Cardinal Timothy Dolan wears a mask as he celebrates mass at St Patrick’s Cathedral in New York City on Sunday © REUTERS

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The US health secretary warned on Sunday that the window to halt the spread of coronavirus across America was closing after a clutch of southern states reported record increases in cases.

The US has now registered 2.5m cases and more than 125,000 deaths from the disease — a quarter of the 10m infections and half a million fatalities around the world, despite the country comprising little more than 4 per cent of the global population. 

While Los Angeles, Chicago and New York remain the hardest-hit cities, US health and human services secretary Alex Azar said cases were “surging” in southern parts of the country. Several of these states emerged early from lockdown against federal guidelines that recommend phased openings only once a state has recorded a fortnight-long reduction in cases.

“The window is closing,” Mr Azar told Meet the Press on Sunday. He urged individual states to boost community-wide testing and collect blood plasma donated by patients who have recovered from the virus to bolster available treatments. “We have to act, and people as individuals have to act, responsibly. We need to social distance, we need to wear our face coverings.”

Mr Azar said the surge in cases had nothing to do with states reopening but New York governor Andrew Cuomo blamed the increases on a failure to act earlier.

“I don’t think this is a second surge . . . I think this is a continuation of the first wave and it was a failed effort to stop the first wave in the country,” he told Meet the Press, accusing the Trump administration of being “in denial about the problem”. 

Asa Hutchinson, the Republican governor for Arkansas, said the US needed to double testing nationwide, telling ABC’s This Week on Sunday that he had “paused” further reopening in his state and that Covid-19 presented a “very, very serious challenge”.

Mr Azar made his remarks even as Mike Pence, vice-president, travelled to Texas to hold a campaign rally. President Donald Trump is attempting to reignite the economy and his re-election campaign after a severe drop in his poll ratings. Mr Trump spent the weekend playing golf.

Mr Pence, who on Friday described reopening efforts across the US as “encouraging news”, postponed visits to Arizona and Florida “out of an abundance of caution” over coronavirus. But he went ahead with his campaign rally in Dallas, where he arrived wearing a mask. He later met the state’s Republican governor, Greg Abbott, who closed bars and limited restaurant occupancy following a steep rise in cases after initial reopenings.

“I'm really appealing to every Texan to wear a mask,” said Dr Deborah Birx, a member of the White House coronavirus task force during a Dallas press conference alongside Mr Pence. She said the alarming increase in rates of hospitalisation in intensive care among people aged 20 to 40 in the past fortnight indicated a worrying level of community spread.

Democratic presidential challenger Joe Biden’s campaign said Mr Pence’s Texas visit epitomised “the dismissive attitude this administration has taken in addressing this crisis from the onset”.

The US recorded more than 42,000 new cases nationwide on Sunday and 500 deaths, according to Johns Hopkins University. This was a fall from the 45,000 new cases recorded on Friday, which was a new single-day high for the country. On that day, 13 states set record highs for the seven-day average of new cases. On Sunday, Georgia reported 2,225 new cases while Arizona said infections increased by 3,857, both record daily totals for the states.

In California, governor Gavin Newsom ordered bars closed in Los Angeles and six other counties. Florida and Texas closed bars on Friday. Officials said a rise in asymptomatic cases among under-35s could ultimately endanger those more vulnerable to the disease.

Tom Frieden, former director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, told Fox News Sunday that the virus had “the upper hand” and forecast that deaths would lag new cases by about a month. “We’re moving too fast,” he said of states loosening restrictions. He added that numbers were set to get worse in coming weeks, citing a rapid upswing in Arizona, Texas, Florida and South Carolina. He estimated at least 15,000 more people would die in the US during the next month.

Florida state’s health department reported 8,530 new cases on Sunday — shy of a record 9,636 new cases on Saturday — bringing the state’s total to 141,075 and 3,419 deaths.

“Three weeks ago this is probably one of the safest places to be in the country, and I don’t think that is true any more,” said Kami Kim, an infectious diseases doctor at Tampa General Hospital. “It is probably right now safer to be in New York than it is to be here.”

The number of Covid-19 cases at the hospital increased to 60 over the weekend from about 20 at the previous peak.

“The number of admissions has more than doubled in a couple of weeks,” she said. “Deaths have not really gone up but we also have not had a huge nursing home outbreak yet. It will happen but it has not happened yet.”

Florida’s rising cases of Covid-19 have businesses alarmed that they will be forced to close again. Restaurants have invested in sanitary measures to protect diners and those investments could be wasted if venues were forced to shut once more, said Carol Dover, head of the Florida Restaurant and Lodging Association.

“The bars are definitely going to take it on the chin right now” after they were closed on Friday, she said in an interview on Saturday. If restaurants are forced to close too, “that would be catastrophic. We cannot allow that to happen.”

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