By Maria Caspani and David Morgan
(Reuters) – Florida, one of the U.S. coronavirus hotspots, reported another record increase in COVID-19 deaths on Friday as the country’s top infectious disease expert dodged partisan bickering at a congressional hearing about a national strategy to fight the pandemic.
The state health department said Florida registered 257 fatalities, a record for the fourth straight day despite predictions that the U.S. coronavirus epicenter could be shifting to the Midwest.
In numerical terms, the one-day loss of life in Florida was roughly equivalent to the number of passengers on a single-aisle airplane.
Florida also reported 9,007 new cases, bringing its total infections to over 470,000, the second highest in the country behind California. Florida is among at least 18 states that saw cases more than double in July, when almost 25,000 people in the United States died of COVID-19.
“I definitely don’t feel safe. I feel like I’m fighting an invisible enemy,” said Zinnia Santiago, 50, an executive assistant who lives in Coral Springs, Florida.
Santiago said she is immunosuppressed and has not felt safe enough even to go for the monthly blood work required to make sure medication is not adversely impacting her organs. She rarely ventures outside except to walk her dog but recently went on a drive to the beach.
“There were people there walking around without masks, even though they mandated masks and there are police officers giving fines,” Santiago told Reuters. “Florida is in a really bad position right now.”
Adding to the state’s woes, a hurricane was bearing down on Florida’s Atlantic coast.
Governor Ron DeSantis declared a state of emergency for counties on that coast with Hurricane Isaias expected to hit as early as Friday night, a development that prompted the widespread closure of COVID-19 testing sites.
Nationally, coronavirus deaths are rising at their fastest rate since early June and one person in the United States died about every minute from COVID-19 on Wednesday, the day with the largest increase in deaths so far this week.
FAUCI ON THE SPOT
In Washington, Anthony Fauci, the main infectious diseases expert at the National Institutes of Health, evaded efforts by a staunch ally of President Donald Trump to have him criticize holding protests about racial injustice during the pandemic.
Fauci clashed with Representative Jim Jordan at a hearing of the U.S. House of Representatives Subcommittee on the Coronavirus after the Ohio Republican asked him whether protests should be curbed or eliminated to control the coronavirus.
“Should we limit the protesting?” Jordan asked. When Fauci said he was not in a position to make such a recommendation, the lawmaker retorted: “You make all kinds of recommendations. You make comments on dating, on baseball and everything you could imagine.”
“I’m not favoring anybody over anybody,” Fauci replied. “I’m not going to opine on limiting anything … I’m telling you what is the danger, and you can make your own conclusion about that. You should stay away from crowds, no matter where the crowds are.”
Fauci also fended off attempts by Democrats to have him criticize the current state of COVID-19 testing.
He repeatedly handed off Democratic lawmakers’ questions about testing to witnesses more directly involved with that effort. Fauci made headlines in March by describing U.S. testing efforts as failing.
Trump, who appeared to be watching the hearing, weighed in on Twitter against his Democratic critics: “Our massive testing capability, rather than being praised, is used by the Lamestream Media and their partner, the Do Nothing Radical Left Democrats, as a point of scorn. This testing, and what we have so quickly done, is used as a Fake News weapon. Sad!”
The COVID-19 epicenter in the United States has shown signs of shifting to the Midwest after ravaging New York and Sunbelt states.
On Friday, a travel order in Chicago went into effect requiring people who visited or are coming from neighboring Wisconsin to quarantine for 14 days. Wisconsin joined 21 other states that have seen a surge in new cases and been placed on Chicago’s travel quarantine list.
Allison Arwady, commissioner of the Chicago Department of Public Health, said in a Twitter video that commuters are exempt but must limit their activities, avoid public spaces and wear a face mask. If people violate the order they face fines of up to $500 per day, the city said.
The COVID-19 outbreak “is not in good control” in Wisconsin, she said.
Illinois Governor JB Pritzker warned that if coronavirus numbers get worse, bars may have to close in some places, according to media reports.
Dr. Deborah Birx, coordinator of the White House coronavirus task force, said on Thursday that Ohio, Kentucky, Tennessee, Missouri, Kansas and Nebraska were particularly at risk “because of vacations and other reasons of travel.”
(Reporting by Lisa Shumaker and Brendan O’Brien in Chicago, Maria Caspani in New York and David Morgan in Washington; Writing by Alistair Bell; Editing by Daniel Wallis)