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, Governor Ron DeSantis offered no new restrictions as Florida joined Texas and California in reporting record deaths. Arizona Governor 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.”
Car waits in line at a Covid-19 testing site in Miami Gardens, Florida, on July 6.
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.”
Governor 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, Governor 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.