After brief reprieve, Covid-19 charges back in US, deepening national sense of fleeting success

Healthcare workers secure personal protective equipment at a coronavirus testing site in Orlando, on July 28, 2020.
Healthcare workers secure personal protective equipment at a coronavirus testing site in Orlando, on July 28, 2020.PHOTO: NYTIMES

CHICAGO (NYTIMES) - First, the Pacific Northwest and the Northeast were hit hardest as the coronavirus tore through the United States. Then it surged across the South. Now the virus is again picking up dangerous speed in much of the Midwest - and in states from Mississippi to Florida to California that thought they had already seen the worst of it.

As the US rides what amounts to a second wave of cases, with daily new infections levelling off at an alarming higher mark, there is a deepening national sense that the progress made in fighting the pandemic is coming undone and that no patch of America is safe.

In Missouri, Wisconsin and Illinois, distressed government officials are retightening restrictions on residents and businesses, and sounding warnings about a surge in coronavirus-related hospitalisations.

In the South and the West, several states are reporting their highest levels of new coronavirus cases, with outbreaks overwhelming urban and rural areas alike.

Across the country, communities including Snohomish County, Washington; Jackson, Mississippi; and Baton Rouge, Louisiana have seen coronavirus numbers fall and then shoot back up - not unlike the two ends of a seesaw.

In Illinois, Governor J.B. Pritzker sounded an unusually sombre note this past week as he delivered a warning that reverberated across the state: Even though Illinoisans had battled an early flood of coronavirus infections and then managed to reduce the virus' spread, their successes were fleeting. As of last Thursday, the state was averaging more than 1,400 cases a day, up from about 800 at the start of July.

"We're at a danger point," Mr Pritzker said in Peoria County, where the total number of cases has doubled in the past month.

Gone is any sense that the country may soon gain control of the pandemic. Instead, the seven-day average for new infections hovered around 65,000 for two weeks. Progress in some states has been mostly offset by growing outbreaks in parts of the South and the Midwest.

"There's a sort of collective tiredness and frustration," said County Judge Lina Hidalgo, the top elected official in Harris County, which includes Houston. "So it's difficult to know that there's no real end in sight."

Last Friday, Dr Anthony Fauci, the nation's top infectious disease expert, told Congress he was cautiously optimistic that a safe and effective coronavirus vaccine would be available by the end of the year or early 2021, although the federal government's ability to speedily immunise most Americans was unclear.

Even finding out who has the virus is a challenge, as testing programmes have frustrated many Americans with lengthy delays in providing results.

 
 
 
 

The picture is similarly depressing overseas, where even governments that would seem well suited to combating the virus are seeing resurgences.

New daily infections in Japan, a country with a long tradition of wearing face masks, rose more than 50 per cent in July. Australia, which can cut itself off from the rest of the world more easily than most, is battling a wave of infections in and around Melbourne. Hong Kong, Israel and Spain are also fighting second waves.

None of those places has an infection rate as high as the US, which has the most cases and deaths in the world.

In US communities that saw improvement in June, such as Milwaukee County in Wisconsin, there was a widespread feeling of relief, said Dr Ben Weston, the director of medical services for the Milwaukee County Office of Emergency Management.

But then, mask-wearing and social distancing began to relax.

"There was a sense of complacency, like, 'We're finally beyond this; it's finally getting better'," Dr Weston said. "We were seeing our numbers go down, but the reason is because of physical distancing. It's because people were being so careful. There was no reason to think that cases weren't going to rise."

Many states have traced new outbreaks to the loosening of the economically costly restrictions aimed at stopping the spread of the virus.

In California, which has had more than 500,000 coronavirus cases, more than any other state, the reopening has proved disastrous. When the pandemic was ravaging the Northeast in March and April, California kept its daily case count around 2,000, and the state was praised for its early and aggressive actions to combat the virus.

The state is now averaging more than four times as many cases - 8,500 a day. Los Angeles County and other Southern California counties account for the majority of the state's infections, but the virus is now everywhere.

That notion was reinforced last Tuesday when health officials in one of the most remote parts of the state, Modoc County, which had been the last of California's 58 counties without a known case, announced that the virus had arrived.

A waitress at the Brass Rail, a Basque restaurant and bar, tested positive, raising concerns about the virus' spread in a tight-knit county with a population of 8,800 and where cows outnumber people five to one. The waitress and her husband recently returned from a trip to the Central Valley, according to the co-owner of the Brass Rail, who said she assumed that the waitress was infected during her journey.

That the virus is now present in the evergreen forests of the northeastern corner of the state is testament to its inexorable spread, say the county's residents.

The Northeast, once the virus's biggest hot spot, has improved considerably since its peak in April, when the region suffered more than any other region of the country. Yet cases are now increasing slightly in New Jersey, Rhode Island and Massachusetts, as residents move around more freely and gather more frequently in groups.

Across the country, deaths from the coronavirus continue to rise. The country was averaging about 500 per day at the start of July. Over the past week, it has averaged more than 1,000 daily, with many of those concentrated in Sun Belt states. Last Wednesday, California, Florida and Texas reported a combined 724 deaths, about half the national total.

Houston, the fourth-largest city in the country, has been adjusting to a new normal where the only thing certain is that nothing is certain. After cases and hospitalisations seemed to level off and even decrease in recent days, Harris County last Friday broke a single-day record with 2,100 new cases.

People there have been coping with the lulls and peaks of a physical, emotional, fiscal and logistical crisis from an invisible foe nearly three years after surviving Hurricane Harvey, one of the worst disasters in US history.

"It's not like a hurricane that's coming through and we know what to do. We know we got to clean up and rebuild and everybody is accustomed to the time frame," said Mr Alan Rosen, who leads the Harris County Precinct One constable's office. "But with this, there are just so many unknowns."