Biden aide Murthy says no US-wide COVID-19 lockdown planned as West Coast states advise against travel
WASHINGTON: United States President-elect Joe Biden's top coronavirus adviser said on Friday (Nov 13) that there were no plans for a wholesale nationwide lockdown to curb the surging COVID-19 pandemic, while three West Coast states jointly called for a halt to non-essential travel.
The warning against unnecessary transit came as the daily increase in COVID-19 cases in the United States rose to a record of over 177,000 on Friday, the fourth straight day a new all-time high has been set, according to a Reuters tally of figures from US public health agencies.
California, Oregon and Washington urged residents to avoid venturing out of state, citing concerns raised by health experts that the coming holiday travel season would accelerate already alarming spikes in COVID-19 infections and hospitalisations.
Oregon Governor Kate Brown took the additional step of ordering social gatherings limited to no more than six people, effective immediately, a restriction she said she was prepared to enforce.
"I am not asking you, I am telling you, to stop your social gatherings ... and your house parties and to limit your social interactions to six and under, not more than one household," Brown said.
Similarly, New Mexico's acting health secretary, Billy Jimenez, extended through the end of November a three-week-old ban on gatherings of more than five people who do not live in the same household, along with a directive advising state residents to stay "in their homes for all but the most essential activities and services".
That order also requires face coverings be worn in public and mandates the closure of workplaces not defined as "essential businesses", such as grocery stores, farms, childcare centres, banks, "big-box" retailers, factories and healthcare facilities.
"A SERIES OF RESTRICTIONS"
The dire situation has prompted a growing list of state and local governments to re-impose restrictions they eased during a summertime ebb in COVID-19 outbreaks.
The governors of six states in the Northeast, the region hit hardest in the early months of the pandemic, plan an emergency meeting this weekend to coordinate responses, New York Governor Andrew Cuomo said.
The country's patchwork of measures will likely remain intact after Biden is inaugurated on Jan 20 next year, following his election defeat of Republican President Donald Trump, the head of the Democrat's coronavirus advisory board said.
"We're not in a place where we're saying shut the whole country down," Dr Vivek Murthy, a former US surgeon general, told ABC's Good Morning America.
"Right now, the way we should be thinking about this is more like a series of restrictions that we dial up or down depending on how bad a spread is taking place in a specific region," he said.
Murthy's comments were a sharp rebuttal to Trump's repeated campaign assertions that Biden was intent on locking down the country if he were elected president.
Medical experts point to increased indoor gatherings with the onset of winter, along with lapses in social distancing and mask-wearing habits, as the main factors stoking an ominous nationwide surge in coronavirus transmissions and the rate of COVID-19 tests coming back positive.
The mounting caseload is starting to strain the resources of some hospitals and is on track to push many to the brink, they warn.
"I'm 100 per cent worried about the holidays," Dr Khalilah Gates, a pulmonary specialist at Northwestern Memorial Hospital in Chicago, told Reuters on Friday. "We don't have an endless ability to surge."
Announcing the West Coast travel advisory, California Health and Human Services Secretary Dr Mark Ghaly said a strict mandate was ruled out over concerns that "COVID fatigue" might spark a backlash, leading people to behave in ways that are less safe.
The advisory urges individuals entering or returning to the three states to self-quarantine for 14 days, the presumed incubation period for the virus.
On Thursday, California became only the second state, after Texas earlier this month, to see its tally of confirmed infections top 1 million, with its daily average of new cases jumping nearly 50 per cent in the first week of November.
"This is the fastest rate of rise we have seen in California," said Dr Erica Pan, the state's acting health officer and chief epidemiologist.
Illinois reported a record 15,433 new cases on Friday, the most of any state in a 24-hour period, surpassing the previous all-time high of 15,300 set by Florida in July.
New daily cases rose to 177,620 on Friday, crossing the 100,000-mark for a 10th day, the Reuters tally showed.
The country also has averaged over 1,000 deaths a day for the past seven days, a trend last seen in August.
The daily caseload has more than doubled in 13 states over the past two weeks, most of them in the Midwest, according to the Reuters tally.
Dr Robert Kim-Farley, an epidemiology professor at the University of California, Los Angeles, attributed some of the spikes to recent Halloween celebrations. He warned of more to come if Americans let their guard down for Thanksgiving and Christmas.
Chicago has urged residents to stay at home and shun visitors for the next 30 days, including Thanksgiving.
New York City restaurants were ordered closed to indoor dining at 10pm, while Detroit public schools suspended in-person learning starting on Friday.
Dr Anthony Fauci, the top US infectious disease expert on Trump's coronavirus task force, said his advice to Biden's transition team would be the same: Continue emphasising social distancing, avoiding crowds, wearing masks and washing hands.
"Public health principles don't change from one month to another or from one administration to another," he said in an interview.