U.S. COVID-19 infections 10 times higher than reported, CDC estimates

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The coronavirus crisis deepened in Arizona on Thursday, and the governor of Texas began to backtrack after making one of the most aggressive pushes in the nation to reopen, as the daily number of confirmed cases across the U.S. closed in on the peak reached during the dark days of late April.

While greatly expanded testing probably accounts for some of the increase, experts say other measures indicate the virus is making a comeback. Daily deaths, hospitalizations and the percentage of tests that are coming back positive have also have been rising over the past few weeks in parts of the country, mostly in the South and West.

In Arizona, 23 per cent of tests conducted over the past seven days have been positive, nearly triple the national average, and a record 415 patients were on ventilators. Mississippi saw its daily count of new cases reach new highs twice this week.

“It’s not a joke. Really bad things are going to happen,” Mississippi Health Officer Dr. Thomas Dobbs said.

A health-care worker administers a COVID-19 test in Tampa, Fla., on Thursday. (Octavio Jones/Getty Images)

Republican Gov. Greg Abbott of Texas, whose state was among the first to reopen, put any further lifting of restrictions on hold and reimposed a ban on elective surgeries in some places to preserve hospital space after the number of patients statewide more than doubled in two weeks. Nevada’s governor ordered the wearing of face masks in public, Las Vegas casinos included.

“The last thing we want to do as a state is go backwards and close down businesses,” Abbott said.

The U.S. recorded 34,500 COVID-19 cases Wednesday, slightly fewer than the day before but still near the high of 36,400 reached on April 24, according to a count kept by Johns Hopkins University. The daily average has climbed by more than 50 per cent over the past two weeks, according to an Associated Press analysis.

Whether the rise in cases translates into an equally dire surge in deaths across the U.S. overall will depend on a number of factors, experts said, most crucially whether government officials make the right decisions. Deaths per day in the U.S. number around 600 after peaking at about 2,200 in mid-April.

Health workers conduct COVID-19 testing in Los Angeles on Thursday. (Ashley Landis/The Associated Press)

“It is possible, if we play our cards badly and make a lot of mistakes, to get back to that level. But if we are smart, there’s no reason to get to 2,200 deaths a day,” said Dr. Ashish Jha, director of Harvard’s Global Health Institute.

But he warned: “We have consistently underestimated this virus.”

In the past few weeks, the nation’s daily death toll has actually dropped markedly even as cases climbed, a phenomenon that may reflect the advent of treatments, better efforts to prevent infections at nursing homes and a rising proportion of cases among younger adults, who are more likely than their elders to survive a bout with COVID-19.

A COVID-19 travel advisory is seen at New York City’s LaGuardia Airport on Thursday. (Kathy Willens/The Associated Press)

“This is still serious,” said Dr. Robert Redfield, director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, but “we’re in a different situation today than we were in March or April.”

Several states set single-day case records this week, including Arizona, California, Mississippi, Nevada, Texas and Oklahoma. Florida reported over 5,000 new cases for the second day in a row.

Misssissippi’s Dobbs blamed a failure to wear masks and observe other physical-distancing practices, and said many cases involved younger people spreading the virus to older relatives.

A shopper wears a protective face mask in Houston on Thursday. (David J. Phillip/The Associated Press)

“I’m afraid it’s going to take some kind of catastrophe for people to pay attention,” he said. “We are giving away those hard-fought gains for silly stuff.”

The U.S. has greatly ramped up testing in the past few months, and it is now presumably finding many less-serious cases that would have gone undetected earlier in the outbreak, when the availability of testing was limited and sicker people were often given priority.

But there are other more clear-cut warning signs, including a rising number of deaths per day in states such as Arizona and Alabama. Some states, including North and South Carolina, also broke hospitalization records.

WATCH | Long lines at COVID-19 test sites in U.S.:

Traffic is seen at a standstill as drivers wait at drive-thru COVID-19 test sites in the U.S. 1:11

The number of confirmed infections, in any case, is a poor measure of the outbreak. CDC officials, relying on blood tests, estimated Thursday that 20 million Americans have been infected with the coronavirus since it arrived in the U.S. That is about 6 per cent of the population and roughly 10 times the 2.3 million confirmed cases.

