While deaths from the coronavirus in the US are growing, some public health experts are noting a second surge of confirmed cases now appears to be leveling off into a plateau.
Over the past week, the average number of deaths a day in the US has climbed more than 25%, from 843 to 1,057. Florida on Thursday reported 253 more deaths, setting its third straight single-day record. The number of confirmed infections nationwide has topped 4.4m.
But based on a seven-day rolling average compiled by the Associated Press, daily cases of the coronavirus in the US fell from 67,317 on July 22 to 65,266 on Wednesday, according to data gathered by Johns Hopkins University. That is a decline of about 3%, though still a very high level of infection.
Scientists aren’t celebrating and warn the trend is driven by four big, hard-hit places – Arizona, California, Florida and Texas – and that cases are now rising in close to 30 states in all, with the outbreak’s center of gravity now seemingly shifting from sunbelt states toward the midwest.
Some experts also wonder whether the apparent caseload improvements will endure. Nor is it clear when – or if – deaths might start coming down, as they are a lagging indicator that could keep rising even while new cases level off or fall.
“I think it’s very difficult to predict,” Dr Anthony Fauci, the government’s foremost infectious disease expert, told the Associated Press.
The virus has claimed more than 150,000 lives in America, by far the highest death toll in the world, plus more than a half-million others around the globe. But the AP found the seven-day rolling average for new cases has plateaued over two weeks in California and decreased in Arizona, Florida and Texas.
Researchers prefer to see two weeks of data pointing in the same direction to say whether a trend is genuine. “But I think it is real, yes,” said Ira Longini, a University of Florida biostatistician who has been tracking the coronavirus and has been a source of disease forecasts used by the government.
The trends in Arizona, Texas and Florida are “starting to bend the curve a bit”, said Jennifer Nuzzo, a Johns Hopkins public health researcher.
Also, in another possible glimmer of hope, the percentage of tests that are coming back positive for the virus across the US dropped from an average of 8.5% to 7.8% over the past week.
Some researchers believe that the recent leveling off is the result of more people embracing social distancing and other precautions. “I think a lot of it is people wearing masks because they’re scared,” Longini said.
With the outbreak heating up in the midwest, Wisconsin’s governor, Tony Evers, ordered the wearing of masks statewide because of a surge in cases, joining some 30 other states that have taken such measures.
Among those newly wearing masks is Donald Trump, who donned one on Thursday for part of a visit to the American Red Cross headquarters, where the White House is promoting the donation of blood plasma. Trump, who is rarely seen wearing a mask and has been critical of them, has more recently moved to advocating for their use – though he did not wear one during all of the event.
But at the same time as a battle rages on about when, whether and how to safely reopen American schools, Mike Pence took off his mask on Wednesday while visiting as private school in North Carolina, saying children should be back in the classroom.
The education secretary, Betsy DeVos, who was with the vice-president on the visit and likewise removed her mask, also urged schools to reopen, despite not coming up with a national plan for them to do so. “There’s too many schools in this state and others that are ignoring parents and leaving schools closed,” she said.
If school reopening turns into a public health disaster it could threaten a fresh boost to infection rates and trigger many new cases.
But Dr Ali Khan, dean of the University of Nebraska College of Public Health, said the current leveling-off trend in terms of new cases could also be due to natural dynamics of the virus that scientists to do not yet understand.
Fauci said he was “somewhat comforted” by the recent plateau. But a stabilization of cases at around 60,000 is “still at a very high level”.
“What we’re focusing on now is that there are a bunch of other states – Ohio, Tennessee, Kentucky and Indiana – which are starting to show that very subtle increase in percent positives among the total tested, which is a surefire hint that you may be getting into the same sort of trouble with those states that the southern states got into trouble with,” he told ABC News.