The coronavirus pandemic’s merciless march through the Sun Belt is killing record numbers of Americans there, overrunning hospitals and exhausting supplies. But even as some leaders fall ill themselves, they have failed to contain the disease’s spread.
On Thursday, Gov. Ron DeSantis offered no new restrictions as Florida joined Texas and California in reporting record deaths. Arizona Gov. Doug Ducey promised more testing and limited restaurant capacity after the state announced the most cases in six days. In Mississippi, where many lawmakers had resisted wearing masks in the Capitol, 26 of them tested positive, including the leaders of both legislative chambers.
New U.S. virus cases topped 60,000 in a day for the first time Thursday, with the national total above 3.1 million. And in states where the disease rages, a nightmarish paralysis hit institutions filling with the sick and dying. Quinn Snyder, an emergency physician in Mesa, near Phoenix, said patients were flooding in from other parts of Arizona and as far as New Mexico as smaller hospitals near the saturation point.
“We’ve been discussing putting people in fluoroscopy suites, in radiology suites, everything to housing people in tents,” Snyder said. “We’re rearranging deck chairs on the Titanic as we speak.”
The daunting numbers and reports of shortages make clear that state and federal governments have failed to prepare for the new onslaught four months after it emerged. Vivid videos and reports of suffering in the Northeast didn’t move Sun Belt states, many run by Republicans who support President Donald Trump, to prepare adequately.
Even when states take measures to tamp down the outbreaks, it takes time to see the effects. So the rising case and death counts are likely to continue.
“We’re not in a good situation. That may be a little too gentle. Probably what I really think is not fit to print,” said Jaline Gerardin, an expert in disease modeling and an assistant professor of preventive medicine in epidemiology at Northwestern University Feinberg School of Medicine in Chicago. “I’m very worried.”
In Florida, where 120 more deaths were reported Thursday, the daily record went unmentioned at DeSantis’s media briefing in Jacksonville. Instead, he used the news conference to insist the state had to move the economy forward and reopen schools next month, as Trump has demanded.
“At the end of the day, we need our society to function,” DeSantis said. “We need our society to continue to move forward. We can take steps to be able to minimize risk when you’re talking about coronavirus, but we can’t just leave society on the mat.”
Florida’s new hospitalizations and the rate at which residents are testing positive also jumped sharply, and the number of virus patients on ventilators continued to climb in Miami-Dade, the most populous Florida county.
“Some of us are becoming a little speechless here at the status we’re in now,” said Jill Roberts, an associate professor at the University of South Florida College of Public Health who specializes in emerging diseases. “We’re in bad shape here.”
Texas COVID-19 deaths topped 100 for the first time and rose 3.7% to a cumulative 2,918.
New cases are quickly filling beds in intensive-care units in Houston, site of the state’s worst outbreak. Houston’s Texas Medical Center hospitals filled up all ICU beds generally available last week and began tapping converted beds according to its crisis plan. As of Thursday, 17% of Phase 1 surge capacity had been filled, up from 9% the day before, the center reported.
The swelling numbers may presage widespread mortality, said Vivian Ho, a health economist at Rice University in Houston.
“I view deaths as sort of three weeks after, at the earliest, the unsafe behavior, and we just recently closed bars,” said Ho. “I would expect the number of deaths to rise more.”
Gov. Greg Abbott expressed concern about the outbreak’s rapid advance in an interview on a Houston Fox television channel. “Today, for the first day, we had more than 100 deaths because of covid,” he said. “And I gotta tell you, I think the numbers are going to look worse as we go into next week, and we need to make sure that there’s going to be plenty of hospital beds available in the Houston area.”
While health professionals are nearly unanimous in their prescriptions for containing covid — mandating masks, limiting movements and policing economic activity — few state officials have been eager to return to widespread lockdowns. Circumstances are forcing some to reconsider.
In Maricopa County, Arizona’s most populous, 1 in 4 virus tests is positive, its health department tweeted Thursday. The state has seen a 50% increase in cases since June 21, Ducey said Thursday. “We have had a brutal June,” he said.
On June 29, Ducey shut down bars, gyms, nightclubs and other businesses. Now, the state will limit indoor dining to less than 50% occupancy.
Ducey argued that containment measures are working. When he ordered the closings last month, each person infected with the virus in Arizona was estimated to infect 1.18 people, he said. That number is now 1.1, he said, calling it “dramatic movement.”
Anthony Fauci, the nation’s top infectious-disease official, said in a Wall Street Journal podcast released Wednesday that states have a responsibility to consider stringent measures. “Any state that is having a serious problem, that state should seriously look at shutting down,” said Fauci, who is director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases. He said some states “went too fast.”
But Trump has made clear that he wants economies humming and schools open. Public health has become politicized while the disease reaches into statehouses and city halls.
Even as Texas set three new daily death records this week, the state Republican Party sued Houston’s Democratic mayor for ordering the cancellation of its convention next week. Mayor Sylvester Turner barred the in-person gathering — expected to draw 6,000 people — for fear it would contribute to the spread of the virus.
Government officials in several states have reported catching COVID-19 recently. California’s legislature delayed a session that was supposed to start July 13, after Assemblywoman Autumn Burke said she had tested positive.
In a series of tweets Monday, Burke said the Assembly’s human resources department called her to warn that she may have received “mask to mask” exposure to an infected person. And in San Francisco, Mayor London Breed said Thursday she tested negative for COVID-19 after attending an event with someone who had contracted the virus, but would take another test next week as a precaution.
Atlanta Mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms, a Democrat, tweeted Wednesday that it took eight days to get test results for her and others in her household. One member of the household tested positive, but during the wait, the virus spread to others. “If we had known sooner, we would have immediately quarantined,” she wrote.
In Mississippi, where the state legislators tested positive, 10 staff members have also contracted COVID-19.
“It’s a real, live reminder that this virus will not stop, with anyone,” Gov. Tate Reeves said at a news conference.
In Kentucky, which is seeing 200 to 400 new cases a day, Gov. Andy Beshear said he would order mask-wearing statewide starting 5 p.m. Friday. The rule applies indoors and outdoors, to customers in retail stores and in restaurants until a person begins eating. Initial violations will come with a warning, but fines will follow, Beshear said.
“I hoped we wouldn’t have to get to a point where we needed to mandate things,” Beshear said. “It’s time to get serious. It’s time to push our numbers down now.”