NEW YORK - The COVID-19 death toll could reach a half million in the United States by February unless nearly all Americans wear face masks, researchers said on Friday, a day after the number of new infections reported across the country approached a record high.
A study by the University of Washington's Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation estimated that the pandemic could claim a total of more than 500,000 lives by February, up from the current death toll of over 221,000. The projection reflects fears that colder winter weather will drive Americans indoors, where the virus is more likely to spread, and concerns that not enough people are wearing masks, experts said.
Cases, hospitalizations and deaths are all accelerating as cooler weather descends on much of the country. Nationwide, 76,195 new cases were reported on Thursday, just shy of the single-day record high of 77,299 reported on July 16, according to a Reuters analysis.
Only India has reported more cases in a single day: 97,894 on Sept. 17.
"We are heading into a very substantial fall/winter surge," said IHME director Chris Murray, who co-led the research. "We expect the surge to steadily grow across different states and at the national level, and to continue to increase as we head towards high levels of daily deaths in late December and in January."
Even so, the number of possible deaths could drop by 130,000 if 95 percent of Americans would cover their faces, the IHME said, echoing a recommendation championed by Anthony Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, and other leading medical experts.
US Health Secretary Alex Azar attributed the increase in cases nationwide to behavior of individuals, saying household gatherings have become a "major vector of disease spread."
Asked about an assertion by President Donald Trump during Thursday night's presidential debate that the United States is "rounding the turn" on coronavirus, Azar told CNN that Trump was trying to provide hope to Americans waiting for therapeutics and a vaccine.
A day after the president claimed, without citing evidence, that COVID-19 was "going away," Pennsylvania, a hotly contested state in the Nov. 3 presidential election, reported its largest single-day increase in cases since the pandemic began.
"Daily increases are now comparable with what we saw in April 2020," the Pennsylvania Department of Health wrote in a statement on Friday.
On Thursday, there were 916 reported fatalities in the United States, a day after the country recorded over 1,200 new deaths for the first time since August. COVID-19 deaths are up 13 percent from last week, averaging 785 a day over the past seven days.
Also on Thursday, the number of COVID-19 patients in US hospitals climbed to a two-month high. There are now nearly 41,000 hospitalized coronavirus patients across the country, up 34 percent from Oct. 1, according to a Reuters analysis.
North Dakota, with 887 new cases on Thursday, remains the hardest-hit state, based on new cases per capita, followed by South Dakota, Montana and Wisconsin, according to a Reuters tally. In terms of sheer numbers, Texas reported the most new cases on Thursday with 6,820 new infections, followed by California with 6,365.
Seven states reported record numbers of COVID-19 patients in the hospital: Iowa, Kentucky, Oklahoma, South Dakota, Tennessee, Wisconsin and Wyoming. The number of hospitalized coronavirus patients in the Midwest reached 11,285 on Thursday, a record high for a seventh day in a row.
In Tennessee, hospitals in Nashville said the have experienced a 40 percent increase in patients admitted for the coronavirus.
"Unless we act now to curb the transmission rates in Middle Tennessee, we expect this trend to continue," medical systems Ascension St. Thomas, Tristar Health, Meharry Medical College, Vanderbilt Health said in a joint statement this week.
Dr. Jeff Pothof, an emergency medicine physician at University of Wisconsin Health in Madison, expressed worry about lack of compliance with public health measures in the state where some groups have challenged Democratic Governor Tony Evers' COVID-19 restrictions in court.
"If we don't get that and we have such tremendous prevalence of COVID-19 in our communities, I don't see a great way out of this," Pothof said. "The picture isn't rosy."
Eight states on Thursday set new records for single-day increases in cases, an ominous trend that is prompting some governors to issue new restrictions, including on bars and restaurants in some parts of Illinois. Colorado, Illinois, Indiana, Montana, North Dakota, Ohio, Oklahoma and Utah all reported their biggest daily increase in cases since the pandemic started.
The Northeast remains the one region of the county without a significant surge in cases, but infections are trending higher there, forcing Boston public schools to shift to online only learning this week. Vermont is a bright spot with no hospitalized COVID-19 patients and 16 new cases on Thursday.