White House holds Coronavirus Task Force briefing as cases hit a new high in US

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Vice President Mike Pence held a Coronavirus Task Force briefing Friday to talk about the spread of COVID-19 across the United States. This was the first briefing from the task force in nearly two months.

Texas and Florida clamped down on bars again Friday in the nation’s biggest retreat yet as a surge across the South and West sent the number of confirmed new coronavirus infections per day in the U.S. to an all-time high of 40,000.

Texas Gov. Greg Abbott ordered all bars closed, while Florida banned alcohol consumption at all such establishments. The two states joined the small but growing list of those that are either backtracking or putting any further reopenings of their economies on hold because of a comeback by the virus.

Abbott had pursued up to now one of the most aggressive reopening schedules of any state and had not only resisted calls to order the wearing of masks but had also refused until last week to let local governments take such measures.

“It is clear that the rise in cases is largely driven by certain types of activities, including Texans congregating in bars,” he said. “The actions in this executive order are essential to our mission to swiftly contain this virus and protect public health.”

Texas, reported more than 17,000 confirmed new cases in the past three days, with a record high of nearly 6,000 on Thursday. The day’s tally of over 4,700 hospitalizations was also a record.

The Florida agency that governs bars acted after the daily number of confirmed cases in the state neared 9,000, a record that was almost double the previous mark set just two days earlier.

A number of the hardest-hit states, including Texas, Florida, Arizona and Arkansas, have Republican governors who have resisted mask-wearing requirements and largely echoed President Donald Trump’s desire to quickly reopen the economy.

Colleen Corbett, a 30-year-old bartender at two places in Tampa, said that she was disappointed and worried about being unemployed again but that the restrictions are the right move.

“Bars were at normal capacity, not COVID capacity,” Corbett said. “It was like they forgot there was a pandemic or just stopped caring.”

Amid the surge, the White House coronavirus task force, led by Vice President Pence, held its first briefing in nearly two months, signaling a recognition that the administration’s can’t ignore the alarming increases.

Pence gave assurances that “this moment in the coronavirus pandemic is different than what we saw two months ago.” He said that among other things, the U.S. has more supplies on hand now, with no requests from hard-hit states for equipment such as ventilators and protective gear.

The number of confirmed new infections in the U.S. per day soared past the previous high of 36,400, set on April 24, during one of the deadliest stretches in the crisis, according to the count kept by Johns Hopkins University. The average number of new cases per day has risen about 60 percent over the past two weeks, according to an Associated Press analysis.

Health experts said a disturbingly large number of cases are being seen among young people who are going out again, hitting the bars and other nightspots, often without wearing masks or observing other social-distancing rules.

While the increase in reported cases is believed to reflect, in part, greatly expanded testing, experts say there is ample evidence the virus is making a comeback, including rising deaths and hospitalizations in parts of the country and higher percentages of tests coming back positive for the virus.

Deaths from the coronavirus in the U.S. are down to around 600 per day, compared with about 2,200 in mid-April. Despite the rise in cases, some experts have expressed doubt that deaths will return to that level, because of advances in treatment and prevention and also because a large share of the new infections are in younger adults, who are more likely than older ones to survive.

The virus is blamed for 124,000 deaths in the U.S. and 2.4 million confirmed infections nationwide, by Johns Hopkins’ count. But U.S. health officials said the true number of Americans infected is about 20 million, or almost 10 times higher.

Worldwide, the virus has claimed close to a half-million lives, according to Johns Hopkins.

In a sign of the reversal of fortune among states, New York said it is asking Arizona, Texas and Florida whether they need any medical equipment, personnel, technical advice or other help. Various states and thousands of out-of-state health care workers helped New York when it was in the throes of the deadliest outbreak in the nation this spring.

“We will never forget that graciousness, and we will repay it any way we can,” Gov. Andrew Cuomo said.

In addition to closing bars again, Abbott scaled back restaurant capacity and shut down rafting operations and said any outdoor gatherings of more than 100 people will need approval from the local government. The move came as the number of patients at Texas hospitals statewide more than doubled in two weeks.

Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis has pursued a phased approach to lifting restrictions, doing things more slowly than a task force recommended, but has allowed theme parks to reopen, encouraged professional sports to come to Florida and pushed for the GOP convention to be held in the Sunshine State.

On Thursday, Arizona put on hold any further efforts to reopen the economy, with Republican Gov. Doug Ducey saying the numbers “continue to go in the wrong direction.” Arizona reported over 3,000 additional infections Thursday, the fourth day in a week with an increase over that mark.

Nevada’s governor ordered the wearing of face masks in public, Las Vegas casinos included.

Elsewhere around the world, China moved closer to containing a fresh outbreak in Beijing. Another record daily increase in India pushed the caseload in the world’s second most populous nation toward half a million. And other countries with big populations like Indonesia, Pakistan and Mexico grappled with large numbers of infections and strained health care systems.

South Africa, which accounts for about half of the infections on the African continent with over 118,000, reported a record of nearly 6,600 new cases after loosening what had been one of the world’s strictest lockdowns earlier this month.

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