NEW YORK (Reuters) – The number of patients hospitalized with COVID-19 in the United States has jumped nearly 50% in the last 14 days, straining the nation’s healthcare system and forcing cities and states to impose new restrictions to curb the alarming viral spread.
Nearly 79,000 people were being in treated for the disease in hospitals across the country on Thursday, a Reuters tally showed, the most at any time during the pandemic.
Meanwhile, Americans were grappling with a spate of new school and business closings aimed at slowing community spread and lowering infection rates.
Suzanna Riordan, a Brooklyn mother, said she burst into tears upon hearing the announcement that classrooms inside New York City public schools would shut starting on Thursday as the city’s 7-day positive test rate average hit a previously-agreed closure threshold of 3%.
Riordan’s 7-year-old daughter Olivia had been excited at the prospect of adding one more day of in-person education a week starting next week, based on the city’s previous hybrid learning plan, Riordan said.
“Since September she’s gotten maybe seven days in school,” Riordan told Reuters. “And those are the days where…she comes home excited and happy and she gets to see other second graders. And that’s gone again.”
New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio defended his decision to limit teaching in the nation’s largest school district to virtual classrooms. He said additional safety standards to reopen schools would be announced before Thanksgiving Day after consultation with Governor Andrew Cuomo.
“The schools have been shut temporarily but only temporarily. They will back be and they’ll be safer than ever,” de Blasio told reporters. The long Thanksgiving weekend begins next Thursday.
The mayor also said he expected the state would shut down indoor dining and gyms in his city within “a week or two” given the current rate of infections.
Stringent measures were going into effect across the country this week as the U.S. death toll from the virus passed a quarter million lives lost, the highest in the world.
Michigan began a three-week shutdown period on Wednesday that closed gyms, high schools, colleges and entertainment venues.
Minnesota, one of several Midwest states dogged by soaring infection rates per capita that threaten to overwhelm healthcare systems, ordered a shutdown of restaurants, bars, fitness centers and entertainment venues starting on Friday through at least Dec. 18. More than 90% of hospital intensive care unit (ICU) beds were already occupied in the eastern half of the state.
In nearby Wisconsin, 90.2% of ICU beds were occupied on Thursday, state data showed.
LIMIT HOLIDAY GATHERINGS
Health and government officials have warned that the dramatic rise in hospitalizations over the last few weeks may get worse and urged Americans to limit their Thanksgiving holiday celebrations to small, single household gatherings.
The U.S. northeast region, which for months had successfully held the virus at bay after the pandemic’s crushing first wave in the spring, has seen the highest percentage jump in hospitalizations at 85.4% over the past 14 days, according to Reuters data. During that same period, hospitalizations in the Midwest have increased by 56.8%, in the West by 50.1%, and in the South by 34.4%.
Kansas, where the positive test rate was approaching 60% last week, became the latest state to issue a mask mandate on Wednesday.
The Trump administration has persisted in criticizing state efforts to curb the virus by shutting down parts of the economy, while refusing to pass on critical COVID-19 data to President-elect Joe Biden and his transition team, threatening to slow the incoming administration’s pandemic response.
White House Press Secretary Kayleigh McEnany praised the Republican governors of Texas and Florida on Twitter on Thursday for upholding “freedom” by not imposing business shutdowns as public health measures in their states – in some cases overriding the wishes of local officials.
The growing tide of infections and public health-recommended shutdowns portends a bleak winter for the American economy.
Last week, the number of Americans filing new claims for jobless benefits unexpectedly rose as new business closures to control skyrocketing COVID-19 infections unleashed a fresh wave of layoffs and further slowed the labor market recovery.
Initial claims for state unemployment benefits totaled a seasonally adjusted 742,000 for the week ended Nov. 14, compared to 711,000 in the prior week, the Labor Department said on Thursday. Economists polled by Reuters had forecast 707,000 applications in the latest week.
Reporting by Maria Caspani and Gabriella Borter; Additional reporting by Anurag Maan and Susan Heavey; Writing by Gabriella Borter; Editing by Bill Berkrot
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