By Paul Simao and Carl O’Donnell
WASHINGTON (Reuters) – The United States government’s top infectious diseases expert on Tuesday warned that daily COVID-19 cases could more than double if Americans fail to take countermeasures and cautioned against pinning hopes on a vaccine.
California, Texas and several other states are reporting record increases in cases of the sometimes deadly illness caused by the novel coronavirus, leading to a sobering reassessment of efforts to contain it and raising the stakes for the scores of vaccine candidates being developed at unprecedented speed.
Unless Americans wear masks and recommit to social distancing, the daily increase in new cases nationwide, currently around 40,000, could reach 100,000, Dr. Anthony Fauci, the head of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, told a U.S. Senate committee.
“Clearly we are not in total control right now,” Fauci said. “I am very concerned because it could get very bad.”
Fauci said “there is no guarantee” that ongoing efforts will produce a safe and effective vaccine to prevent infection by the virus, pouring cold water on hopes for a quick fix to the health crisis.
Many countries in Asia and Europe have succeeded in controlling the pandemic with strong, coordinated government responses marked by stringent lockdowns and mandatory mask wearing in public.
In the United States, wearing masks has become a divisive political issue, and many southern and western states began reopening businesses without having met government health benchmarks for doing so safely, with younger adults in particular letting their guards down in recent weeks.
With the virus on the rise in most U.S. states, the European Union has excluded the United States from its initial “safe list” of countries from which the bloc will allow non-essential travel beginning on Wednesday
COVID-19 cases more than doubled in June in at least 10 states, including Texas and Florida, a Reuters tally showed. In parts of Texas and Arizona, hospital intensive care beds for COVID-19 patients are in short supply.
More than 126,000 Americans have died from COVID-19 and millions have lost their jobs, as businesses and schools shut to curtail the virus. The economy contracted sharply in the first quarter and is expected to crater in the April-June period.
Democratic presidential candidate Joe Biden on Tuesday launched a fresh attack on President Donald Trump’s “historic mismanagement” of the pandemic, arguing he could have saved lives and the economy by acting earlier to control the virus.
“It didn’t have to be this way,” the former vice president said in a speech in Delaware, in which he unveiled an updated plan to tackle the pandemic, including more testing and hiring at least 100,000 contract tracers. “Donald Trump failed us.”
FOURTH OF JULY WORRIES
The fresh surge in new cases and hospitalizations has dimmed hopes that the worst of the human and economic pain had passed for the country, and renewed criticism of Trump’s handling of the crisis as he seeks re-election on Nov. 3.
In the past few days California, Texas and Florida have all moved to close bars, which public health officials have warned are among the riskiest non-essential businesses and likely one of the larger contributors to the recent spikes.
On Tuesday, New York, New Jersey and Connecticut added California and seven other states to a list of those from which visitors must self-quarantine for 14 days upon arrival. Texas and Florida were on the original list announced last week.
South Carolina has also emerged as a hotspot, reporting a record single-day increase of 1,755 cases on Tuesday.
In Texas, many eyes are on Houston hospitals, where beds are quickly filling up with COVID-19 patients.
Dr. Marc Boom, Houston Methodist Hospital System’s chief executive, told CNN on Tuesday that his 2,400-bed system has seen a “very significant” increase in COVID-19 patients, although the death rate has lowered recently.
Boom said he was worried about July 4 Independence Day celebrations, when Americans traditionally flock to beaches and campgrounds and gather to watch fireworks displays. Some experts pointed to Memorial Day gatherings in late May for a spike in cases.
“We’re looking at the Fourth of July coming up in a couple of days, and frankly it scares me,” he said.
(Reporting by Carl O’Donnell, Trevor Hunnicutt, Simon Lewis, Saumya Joseph, Brad Brooks, Susan Heavey and Maria Caspani; Writing by Paul Simao and Nathan Layne; Editing by Bill Berkrot)