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US hits grim milestone: 50,000 coronavirus deaths

More than 50,000 people in the United States have died of COVID-19, a grim milestone in a global pandemic that shows few signs of slowing even as pressure mounts to reopen parts of the U.S. economy.

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The death toll is 16 times greater than the number of Americans who died in the 9/11 terrorist attacks and about 1 1/2 times larger than the number of U.S. soldiers who died in the Korean War. At the current pace, the number of coronavirus deaths is likely to surpass the number of Americans who died in the Vietnam War by the middle of next week.

The true number of deaths is likely higher than official figures. Coroners in California this week reclassified the death of a woman in Santa Clara on Feb. 6 as a coronavirus victim, the first known death from the disease in the United States and one that occurred three weeks before what had previously been thought to be the first known death.

More than 870,000 people in the United States have tested positive for the virus that causes the disease, according to the most recent figures. That number has doubled in the past two weeks, climbing by 25,000 or more cases per day.

The richest nation in the world now accounts for nearly one-third of the planet’s 2.7 million cases.

The number of U.S. deaths has increased at a rate of about 2,000 per day in recent weeks as scientists race to understand the new pathogen and health systems in hard-hit areas like New York, Boston, New Orleans and Detroit struggle under the strain placed on hospitals and front-line health care workers.

More than a quarter of a million New Yorkers have tested positive for the virus, as have more than 100,000 residents of New Jersey. There are at least 35,000 cases in California, Illinois, Massachusetts, Michigan and Pennsylvania, and at least 20,000 cases in Connecticut, Florida, Georgia, Louisiana and Texas.

Though the virus was first detected in China, where the authoritarian government locked down entire cities in January, the United States is now home to the largest number of known cases in the world. The number of cases on American soil is nearly four times as high as the second-worst hit country, Spain, and higher than the total case counts in Spain, Italy, France, Germany and the United Kingdom combined, according to data compiled by Johns Hopkins University.

America's disastrously slow response has stumbled over a number of hurdles other countries cleared easily. President TrumpDonald TrumpGiuliani used provisional ballot to vote in 2020 election, same method he disparaged in fighting to overturn results Trump gets lowest job approval rating in final days as president Fox News' DC managing editor Bill Sammon to retire MORE and his administration routinely claimed the virus was under control — he claimed the coronavirus would have "a very good ending for us" on Jan. 30, the same day the World Health Organization declared the virus a public health emergency of international concern.

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Scientists now believe the virus began circulating in the United States in early to mid-January, a period when the country had little capacity to test its residents. An early test created by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and sent to public health laboratories across the country turned out to have a fatal flaw, setting back crucial testing capacity that could have uncovered the extent of the virus's spread even as other countries deployed their own tests.

Companies that could have filled that backlog were also slow to develop their own diagnostic tests, and several ran into roadblocks at the Food and Drug Administration, which did not move to approve tests on an emergency basis until late February.

The United States only seemed to begin to take the threat of the outbreak seriously in early March. Almost two weeks later, the first state — California — announced stay-at-home orders.

As a consequence, the slow response has meant the United States has not bent its case curve downward as fast as other nations. The hardest-hit European nations have all seen daily case and death counts bending downward; the United States has, at best, reached a daunting plateau. And though countries like Italy, Spain and France have suffered more deaths per capita, their trajectories are down, while figures in the United States trend up.

There is still no known medicinal treatment for those suffering from COVID-19. And while dozens of laboratories across the globe race to develop a vaccine, experts warn that a finished product will not be available on a mass scale for more than a year — a schedule that would mark the fastest such development in human history. Until those vaccines are ready and widely available, the virus will remain in control.

Left leaderless at the federal level, state governments responded to the mounting crisis in their own ways. A bipartisan roster of governors in New York, California, Washington, Massachusetts, Maryland, Ohio and elsewhere have won praise for quick, decisive action and informative briefings that stand in stark contrast to Trump's daily appearances at White House press conferences.

California Gov. Gavin NewsomGavin NewsomREAD: Harris letter resigning from Senate ahead of inauguration Harris resigns Senate seat ahead of swearing in as VP Harris to resign from Senate seat on Monday MORE's (D) order was followed by most other states, though eight states have yet to require residents to avoid nonessential activities. Even as some states took unprecedented steps to lock down their economies, banning residents from beaches and public parks and shuttering nonessential businesses, others were slow to act.

There is now mounting evidence that dozens of coronavirus cases are tied to an April election in Wisconsin, and to packed beaches during Spring Break in Florida the previous month. At least one man who attended what was dubbed a coronavirus party in Kentucky came down with the disease. Several pastors who defied recommendations against holding church services have died.

Now, as a few hundred protesters in several states demand a reopened economy, some governors are beginning to loosen restrictions. Georgia Gov. Brian Kemp (R) will allow some businesses to begin opening on Friday, even as the number of COVID-19 cases there jumped to 21,883 on Thursday. Nearly 900 Georgians, about 4 percent of confirmed cases, have died.

Some nonessential businesses will begin opening in the coming days in Alaska, Indiana, Tennessee and Texas. Beaches have reopened in parts of Florida and South Carolina, even as public health officials have warned of the consequences of reopening too quickly.

"We have to proceed in a very careful, measured way," Anthony FauciAnthony FauciCOVID-19 is a precursor for infectious disease outbreaks on a warming planet Sunday shows - Capital locked down ahead of Biden's inauguration Fauci: Approval of AstraZeneca and Johnson & Johnson vaccines likely 'weeks away' MORE, head of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, said at a White House press briefing Wednesday. "The one way not to reopen the economy is to have a rebound that we can't take care of."

But there remain signs of strain even within the highest ranks of government. Fauci contradicted Trump's claim Wednesday that the virus would not return in the fall.

"We will have coronavirus in the fall. I am convinced of that because of the degree of transmissibility that it has, the global nature," Fauci said.

Fauci did not appear at the White House briefing Thursday, when Trump said he did not agree with the nation's leading infectious disease expert that the country's testing capacity had not risen to the level required to stamp out the virus.

"No, I don't agree with him on that. No, I think we're doing a great job in testing. I don't agree. If he said that, I don't agree with him," Trump said.