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After plummeting, the virus soars back in the Midwest

Healthcare workers secured personal protective equipment at a testing site in Orlando.
Healthcare workers secured personal protective equipment at a testing site in Orlando.EVE EDELHEIT/NYT

CHICAGO — First, the Pacific Northwest and the Northeast were hit hardest as the coronavirus tore through the nation. Then it surged across the South. Now the virus is again picking up dangerous speed in much of the Midwest — and in states from Mississippi to Florida to California that thought they had already seen the worst of it.

As the United States rides what amounts to a second wave of cases, with daily new infections leveling off at an alarming higher mark, there is a deepening national sense that the progress made in fighting the pandemic is coming undone and that no patch of America is safe.

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In Missouri, Wisconsin, and Illinois, distressed government officials are retightening restrictions on residents and businesses, and sounding warnings about a surge in coronavirus-related hospitalizations.

In the South and the West, several states are reporting their highest levels of new coronavirus cases, with outbreaks overwhelming urban and rural areas alike.

Across the country, communities including Snohomish County, Wash., Jackson, Miss., and Baton Rouge, La., have seen coronavirus numbers fall and then shoot back up — not unlike the two ends of a seesaw.

In Illinois, Governor J.B. Pritzker sounded an unusually somber note this past week as he delivered a warning that reverberated across the state: Even though Illinoisans had battled an early flood of coronavirus infections and then managed to reduce the virus’ spread, their successes were fleeting. As of Thursday, the state was averaging more than 1,400 cases a day, up from about 800 at the start of July.

“We’re at a danger point,” Pritzker said in Peoria County, where the total number of cases has doubled in the past month.

Gone is any sense that the country may soon get a hold of the pandemic. Instead, the seven-day average for new infections hovered around 65,000 for two weeks. Progress in some states has been mostly offset by growing outbreaks in parts of the South and the Midwest.

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“There’s a sort of collective tiredness and frustration, and of course I feel it, too — we all feel it,” said County Judge Lina Hidalgo, the top elected official in Harris County, Texas, which includes Houston. “So it’s difficult to know that there’s no real end in sight.” On Friday, Dr. Anthony Fauci, the nation’s top infectious-disease expert, told Congress he was cautiously optimistic that a safe and effective coronavirus vaccine would be available by the end of the year or early 2021, although the federal government’s ability to speedily immunize most Americans was unclear.

In US communities that saw improvement in June, such as Milwaukee County in Wisconsin, there was a widespread feeling of relief, said Dr. Ben Weston, the director of medical services for the Milwaukee County Office of Emergency Management.

But then mask-wearing and social distancing began to relax.

“There was a sense of complacency, like, ‘We’re finally beyond this; it’s finally getting better,’” he said. “We were seeing our numbers go down, but the reason is because of physical distancing. It’s because people were being so careful. There was no reason to think that cases weren’t going to rise.”

On Thursday, Governor Tony Evers, a Democrat, made another attempt to get a handle on the outbreaks in his state, issuing an order that every Wisconsinite wear a mask indoors in public beginning Saturday.

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Many states have traced new outbreaks to the loosening of the economically costly restrictions aimed at stopping the spread of the virus.

In California, which has had more than 500,000 coronavirus cases, more than any other state, the reopening has proved disastrous. When the pandemic was ravaging the Northeast in March and April, California kept its daily case count around 2,000, and the state was praised for its early and aggressive actions to combat the virus.

The state is now averaging more than four times as many cases — 8,500 a day. Los Angeles County and other Southern California counties account for the majority of the state’s infections, but the virus is now everywhere.

That notion was reinforced Tuesday when health officials in one of the most remote parts of the state, Modoc County, which had been the last of California’s 58 counties without a known case, announced that the virus had arrived.

A waitress at the Brass Rail, a Basque restaurant and bar, tested positive, raising concerns about the virus’ spread in a tight-knit county with a population of 8,800 and where cows outnumber people 5 to 1. (A billboard there warning residents of the coronavirus tells people to stand one cow’s length apart.)

The waitress and her husband recently returned from a trip to the Central Valley, according to the co-owner of the Brass Rail, Jodie Larranaga, who said she assumed that the waitress was infected during her journey.

That the virus is now present in the evergreen forests of the northeastern corner of the state is testament to its inexorable spread, say the county’s residents. Alturas, the only incorporated city in Modoc County, is so isolated that its high school football team must drive as much as five hours to reach its opponents.

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“We all felt very safe for a while,” said Juan Ledezma, the owner of a thrift shop on Main Street in Alturas. “Right now, it’s a little bit scary.”

The Northeast, once the virus’s biggest hot spot, has improved considerably since its peak in April, when the region suffered more than any other region of the country. Yet cases are now increasing slightly in New Jersey, Rhode Island, and Massachusetts, as residents move around more freely and gather more frequently in groups.

Across the country, deaths from the coronavirus continue to rise. The country was averaging about 500 per day at the start of July. Over the past week, it has averaged more than 1,000 daily, with many of those concentrated in Sun Belt states. On Wednesday, California, Florida, and Texas reported a combined 724 deaths, about half the national total.

Houston, the fourth-largest city in the country, has been adjusting to a new normal where the only thing certain is that nothing is certain. After cases and hospitalizations seemed to level off and even decrease in recent days, Harris County on Friday broke a single-day record with 2,100 new cases.

“I think to a certain extent, we saw a spike because people were fatigued over it,” said Alan Rosen, who leads the Harris County Precinct One constable’s office. “They were fatigued over hearing about it every day. They were fatigued about being cooped up in their house and being away from people.”

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People there have been coping with the lulls and peaks of a physical, emotional, fiscal, and logistical crisis from an invisible foe nearly three years after surviving Hurricane Harvey, one of the worst disasters in US history. “It is a roller coaster,” said Rosen, who recovered after getting infected with the virus in May. “It’s not like a hurricane that’s coming through and we know what to do. We know we got to clean up and rebuild and everybody is accustomed to the time frame. But with this, there are just so many unknowns.”