US sunbelt deaths climb as Midwest fears a virus surge

Coronavirus deaths in California, Florida and Arizona hovered near record highs on Thursday amid increasing worries that the spike of cases that has afflicted the US sunbelt was starting to spread to other regions, including the Midwest.

Florida reported a record number of fatalities for a third day in a row, with 253 new deaths, while California had a near-record 194 deaths on Thursday. The number of new infections in both states remained elevated but below the highest levels seen in recent weeks.

Both large, populous sunbelt states have been hammered by a surge in coronavirus cases since the start of the summer. Along with Texas, they have all seen the pandemic’s death toll reach alarming new heights this week.

Arizona had in recent days experienced an encouraging decline in new deaths and new cases. However, on Thursday, fatalities in the southwestern US state leapt by a one-day record of 172.

Overall, the US registered 69,917 new cases on Thursday, and 1,291 fatalities, to bring the total death toll near 150,000, according to Covid Tracking Project data. Last week the US surpassed 4m cases.

Earlier on Thursday Mr Trump visited the Red Cross national headquarters in Washington, where he urged Americans who have had Covid-19 to donate plasma. He told reporters at the White House: “We are working very hard to not only contain this horrible event, this horrible plague . . . but also to come up with therapeutics and vaccines.”

Mr Trump argued that the US was faring no worse than other countries — although it has by far the largest reported number of infections. “All over the world, they are having tremendous problems, a resurgence has taken place in many countries that many people thought were doing well . . . The virus was said to be under control, but new cases have risen very significantly once again”, the president said.

The pace at which the virus is spreading across the US south and west has shown signs of plateauing in recent days, even as fatalities — seen as a lagging indicator — continued to rise. Mr Trump said he saw “very encouraging signs” in the US sunbelt.

However, there are indications that the disease is starting to take a heavier toll on other states, alarming public health officials and touching off fears of a new wave of cases that could further disrupt plans to reopen schools and businesses.

Deborah Birx, a leading member of the White House coronavirus task force, told the Fox News channel that the virus was “moving up” into states including Ohio, Kansas, Nebraska, Kentucky, Missouri and Tennessee, “because of vacations and other reasons of travel”.

The US has averaged about 64,000 cases a day over the past week, an increase of 53 per cent so far in July, according to Financial Times analysis of Covid Tracking Project data. The nation’s four main geographic regions have all experienced a rise in cases this month.

The increase has been quickest in the Midwest, where cases have risen 82 per cent so far in July, adding an average of 8,500 new infections a day. Southern states have accounted for about 60 per cent of all US infections, adding 36,600 new cases a day on average over the month.

Missouri and Ohio both reported record one-day increases in coronavirus cases on Thursday. Mike DeWine, Ohio’s governor, blamed the surge in part on bars and other establishments that serve alcohol. While he said he was hesitant to order bars and restaurants to shut down again, the Republican governor said he would seek an order barring the sale of alcohol after 10pm.

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Tony Evers, Wisconsin’s governor, on Thursday issued a statewide mask mandate, citing an increase in Covid-19 cases across the state. The order takes effect on August 1. Similar decisions were announced last week by the governors of Ohio, Indiana and Minnesota as those Midwestern states take steps to address rising new caseloads.

“While I know emotions are high when it comes to wearing face coverings in public, my job as governor is to put people first and to do what’s best for the people of our state,” Mr Evers said.

Andrea Palm, secretary-designee of the Wisconsin’s health department, said data had shown “significant community spread”. The Badger State reported a near-record 1,091 new coronavirus cases on Thursday, taking its total above 56,000, with 43 per cent of those being added since the start of July, Mr Evers noted.

Governors in more than half of US states have issued orders mandating at least some use of face coverings, while others have recommended wearing masks.

Additional reporting by Lauren Fedor in Washington