By Lisa Shumaker
(Reuters) – The total number of coronavirus cases reported in the United States passed 4 million on Thursday, reflecting a rapid acceleration of infections detected in the country since the first case was recorded on Jan. 21, a Reuters tally showed.
It took the country 98 days to reach 1 million cases, but just 16 days to go from 3 million to 4 million, according to the tally. The average number of new U.S. cases is now rising by more than 2,600 every hour, the highest rate in the world.
As the pandemic has spread widely over the country, moving from the early epicenter of New York to the South and West, federal, state and local officials have clashed over how to fight it, including over how and when to ease social and economic restrictions aimed at curbing the infection rate.
Whether to order the wearing of masks, a common practice in the rest of the world and recommended by the federal government’s own health experts, has become highly politicized, with some Republican governors particularly resistant.
Hostility to the idea appeared to be dwindling this week, however, including from the Republican administration of President Donald Trump, who once dismissed mask-wearing as an effort to be politically correct.
Trump, who faces falling poll numbers over his handling of the health crisis ahead of the November election, has long refused to wear a mask in public but this week encouraged Americans to do so.
While Trump did not issue a national mandate, U.S. Assistant Secretary for Health Brett Giroir on Thursday cited the importance of masks in “turning that tide.”
“We have to do our mitigation steps: wear a mask, avoid the crowds. We won’t see hospitalizations and deaths go down for a couple of weeks because of lagging indicators, but we are turning that tide,” Giroir told Fox News Network.
He also said the time it currently takes to get coronavirus test results back needs to be reduced. The huge surge in infections has created a testing backlog.
Quest Diagnostics Inc., one of the nation’s biggest medical test companies, said on Thursday it expects to cut week-long turnaround times for COVID-19 tests by more than half to get to “acceptable” levels by September.
‘THAT STUFF WORKS’
New Jersey Governor Phil Murphy on Thursday said measures such as wearing masks were helping to lower the numbers of deaths and new cases in his state, once one of the hardest hit.
“What the current data can tell us is that social distancing, wearing that face covering, that stuff works, and it tells us that everyone should go get tested,” the Democratic governor said at an event.
On Thursday, Florida reported a record one-day increase in COVID-19 deaths with 173 lives lost, according to the state health department. Alabama reported a record increase in cases for the fourth time this month.
Another partisan point of contention is whether schools should start fully opening in August despite concerns that doing so could cause infections to spike.
Trump has threatened to withhold federal funding if schools do not reopen, but he told a press briefing on Wednesday the decision would ultimately be up to state governors.
Administration officials have said a quicker re-opening is essential to get the cratering economy moving again, another central plank of Trump’s re-election campaign.
The White House said Trump would discuss the issue again on Thursday at a briefing at 5 p.m. EDT (2100 GMT).
(Additional reporting by Doina Chiacu, Writing by Sonya Hepinstall, Editing by Bill Berkrot)