The United States coronavirus death toll has passed 250,000, as a devastating third wave smashes all states and threatens to overcome the country’s battered healthcare system.
The country’s top health officials warn the worst is yet to come as fatalities lag skyrocketing hospital admissions by several weeks.
By Wednesday afternoon (local time), the number of people hospitalised with the virus across the US had risen to at least 78,630, breaking another record for the highest single-day tally during the pandemic.
Conditions inside hospitals are quickly deteriorating, with the number of COVID patients doubling in the past month and grim records being set daily.
Across the country, staff at overwhelmed medical facilities are converting chapels, cafeterias, waiting rooms, hallways, and parking garages into patient treatment areas. Other workers are desperately calling other centres in the hopes of finding free beds for coronavirus patients.
New infections have risen by more than 80 per cent in the past two weeks, with an average of about 160,000 new cases every day.
Alison Johnson, the director of critical care at Johnson City Medical Centre in Tennessee, said frontline workers are totally exhausted.
“We are depressed, disheartened and tired to the bone,” Ms Johnson said, also revealing she often cries on the way to and from work.
On Friday (local time), Illinois broke a new record for the highest number of new coronavirus cases reported by any state in any 24-hour period.
The midwestern state clocked up 15,433 new infections, surpassing the previous all-time high of 15,300 set by Florida in July.
Dr Isaac Bogoch, an infectious disease specialist at the University of Toronto, said the approaching holidays set the country up for a lethal winter and spring since hospitalisations and deaths lag newly diagnosed infections by a few weeks.
“The upcoming holidays of Thanksgiving, Diwali, Christmas, Hanukkah and New Year’s create the potential for innumerable super-spreading events across the country,” Dr Bogoch told CNBC last week, when the country was recording 120,000 cases a day.
“This has the potential to introduce and reintroduce the virus to new areas and to further exacerbate community transmission.”
State leaders grapple with virus
Governors and local officials have brought in a range of measures in recent days in an effort to curtail surging outbreaks in their electorates.
New York City’s school district, the largest in the country, will halt in-person learning from Thursday.
New York – the first major US coronavirus epicentre in March and April – remains the state with the highest overall number of deaths since the pandemic began, with over 33,000.
Elsewhere, Cleveland has issued stay-at-home warnings, while mask mandates have been passed in places that have previously strenuously resisted imposing such rules.
The US death toll from the virus vastly outstrips that of any other country.
Brazil is a distant second, with 166,699 COVID deaths.
The US’s seven-day average for fatalities is 1176 every day – more than the combined daily average in the two next most affected nations, India and Brazil.
After topping 11 million cases from the pandemic on Monday, the US surpassed 11.4 million by Wednesday night. It remains the only country to have reported more than 10 million cases.
With nearly 158,000 cases every day, it accounts for one in every 26 infections reported worldwide.
The Midwest is currently the hardest-hit region, based on cases per capita.
North Dakota, South Dakota, Wisconsin, Iowa and Nebraska are the top five worst-affected states.
Virus fight hindered by political tensions
The situation is not helped by recovered coronavirus patient President Donald Trump.
He has been outspoken in his scepticism of SARS-CoV-2.0, which he has repeatedly labelled the “China virus”.
As Mr Trump continues to deny the results of the November presidential election, coronavirus advisers to President-elect Joe Biden have warned his behaviour could hinder the battle against COVID-19.
Several doctors and nurses associations published a letter on Tuesday urging the Trump administration to share critical COVID-19 data, such as equipment inventories, medical supplies and hospital bed capacity, with Mr Biden’s team.
It came after top US infectious diseases expert Anthony Fauci revealed on Sunday that Mr Trump last attended a coronavirus task force meeting “months ago,” and sends vice President Mike Pence in his stead.
On Tuesday, Dr Fauci reiterated the need for a smooth transition of power and for a nationwide response to the coronavirus crisis.
“The thing we need to get people to understand is that when you’re dealing with an infectious disease outbreak, the infectious disease, the virus in this case, doesn’t know the difference between the border of Louisiana and Mississippi or North and South Carolina,” Dr Fauci told The New York Times.
“It’s the country that’s involved, so we need to respond as a nation, not in a fragmented way.”