NEW YORK • The United States has surpassed Italy as the country with the highest reported coronavirus death toll, recording more than 20,000 fatalities since the outbreak began even as President Donald Trump mulls 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 over four days including Saturday, the largest number in and around New York City. The official death toll stood at 20,608, compared with 19,468 in Italy.
Even that is viewed as understated, as New York is still figuring out how best to include a surge in deaths at home in its official statistics. New York recorded another 783 deaths last Saturday, although hospitalisations and admissions to intensive care continued to slow dramatically, Governor Andrew Cuomo said.
Saturday marked the fifth day of fatalities exceeding 700 in the state. Total Covid-19 cases in New York rose by 9,946 to a total of 181,825.
New Jersey, also hard hit by the epidemic, reported 3,599 new cases last Saturday for a total of 58,151, accompanied by a death toll of 2,183. The number of confirmed infections stood at over 20,000 in each of these states - Michigan, Massachusetts, California, Pennsylvania and Louisiana, which have all registered death tolls in the hundreds.
Public health experts have warned 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 when they expire at the end of the month.
Most of the curbs, however, including school closures and emergency orders keeping non-essential workers largely confined to home, 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 Covid-19 carry their own economic and public health cost.
Speaking by telephone with Fox News last Saturday evening, Mr Trump said he would make a decision "reasonably soon", based on the advice of "a lot of very smart people, a lot of professionals, doctors and business leaders". He said "instinct" would also play a role.
"People want to get back, they want to get back to work. We have to bring our country back," he said.
Mr Trump's trade adviser, Mr Peter Navarro, told Fox News that "purist medical professionals" who took the position that the only way to minimise loss of life was to shut down the economy and society until the virus was "vanquished" were "half right". He said "that will minimise the deaths from the virus directly" but added that economic shocks also killed people, through higher depression and suicide rates and drug abuse. "So that very tough decision this President is going to be making is to have to weigh the balance and figure out which path does more damage."
The number is somewhat stabilising, but it is stabilising at a horrific rate. These are just incredible numbers depicting incredible loss and pain.
NEW YORK GOVERNOR ANDREW CUOMO, on New York's number of fatalities.
Mr Trump approved a Major Disaster Declaration for Wyoming state last Saturday. All 50 states, the US Virgin islands, Guam, the Northern Mariana Islands, Puerto Rico and Washington, DC have been the subject of similar declarations for the first time in US history.
The designation allows state and local governments to gain federal funds and resources such as the Army Corps of Engineers to help combat the pandemic.
In New York, Governor Cuomo and the 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. They have not appeared in public together since March 2.
The current federal guidelines advocating widespread social distancing measures run until April 30. Mr Trump 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.
Mr Trump has said he will unveil a new advisory council, possibly tomorrow, 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 six million for a second straight time last week.
The government has said the economy shed 701,000 jobs last month. That was the most job losses since the Great Recession and ended the longest employment boom in US history from late 2010.
But there have been glimmers of hope. Dr Anthony Fauci, the government's top infectious disease expert, and other health officials have pointed to falling rates of hospitalisation and admissions to intensive care units as signs that social distancing measures are paying off.
The Trump administration renewed talk of quickly reopening the economy after an influential university research model cut its US mortality forecasts to 60,000 deaths by Aug 4, down from at least 100,000, assuming social distancing measures stay. However, new government data shows a summer surge in infections if stay-at-home orders are lifted after only 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 last Friday in San Francisco, where 68 residents and two staff of a homeless shelter tested positive, in one of the largest known infection clusters yet at such a facility anywhere in the country. In Greeley, Colorado, 36 employees became infected with the virus at a beef production plant, where two workers also died.