The US recorded more than 1,000 coronavirus deaths on Friday for the fourth day in a row, as the disease continues to spread rapidly in southern and western states.
The sustained increase in deaths comes after several weeks during which the coronavirus case count increased significantly. It surpassed 4m this week, an increase of 1m in barely a fortnight.
On Friday, 75,193 people had tested positive over the past 24 hours, according to Covid Tracking Project data, up from 71,027 on Thursday. It is the second-biggest one-day jump on record.
The 1,178 fatalities registered on Friday marked the first time since May 23 that deaths have risen by more than 1,000 on four consecutive days. California, Texas and Florida all registered one-day fatality records this week.
The latest surge has been largely driven by sunbelt states in the south and west that quickly reopened after they were largely spared in the first months of the pandemic. The outbreaks there have not yet been as deadly as the early wave of infections that gripped the north-east, and New York in particular, in March and April.
But there are worrying signs that mortality rates in the sunbelt states are set to increase over the next few weeks as hospitalisations climb steadily. The number of daily fatalities nationwide had fallen as low as 209 earlier this month.
Earlier on Friday, Deborah Birx, the White House’s coronavirus task force co-ordinator, warned the situation in California, Texas and Florida was beginning to resemble New York at the height of its outbreak and urged residents in the states to alter their behaviour.
“What we have right now are essentially three New Yorks,” Dr Birx said. “That’s why you hear us calling for masks and increased social distancing, to really stop the spread of this epidemic.”
After weeks of downplaying the seriousness of the virus, President Donald Trump on Thursday cancelled plans to hold the bulk of the Republican national convention in Jacksonville, Florida, saying it was “not the right time” for a “big crowded convention” and that he felt it would be “wrong to have people going to what turned out to be a hotspot”.
Florida has became one of the main hubs of the current wave of coronavirus cases in the sunbelt — and opinion polls have shown the president losing ground against Mr Biden in the presidential race as disapproval grows over his handling of the pandemic. On Friday, the number of confirmed Covid-19 cases in the state passed 400,000. Only California and New York have seen more cases since the pandemic began.
Mr Trump this week resumed holding regular press briefings, as he had done early on in the coronavirus pandemic, and conceded the crisis would “probably unfortunately get worse before it gets better”. He also tweeted an image of himself wearing a face mask, which he likened to a “patriotic” act.
There is no federal mandate for face coverings, though, which has left states, counties and companies to introduce their own requirements.
On Wednesday, Ohio, Indiana, Oregon and Minnesota issued broader mask-wearing requirements, as did the mayors of Washington DC and Baltimore, Maryland. On Thursday, a judge ordered mediation in a lawsuit brought by the Republican governor of Georgia seeking to stop the Democratic mayor of its largest city, Atlanta, from enforcing a mandate to wear face coverings in public.
A growing number of companies have also ordered masks to be worn in their stores, including McDonald’s, as restaurants, stores and other businesses attempt a cautious restart of their businesses.
One of the most contentious aspects of the reopening debate has been whether to resume in-person instruction at schools this autumn. Experts have debated whether it is better to allow children — who seem less vulnerable to the disease — to resume their education, or if doing so would risk the virus spreading further and faster than before.
Mr Trump has been vocal in calling for students to return to classrooms when the new school year begins. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention on Friday set out guidelines including that schools should reopen if the positive test rate for Covid-19 in their surrounding area is less than 5 per cent.
Mitchell Zais, deputy education secretary, estimated that parents staying away from jobs to look after children was costing the economy $232bn and that reopening schools had to be the “default” option.
The reopening debate has resulted in a wide range of policy approaches across US states and regions. Florida’s largest teachers union this week filed a lawsuit challenging a state order that schools be open at least five days a week and provide a full range of services when the term begins.
On July 17, California set out guidelines that will probably prevent most of its schools from returning to in-person learning, just days after hard-hit Los Angeles and San Diego counties decided they would not allow students back into classrooms.