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U.S. coronavirus cases pass 4 million as infections rapidly accelerate

epa08546503 US President Donald J. Trump walks to the Rose Garden as he holds a press conference at the White House in Washington, DC, USA, 14 July 2020. EPA-EFE/TASOS KATOPODIS / POOL

July 23 (Reuters) - The total number of coronavirus cases reported in the United States passed 4 million on Thursday, reflecting a rapid acceleration of infections in the country since the first case was recorded on Jan. 21, a Reuters tally showed.

By Lisa Shumaker and Katanga Johnson

It took the country 98 days to reach 1 million cases, but just 16 days to go from 3 million to 4 million, according to the tally. The case total indicates that at least one in 82 people in the United States have been infected.

The average number of new U.S. cases is now rising by more than 2,600 every hour, the highest rate in the world.

As the pandemic has spread from the early epicenter of New York to the South and West, federal, state and local officials have clashed over how to ease lockdowns imposed to curb the infection rate, including in some states whether to rollback reopenings.

The ordering of face coverings, a common practice around the world and recommended by the federal government’s own health experts, has also become highly politicized, with some Republican governors particularly resistant.

Hostility to the idea appeared to be dwindling this week, including from the Republican administration of President Donald Trump, who once dismissed mask-wearing as an effort to be politically correct.

Trump, who faces falling poll numbers over his handling of the health crisis ahead of the November election, has long refused to wear a mask in public but this week encouraged Americans to do so.

While Trump did not issue a national mandate, U.S. Assistant Secretary for Health Brett Giroir on Thursday cited the importance of masks to bring the virus under control.

“We have to do our mitigation steps: wear a mask, avoid the crowds. We won’t see hospitalizations and deaths go down for a couple of weeks because (they are) lagging indicators, but we are turning that tide,” Giroir told Fox News Network.

He also said the time it currently takes to get coronavirus test results back needs to be reduced.

Quest Diagnostics Inc, one of the nation’s biggest medical testing companies, said on Thursday it expects to cut week-long turnaround times for COVID-19 tests by more than half to get to “acceptable” levels by September.

‘THAT STUFF WORKS’

New Jersey Governor Phil Murphy on Thursday said measures such as wearing masks were improving the numbers in his state, once the second-hardest hit, over the past several weeks.

“What the current data can tell us is that social distancing, wearing that face covering, that stuff works, and it tells us that everyone should go get tested,” the Democratic governor said at an event.

Another partisan point of contention is whether schools should fully reopen in a few weeks despite concerns that doing so could cause infections to spike.

Florida, which reported a record one-day increase in COVID-19 deaths on Thursday with 173 lives lost, has been sued by a teachers union to stop schools reopening for in-person instruction, which the union says poses an imminent threat to the health, safety and welfare of children, staff and parents.

Florida’s commissioner said early in July that schools must reopen, but on Thursday Governor Ron DeSantis said parents and teachers had a choice.

“We need to provide all options,” DeSantis told a news conference.

Trump, who has threatened to withhold federal funding if schools do not reopen, told a press briefing on Wednesday the decision would ultimately be up to state governors.

Administration officials have said a quicker re-opening is essential to get the cratering economy moving again, another central plank of Trump’s re-election campaign.

Trump is due to discuss the issue at a briefing at 5 p.m. EDT (2100 GMT).

Trump downplayed the pandemic in its early stages and left it largely to states and cities to coordinate policies to fight the virus, a strategy that was ridiculed by Joe Biden, the presumptive Democratic nominee to run against Trump on Nov. 3.

Biden sat down with former President Barack Obama, with whom he served as vice president, for a “socially distanced” conversation released on Twitter on Thursday.

“Can you imagine standing up when you were president, saying, ‘It’s not my responsibility?'” Biden asked Obama.

“Those words didn’t come out of our mouths when we were in office,” Obama replied.

Asked about coronavirus testing problems in March, Trump said: “I don’t take responsibility at all.”

(Reporting by Lisa Shumaker in Chicago, Doina Chiacu and Katanga Johnson in Washington, Joseph Ax, Peter Szekely and Maria Caspani in New York, Rich McKay in Atlanta, Writing by Sonya Hepinstall, Editing by Bill Berkrot)

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