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U.S. leads global coronavirus death toll as cases surpass 550,000

"We are hoping to see a rather sharp decrease and decline in the cases in New York," said Dr. Anthony Fauci, the nation's top infectious diseases expert.

The United States now has the lead with the most deaths from the coronavirus outbreak of any nation worldwide with nearly 22,000 lives lost.

Meanwhile in Italy, previously the worst-hit country, officials on Monday were considering loosening lockdown measures after the lowest number of deaths in a single day since March 19.

There were at least 555,049 infected with COVID-19 in the U.S. as of 3:24 am ET, according to NBC News' tracking. New York remains the epicenter of the outbreak accounting for 9,385 of the 21,994 deaths.

New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio said in a briefing Sunday that the number of new severe cases was on the decline, with about 70 people per day needing ventilators, down from 200 to 300 a week ago.

While there are enough ventilators to get through the next week, the city needs more protective equipment for health workers along with more test kits from the federal government, he said.

Given the risks the virus continues to pose on the city, de Blasio said schools would remain closed for the remainder of the academic year.

Dr. Anthony Fauci, the nation's top infectious diseases expert, offered some hope for the state, suggesting the numbers are stabilizing.

"We are hoping to see a rather sharp decrease and decline in the cases in New York," he told MSNBC's Al Sharpton.

The virus is also taking a toll elsewhere in the country with Illinois, Louisiana, Massachusetts, Michigan, New Jersey and Pennsylvania all reporting over 20,000 cases.

Fauci also said that that earlier social distancing measures would have saved lives. It became clear to him in "the middle to end of January" that COVID-19 could cause a serious pandemic.

While the U.S. grapples to flatten the curve, Italy has seen an easing in the number of cases and deaths since the peaks around the end of March.

However, the decline has not been as steep as hoped for after a month of strict lockdown measures.

There were 431 lives lost in Italy on Sunday, down from 619 the previous day. The number of new cases is still climbing with 4,092 reported infections Sunday, in addition to 4,694 reported on Saturday.

There are some encouraging figures. The number of people in intensive care dropped to 3,343 on Sunday from 3,381, while the number of those who have recovered from the virus climbed to 34,211.

While Italy's Prime Minister Giuseppe Conte rejected calls from businesses last week to reopen factories, the current lockdown legislation would allow some shops to reopen Tuesday — specifically bookstores, stationery shops and children's apparel.

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It remains to be seen whether shops owners will take advantage of the policy. Some regional governments in areas that have been hardest hit by the virus have implemented their own, more stringent measures that would prevent any reopening until May 3 at the earliest.

Spanish Prime Minister Pedro Sanchez was also eyeing the end of the lockdown, saying although restrictions would be extended another two weeks, some businesses would resume operations as early as Monday.

"We will see the restart of the economic activities under hibernation," he said in a speech while reiterating it did not mark a return to normal life for Spain's citizens.

Spain has the second-highest number of confirmed cases, after the U.S., with 166,831 people infected. The country's death toll has reached 17,209 by early Monday. But Sanchez said restrictions on people's movements could begin to lift in two weeks "if we are able to gain ground against the virus."

In the United Kingdom, Prime Minister Boris Johnson was released from the hospital over the weekend after being admitted into intensive care to treat his symptoms from COVID-19.

While Johnson is recovering, the country's death toll is mounting, having surpassed the grim 10,000-mark. The number of confirmed cases now also outpaces that of China, where the global pandemic began.

Days after China lifted stringent lockdown measures in the city of Wuhan, where the virus was detected, officials reported another 108 cases of the virus were detected throughout the mainland Sunday and two people died. The total number of people recovered from the virus reached 77,663, up 88 from the previous day.

Reuters contributed to this report.

Colin Sheeley, Hernan Muñoz Ratto, Michelle Velez and Brooke Gehris contributed.