US surpasses 11 million coronavirus infections as Michigan, Washington impose severe restrictions

People walk past a signboard reminding about the face covering requirement in Los Angeles, on Nov 12, 2020. PHOTO: AFP

NEW YORK (NYTIMES, REUTERS) - US officials have reported more than 11 million total cases of coronavirus as of Sunday (Nov 15), as the country's outbreaks lead to agonising new levels of hospitalisations.

Cases passed 10 million just a week ago, and more than 1 in 400 Americans have tested positive since.

The alarming rise in cases came as cities and states across the country were implementing new restrictions to try to halt the spread of the virus.

Michigan Governor Gretchen Whitmer ordered a ban on in-person high school and college classes as well as indoor dining service for three weeks starting on Wednesday as increasingly cold weather drives people indoors where the virus can spread more easily.

She banned public events at concert halls, casinos, movie theaters, skating rinks and other venues, while in-home gatherings will be limited to 10 people from no more than two households.

Whitmer, a Democrat, warned that without aggressive action, Michigan could soon suffer 1,000 Covid-19 deaths per week. "We are in the worst moment of this pandemic to date," she told a news conference. "The situation has never been more dire. We are at the precipice and we need to take some action."

Washington state Governor Jay Inslee, a Democrat, announced a one-month ban on indoor services at restaurants and gyms, and a reduction of in-store retail capacity to 25 per cent.

Indoor gatherings would be prohibited outside of ones household and outdoor gatherings would be limited to five people in Washington state under Inslee's order.

Some Republican governors in recent days have also been forced to act, with North Dakota joining 35 other states over the weekend in mandating masks and Iowa this week requiring them in certain circumstances.

Former US Surgeon General Dr Vivek Murthy, head of US President-elect Joe Biden's Covid-19 team, told Fox News the coronavirus surge was "deeply alarming" but that a national lockdown was "a measure of last resort."

"The better way to think about these safety restrictions is more a dial that we turn up and down depending on severity" in a given area, he said.

The latest virus surge began accelerating across much of the country in mid-October. It took just over two weeks for the nation to go from 8 million cases to 9 million on Oct 30; from 9 million to 10 million took only 10 days.

The country logged more than 159,100 new cases Saturday, the third-highest total of the pandemic, raising the new seven-day average to more than 145,000, with upward trends in 48 states and an 80 per cent increase in added cases from the average two weeks ago.

Ten states set single-day case records Saturday; 29 states added more cases in the past week than in any other seven-day period, according to a New York Times database.

At least two of the states that broke daily records Saturday - Maryland and New Jersey - had broken them again by late Sunday afternoon.

Deaths nationwide remain at lower levels than in spring's peak, but they are rising rapidly. More than 1,200 new deaths were reported Saturday, pushing the seven-day average to more than 1,120 a day, a 38 per cent increase from the average two weeks ago. Four states set new death records Saturday: Montana, Oklahoma, Wyoming and South Dakota.

Dr Michael Osterholm, an adviser to Biden, said the country was "in a very dangerous period," calling it the most dangerous public health crisis since the 1918 influenza pandemic, which killed an estimated 50 million worldwide, including some 675,000 Americans.

"My worst fear is we will see what we saw happening in other countries, where people were dying on the streets," he said on the NBC programme Meet the Press.

"The health care system is breaking, literally breaking."

Adm Brett Giroir, assistant secretary of health and human services, called the situation "critical" on the ABC programme This Week.

The pandemic continues to take a disproportionate toll on Americans of color, who have been hospitalised at rates roughly four times higher than non-Hispanic whites since the start of the epidemic.

Hispanic or Latino people have been hospitalised at the highest rate, 4.2 times the rate of whites, with non-Hispanic American Indian or Alaska Native people hospitalised at 4.1 times the rate of whites and Blacks at 3.9 times the rate of whites, according to figures from the Centres for Disease Control and Prevention.

The figures were tabulated through the week ending Nov 7.

The higher hospitalisation rates have been linked to higher infection rates, as non-white Americans are more likely to be essential workers with jobs in the food service industry or home health care, which cannot be carried out remotely and require interacting with the public.

These jobs often don't provide health insurance or paid time off, benefits that enable workers to stay home when sick.

Many people in these communities are also more likely to live in multi-generational households in densely populated communities, where infections spread quickly and easily.

In a speech Sunday criticising President Donald Trump's vaccine distribution plans, New York Governor Andrew M. Cuomo said that the pandemic had revealled "the systemic discrimination in this nation."

"That is the sad reality," Cuomo said Sunday at Riverside Church in Manhattan. "And we must have the courage to face it and to admit it because you will never solve a problem that you are unwilling to admit."

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