MISSION, Kan. – It began with devastation in the New York City area, followed by a summertime crisis in the Sun Belt. Now the coronavirus outbreak is heating up fast in smaller cities in the heartland, often in conservative corners of America where anti-mask sentiment runs high.
Elsewhere around the country, Florida's Republican governor lifted all restrictions on restaurants and other businesses Friday and all but set aside local mask ordinances in the political battleground state, in a move attacked by Democrats as hasty.
Meanwhile, confirmed cases of the virus in the U.S. hit another milestone — 7 million — according to the count kept by Johns Hopkins University, though the real number of infections is believed to be much higher.
The spike across the Midwest as well as parts of the West has set off alarms at hospitals, schools and colleges.
Wisconsin is averaging more than 2,000 new cases a day over the last week, compared with 675 three weeks earlier. Hospitalizations in the state are at their highest level since the outbreak took hold in the U.S. in March.
Utah has seen its average daily case count more than double from three weeks earlier. Oklahoma and Missouri are regularly recording 1,000 new cases a day, and Missouri Gov. Mike Parson, a staunch opponent of mask rules, tested positive this week. Kansas and Iowa are also witnessing a spike in cases. And South Dakota and Idaho are seeing sky-high rates of tests coming back positive.
“What we’re seeing is the newer hot spots rise over the course of the last several weeks, predominantly in the Upper Midwest," said Thomas Tsai, a professor at Harvard's Chan School of Public Health.
The U.S. is averaging more than 40,000 new confirmed cases a day. While that number is dramatically lower than the peak of nearly 70,000 over the summer, the numbers are worrisome nonetheless. The nation's death toll eclipsed 200,000 this week, the highest in the world.