Coronavirus: US death toll passes 20,000 becoming highest in world

More than 500,000 infections recorded including new outbreak in San Francisco

New York City officials have hired contract labourers to bury the dead on Hart Island as the city's daily death toll from Covid-19 reaches a grim new record. Video: Reuters

 

The United States surpassed Italy on Saturday as the country with the highest reported coronavirus death toll, recording more than 20,000 deaths since the outbreak began, according to a Reuters tally.

The grim milestone was reached as US president Donald Trump mulled over when the country, which has registered more than half a million infections, might begin to see a return to normality.

The US has seen its highest death tolls to date in the epidemic with roughly 2,000 deaths a day reported for the last four days in a row, a plurality of them in and around New York City. Even that is viewed as an understatement, as New York is still figuring out how best to include a surge in deaths at home in its official statistics.

Public health experts have warned that the US death toll could reach 200,000 over the summer if unprecedented stay-at-home orders that have closed businesses and kept most Americans indoors are lifted after 30 days.

US president Donald Trump: ‘I’m going to have to make a decision, and I . . . hope to God that it’s the right decision.’ Photograph: Alex Wong/Getty
US president Donald Trump: ‘I’m going to have to make a decision, and I . . . hope to God that it’s the right decision.’ Photograph: Alex Wong/Getty

Public health cost

Most of the present restrictions on public life, however, including school closures and emergency orders keeping non-essential workers largely confined to their homes, flow from powers vested in state governors, not the president.

Nonetheless, Mr Trump has said he wants life to return to normal as soon as possible and that the measures aimed at curbing the spread of the Covid-19 disease caused by the coronavirus carry their own economic and public health cost.

In New York on Saturday, the state’s governor and New York City’s mayor engaged in a fresh squabble over their efforts to combat the virus in what is now the global epicentre, in this instance over how long schools might stay closed.

The state was sometimes slower to impose social-distancing restrictions than other jurisdictions, notably in California, while New York’s two most powerful officials, both Democrats, sometimes disagreed with each other over matters of jurisdiction and the best terminology to use for certain measures.

They have not appeared in public together since March 2nd.

On Saturday morning, mayor Bill de Blasio declared that New York City’s public schools would no longer reopen on April 20th but stay closed for the rest of the academic year, saying it was “the right thing to do”.

New York governor Andrew Cuomo, however, later used his widely watched daily news conference to dismiss the mayor’s edict as merely an “opinion”, and say he would make his own decision on school closures.

Number of unemployed

The current federal guidelines advocating for widespread social-distancing measures run until April 30th. Mr Trump, who is seeking re-election in November, will then have to decide whether to extend them or start encouraging people to go back to work and a more normal way of life.

Trump said he would unveil a new advisory council, possibly on Tuesday, that will include some state governors and will focus on the process of reopening the economy.

The number of Americans seeking unemployment benefits in the last three weeks surpassed 16 million, as weekly new claims topped 6 million for the second straight time last week.

The government has said the economy purged 701,000 jobs in March. That was the most job losses since the Great Recession and ended the longest employment boom in US history that started in late 2010.

Declining rates

But there were glimmers of hope this week.

Dr Anthony Fauci, the government’s top infectious disease expert, and other health officials pointed to declining rates of coronavirus hospitalisations and admissions to intensive care units - particularly in New York state - as signs that social distancing measures are paying off.

The stay-at-home orders imposed in recent weeks across 42 states have taken a huge toll on American commerce and raised questions about how long business closures and travel restrictions can be sustained.

The Trump administration renewed talk of quickly reopening the economy after an influential university research model this week lowered its US mortality forecasts to 60,000 deaths by August 4th, down from at least 100,000, assuming social-distancing measures remain in place.

However, new US government data show infections will surge over the summer if stay-at-home orders are lifted after 30 days, according to projections first reported by the New York Times and confirmed by a department of homeland security official.

A new outbreak was reported on Friday in San Francisco, where 68 residents and two staff members at a homeless shelter tested positive, marking one of the largest known clusters of infections yet in such a facility anywhere in the country.

And 36 employees became infected with Covid-19 at a beef production plant in Greeley, Colorado, according to meatpacking company JBS USA. Two employees have died, said the union representing workers at the plant.

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