any previous day in the pandemic, and the New York Times put the figure at 36,126, the nation’s second-highest daily figure, and the highest in months.
While newly confirmed infections have been declining steadily in early hot spots such as New York and New Jersey, several other states set single-day records this week, including Arizona, California, Mississippi, Nevada, Texas and Oklahoma. Some of them also broke hospitalisation records, as did North Carolina and South Carolina.
“People got complacent,” said Dr Marc Boom, chief executive of the Houston Methodist hospital system. “And it’s coming back and biting us, quite frankly.”
Stocks slid on Wall Street as the news dampened hopes for a quick economic turnaround. The Dow Jones Industrial Average lost over 700 points for a drop of 2.7 per cent.
The virus has been blamed for over 120,000 US deaths – the highest toll in the world – and more than 2.3 million confirmed infections. On Wednesday, the widely cited University of Washington computer model of the outbreak projected nearly 180,000 deaths by October 1.
Summer fraternity parties, church activities, fitness classes, weddings and funerals and the reopening of bars have been linked to outbreaks, where young people have started going out again, many without masks, in what health experts see as irresponsible behaviour.
“The virus hasn’t changed. We have changed our behaviours,” said Ali Mokdad, professor of health metrics sciences at the University of Washington in Seattle. “Younger people are more likely to be out and taking a risk.”
In Florida, young people ages 15 to 34 now make up 31 per cent of all cases, up from 25 per cent in early June. Experts say the phenomenon cannot be explained away as simply the result of more testing.
For months, elderly people were more likely to be diagnosed with the virus, too. But figures from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention show that almost as soon as states began reopening, the picture flipped, with people 18 to 49 years old quickly becoming the age bracket most likely to be diagnosed with new cases.
“They are sick enough to be hospitalized, but they’re not quite as sick,” said Dr Rob Phillips, chief physician executive of Houston Methodist Hospital. He said he still finds the trend disturbing because young people “definitely interact with their parents and grandparents,” who could be next.
California reported over 7100 new cases on Wednesday, and Democratic Governor Gavin Newsom said he would withhold pandemic-related funding from local governments that brush off state requirements on masks and other anti-virus measures. Disney announced it is postponing the mid-July reopening of its southern California theme parks, which have been closed for four months, until it receives guidelines from the state, the company announced Wednesday.
Florida’s single-day count surged to 5500, a 25 per cent jump from the record set last week.
In Texas, which began lifting its shutdowns on May 1, hospitalisations have doubled and new cases have tripled in two weeks. Governor Greg Abbott told KFDA-TV the state is facing a “massive outbreak” and might need new local restrictions to preserve hospital space.
The Houston area’s intensive care units are nearly full, and two public hospitals are running at capacity, Mayor Sylvester Turner said.
Houston Methodist’s Boom said Texans need to “behave perfectly and work together perfectly” to slow the infection rate.
“When I look at a restaurant or a business where people … are not following the guidelines, where people are just throwing caution to the wind, it makes me angry,” he said.
Just 17 per cent of intensive-care beds were available Wednesday in Alabama – including just one in Montgomery – though hospitals can add more, said Dr Don Williamson, head of the Alabama Hospital Association.
“There is nothing that I’m seeing that makes me think we are getting ahead of this,” he said.
In Arizona, emergency rooms are seeing about 1200 suspected COVID-19 patients a day, compared with around 500 a month ago. If the trends continue, hospitals will probably exceed capacity within the next several weeks, said Dr Joseph Gerald, a University of Arizona public health policy professor.
“We are in deep trouble,” said Gerald, urging the state to impose new restrictions on businesses, which Governor Doug Ducey has refused to do.
Dr Peter Hotez, an infectious-disease expert at the Baylor College of Medicine in Texas, said he worries that states will squander what time they have to head off a much larger crisis.
“We’re still talking about subtlety, still arguing whether or not we should wear masks, and still not understanding that a vaccine is not going to rescue us,” he said.
The Texas governor initially barred local officials from fining or penalising anyone for not wearing a mask as the state reopened. After cases began spiking, Abbott said last week that cities and counties could allow businesses to require masks. So did Arizona’s Ducey, who is a Republican, as is Abbott.
Some business owners are frustrated that officials didn’t do more, and sooner, to require masks.
“I can’t risk my staff, my clientele, myself, my family and everybody else in that chain just because other people are too inconvenienced to wear a piece of cloth on their face,” said Michael Neff, an owner of the Cottonmouth Club in Houston. He closed it this week so staffers could get tested after one had contact with an infected person.
North Carolina Governor Roy Cooper, a Democrat, ordered people to wear masks in public as the daily count of hospitalisations and new cases hovered near records. In Florida, several counties and cities recently enacted mask requirements.
In a sign of the shift in the outbreak, New York, Connecticut and New Jersey announced they will ask visitors from states with high infection rates to quarantine themselves for 14 days. In March, Florida issued such an order for visitors from the New York City area, where cases were soaring.
The US Justice Department took aim at Hawaii’s quarantine requirement for visitors, saying it discriminates against out-of-state residents. The Hawaii attorney general’s office says there’s no merit to the government’s arguments and a related lawsuit from out-of-state property owners.
Cases also are surging in some other parts of the world. India reported a record-breaking one-day increase of nearly 16,000 cases. Iraq hit new highs as well, while Mexico recorded 947 deaths, its second-highest daily since the pandemic began.
But China appears to have tamed a new outbreak in Beijing, again demonstrating its ability to mobilise vast resources by testing nearly 2.5 million people in 11 days. China, where the virus emerged last year, reported 19 new cases nationwide Thursday. While up from the day before, there was no sign of further geographic spread.
Worldwide, over 9.4 million people have been confirmed infected, and nearly 500,000 have died, by Johns Hopkins’ count.