Southern US states scramble to reverse course as virus cases surge

Patients wait in line at a Covid-19 testing site in Dallas, Texas, on June 27, 2020. PHOTO: AFP

WASHINGTON - Bad news on the coronavirus pandemic front is mounting in the United States as a handful of states continued to see huge spikes in infections.

And the continued march of the virus has raised the spectre of a delayed economic recovery as states backpedal on reopening, even as 47.2 per cent of Americans are currently jobless according to the Bureau of Labour Statistics. Faced with this, more Republican leaders have come out to urge people to wear masks and practise social distancing.

Essentially, states that watched when New York City was swamped with cases and deaths in early April are seeing themselves in the same position now - with younger patients.

In southern California, Los Angeles County recorded a one-day spike of nearly 3,000 new infections on Monday (June 29), taking its total to more than 100,000 cases. Public health officials warned that hospitals could soon be overwhelmed.

"This is the time to hunker down back in your home whenever you can," the county's director for public health Barbara Ferrer said. "Please, let's not let go of everything we worked hard and sacrificed for."

Texas broke a streak of 16 record-breaking days for hospitalisations on Sunday, but Monday still saw a jump of 416 patients to reach a total of 5,913 in hospital.

Florida - where the Republican Party is due to hold its Convention in Jacksonville in August - saw 5,266 new cases of Covid-19 on Monday, a drop after more than 8,500 new cases each of the three previous days.

Arizona is among several states that has reversed decisions to open up sectors of the economy, saying it will close all bars, gyms and movie theatres for at least a month, as the total number of coronavirus cases doubled to 74,533 in two weeks.

"Our expectation is that our numbers next week will be worse," Arizona Governor Doug Ducey said.

People on Ocean Drive in Miami Beach, Florida, on June 26, 2020. PHOTO: AFP

The country's top infectious diseases expert Anthony Fauci said an "all or none" approach had contributed to the surge.

"There are crowds. They are not physical distancing, and they're not wearing masks. That's a recipe for disaster. It's something I spoke about time and again," he said.

"What has happened, I guess understandably, but nonetheless regrettably, that people took the attitude… (that) either you're locked down, or you just let it fly and you just ignore many of the guidelines," he told CNN in an interview aired on Monday.

Examples of this abound; on Monday in West Virginia, more than 200 people who had been to a gym were urged to quarantine for 14 days after one client tested positive for Covid-19.

Earlier on Sunday, Health and Human Services Secretary Alex Azar said the "window is closing" to stop the spread of the coronavirus.

"We have to act, and people as individuals have to act responsibly," he said. "We need to social-distance. We need to wear our face-coverings if we're in settings where we can't social-distance, particularly in these hot zones."

City authorities in Jacksonville, Florida, on Monday made wearing a mask mandatory indoors, raising questions over the Republican National Convention (RNC) as President Donald Trump has made a point not to wear a mask in public. The Aug 24-27 event is to be held at the 15,000-seat VyStar Veterans Memorial Arena.

White House spokeswoman Kayleigh McEnany on Monday told reporters President Trump has "no problem" with people wearing masks, but added: "It's the personal choice of any individual as to whether to wear a mask."

But more Republicans are trying to project the right message. Vice-President Mike Pence in a visit to Texas on the weekend urged Texans to wear masks - and wore one himself at least some of the time.

And in the Senate on Monday, majority leader Mitch McConnell said: "We must have no stigma, none, about wearing masks when we leave our homes and come near other people. Wearing simple face coverings is not about protecting ourselves. It is about protecting everyone we encounter."

Even so, there is no national mandate to wear masks; it is up to local authorities to decide. "We have had 50 different approaches in the United States," Dr Vin Gupta, assistant professor of Health Metrics Sciences at the University of Washington, told MSNBC on Tuesday.

"We need a unified approach," he urged. "Intensive care units are filling up, that's a big risk."

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