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Drastic measures in some states as death toll grows

HOUSTON (AP) — The spread of the coronavirus surged unabated in hot spots around the U.S. on Thursday, with one city in South Carolina urging people to pray it into submission, a hospital in Texas bringing in military medical personnel and funeral morgues running out of space in Phoenix.

Record numbers of cases and deaths were popping up throughout the country. Texas reported 129 new deaths Thursday, and a third of the more than 3,400 COVID-19 fatalities registered there since the pandemic began were reported in the first two weeks of July alone. Health officials also reported more than 10,000 confirmed new cases for the third straight day.

In South Carolina, the state reported a record 69 deaths from COVID-19, more than double than any other day. In Louisiana, that state had thought it had contained the virus earlier this year only to again see a resurgence of cases, averaging more than 2,000 new confirmed infections a day over the past week.

Florida reached another ominous record with 156 virus deaths reported Thursday as the state continued to experience a swift rise in cases. The state Department of Health reported 13,965 new coronavirus cases.

And while a number of governors had decided to mandate the wearing of masks in public places — including Arkansas’ Republican governor who had initially resisted such statewide mandates — mayors in some Georgia cities were balking at a directive from that state’s governor forbidding cities and counties from requiring face coverings.

The county medical examiner’s office in metro Phoenix has already gotten four large portable storage coolers to handle future surges of coronavirus cases and has ordered another 10 coolers, which are expected to arrive by the end of next week.

The agency’s regular morgue storage was 63 percent full Thursday. Marcy Flanagan, executive director of the Maricopa County Department of Public Health, said many funeral homes in the county are at maximum capacity and unable to accept additional bodies.

The rising numbers in Texas are hitting big cities like Houston as well as smaller communities along the Mexico border. This month, Hidalgo County, about 220 miles south of San Antonio and right on the border, has reported more deaths than Houston’s Harris County.

Dr. Ivan Melendez, Hidalgo County’s public health authority, said it’s not uncommon for a deceased COVID-19 patient to lay on a stretcher for 10 hours in the community’s overcrowded hospitals until the body is picked up and put in a freezer.

“Before someone gets a bed in the COVID ICU unit, someone has to die there,” Melendez said.

Health officials in San Antonio have acquired two refrigerated trailers and expect to have three more by the end of the week to store the dead.

Mario Martinez, the assistant director for San Antonio Metro Health, said local hospitals have also ordered trailers.

Two hundred miles to the east, soldiers prepared to take over a wing of a Houston hospital to treat COVID-19 patients. An 86-person Army team of doctors, nurses, and support staff was setting up a nursing station at United Memorial Medical Center and pairing up with hospital staff to see patients. They expect to begin treating up to approximately 40 patients in the coming days.

Some of the soldiers wore their duty uniforms. Others wore scrubs affixed with strips of surgical tape that had their ranks, names, and medical titles.

The soldiers came from around the country, overseen by U.S. Army North in San Antonio. Around 580 Army and Navy personnel have been assigned to Texas.

“This facility, working with the United States military, is something that we asked for,” said U.S. Rep. Sheila Jackson Lee, a Houston Democrat, standing near the soldiers as they moved throughout the hospital wing. “We have exhausted medical personnel that we’re so grateful to, but we didn’t have enough.”

On the same day South Carolina reported a record 69 COVID-19 deaths, the mayor of Charleston asked for spiritual help for people who died in the COVID-19 pandemic, people fighting the virus and their families.

Charleston Mayor John Tecklenburg declared Thursday a day of prayer and remembrance in what for centuries has been nicknamed the Holy City for the number of church steeples from many different faiths that dot its Colonial skyline.

In a state that is among the worst in the nation for the rate of new cases, Charleston is one of the biggest hot spots.

In downtown Charleston, more than 3% of residents have tested positive for COVID-19, according to the state Department of Health and Environmental Control, which estimates the total number of cases could be eight or nine times more.

“We do turn to God at a time like this,” Tecklenburg said. He was surrounded by pastors of various faiths who prayed for the dead, for the sick, for their families, for health care workers, for scientists looking for a vaccine and for Tecklenburg, South Carolina Gov. Henry McMaster and President Donald Trump.

South Carolina is a microcosm of how the virus has been playing out in the United States in the past few months. By nearly every measure, the COVID-19 pandemic continues to rage in South Carolina. Nearly 39% of the more than 62,000 known cases in South Carolina have been diagnosed in the past two weeks.

The state has set records for the number of people hospitalized with COVID-19 nearly every day this month. The number of patients was up to 1,578 on Thursday.

The 69 deaths reported pushed South Carolina well past 1,000 people killed by the virus, the 25th state to cross that somber threshold.

Meanwhile, mayors in Atlanta and other Georgia cities say they want their requirements for people to wear masks in public to remain in place, even after Gov. Brian Kemp explicitly forbade cities and counties from mandating face coverings.

The governor has maintained for weeks that cities and counties don’t have the power to require masks in public places, saying no local order can be more or less restrictive than his statewide mandates.

“I am not afraid of the city being sued and I’ll put our policies up against anyone’s, any day of the week,” Atlanta Mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms said Thursday, reiterating that the city’s order is still in effect.

Van Johnson, the mayor of Savannah, Georgia, was equally defiant: “How can we take care of our local needs when our state ties our hands behind our back and then says ‘Ignore the advice of experts?'” He added later: “If you don’t want to protect us, then allow us the opportunity to protect ourselves.”

More than than 13.5 million people have been infected worldwide and over 580,000 have died, according to a tally by Johns Hopkins University.

Elsewhere around the world:

— Brazil’s health ministry reported that the country had passed 2 million confirmed cases of virus infections and 76,000 deaths. Since late May, Brazil has recorded more than 1,000 daily deaths on average in a gruesome plateau that has yet to tilt downward.

— With Europe’s summer vacation season kicking into high gear for millions weary of months of lockdown, scenes of drunken British and German tourists on Spain’s Mallorca island ignoring social distancing rules and reports of American visitors flouting quarantine measures in Ireland raised fears of a resurgence of infections.

— In France, which has seen new outbreaks, Prime Minister Jean Castex said masks would be mandatory in closed public places as of next week — sooner than Aug. 1 as previously announced.

— India’s record daily increase of nearly 32,700 cases pushed its total close to 1 million and led authorities to reimpose a three-day lockdown and night curfew in the popular western beach state of Goa, two weeks after it was reopened to tourists.

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Parra reported from Madrid and Collins reported from Columbia, South Carolina. Associated Press reporters around the world contributed to this report.

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Follow all of AP’s pandemic coverage at http://apnews.com/VirusOutbreak and https://apnews.com/UnderstandingtheOutbreak

Copyright 2020 The Associated Press.

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