PROVIDENCE, R.I. -- The death toll from the coronavirus in the U.S. topped 150,000 on Wednesday, the highest in the world, according to the tally kept by Johns Hopkins University.
The milestone comes amid signs that the nation's outbreak is beginning to stabilize in the Sun Belt but heating up in the Midwest, fueled largely by young adults who are hitting bars, restaurants and gyms again.
Brazil was second in the world with more than 88,000 deaths, followed by Britain at about 46,000.
Johns Hopkins put the nation's confirmed infections at 4.4 million, also the highest in the world, though the real numbers in the U.S. and around the globe are believed to be higher because of limits on testing and the many mild cases that have gone undetected or unreported.
As the world races to find a vaccine and a treatment for covid-19, there is seemingly no antidote in sight for the burgeoning outbreak of coronavirus conspiracy theories, hoaxes, anti-mask myths and sham cures.
The phenomenon, unfolding largely on social media, escalated this week when President Donald Trump retweeted a video about an anti-malaria drug being a cure for the virus, and it was revealed that Russian intelligence is spreading disinformation about the crisis through English-language websites.
Experts worry that the torrent of bad information, and resistance to mask-wearing and social distancing are dangerously undermining efforts to slow the virus.
In Missouri, Branson will require face coverings in most public places, despite the objections of many, including comedian Yakov Smirnoff.
Smirnoff, who operates a successful theater in the tourist town, told the Board of Aldermen on Tuesday night that the mask ordinance would make his adopted home more like his native land, Russia, the Springfield News-Leader reported.
"I'm hoping that you can make this an island of freedom and choice in the sea of hatred and fear," Smirnoff said, drawing applause from many in the crowd.
Nevertheless, the board voted 4-1 to approve the ordinance, which requires face coverings for people ages 13 and older, with some exceptions.
Republican Gov. Mike Parson has refused to issue a statewide mask mandate, but several jurisdictions across the state have enacted their own.
In hard-hit Florida, 216 deaths were reported Wednesday, breaking the single-day record that the state set a day earlier. Texas confirmed 313 additional deaths, pushing its total to 6,190, while South Carolina's death toll passed 1,500 this week, more than doubling over the past month. In Georgia, hospitalizations have more than doubled since July 1.
Alabama Gov. Kay Ivey on Wednesday extended a state order requiring face coverings in public for another month and expanded it to include students in second grade and above as schools near to reopening.
Separately, the head of a congressional coronavirus oversight panel demanded Wednesday that Tennessee's Gov. Bill Lee and three other Republican governors provide documents showing how their states are combating the pandemic.
"I am writing to request information about the private guidance the Administration has provided to Tennessee and whether you plan to implement those recommendations and take other critical actions to slow the spread of the coronavirus across the state," wrote South Carolina Rep. James Clyburn, a Democrat and chairman of the House Oversight and Reform subcommittee.Gallery: Coronavirus scenes, 7-29-2020
Similar letters were sent to governors Brian Kemp of Georgia, Ron DeSantis of Florida and Kevin Stitt of Oklahoma, according to the subcommittee's spokeswoman.
According to the letter, Tennessee is failing to follow at least five different recommendations provided by the White House Coronavirus Task Force -- ranging from failing to adopt a statewide mask mandate, allowing indoor dining without strict restrictions and permitting gyms to remain open without limitations in counties with high virus numbers.
A Lee spokesman said the governor's office is reviewing the letter. The office of the Florida governor confirmed receipt of the letter but did not have an immediate reaction. There was no immediate response from Kemp's office.
Oklahoma's Republican governor disputed that the state had any "red zones" -- a classification determined by the White House task force -- because they had created their own covid-19 risk alert map that included the White House's "initial methodology."
The state "has not identified a 'red risk' county based on its four gating criteria for how covid-19 is impacting Oklahoma's health care system," Stitt said. "This is the right approach, and the state will continue to deploy transparent data, tracing and testing support, PPE [personal protective equipment], and additional resources to inform and mitigate areas of concern."
According to the letter sent to Stitt, Oklahoma is not following five recommendations from the White House task force. Per the task force, Oklahoma is in the red zone because it had more than 100 new cases per 100,00 population last week and has a test positivity rate above 10%.
In Georgia, Clyburn noted six recommendations that he said the state was not following. The letter said the state was not only failing to implement a statewide mask mandate but also noted that Kemp has filed a lawsuit against Atlanta officials to prevent a mask requirement. Kemp and Atlanta officials are now in mediation.
In Florida, the state was flagged as not following three of the White House's recommendations and partially complying with three others. The 12-member House Oversight panel, with a 7-5 Democratic majority, has the power to subpoena Trump administration officials and conduct depositions.
Tennessee Republican U.S. Rep. Mark Green criticized Clyburn and demanded that the Democrat rescind his request.
"The White House Coronavirus Task Force report has 21 states listed as being 'in the red zone.' Yet, for some reason, only four of these states, all with Republican governors, were on the receiving end of your letter," Green said in a statement.
The four states have until Aug. 12 to respond.
"It is a real challenge in terms of trying to get the message to the public about what they can really do to protect themselves and what the facts are behind the problem," said Michael Osterholm, head of the University of Minnesota's Center for Infectious Disease Research and Policy.
