US shows signs of coronavirus peak, but difficult days lie ahead

US shows signs of coronavirus peak, but difficult days lie ahead
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The number of new coronavirus infections across the United States is showing signs of easing but remains at a discouragingly high plateau that underscores the difficulty the country has ahead of it in getting the pandemic under control. 

Over the last three days, the United States has confirmed about 50,000 new cases every 24 hours. States like Arizona, Florida, Texas and the Carolinas that suffered the worst of June and July have now seen their case counts fall for two weeks from peaks in mid- and late July, when more than 70,000 cases were identified on a typical day.  

But though the drops are potentially positive signs that newly enforced social distancing and economic lockdown measures are working, Florida confirmed more than 63,000 new cases over the last week, Texas reported 57,000 new cases and counts are still rising in states like Georgia, Missouri, Tennessee and Virginia.

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“We’re still in the first wave, and we’re the highest that we’ve been since the beginning. I don’t think we are going down the back side yet,” said Scott Lindquist, Washington state’s chief epidemiologist for communicable diseases. “There are some indications that we have reached a peak.” 

Twenty-one states reported more cases last week than the week before, according to state-by-state data analyzed by The Hill. Twenty-four states reported more than 5,000 cases last week. Only 12 states reported cases declining over two consecutive weeks — but eight of those still reported more than 5,000 cases. 

Even if the number of cases is plateauing, experts expect the number of deaths to rise for several more weeks. Deaths tend to be a lagging indicator, the tragic conclusion of cases that were confirmed several weeks ago, when average counts were substantially higher than they are today. 

More than 157,000 in the U.S. have died from the coronavirus, and 53,000 remain hospitalized battling COVID-19, the disease caused by the virus. An average of more than 1,000 people have died of the virus every day for the last two weeks. 

The federal government has not developed any kind of national strategy for combatting the virus or rolling out new capacity to conduct the millions of tests a day that epidemiologists say are necessary to bring it under control. 

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Instead of ramping up testing, the number of tests conducted in the United States on a daily basis is actually falling. More than 929,000 people were tested on July 24, the highest level recorded to date. On Tuesday, 695,000 cases were conducted, according to data maintained by the Covid Tracking Project, an independent group of researchers. 

Testing “should be a smooth-running machine by now, and it’s not,” said Gayle Smith, the chief executive officer of the One Campaign who helped manage the Obama administration’s response to the world’s worst Ebola virus outbreak in West Africa. “I’m concerned that if we in fact see the replication of New York in multiple parts of the country, I have to believe there’s going to be pressure on the system.” 

States, largely left on their own by the Trump administration, have begun taking more decisive action, ordering bars and restaurants to shutter and limiting public gatherings. Florida, Arizona, Texas, Colorado, Pennsylvania, California, Louisiana and parts of Illinois, Maryland, Kentucky, Nevada and Tennessee have all ordered bars to close. 

Those actions came after health officials reported the number of cases rising among younger people, who may not face as much risk from COVID-19 but can still transmit the disease to others. 

In interviews with health officials this week, many said they are beginning to see the payoffs from those closures. 

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“We are seeing some benefit. Now, it’s early, but from Friday, Saturday, Sunday and today, our numbers are down,” Rachel Levine, Pennsylvania’s health secretary, said Monday. “I would like to think, but we still have to prove, that that is because of the surgical, targeted statewide mitigation that we took.” 

Health officials are looking for new ways to communicate with a public that even they admit is weary of lockdowns and distancing. After months repeating the same messages over and over, some are trying to highlight success stories to illustrate the positive that comes from such sacrifice. 

In Washington, health officials are pointing to Yakima, one of the cities hardest hit in the initial surge of cases. After Yakima residents began wearing masks and practicing more distancing, the number of cases declined substantially. 

“The answer is to show people the response,” Lindquist said in an interview. “Giving the public this kind of feedback of this is how you can control the spread in your community is helpful.” 

While government measures can make a difference in the spread, their efficacy is limited by the level of responsibility individuals take for their own actions. 

“We are working on compliance and on enforcement, but in the end it is up to a sense of personal responsibility for themselves, but also for their families and their communities,” Levine said.