LUBBOCK (Texas) • US governors are reversing plans to reopen their states as the country registered the biggest-ever jump in coronavirus cases, in a growing recognition that the contagion is increasingly dictating events in much of America.
Governor Greg Abbott halted the reopening of the Texas economy, as Houston ran out of intensive-care beds for Covid-19 patients and the workers needed to trace their contacts.
North Carolina also paused plans to loosen restrictions this week, along with Louisiana and Kansas.
The rollback reflects a growing caution nationwide as the virus extends its tentacles into places largely spared at the beginning of the outbreak three months ago.
“We reopened too early,” said Professor Peter Hotez, dean of the National School of Tropical Medicine at Baylor College of Medicine in Houston. “Masks alone are not going to be adequate.”
Cases rose across the United States by at least 39,818 on Thursday – the largest one-day increase of the pandemic, more than the record 36,426 on April 24, when the virus was hammering mainly New York. Florida, California, Arizona and Texas account for almost half of all new cases now, an outsize proportion even after adjusting for their large populations.
More than 2.4 million cases have been confirmed in the US, but the Centres for Disease Control and Prevention estimates infections may have been 10 times higher – or more than 20 million Americans – with many not showing symptoms, the agency’s director said.
Covid-19 deaths in the US, currently at over 124,000, could rise by over 45 per cent to 180,000 by October, according to the University of Washington’s Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation.
Texas on Thursday set another daily record for virus cases, and its biggest city, Houston, said it could not hire or retain enough contact tracers to keep up. That means some patients and their recent whereabouts are going uninvestigated, heightening the risk of accelerated spread and raising the spectre of mortality rates as high as in New York City three months ago.
Governor Abbott’s executive order on Thursday suspended elective surgeries in Texas’ largest cities to free up hospital space. It permits already-open businesses to operate, but only at their current, reduced occupancy limits.
Mr Abbott had earlier been quick to follow the lead of President Donald Trump, encouraging businesses to operate despite the pandemic and overruling local efforts to enact stringent controls. Thursday’s measures were the first indication that the Republican governor is willing to scale back the reopening he initiated eight weeks ago, and was the latest blow to the American economy.
Mr Trump has deferred to the states on when to drop social distancing restrictions and how to test and rein in the virus.
In Florida, Governor Ron DeSantis said on Thursday that he would not further reopen for now.
Arizona Governor Doug Ducey said hospitals are likely to hit surge capacity “very soon”, with the number of cases and hospitalisations expected to worsen in the next two weeks. Earlier in the day, the state reported the number of people admitted to hospitals had jumped by 183 to 2,453, the biggest single-day increase since the state began tracking the number.
“This is Arizona’s first wave, and this will not be our last wave,” said Mr Ducey, a Republican who had previously ballyhooed the state’s accelerated reopening.
Texas added 5,996 cases, the third consecutive day of record-breaking increases, according to state health department data. In all, 131,917 have contracted the disease. The death toll grew by 47 to 2,296, the grimmest day in more than a month. The positive-test rate surged to 11.76 per cent, the highest since April 16.
The Texas Medical Centre – a cluster of hospitals, research facilities and medical schools south of downtown Houston – said the region’s intensive-care capacity had reached maximum capacity, a situation that will force the medical authorities to convert other facilities to ad hoc Covid-19 wards.
The medical centre’s CEO Bill McKeon said it is seeing more young patients admitted.
More concerning is that the trend probably indicates that young people are not practising social distancing or masking up, whether because they are socialising in crowded bars or have less ability to do so when they go to work, he said.
He added: “If people do not change their behaviour and really take this seriously across the entire community, then that will be a problem in the future.”