It Was the Worst Day of the Pandemic. The Nation Is Almost There Again.


Raymond Embry saw the worst of the coronavirus pandemic up close.

His small Arizona medical clinic had been giving about five coronavirus tests a day. That grew to dozens a day, and then came the surge: There were 4,192 people lined up for tests to find out if they had the coronavirus in a single day.

That was on July 16.

That day, arguably the worst of the pandemic in the United States to that point, set records nationwide. By the end of that 24-hour period, a staggering 75,687 new cases had been reported around the country, the highest count on a single day over the past seven months.

Now the nation is approaching that record once more.

Thursday ended with 75,064 new cases, the second-highest number of cases on a single day, and the cases continued to mount on Friday, nearing the record amid a new surge of outbreaks as cold weather sets in. The latest cases, tracked by The New York Times using reports from state and local health departments, were scattered across the country in states like Illinois and Rhode Island, experiencing a second rush of cases, and in places like Montana and South Dakota, enduring their first.

Thirteen states have added more new cases in the past week than in any other seven-day stretch. Two states have set weekly records for new deaths. Wisconsin had its deadliest day of the pandemic on Wednesday, with 47 total deaths announced.

Testing has become more available since months ago, and more testing often uncovers cases that might otherwise go unnoticed. But indications of a new surge of the virus have grown clear in recent days.

The geography of the coronavirus has constantly changed since the first cases showed up in this country last winter. It struck the Northeast in the spring, the Sun Belt in the summer and now the states of the Midwest and the West, which hold the 10 counties in the country with the most recent cases per capita.

Mr. Embry knows all too well what some of those other places are now going through. By July 16, as the nation was hitting its worst day, Arizona was leading the nation in recent deaths per capita.

“It was just overwhelming trying to find gloves and masks, when especially back then people are telling you P.P.E. is widely available and that’s just a lie,” Mr. Embry said, referring to shortages of the personal protective equipment that health workers need to safely do testing.

On the Texas-Mexico border, mid-July was a nightmare. Johnny Salinas Jr., the owner of Salinas Funeral Home, was handling six to seven funerals a day, a number he would usually see over a week before the pandemic. Some of those included family members and relatives of employees.

Local health officials had said they had managed to control the spread of the virus through the spring, until Texas lifted social distancing restrictions right before Memorial Day. Then the numbers skyrocketed. In July, Hidalgo County, where Mr. Salinas lives, had one of the highest per capita death rates in the state. It caught Mr. Salinas off guard.

“We didn’t know what to expect,” Mr. Salinas said. “We didn’t know much about the virus. It was killing a lot of people then.”

These days, he is stockpiling masks, gloves and hand sanitizer, sealing off every other pew in the chapels to maintain social distancing and installing a plexiglass barrier to shield mourners from the deceased.

“Right now we are back to normal numbers,” Mr. Salinas said. “But I am nervous. People are relaxing a little bit too much. I believe a second wave will come and it will be scarier than the first one.”

The virus had already become deeply politicized by the summer, and, in this respect, the headlines that were made on July 16 were not surprising.

The day the case count would set a record, President Trump hosted an event on the South Lawn with pickup trucks as props, highlighting his efforts to roll back government regulations.

As Georgia was experiencing what was then its worst week of the pandemic, Gov. Brian Kemp, a Republican, sued the mayor of Atlanta, a Democrat, over the city’s mask mandate. Republican Party officials told delegates in a letter sent out that day that they were scaling back plans for the convention in Florida, which at the time was reporting more than 10,000 new cases a day (the convention would eventually pull out of Florida altogether).

In July 16 news conferences, some Republican governors were insistently optimistic in places that were enduring their worst stretch of the pandemic, while some Democratic governors spoke with profound concern about the state of the outbreak, not knowing that the numbers in their states would get far worse.

“What we are seeing across the country is alarming,” said Gov. Andy Beshear of Kentucky, a Democrat, at a news conference on July 16, a day when the state reported 469 new cases. On Tuesday, Kentucky reported 1,288 new confirmed infections, nearly three times as many as the day of the governor’s speech.

But in some other parts of the country that day, the virus felt far away.

On July 16, towns in North Dakota were holding their annual summer festivals. People cheered the rodeos and danced together, maskless, in the streets.

Erin Ourada, the administrator for Custer Health, a public health department just west of Bismarck, watched it all with foreboding.

“I don’t think the reality had hit the majority of North Dakota,” Ms. Ourada said. It was hard to even think back to that summer period, she said this week, when “everyone was still just kind of living their lives and getting ready for the next street dance they were going to hit up.”

People who worked in public health were nervous in particular about what would follow the gatherings of Fourth of July weekend.

Daily case numbers began ticking up two weeks later, in late July. In North Dakota this week, hospitals are striving to find available beds. The state now has the worst rate of infection in the country, relative to its population, and it is ending formal contact tracing except in health care settings, schools and colleges. Members of the National Guard are calling people to tell them they have tested positive.

This is what she saw coming when the cases numbers began steadily growing at the end of July, said Ms. Ourada, “and we’ve been living in that ever since.”

Mitch Smith and Amy Harmon contributed reporting.



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