He said the fear is that "people are putting themselves in harm's way because they don't believe the virus is something they have to deal with."
Rather than fade away in the face of new evidence, the claims have flourished, fed by mixed messages from officials, transmitted by social media, amplified by leaders like Trump and mutating when confronted with contradictory facts.
Among the claims is accounts by Dr. Stella Immanuel.
"You don't need masks. There is a cure," Immanuel promised in a video that promoted the malaria drug hydroxychloroquine. "You don't need people to be locked down."
Federal regulators last month revoked their authorization of the drug as an emergency treatment amid growing evidence that it doesn't work and can have deadly side effects. Even if it were effective, experts say it wouldn't negate the need for masks and other measures to contain the outbreak.
Twitter and Facebook began removing the video Monday for violating policies on covid-19 misinformation, but it had already been seen more than 20 million times.
Other theories have alleged that the virus isn't real or that it's a bioweapon created by the U.S. or its adversaries. One claims that new 5G towers are spreading the virus through microwaves. Another popular story holds that Microsoft founder Bill Gates plans to use covid-19 vaccines to implant microchips in all 7 billion people on the planet.
Then there are the political theories -- that doctors, journalists and federal officials are conspiring to lie about the threat of the virus to hurt Trump politically.
The flood of misinformation has posed a challenge for Facebook, Twitter and other platforms, which have found themselves accused of censorship for taking down virus misinformation.
Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg was questioned about the video with Immanuel during a congressional hearing Wednesday.
"We did take it down because it violates our policies," Zuckerberg said.
U.S. Rep. David Cicilline, a Rhode Island Democrat leading the hearing, responded by noting that 20 million people saw the video before Facebook acted.
"Doesn't that suggest that your platform is so big, that even with the right policies in place, you can't contain deadly content?" Cicilline asked Zuckerberg.
Claims regarding masks are proving to be among the most stubborn.
Mask skeptics are a vocal minority and have come together to create social media pages where many false claims about mask safety are shared. Facebook has removed some of the pages -- such as the group Unmasking America!, which had nearly 10,000 members -- but others remain.
Early in the pandemic, medical authorities themselves were the source of much confusion regarding masks. In February, officials like the U.S. surgeon general urged Americans not to stockpile masks because they were needed by medical personnel and might not be effective in everyday situations.
Public health officials changed their tune when it became apparent that the virus could spread among people showing no symptoms.
Anthony Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, acknowledged in an interview with NPR this month that the mixed signals hurt.
"The message early on became confusing," he said.
Many of the claims around masks allege harmful effects, such as blocked oxygen flow or even a greater chance of infection. The claims have been widely debunked by doctors.
Dr. Maitiu O Tuathail of Ireland grew so concerned about mask misinformation that he posted an online video of himself comfortably wearing a mask while measuring his oxygen levels. The video has been viewed more than 20 million times.
"While face masks don't lower your oxygen levels. Covid definitely does," he warned.
Yet, trusted medical authorities are often being dismissed by those who say requiring people to wear masks is a step toward authoritarianism.
"Unless you make a stand, you will be wearing a mask for the rest of your life," tweeted Simon Dolan, a British businessman who has sued the government over its covid-19 restrictions.
Elsewhere, countries that had seemingly quelled their outbreaks are helping to drive the unrelenting growth of the global pandemic.
Japan, Israel, Lebanon and Hong Kong are among dozens of places reporting record numbers of new cases in recent days, many weeks after they had crushed the curve of infections, reopened their economies and moved on.
And in some countries that had gotten their numbers down, notably in Europe, the reopening of borders, bars and nightclubs is being blamed for a small but noticeable increase in cases.
In Belgium and Spain, the number of daily infections has reached levels not seen since early May, prompting authorities to reimpose some recently lifted restrictions.
The United States, Brazil and India are still fueling the bulk of the pandemic's growth, accounting for nearly two-thirds of the new cases reported globally over the past week. Many other countries, including in Africa, Latin America and the Middle East, have not yet reached a peak in infections, officials at the World Health Organization say.
In Australia and some other places such as Hong Kong and Israel, all of which had appeared to defeat the virus, infections are growing twice as quickly as in the United States.
A million new infections are now being reported every four days worldwide, pushing the total to nearly 17 million cases.
Meanwhile, Russia plans to register a coronavirus vaccine by Aug. 10-12, clearing the way for what its backers say would be the world's first official approval of an inoculation against the epidemic.
The Gamaleya Institute and the Russian Direct Investment Fund vaccine is expected to get conditional registration in August, meaning it will still need to conduct trials on another 1,600 people, Deputy Prime Minister Tatyana Golikova said in a televised meeting of officials with President Vladimir Putin on Wednesday. Production should begin in September, she said.
Information for this article was contributed by David Klepper, Kimberlee Kruesi, Jim Salter, Kim Chandler, Beatrice Dupuy, Eric Tucker and Amy Forliti of The Associated Press; by Liz Sly, Simon Denyer and Ruth Eglash of The Washington Post; and by Jake Rudnitsky and Stepan Kravchenko of Bloomberg News.
Print Headline: U.S. reaches 150,000 dead from covid-19