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U.S. reports highest COVID-19 fatalities in two weeks, but real death toll could be higher

Data shows “a startling surge" in children and teens diagnosed with COVID-19, while a sliver of hope emerged that the economy might be starting to mend.
Medics prepare to transfer a patient from an ambulance to Coral Gables Hospital in Coral Gables, near Miami, on July 30, 2020.Chandan Khanna / AFP - Getty Images

The U.S. logged the highest number of COVID-19 deaths in two weeks, a new NBC News tally showed Thursday, but widespread testing shortages raised concerns that the figures coming out of the hardest-hit states might not be presenting a true picture of this deadly pandemic.

The 1,424 fatalities reported Wednesday were the highest since July 28, when 2,218 deaths were reported, the figures showed. And it was the twelfth time in the last 16 days that the death toll exceeded 1,000.

Most of these deaths were in the Southern and Sun Belt states like Florida, Texas and Arizona that began reopening in May and June at the urging of President Donald Trump despite warnings from public health experts that the coronavirus was starting to crest.

"The deaths we see today are a result of infections from four to eight weeks ago," Admiral Brett Giroir, the assistant secretary of health and the Trump administration's testing coordinator, said Thursday on a call with reporters.

"Mortality is a lagging indicator," Giroir added. "I don't mean to minimize people who died, but mortality is a lagging indicator and it's going to be a week or two before we see that go down in a meaningful way."

The numbing new numbers came on the same day a sliver of hope emerged that the economy might be starting to mend from the biggest collapse since the Great Depression — for the first time in almost five months, the weekly initial job claims fell below one million.

“There’s no question that the breakout of the hot spots in the South and West probably slowed the recovery,” Larry Kudlow, the director of the National Economic Council, said on CNBC.

Nevertheless, Kudlow said, the new 963,000 jobless claim figure was “a good sign.”

Experts, however, said it was difficult to gauge the progress of the pandemic because fewer people are getting tested and some states have been slow to report test results.

“I really have come to believe that we have entered a real, new, emerging crisis with testing, and it is making it hard to know where the pandemic in slowing down and where it’s not,” Dr. Ashish Jha, director of the Harvard Health Institute, told CNBC on Wednesday.

Giroir, however, insisted that the number of new COVID-19 cases is decreasing and the rate of hospitalizations is also going down. He said the administration expects to have the capacity to do nearly 90 million tests per month by September, but they probably won't need to do that many tests.

"It's just a false narrative that we need millions of tests," the admiral said. "You need strategic testing implemented with smart policy. That is the plan, that plan is being implemented, and that plan is working."

Trump has been pushing hard to get kids back into the classroom. ”We’ve got to open up our schools and open our businesses,” the president said at a White House news conference on Wednesday.

But public health experts have warned that reopening the schools without adequate testing — and at a time when too many people are failing to wear masks or practice social distancing — could add jet fuel to the pandemic.

And new data is showing “a startling surge in children and teenagers diagnosed with COVID-19,” NBC News reported Thursday.

"The pediatric cases are in all of the same states that we know are surging with adults who have disease," said Dr. Jodie Dionne-Odom, an assistant professor of medicine in the division of infectious diseases at the University of Alabama at Birmingham.

As of Thursday morning, the U.S. has reported more than 167,000 deaths due to COVID-19 and more than 5.2 million confirmed infection. The U.S. has accounted for a fourth of the world’s more than 20.7 million cases and 750,429 deaths.

  • Joe Biden renewed his call for a nationwide mask mandate to stop the spread of the covornavirus. "Every governor should mandate mandatory mask wearing," the Democratic presidential candidate said. "The estimates by the experts are it will save over 40,000 lives in the next three months." But many of the Republican governors, especially those closely aligned with Trump, have been reluctant to require face coverings. And Trump himself only recently began wearing masks in public. Still, top members of his administration have been forcefully urging Americans to don them. "We want 80-90 percent wearing masks in public," Giroir said Thursday. "If you're running alone in forest, you don't need a mask. But if you're around people wear a mask."
  • Dr. Anthony Fauci, the director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases who's endured a White House attempt to discredit him, had an answer at the ready when asked how much longer Americans would have to wear masks and contend with the pandemic. “How long we're going to have to be doing this depends totally on us," Fauci said during a National Geographic interview. "If we keep running away from the reality of the need to do it, it could linger on and linger on.” Fauci has drawn the ire of Trump — and even death threats from some of his supporters — for contradicting the rosy predictions the president has made about the progress of the pandemic. Asked about the threats, Fauci said "it's a reflection of the divisiveness in the country."
  • People in New York died of COVID-19 at the start of the pandemic at about the same rate they did from the Spanish Flu back in 1918, according to a new study published in JAMA Network Open. Researchers focused on two 61-day periods: March 11 though May 11 this year and the 61 days of October and November 1918, when the influenza outbreak was at its peak.The study found that during the peak of the 1918 pandemic, 287 per 100,000 New Yorkers died per month, while for this year's pandemic, 202 per 100,000 New Yorkers died per month. The Spanish Flu, which got its nickname when King Alfonse XIII of Spain contracted it and survived, wound up killing an estimated 50 million worldwide and 675,000 in the U.S. alone. New York has, since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic, been able to flatten the curve.

  • Kentucky Gov. Andy Beshear urged school districts in his state not to defy his order to delay in-person instruction until Sept. 28 because the number of coronavirus cases are continuing to climb. "While we are desperate to get our kids back, I also want it to work," he said. Kentucky recorded 1,163 new cases, including 39 in children under five, on Wednesday.
  • The pandemic is believed to have spread around the world from Wuhan, China. But now Chinese officials fear the virus may be returning to their country via frozen food shipments from countries like Brazil and Ecuador where the plague is raging. Inspectors in three Chinese cities have reported detecting COVID-19 on imported frozen food over the span of four days.