Officials have long known that many cases have been missed because of testing gaps and a lack of symptoms in some infected people.

The virus has been blamed for more than 122,000 U.S. deaths — the world’s highest toll.

What’s happening with COVID-19 in Canada

As of 6 p.m. ET on Thursday, there were 102,602 confirmed and presumptive coronavirus cases in Canada, with 65,424 of those listed by provinces and territories as recovered or resolved. A CBC News tally of deaths based on provincial data, regional health information and CBC’s reporting stood at 8,550.

What’s happening with the rest of the world

Worldwide, more than 9.4 million people have been confirmed infected, and nearly a half-million have died, according to the Johns Hopkins count. Experts say the true infection numbers are much higher, in part because of limited testing.

World Health Organization Director-General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus expects the number of global cases to hit 10 million and the death toll from the disease to reach 500,000 by next week.

Speaking Thursday during a video conference with European Parliament members, Ghebreyesus said that although the crisis has improved across Europe, “globally, it’s still getting worse.”

WATCH | COVID-19 pandemic getting worse globally, WHO says:

The WHO’s director general says despite improvements in Europe, the COVID-19 situation is getting worse around the world, and he again defends China’s actions in the early days of the outbreak. 1:30

European nations appear on track to reopen their shared borders by July 1, and the European Union is considering barring American visitors, given the flare-up in the U.S. and President Donald Trump’s ban on Europeans entering the United States.

In Paris, meanwhile, the Eiffel Tower reopened to visitors for the first time Thursday after its longest-ever peacetime closure: 104 days.

“It’s very special, very special” because of the relative lack of tourists, said Annelies Bouwhuis, a 43-year-old visitor from the Netherlands.

WATCH | Eiffel Tower re-opens after coronavirus lockdown:

The Eiffel Tower in Paris reopened to visitors on Thursday after closing for 104 days due to the COVID-19 pandemic. 1:03

In the Asia-Pacific, skyscraper-studded Dubai, in the United Arab Emirates, ended a months-long nightly curfew.

With hospitals overwhelmed in New Delhi, Indian troops provided care at medical wards fashioned from railroad cars. And door-to-door testing is starting in Melbourne to control a hot spot there.

In China, where the virus first appeared late last year, an outbreak in Beijing appeared to have been brought under control. China reported 19 new cases nationwide amid mass testing in the capital.

A worker fumigates a residential area in Siliguri, India, on Thursday. (Diptendu Dutta/AFP via Getty Images)

In Africa, testing in the continent is expected to increase significantly in the coming weeks, the head of the Africa Centers for Disease Control said Thursday.

John Nkengasong pointed to a new continental platform that African nations set up to negotiate cheaper prices for urgently needed medical equipment amid intense global competition.

African leaders have said that China will ensure the supply of 30 million testing kits and 10,000 ventilators each month for purchase on the platform by Africa’s 54 nations. Each country has a quota based on its population and number of virus cases, and a line of credit is available.

About 4.3 million tests have been conducted in Africa, or about 3,200 tests per million people, far short of the ideal on a continent of 1.3 billion people.

A worker measures the body temperatures of people at a checkpoint in Bouaké, Ivory Coast, on Thursday. (Issouf Sanogo/AFP via Getty Images)

In the Americas, Brazil recorded 39,483 new confirmed cases in the past 24 hours as well as 1,141 deaths, the Health Ministry said on Thursday.

Brazil has registered more than 1.2 million cases since the pandemic began, while cumulative deaths total 54,971, according to the ministry. Both figures are second-most behind the U.S.

Meanwhile, Mexico’s Finance Ministry said on Thursday it has initiated epidemiological contact tracing after Finance Minister Arturo Herrera tested positive for the coronavirus.

Herrera, the most high-profile member of President Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador’s cabinet to test positive for the virus, said he had only “minor” symptoms.

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