The pandemic was sweeping across the Kansas prairie Thursday as the United States recorded its 8 millionth case of Covid-19.
That milestone was reached just three weeks after the nation notched 7 million confirmed cases of coronavirus and 19 days before Election Day, which is shaping up to be a referendum on President Donald Trump's much-criticized handling of a crisis that has killed more than 200,000 people in the U.S.
Many of the new infections have been in Midwestern states that weren't hit as badly as the Northeast and West Coast in the earlier days of the Covid-19 crisis.
But after months of watching as the coronavirus spread through the South and then Sun Belt, new Covid-19 cases in states like Kansas have gone from a trickle to a torrent with 5,203 reported just in the last seven days, the latest NBC News figures showed Thursday.
During that same time period, 115 deaths due to Covid-19 were recorded in Kansas. And Wednesday, the state recorded a single-day record of 67 fatalities, according to the newest numbers.
“The numbers are getting worse,” Dr. Lee Norman, the top administrator at the state’s Department of Health, said Wednesday at a press conference in the Statehouse.
Kansas is one of several states in the nation's midsection that have seen a dramatic increase in new coronavirus cases of late, one that public health experts blame on a combination of cooling weather and a growing reluctance to adhere to restrictions meant to stop the spread of the virus.
"Whether we're in a second wave, or the second crest of the first, our current situation is critical, especially outside of the well-resourced metro areas," Dave Dillon, spokesman for the Missouri Hospital Association, told the St Louis Post-Dispatch.
But compared to California and Texas, the states with the most cases, Kansas’ numbers are small.
The 69,155 confirmed cases Kansas has recorded since the start of the pandemic is not much more than the 59,603 cases reported Wednesday in the U.S. And as the number of Covid-19 cases in the country hit 8 million, Kansas’ share amounted to less than 1 percent of the total.
Still, the death toll in Kansas last week accounts for about 14 percent of the total 838 fatalities the state has recorded during the pandemic.
In other coronavirus news:
- In yet another sign that the recovery of the U.S. economy is stalling, weekly initial jobless claims climbed to 898,000 last week, the Department of Labor reported. That disappointing figure was much higher than analyst expectations of 830,000.
- Former New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, a Trump ally who was recently hospitalized for Covid, said he regrets not wearing a mask at the Sept. 26 White House event to introduce Supreme Court nominee Judge Amy Coney Barrett. "I believed that when I entered the White House grounds, that I had entered a safe zone, due to the testing that I and many others underwent every day," he said in a statement. "I was wrong." More than two dozens cases have been tied to that event.
- Herd immunity, which Trump has been pushing as a way to stop the pandemic, is a "dangerous fallacy unsupported by the scientific evidence," dozens of scientists from around the world declared in The Lancet, a leading medical journal.
- Democratic vice-presidential candidate Kamala Harris cancelled her travel plans after two people involved in the campaign tested positive. Harris herself has tested negative, as has presidential candidate Joe Biden.
- Nebraska Sen. Ben Sasse, one of the few Republican senators who have dared to publicly criticize Trump, said in a private call with constituents that the president's pandemic leadership has not been "reasonable or responsible or right," The Washington Examiner reported.
- Rhode Island Gov. Gina Raimondo said trick-or-treating will be allowed but no big Halloween bashes. "If your party is greater than 15 people, we will shut you down," she said.
- The Atlanta Falcons closed their training facility after a staffer tested positive. Other NFL teams such as the New York Jets and the Tennessee Titans have had to shutter their in-person operations for the same reason.
Increasingly, the pandemic is taking a toll on the parts of Kansas least prepared for the pandemic – the rural areas, Norman said. Half of the newest cases were in the state’s most sparsely populated counties.
Dr. Beth Oller, a family physician in northwest Kansas, said the coronavirus is spreading there because people are not wearing masks and continue to attend weddings, baby showers, birthday parties and other events where infections can proliferate.
When Gov. Laura Kelly imposed a five-week stay-at-home order in the spring for people in her corner of Kansas, it was “like going into the cellar for a tornado that never came,” Oller said.
“Even though those of us in public health were saying, ‘It’s coming! It's coming! We can't stop being diligent,' you get that pandemic fatigue," she said in an Associated Press report. “It's harder to keep that diligence up.”
Rural Kansas is also deep red Trump country and public health experts said the mixed messages emerging from the White House have also undermined their attempts to get people to take proper safety precautions.
Sheriff Allan Weber in rural Gove County came down with Covid-19 and was recently released from the hospital. When The Associated Press caught up with him last week, Weber was working from a local medical center and still having trouble breathing.
But he was not deterred, not even when the pulse oximeter which sounds an alarm when oxygen levels get too low started beeping.
“It’ll quit here in a minute,” Weber said amid coughs and labored breathing.
There are other Midwestern states where lawmakers, mostly Republicans, have been reluctant to mandate masks or beef-up public health restrictions.
"I'm not for a mask mandate," Steve Bakken, the Republican mayor of Bismarck, North Dakota, told MSNBC's Chuck Todd on Thursday. "I think we need to rely on people to do the right thing in the right situations."
Trump, who recently returned to the campaign trail after being hospitalized for Covid-19, has been criticized for refusing until recently to wear a mask at public events and accused of lying to the public about the danger of the pandemic.
"What I do is outside is a big thing," Trump said Thursday in an interview with Fox Business Network. "And if you look at those people, they really are wearing masks."
Later at a campaign rally in North Carolina, Trump made his first extended remarks about his youngest son Barron, who tested positive for the coronavirus but never developed symptoms.
"Barron had it, he recovered like so fast," Trump said. "I said wait a minute, how long did that take? They have the strongest immune systems, they’re better than all of us. That’s what they are."
Most of the pandemic deaths have been either elderly or infirm, but the average age of the Covid-19 victims has been trending downward as students have been returning to school. Although it remains rare that children ages 18 and under die of the virus (121, according to the latest government figures), they pose a danger to adults as potential disease carriers, public health experts have said.
Researchers from Cornell University have branded Trump the world’s biggest spreader of coronavirus misinformation.
While Trump continues to insist that his administration has done a “phenomenal” job, right now the U.S. accounts for more than a fifth of the world’s 38.6 million confirmed coronavirus cases and more than 1 million deaths, according to the Johns Hopkins University Covid-19 dashboard.
The U.S. is still the world leader in both categories, but India may soon take the lead in the number of confirmed cases. It had 7.3 million as of Thursday, according to the dashboard.