With election looming, U.S. faces record surge of coronavirus cases


FILE PHOTO: The COVID-19 response specialist Alexandra Vizcarra collects a nasal swab test at Public Health Madison & Dane County as the coronavirus disease (COVID-19) outbreak continues in Madison, Wisconsin, U.S., October 19, 2020. REUTERS/Bing Guan/File Photo

(Reuters) - A record surge of coronavirus cases in the United States is pushing hospitals to the brink of capacity and killing up to 1,000 people a day, the latest figures showed, as the country's attention turns toward Tuesday's presidential election.

The United States recorded its 9 millionth case on Friday, nearly 3% of the population, with almost 229,000 dead since the outbreak of the pandemic early this year, according to a Reuters tally of publicly reported data.

The country broke its single-day record for new coronavirus infections on Thursday, reporting at least 91,248 new cases, according the tally. The accelerating pace of infections continued as data trickled in on Friday, with 12 states reporting a record number of new daily cases.

Serious cases of COVID-19 were on the rise as well, as hospitals in six states reported having the most patients suffering from the disease since the pandemic started. The number of hospitalized COVID-19 patients has risen over 50% in October to 46,000, the highest since mid-August.

Among the hard-hit states are those most hotly contested in the campaign between Republican President Donald Trump and Democratic challenger Joe Biden, such as Michigan, North Carolina, Ohio, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin.

For the third time this month, more than 1,000 people died of the virus on Thursday, and the pace of fatal cases is expected to continue rising.

The University of Washington's newly updated model projects the death toll, which had been holding at a monthly pace of just over 22,000 for most of October, will start climbing next month toward a new record of more than 72,000 in January.

The January projection by the university's Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation would eclipse the nearly 61,000 fatalities in April when the pandemic first exploded in the United States and overwhelmed hospitals in New York City.

"Our hospitals cannot keep up with Utah's infection rate. You deserve to understand the dire situation we face," Utah Governor Gary Herbert said on Twitter, echoing officials in other states and public health experts.

'NOT QUITE PREPARED'

Ashish Jha, dean of the Brown University School of Public Health in Providence, Rhode Island, said the country lacks adequate testing as the infections erupt in different parts of the country.

"We are having some of the largest outbreaks that we've had during the entire pandemic," Jha told Reuters in an interview. "And nine, 10 months into this pandemic, we are still largely not quite prepared,"

The pandemic remains a political football across the country, including in El Paso, Texas, where the mayor refused to comply with an order by the county's top executive to shut down non-essential businesses, as infections rise and hospital capacity is stretched.

Mayor Dee Margo, noting that he had already reduced the capacity at which businesses may operate, cited 32,000 jobless people and 148,000 relying on food banks in his city of 700,000.

"Struggling families should not have to choose between following rules and putting food on the table,” he said at a press conference.

The county executive, Judge Ricardo Samaniego, said in a statement that he was pursuing legal options to enforce his two-week shutdown order.

Trump has repeatedly played down the virus, saying for weeks that the country is "rounding the turn," even as new cases and hospitalizations soared. He maintained his upbeat tone in a tweet on Friday, saying the country was doing much better than Europe had in confronting the pandemic.

Biden and fellow Democrats in Congress have criticized the president for his handling of the health crisis.

In the U.S. House of Representatives, Democrats released a report on Friday condemning the Trump administration's pandemic response as being "among the worst failures of leadership in American history." At least 6 million Americans have been thrust into poverty and millions more are jobless, it said.

The 71-page interim report by Democratic staff of the House Select Subcommittee on the Coronavirus Crisis also said investigators identified more than 60 instances in which Trump administration officials overruled or sidelined top scientists to advance the president's political interests.

"The administration's response to this economic crisis has benefited larger companies and wealthy Americans, while leaving behind many disadvantaged communities and struggling small businesses," the report said.

After his hospitalization with COVID-19 in early October, Trump resumed the large campaign rallies that draw thousands of supporters packed together, many not wearing masks. The Trump campaign says the rallies are safe and that masks and social distancing are encouraged.

A CNN investigation found that 14 out of 17 counties surveyed showed an increased rate of new COVID-19 cases one month after hosting Trump rallies.

The report, which presented the health data without drawing a causal link, studied counties in 13 states including election battlegrounds of Minnesota, Wisconsin, Pennsylvania and Florida.

(Reporting by Lisa Shumaker, David Morgan, Aleksandra Michalska, Doina Chiacu; Writing by Daniel Trotta and Peter Szekely; Editing by Frances Kerry, Howard Goller and Cynthia Osterman)

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