Florida virus deaths surge, vaccine research moves forward

Florida surpassed 300,000 total positive cases and 4,521 deaths, according to the latest tally.

    Emergency Medical Technicians (EMT) arrive with a correctional patient at North Shore Medical Center where coronavirus patients are being treated, in Miami, Florida, US [Maria Alejandra Cardona/Reuters]
    Emergency Medical Technicians (EMT) arrive with a correctional patient at North Shore Medical Center where coronavirus patients are being treated, in Miami, Florida, US [Maria Alejandra Cardona/Reuters]

    The numbers of people testing positive for COVID-19 in the United States continued to dramatically increase on Wednesday, raising fears about a mounting death toll, even as researchers announced that the first vaccine tested in the US had worked to boost patients' immune systems.

    Florida surpassed 300,000 total positive cases on Wednesday and 4,521 deaths, according to the latest tally.

    The new deaths raised the state's seven-day average to 81 a day, more than double the figure of two weeks ago and now the second-highest in the US behind Texas.

    Doctor holding vaccine
    Doctor holding coronavirus vaccine [Getty Images]

    The worrisome figures were released as news about the experimental vaccine, developed by the National Institutes of Health and Moderna Inc was released.

    "No matter how you slice this, this is good news," Dr Anthony Fauci, the US government's top infectious disease expert, told The Associated Press.

    Key final testing of the vaccine will start around July 27, tracking 30,000 people to prove if the shots really work in preventing infection. Tuesday's announcement focused on findings since March in 45 volunteers.

    With the virus spreading quickly in the southern and western US, one of the country's top public health officials offered conflicting theories about what is driving the outbreak.

    "We tried to give states guidance on how to reopen safely ... If you look critically, few states actually followed that guidance," Dr Robert Redfield, the director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) said Tuesday in a livestream interview with the editor of the Journal of the American Medical Association.

    Redfield said people in many states did not adopt social distancing and other measures because they had not previously experienced an outbreak. But he went on to say, without explanation, that he did not believe the way those states handled reopening was necessarily behind the explosive rise in virus cases. He offered a theory that infected travellers from elsewhere in the country might have brought the virus with them around Memorial Day.

    CDC officials said that there are various possible explanations, and that Redfield was offering just one.

    Doctors in Florida have predicted more deaths as daily reported cases have surged from about 2,000 a day a month ago to a daily average of about 11,000, including a record 15,000 on Sunday. 

    Marlyn Hoilette, a nurse who spent four months working in the COVID-19 unit of her Florida hospital until testing positive recently, said hospitals are so desperate for staff to return to work they are not following guidelines that call for two negative tests first.

    "Nurses are getting sick, nursing assistants are getting sick, and my biggest fear is that it seems we want to return folks to work even without a negative test," said Hoilette, who works at Palms West Hospital in Loxahatchee. Florida.

    "It's just a matter of time before you wipe the other staff out if you're contagious, so that is a big problem."

    mega image - US record numbers
    People walk through Lincoln Road in Miami Beach, Florida [Cristobal Herrera/EPA-EFE]

    Word of the rising toll in Florida came as Arizona officials tallied 4,273 newly confirmed cases of COVID-19.

    The state, which became a virus hot spot after Governor Doug Ducey relaxed stay-at-home orders and other restrictions in May, reported 3,517 patients hospitalised because of the disease, a record high. Arizona's death toll from COVID-19 rose to 2,337, with 92 additional deaths reported Tuesday.

    Redfield urged Americans to wear masks to help contain the virus.

    "At this critical juncture when COVID-19 is resurging, broad adoption of cloth face coverings is a civic duty, a small sacrifice reliant on a highly effective low-tech solution that can help turn the tide," he and two colleagues wrote, in an editorial published online Tuesday by the journal of the American Medical Association.

    A newly revised University of Washington model projects the US death toll from COVID-19 will climb to above 224,000 by November 1, up 16,000 from a prior forecast, due to rising infections and hospitalisations in many states.

    But the latest forecast from the university's Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation (IHME), released late on Tuesday, also predicts the death toll could be reduced by 40,000 if nearly all Americans wore masks in public.

    "Use of masks is up, but not as high as it should be. If 95 percent of Americans wore masks each time they left their homes, infection rates would drop, hospitalizations would drop, and forecast deaths would drop," the IHME said in a statement.

    The IHME's new forecast came after Alabama, Florida and North Carolina on Tuesday reported record daily increases in deaths from COVID-19, marking grim new milestones of a second wave of infections surging across much of the US.

    The new IHME forecast - 224,089 US lives lost by November 1 - was revised upward from the 208,254 deaths projected on July 7.

    At least 136,699 Americans have died from COVID-19, the illness caused by the novel coronavirus, while reported US infections have surpassed 3.4 million, according to Johns Hopkins University.

    The IHME's projections have been cited in the past by the White House and are watched closely by public health officials.

    SOURCE: News agencies