Sharp increases in the number of coronavirus cases diagnosed in states across the nation have some local elected officials considering pauses in reopening their economies.
The rising number of cases are hitting hardest in Sun Belt states like Arizona, California, Florida and Texas. All four of those states reported their highest single-day increase in the number of confirmed cases over the weekend.
Officials have also pointed to a troubling trend in the number of people who must be hospitalized for treatment, raising anew the frightening prospect of an overwhelmed health system. Arizona’s chief public health officer last week called for the state’s hospital systems to initiate their emergency plans.
“If the trends we’re seeing right now get worse or continue to rise we are at a very high risk of getting to the point where the threat to our hospital system is severe and we have to backtrack,” Lina Hidalgo, the county judge in Harris County, Texas, told reporters on Thursday.
Texas has reported more than 2,000 new cases a day on four of the last five days. The state reported 13,000 new cases last week. More than 89,000 Texans have been diagnosed with the virus, and nearly 2,000 have died.
Florida had its two worst days yet on Saturday and Sunday, reporting more than 2,000 cases on both days. The number of cases Florida reported in the last week has doubled from two weeks prior. More than 2,900 Floridians have lost their lives.
In all, 20 states confirmed more coronavirus cases in the last week than in the week prior. Ten states have recorded their highest-ever single-day counts in just the last week, according to an analysis by The Hill.
More than 2.1 million Americans have tested positive, a share that represents more than a quarter of all confirmed cases worldwide. Of the 434,000 people worldwide who have died of the COVID-19 disease caused by the coronavirus, 115,827 were in the United States, according to data maintained by Johns Hopkins University’s Center for Systems Science and Engineering.
Even some states that have so far avoided the worst of the outbreak are seeing new spikes. Hawaii, which went nearly two months without recording more than 10 new cases in a day, has reported 36 cases in the last three days. Alaska, another state that has kept its case count low, reported 34 new cases on Saturday.
In Oregon, where early lockdowns prevented a widespread coronavirus outbreak in April and May, Gov. Kate Brown (D) said last week she would put a one-week pause on reopening segments of the economy after a spike in cases. Oregon had reported more than 100 cases on a single day only once before this month. The state has topped triple digits seven times in the last ten days.
“The noticeable increase in COVID-19 infections in Oregon over the past week is cause for concern,” Brown said in a statement. “This is essentially a statewide 'yellow light.' It is time to press pause for one week before any further reopening.”
Nashville Mayor John Cooper said last week he would pause the city’s reopening efforts after case counts ticked up after Memorial Day weekend.
“The level of cases in Southeast Nashville warrants further attention, and I have instructed the Metro Public Health Department to concentrate its efforts there,” Cooper said.
Other officials have been less enthusiastic about hitting the pause button just as businesses reopen. In Arizona, where the state reported its worst two days yet on Friday and Saturday, Gov. Doug Ducey (R) said he would consider pausing elective surgeries if the number of hospitalizations continued to grow.
The number of confirmed cases in California is continuing to mount even as Gov. Gavin Newsom (D) allows most businesses to reopen, albeit in a limited capacity. Newsom was the first governor in the country to announce he would lock down the state to try to prevent the spread of the virus in mid-March. But in the last week, 20,940 new people tested positive for the virus, bringing the state’s total up to 152,937 cases.
The most significant outbreaks in California are now taking place along the Mexican border in San Diego and Imperial counties; in the Inland Empire; and in the wine-growing hubs of Napa and Sonoma. More than 5,000 Californians have died of the virus.
Some epidemiologists worry that the early lockdowns and the angst and economic hardship they caused have both eroded the willingness of average Americans to comply and sapped political will of elected officials to reimpose restrictions.
“I don’t think there will be new shutdowns. There isn’t the political will to do it any longer it seems,” said Christine Petersen, an epidemiologist at the University of Iowa. “Now we are in the pandemic wild west.”
Petersen said as Americans have come to grips with the threat of the coronavirus, different populations are processing risk in different ways. Older Americans, those most likely to suffer the worst of the virus, are staying home at greater rates. Younger Americans, who are less likely to show severe symptoms, are more likely to return to work.
“We have both opening and staying at home happening across the country, at differing rates,” Petersen said. “Which may be why deaths so far remain low.”
The pandemic is hitting the United States unevenly. After landing first in Washington State and New York, then Michigan and Louisiana, outbreaks have migrated to smaller states that had so far been spared the virus.
New York State reported 5,217 new coronavirus cases over the last week, a level less than one-tenth as bad as its peak in early April. New Jersey reported 2,717 new cases last week, down from an apex of 24,345 new cases in the week ending April 12.
Seventeen states and the District of Columbia have seen the number of confirmed cases decline steadily for the past two weeks. Among them are some of the early epicenters of the American outbreak like Colorado, Illinois, Indiana, Ohio, Pennsylvania and Rhode Island.
Two more states, Michigan and Massachusetts, have seen fewer cases too, though a change in reporting probable cases in both states have led to brief spikes in daily case counts.
Washington illustrates the virus's progression from its early hotspots to later outbreaks. The coronavirus hit hardest in King County, where 8,753 cases have been confirmed among a population of 2.25 million. But the virus then jumped the Cascade Curtain, and now agricultural Yakima County is an epicenter: 5,611 people have contracted the virus among its population of 250,000. In nearby Franklin County, home to just 95,000 people, 1,034 have tested positive, a rate of infection more than 2.5 times higher per capita than in King County.
Washington Gov. Jay Inslee (D) said over the weekend the alarming new figures underscore the need for continued vigilance.
“This is not the time to give up on efforts to protect ourselves, our families and our communities. We are still in the middle of a pandemic that is continuing to infect and kill Washingtonians,” Inslee said.