US nears 1 million coronavirus cases

US nears 1 million coronavirus cases as states ease restrictions

More than 56,000 Americans have died of COVID-19, the respiratory illness caused by the virus, with an average of about 2,000 a day this month, according to a Reuters tally. (Credit: AFP Photo)

The number of confirmed U.S. coronavirus cases neared 1 million on Tuesday and the projected American death toll rose in a closely watched academic model, even as some states eased restrictions aimed at fighting the pandemic battering the economy.

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With President Donald Trump's economic adviser forecasting an unemployment rate of more than 16% for April and many Americans chafing under stay-at-home orders, about a dozen states were moving to restart their battered economies despite a lack of large-scale virus testing.

Public health experts have warned that a premature rollback of social distancing policies aimed at curbing the spread of the pathogen could cause a surge in new infections.

Georgia, at the vanguard of states reopening businesses, on Monday permitted restaurant dining for the first time in a month. Texas Governor Greg Abbott said on Monday he would let the state's stay-at-home order expire and begin reopening businesses including restaurants and retail shops in phases beginning on Friday.

The governors of other states including hard-hit New York have put off the reopening of businesses out of concern they might fuel a second wave of infections.

The U.S. Chamber of Commerce, the top lobbying group for the nation's business sector, called for consistency across federal, state and local governments to reopen the economy but urged against any public health guidelines becoming regulations that could harm businesses as they seek to restart.

The number of confirmed U.S. coronavirus infections - just shy of 1 million - has doubled in 18 days and comprises a third of all reported infections globally. The actual number of U.S. infections is believed to be higher than the confirmed number of cases, with state public health officials cautioning that shortages of trained workers and materials have limited testing capacity, leaving many infections unrecorded.

More than 56,000 Americans have died of COVID-19, the respiratory illness caused by the virus, with an average of about 2,000 a day this month, according to a Reuters tally.

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Squadrons of U.S. Navy Blue Angels jets and U.S. Air Force Thunderbirds jets were scheduled to perform joint flyovers in the sky above New York, New Jersey and Pennsylvania in a tribute to frontline responders and essential workers fighting the pandemic. Officials behind the flyovers encouraged residents to watch while practicing social distancing.

The University of Washington's model, often cited by White House officials and state public health authorities, upwardly revised its projected U.S. coronavirus death toll to more than 74,000 U.S. lives by Aug. 4, compared with its previous forecast of 67,000.

The university's Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation (IHME) said late on Monday that the number of U.S. deaths caused by the virus was not abating as quickly as previously projected after hitting a daily peak on April 15 with about 2,700.

IHME director Christopher Murray said the death toll would climb if states reopen their economies too early.

While most states seem to have passed their peaks in the pandemic, seven - Hawaii, Mississippi, Texas, Wyoming, Utah, Nebraska and North Dakota - may be experiencing their peaks now or in the coming weeks, according to the model.

The number of Americans seeking unemployment benefits over the past five weeks has soared to 26.5 million, underscoring the economic impact of the pandemic. Chuck Schumer, the top U.S. Senate Democrat, said on Tuesday that state and local governments will be forced to make "massive" layoffs if Congress fails to act soon to provide financial assistance to help them deal with the costs of addressing the pandemic.

Congress has provided $150 billion to state governments facing the brunt of the pandemic at a time when they are also facing a decline in tax revenue because of business closures. Democrats are seeking more aid. Trump's fellow Republicans rejected efforts to add the assistance to the last coronavirus bill to pass Congress.

The White House released a blueprint on Monday that put the onus on states to implement testing and rapid response programs, despite pleas from New York Governor Andrew Cuomo and others for federal help. It said states were responsible for identifying, and overcoming barriers to, efficient testing.

U.S. Senator Patty Murray, a Democrat from hard-hit Washington state, on Tuesday criticized the blueprint.

"It doesn't set specific, numeric goals, offer a timeframe, identify ways to fix our broken supply chain, or offer any details whatsoever on expanding lab capacity or activating needed manufacturing capacity," she said in a statement.

"Perhaps most pathetically, it attempts to shirk obviously federal responsibilities by assigning them solely to states instead," she said.