BOISE, Idaho – Deaths per day from the coronavirus in the U.S. are on the rise again, just as health experts had feared, and cases are climbing in practically every state, despite assurances from President Donald Trump over the weekend that “we're rounding the turn, we're doing great.”
With Election Day just over a week away, average deaths per day across the country are up 10% over the past two weeks, from 721 to nearly 794 as of Sunday, according to data from Johns Hopkins University. Newly confirmed infections per day are rising in 47 states, and deaths are up in 34.
Health experts had warned that it was only a matter of time before deaths turned upward, given the record-breaking surge in cases engulfing the country. Deaths are a lagging indicator — that is, it generally takes a few weeks for people to sicken and die from the coronavirus.
Michael Osterholm, a University of Minnesota expert on infectious diseases who warned over the summer of a fall surge, said what’s happening now is a confluence of three factors: “pandemic fatigue" among people who are weary of hunkering down and are venturing out more; “pandemic anger” among those are don’t believe the scourge is a real threat; and cold weather, which is forcing more Americans indoors, where the virus can spread more easily.
“When you put those three together, we shouldn’t be surprised what we’re seeing,” Osterholm said.
The virus is blamed for more than 8.6 million confirmed infections and over 225,000 deaths in the U.S., the highest such totals in the world.
Deaths are still well below the U.S. peak of over 2,200 per day in late April. But experts are warning of a grim fall and winter, with a widely cited model from the University of Washington projecting about 386,000 dead by Feb. 1. A vaccine is unlikely to become widely available until mid-2021.
The seven-day rolling average for daily new cases hit a record high on Sunday of 68,767, according to Johns Hopkins, eclipsing the previous mark of 67,293, set in mid-July. The U.S. recorded more than 80,000 new cases on both Friday and Saturday — the highest marks ever — though testing has expanded dramatically over the course of the outbreak, making direct comparisons problematic.
The true number of infections is thought to be far higher because many Americans have not been tested, and studies suggest people can be infected without feeling sick.
On Wall Street, stocks had their worst day in more than a month, amid the surging caseload and mounting doubts that Washington will come through with more relief for the economy before Election Day. The S&P 500 slid 1.9% Monday, while the Dow Jones Industrial Average shed 650 points, or 2.3%.
On Monday, the White House coronavirus response coordinator spent the day looking around North Dakota’s capital city and proclaimed the COVID-19 protocols to be the worst she’s seen in her travels around the country.
Dr. Deborah Birx, whose tour has taken her to nearly 40 states, said she found the absence of face coverings and the lack of social distancing in Bismarck “deeply unfortunate” and a danger.
“Over the last 24 hours as we were here and we were in your grocery stores and in your restaurants and frankly even in your hotels, this is the least use of masks that we have we seen in retail establishments of any place we have been,” Birx said. “And we find that deeply unfortunate because you don’t know who’s infected and you don’t know if you’re infected yourself.”
In the Texas border city of El Paso, authorities instructed people to stay home for two weeks and imposed a 10-p.m.-to-5-a.m. curfew because of a surge that has overwhelmed hospitals. The state is converting part of the city’s civic center into a hospital.
“We are in a crisis stage,” El Paso County Judge Ricardo Samaniego, the county’s top elected official, as he issued the stay-at-home order over the weekend.
On Monday, the county reported a record high in daily cases, with 1,443, and 853 patients hospitalized because of the virus, up from 786 a day earlier. The state has provided over 900 medical personnel to El Paso, some of whom will staff the convention center site.
Just last week, Trump during the last presidential debate downplayed the virus’ effect in the Lone Star State, saying: “There was a very big spike in Texas, it’s now gone.”
Trump said repeatedly over the weekend that the country is “rounding the turn." His remarks came amid another outbreak in the White House inner circle. Several close aides to Vice President Mike Pence tested positive, including his chief of staff.
In Idaho, where large numbers of residents resist wearing a mask, Republican Gov. Brad Little on Monday ordered a return to some restrictions to slow the spread of the virus as rising cases put a strain on the hospital system.
Little’s directive limits indoor gatherings to 50 people, urges businesses to encourage employees to work from home, among other steps.
Idaho’s positivity test rate is fourth-worst in the nation. St. Luke’s, with hospitals in southwestern and central Idaho, is reporting that 20% of hospitalized patients are suffering from COVID-19. Its hospital in Twin Falls has postponed elective surgeries and are sending children in need of medical care to Boise, about 125 miles away.
Primary Health Medical Group, the largest independent medical group in Idaho, has had to close two of its 19 urgent care clinics in southwestern Idaho because of sick or quarantined staff. The clinics are a buffer keeping hospital emergency rooms in the region from getting clogged with patients not needing emergency-level care.
Oklahoma is one of the states consistently breaking records for new cases, and the strain is being felt in hospitals. Bed space is running out, and an equally daunting problem is a shortage of nursing staff.
Dr. Sam Ratermann, director of the hospitalist program at INTEGRIS Grove Hospital in Grove, Oklahoma, said patients are being transferred from “hospital to hospital across the state” for lack of beds.
“Even when we have open ICU beds across the state, we don’t have staff to fill them,” Ratermann said. “There’s going to be a point where there’s no beds and we can’t even care for our local citizens."
The University of Minnesota's Osterholm has been predicting the darkest days will be in the weeks or months ahead. He said he expects increased competition for drugs and shortages of hospital specialists, N95 masks and other protective gear.
A strong national response plan was needed, along with consistent messaging that emphasized mask wearing and other preventive measures, Osterholm said.
“But our response has been... I don’t know what our response has been,” he said.
Stobbe reported from New York.