The United States surpassed Italy on Saturday to become the country with the highest number of recorded coronavirus deaths, reporting more than 19,600 fatalities 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.
Public health experts have warned that the U.S. death toll could surge to 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 sweeping restrictions on movement aimed at curbing the spread of the COVID-19 disease caused by the novel coronavirus carry their own economic and public-health cost.
“I’m going to have to make a decision, and I … hope to God that it’s the right decision,” he told reporters on Friday. “It’s the biggest decision I’ve ever had to make.”
Trump, who is seeking re-election in November, said the facts would determine the next move. Asked what metrics he would use to make his judgment, he pointed at his forehead: “The metrics right here, that’s my metrics.”
The current federal guidelines run until April 30. The president 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 U.S. 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 U.S. 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 hard-hit New York state – as signs that social distancing measures are paying off.
New York City’s public schools, which had been due to reopen on April 20 in a best-case scenario, will stay closed for the rest of the school year, Mayor Bill de Blasio said on Saturday, adding that it was “the right thing to do.”
New York Governor Andrew Cuomo, however, said later that the mayor’s edict was merely an “opinion,” and he would make his own decision on school closures soon.
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 U.S. mortality forecasts to 60,000 deaths by Aug. 4, down from at least 100,000, assuming social-distancing measures remain in place.
However, new U.S. government data show infections will spike 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.
Pictured: A volunteer with Los Angeles County Federation of Labor, AFL-CIO, hands out boxes of food to LAX workers in the parking lot of The Forum during the outbreak of the coronavirus disease (COVID-19), in Inglewood, California, U.S., April 10, 2020. REUTERS/Kyle Grillot