'Suffering just starting': More pain predicted as US notches grim virus record

With protests taking over the streets and a federal election looming, coronavirus has been nudged from the headlines in the United States – but the country has surpassed another grim milestone.

The official US coronavirus count has topped 2 million, according to a rolling tally by Johns Hopkins University.

While experts say the real number is certain to be many multiples more, epidemiologists are warning that the country - which still has the most official cases in the world - should brace for more pain to come.

Across the country new infections are rising slightly after five weeks of declines as states emerge from lockdown.

Ohio woman Christine Bevington holds a photo of her stepfather as they said goodbye on a video call before he passed away from COVID-19 last month. Source: Getty

Some states are worse than others. In California cases have yet to reach a plateau and have continued to trend up since the outbreak began, while Arizona has seen a large spike with hospitals reportedly at 83 per cent capacity on Wednesday (local time).

Meanwhile North Carolina has also seen a spike in hospitalisations in recent weeks that has reportedly left the White House worried.

Part of the broader increase across the country is due to more testing, which hit a record high on June 5 of 545,690 tests in a single day but has since fallen, according to the COVID-Tracking Project in the country.

Recent increases in cases are likely a result of more people moving about and resuming some business and recreational activities as all 50 states gradually reopen, while nationwide Black Lives Matter protests could also increase community transmission.

So far in June, there have been an average of 21,000 new cases a day compared with an average of 30,000 a day in April and 23,000 a day in May, according to a Reuters tally.

Total coronavirus-related deaths in the United States have surpassed 112,000, also a world-leading figure.

Arizona is one a few US states that has seen a recent spike in cases and hospitalisations. Source: COVID-Tracker Project via New York Times

US still a long way from natural herd immunity

Despite America’s unenviable position, Michael Osterholm, the director of the Center for Infectious Disease Research and Policy at the University of Minnesota says things will get a whole lot worse for the country if a vaccine isn’t produced.

Medical experts say 60 per cent of a given population needs to be immune from a virus, either from a vaccine or through having antibodies from beating the disease, for that population to achieve so-called herd immunity.

“At most, perhaps five per cent of people have been infected,” Mr Osterholm told The Guardian.

“If all that pain, suffering and economic destruction got us to five per cent, what will it take to get us to 60 per cent? That’s a sobering thought. All of that suffering and death is just getting started. People haven’t quite got that yet.”

COVID-19 patients arrive at a medical centre in New York at the height of the pandemic. in April. Source: Getty

On May 12, the World Health Organisation (WHO) advised governments that before reopening, the rate of people testing positive for the coronavirus should remain at five per cent or lower for at least 14 days.

US rates of positive test results have fluctuated between four per cent and seven per cent and have not met those guidelines although many individual states have.

Some states were still reporting positive rates above the WHO threshold last week, with Maryland at eight per cent, Utah, Nebraska and Virginia at nine per cent, Massachusetts at 11 per cent and Arizona at 12 per cent.

At the peak of the US outbreak in April, 25 per cent to 50 per cent of tests came back positive.

No virus spike from protests yet, says US Vice President

US Vice President Mike Pence says there has been no sign yet of an increase in coronavirus cases from two weeks of nationwide protests over police misconduct and racism.

"What I can tell you is that, at this point, we don't see an increase in new cases now, nearly two weeks on from when the first protests took effect," Pence said in an interview on Fox Business Network on Wednesday, local time.

"Many people at protests were wearing masks and engaging in some social distancing," he said.

Dr Anthony Fauci, the top infectious disease expert on the White House coronavirus task force that Pence chairs, said on the weekend the mass protests were a "perfect set-up" for spreading the virus.

with Reuters

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