In grim milestone, United States logs world's highest coronavirus death toll
NEW YORK: The United States surpassed Italy on Saturday as the country with the highest reported coronavirus death toll, recording more than 20,000 deaths since the outbreak began, according to a Reuters tally.
The grim milestone was reached as President Donald Trump mulled over when the country, which has registered more than half a million infections, might begin to see a return to normality.
The United States has seen its highest death tolls to date in the epidemic with roughly 2,000 deaths a day reported for the last four days in a row, a plurality of them in and around New York City. Even that is viewed as an understatement, as New York is still figuring out how best to include a surge in deaths at home in its official statistics.
Public health experts have warned that 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 after 30 days.
Most of the present restrictions on public life, however, including school closures and emergency orders keeping non-essential workers largely confined to their homes, flow from powers vested in state governors, not the president.
Nonetheless, Trump has said he wants life to return to normal as soon as possible and that the measures aimed at curbing the spread of the COVID-19 disease caused by the novel coronavirus carry their own economic and public-health cost.
In New York on Saturday, the state's governor and New York City's mayor engaged in a fresh squabble over their efforts to combat the virus in what is now the global epicenter, in this instance over how long schools might stay closed.
The state was sometimes slower to impose social-distancing restrictions than other jurisdictions, notably in California, while New York's two most powerful officials, both Democrats, sometimes disagreed with each other over matters of jurisdiction and the best terminology to use for certain measures.
They have not appeared in public together since March 2.
On Saturday morning, Mayor Bill de Blasio declared that New York City's public schools would no longer reopen on April 20 but stay closed for the rest of the academic year, saying it was "the right thing to do."
New York Governor Andrew Cuomo, however, later used his widely watched daily news conference to dismiss the mayor's edict as merely an "opinion," and say he would make his own decision on school closures.
The current federal guidelines advocating for widespread social-distancing measures run until April 30. Trump, who is seeking re-election in November, 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.
Trump said he would unveil a new advisory council, possibly on Tuesday, 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 6 million for the second straight time last week.
The government has said the economy purged 701,000 jobs in March. That was the most job losses since the Great Recession and ended the longest employment boom in U.S. history that started in late 2010.
With more than 90% of the country under stay-at-home orders, the Christian calendar's holiest weekend has mostly featured services livestreamed or broadcast to worshippers watching from home. With many churches already short of funds, untouched collection plates at what is usually a busy time of the year are adding to the pressure on their finances.
A handful of holdout US churches planned to go ahead with in-person services on Easter Sunday, saying their rights to worship outweighed public health warnings.
But there were glimmers of hope this week.
Dr. Anthony Fauci, the government's top infectious disease expert, and other health officials pointed to declining rates of coronavirus hospitalizations and admissions to intensive care units - particularly in New York state - as signs that social distancing measures are paying off.
The stay-at-home orders imposed in recent weeks across 42 states have taken a huge toll on American commerce and raised questions about how long business closures and travel restrictions can be sustained.
The Trump administration renewed talk of quickly reopening the economy after an influential university research model this week lowered its US mortality forecasts to 60,000 deaths by Aug. 4, down from at least 100,000, assuming social-distancing measures remain in place.
However, new US government data show infections will surge over the summer if stay-at-home orders are lifted after 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 on Friday in San Francisco, where 68 residents and two staff members at a homeless shelter tested positive, marking one of the largest known clusters of infections yet in such a facility anywhere in the country.
And 36 employees became infected with COVID-19 at a beef production plant in Greeley, Colorado, according to meatpacking company JBS USA. Two employees have died, said the union representing workers at the plant.