July 15, 2020 / 6:45 PM / 25 days ago

Oklahoma governor tests positive for coronavirus as U.S. cases surge

(Reuters) - Oklahoma’s governor said he was diagnosed with COVID-19 on Wednesday, becoming one of the highest elected U.S. politicians to test positive for the disease, as new coronavirus infections in his state and neighboring Texas surged by record numbers for a second straight day.

Texas, where the tally of known infections jumped by an all-time high of 10,791 cases statewide during the past 24 hours, also reported a record 110 additional COVID-19 deaths, its fourth such daily benchmark this month.

But Oklahoma, which reported a daily record of 1,075 cases, became a focal point of the resurgent coronavirus outbreak after its governor, Kevin Stitt, announced he had tested positive.

Stitt, a Republican who attended President Donald Trump’s campaign rally in Tulsa nearly three weeks ago, had faced a backlash in recent days after posting a photo on Twitter showing himself and two of his children at a crowded restaurant, even as state health authorities urged social distancing.

“I got tested yesterday for COVID-19, and the results came back positive,” Stitt, 47, said in a video conference call with reporters. “I feel fine, really, I mean you might say I’m asymptomatic or just slightly kind of a little bit achy.”

Stitt is one of a number of elected leaders infected since the novel coronavirus arrived in the United States this year. Others include U.S. Senator Rand Paul, a Kentucky Republican, and about a half-dozen members of the U.S. House of Representatives from both parties.

Stitt’s diagnosis comes amid an upswing in COVID-19 cases across the American South and West after state and local officials started loosening economic and social restrictions aimed at slowing the spread of the virus. Across the country, new cases have been averaging around 60,000 a day.

Twenty-eight states have registered record daily increases in cases this month, many of them more than once, and 11 states have reported a greater number of deaths for a single day than ever before.

Moreover, the rate of people testing positive among all those who are screened has exceeded 5% - a level above which health experts say is concerning - and was trending upward in some two dozen states over the past two weeks, according to data collected by Johns Hopkins University.

Arizona has registered the highest positivity rate, with nearly a quarter of everyone tested statewide found to be infected, followed by Florida at nearly 19%, South Carolina at 18% and Texas and Alabama each at 17%.

Nationally, the total number of cases surpassed 3.5 million, by far the highest number of any country in the world, and more than 137,000 Americans have died from the highly contagious respiratory illness to date.

Since Trump’s June 20 campaign rally at an indoor arena in Tulsa, attended by several thousand people against the advice of public health officials, coronavirus cases in the surrounding county have risen to over 5,200 - a 219% increase over the last four weeks, according to a Reuters analysis.

Oklahoma's Republican Governor Kevin Stitt. REUTERS/State of Oklahoma

Infections in several other Oklahoma counties have likewise doubled, tripled or even quadrupled over the same period. Eight staff on Trump’s campaign tested positive around the time of the Tulsa event.

MASK-WEARING MANDATE

An influential mortality model developed by the University of Washington’s Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation (IHME) projected late on Tuesday that the U.S. death toll from COVID-19 would exceed 224,000 by Nov. 1, up 16,000 from a prior forecast.

But it also said 40,000 lives could be saved if nearly all Americans wore masks in public.

Trump, whose popularity in opinion polls is declining ahead of an election in November, has been reluctant to embrace mask-wearing, and most Republican governors and local officials have followed suit.

With infections surging for a second straight day in Alabama and a record daily death total there, Republican Governor Kay Ivey on Wednesday reversed her position and ordered all residents to wear masks, starting Thursday.

“I always prefer a personal responsibility over a government mandate,” Ivey said at a briefing. “And yet I also know with all my heart that the numbers and the data over the past few weeks are definitely trending in the wrong direction.”

Slideshow (2 Images)

The resurgence of infections across much of the country has forced difficult choices about how and when shuttered schools should be reopened for the upcoming academic year.

Kansas Governor Laura Kelly on Wednesday said she was delaying the reopening of schools until after the Sept. 7 Labor Day holiday, allowing more time to consider whether to proceed with in-class instruction, at-home learning or a combination.

Amid rising infections in California, the 2021 Tournament of Roses Parade, a spectacle of flower-bedecked floats, marching bands and equestrian teams held each New Year’s Day in Pasadena, has been called off due to the pandemic, its first cancellation in 76 years, organizers said on Wednesday.

Additional reporting by Lisa Shumaker, Peter Szekely and Lisa Lambert; Writing by Sonya Hepinstall and Steve Gorman; Editing by Rosalba O'Brien, Cynthia Osterman and Gerry Doyle

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