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US nears daily Covid cases record amid warning of 500,000 deaths by February

Oliver Milman in New York and Joan E Greve in Washington and agencies
·5-min read
<span>Photograph: Bing Guan/Reuters</span>
Photograph: Bing Guan/Reuters

The United States on Friday was approaching a record for the number of new daily coronavirus cases, as a new study warned that the pandemic is set to cause half a million American deaths by February.

Covid-19 is on course to ravage states across the nation throughout the coming winter and more than 511,000 lives could be lost by 28 February next year, modeling led by scientists from the University of Washington found.

This means that with cases surging in many states, particularly the upper midwest, what appears to be a third major peak of coronavirus infections in the US could lead to nearly 300,000 people dying in just the next four months.

In the latest ominous sign about the disease’s grip, the US recorded 71,671 new cases of coronavirus on Thursday, the Associated Press reported, while the seven-day rolling average for cases surpassed 61,140, compared with 44,647 two weeks ago.

The record was reached on 22 July when the rolling average was 67,293 in the midst of a summer outbreak driven largely by surges of the virus in Florida, Texas, Arizona and California, the agency reported.

Meanwhile, the Washington Post reported that according to its own data tracker, the US hit an all-time daily high for new cases on Friday, with a total of more than 81,000.

Several states are setting records across the midwest and west for infections and hospitalizations, amid the autumn surge.

Related: Covid cases increase across US as upper midwest sees rapid rise

The news came as Anthony Fauci, the top public health official on the White House coronavirus taskforce, said Donald Trump has not met with the taskforce “for several months” and the body itself meets less frequently than it did earlier in the pandemic, despite the fact that outbreak is not yet under control.

And while AstraZeneca resumed US trials of its experimental Covid-19 vaccine and Johnson & Johnson noted that it had the go-ahead to resume its trial soon, too, no successful US vaccine has yet been announced and the Democratic presidential nominee, Joe Biden, warned of a “dark winter” ahead amid the pandemic.

At a campaign rally late on Friday afternoon, Trump instead claimed without evidence that the US was entering the “final turn” of the outbreak.

In fact the University of Washington warned that the situation will be even more disastrous if states continue to ease off on measures designed to restrict the spread of the virus, such as the shuttering of certain businesses and social distancing edicts. If states wind down such protections, the death toll could top 1 million people in America by 28 February, the UW study found.

Even if states implement restrictions when Covid deaths hit eight people per million, as has been standard, the projected death toll of 511,000 will still be more than all the lives lost by the US in the second world war. America will face a “continued public health challenge” beyond February, the study, published in Nature Medicine, warns.

A further 130,000 lives could be saved by February, the researchers found, if 95% of the American population adopted consistent mask-wearing. The universal use of masks is a “relatively affordable and low-impact intervention” which “has the potential to serve as a priority life-saving strategy in all US states”, the study states.

Trump has routinely mocked people for wearing masks despite the advice of his own government’s experts and his own brush with the virus.

“I don’t wear masks like him,” the US president has said about Biden. An outbreak of Covid infections within the White House has been blamed, in part, on a culture where staffers were discouraged from wearing masks.

The president has also repeatedly called for the reopening of schools and businesses even as US cases have roared beyond 8 million. Some states, such as Florida, have followed this position while more restrictive ones are attacked by Trump. “They’ve gotta open up that state,” Trump said of Illinois this week. JB Pritzker, Illinois’s Democratic governor, said that Trump was “modeling bad behavior” and that the virus was “very dangerous”.

The University of Washington-led study “confirms what many of us are worried about, which is an unrelenting outbreak in the United States” said Irwin Redlener, professor of health policy at the Columbia University Medical Center, who was not involved in the research.

“If we don’t do anything much more we will have a very serious increase in fatalities,” said Redlener. “Simple policies such as mandated masks can help stop the spread and if you had a strong consistent message from the White House it would be very difficult for governors to not implement that. But the lack of federal leadership has cost lives in America. It’s a very sad state of affairs.”

Around half of people in the US say they always wear a mask, according to polling, with this figure growing to around eight in 10 Americans when it comes to wearing masks in stores and other businesses. But these levels are still below the universal mask-wearing required for the major reduction in deaths.

Redlener said: “It’s become an ideological position, a symbol of resistance to science that has unfortunately become locked in. ”

Meanwhile, Fauci, who has served as director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases since 1984, told MSNBC in an interview on Friday that it had been “a while” since he had spoken with Trump directly about Covid-19 strategy.

He indicated that the president has leaned in the direction of his controversial new adviser Scott Atlas, who mirrors the president’s ambivalence towards masks and urgency on reopening the economy.

Elsewhere, AstraZeneca’s and Johnson & Johnson’s Covid vaccine research took steps forward, the companies announced on Friday.

AstraZeneca resumed US trials of its experimental vaccine after approval by US regulators following a pause since 6 September when a participant in the company’s UK trial became seriously ill.

And a US oversight panel has recommended that Johnson & Johnson resume its trials.

J&J paused its large, late-stage trial last week after a study participant fell sick.