Trump heads to Florida as coronavirus cases surge


Washington (AFP)

US President Donald Trump headed to coronavirus-stricken Florida on Friday to attend a campaign fundraiser, ignoring health advice about the dangers of large gatherings as he ramps up public appearances ahead of the election.

The virus has claimed more than 4,000 lives in the Sunshine State, where Republican governor Ron DeSantis downplayed the outbreak early on but has since been forced to pause reopening.

The US is by far the hardest-hit country in the world, with more than 3.1 million confirmed infections and 133,000 dead.

Florida was among at least six states that set single-day case records on Thursday, alongside Texas, Alabama, Idaho, Missouri, Montana, and Oregon.

Florida and Texas also registered their highest daily death counts -- 98 and 120 respectively.

"The tsunami is here," said Richard Cortez, the chief executive of Hidalgo County in south Texas, after 1,274 cases were confirmed in the past 24 hours in the jurisdiction of fewer than 900,000 people.

By way of comparison, Melbourne in Australia, a city of five million, reimposed a lockdown after 191 tested positive in a day.

"As a country, when you compare us to other countries, I don't think you can say we're doing great," Anthony Fauci, the country's top infectious disease official told political analysis website FiveThirtyEight on Thursday.

He went on to partly blame the atmosphere of political divisiveness in the country -- for example the way in which masks were initially shunned by right wing political leaders, many of whom have since shifted on the issue.

"I think you'd have to make the assumption that if there wasn't such divisiveness, that we would have a more coordinated approach," said Fauci.

Trump, for his part, hit out at the respected scientist, telling Fox News on Thursday: "Dr Fauci is a nice man, but he's made a lot of mistakes."

"A lot of them said 'don't wear a mask, don't wear a mask,'" the president added. "Now they are saying 'wear a mask.' A lot of mistakes were made, a lot of mistakes."

- Political strategy -

Trump's Florida visit comes as a new poll by ABC News and Ipsos found that 67 percent disapproved of his handling of the COVID-19 crisis, and an equal share disapproved of how he has handled race relations.

Despite these numbers, Trump appears to be doubling down on his strategy of intensifying public meetings in order to stoke his base.

Former vice president Joe Biden, who is running against Trump in November, blasted the president's visit.

"With over 232,000 cases in the state and over 4,000 deaths in Florida, it is clear that Trump's response -- ignore, blame others, and distract -- has come at the expense of Florida families," he said.

After Florida, where Trump will also meet with anti-narcotic officials and Venezuelan opposition leaders, he will hold a rally in New Hampshire in the northeast on Saturday.

The state was narrowly won by Hillary Clinton in the 2016 election.

Trump's last rally, in Tulsa, Oklahoma last month, was a flop and Republican officials will be looking to avoid a repeat of a ticket prank by K-pop fans that may have impacted attendance.

Such large gatherings are anathema to epidemiologists, who have increasingly warned of the dangers posed by the virus in the air within crowded and confined spaces.

- Surge continues -

Unlike countries in Europe and Asia, the US never emerged from its first wave of the COVID-19 pandemic, and has since mid-June been experiencing a fresh surge.

This is because although the virus receded from former hotspots like New York, it came back hard in regions where officials eased their lockdowns too early or where citizens widely ignored health advice.

The administration has downplayed the spike, with Trump repeatedly and falsely attributing it entirely to higher levels of testing.

"We do testing like nobody's ever done testing. And when we test, the more you test, the more cases you find," Trump told Fox News.

Experts however say this explanation is inadequate, because the number of people hospitalized and the percentage of people testing positive is also rising in many states.

Still, the death rate remains well below levels of earlier peaks in late April and May, partly because the US epidemic has grown younger and there are better treatments available.

It also takes several weeks for very sick people to die.