In April, it would have been hard to imagine that 36,000 new coronavirus infections in a day — the top of the US's first peak — could ever be seen in a positive light.
But after the last two weeks, such a sum would be a relief — it would represent a significant drop from where we are now.
After daily case counts began to creep up again in mid-June, new infections reached a record high on June 25, when more than 39,000 cases were reported. The next day, the country exceeded 45,000 cases, breaking the prior record. Then it happened again, and again.
In the last 12 days, the US has set a new record on five occasions. The latest peak was 54,461 new cases on July 2, according to a Johns Hopkins University database.
The seven-day rolling average of daily case counts, of course, has grown, too. The chart below shows how it has changed over time, along with the seven-day rolling average for deaths.
The primary reason for this spike is exactly what public-health experts warned of a couple months ago. When states started reopening businesses and lifting shelter-in-place orders in late April and early May, many did not meet the White House criteria for doing so safely. The guidelines instructed states to see either a two-week decline in cases or a two-week decline in the share of coronavirus tests coming back positive before they reopened.
But 21 states started reopening around May 7 without seeing those trends, according to the New York Times. As of Tuesday, daily case counts are rising in at least 39 states.
In the last couple of weeks, many governors and mayors began pausing or backtracking those reopenings.
Daily death counts are not surging, however
Deaths have not spiked nationwide alongside cases. This may be because the virus is mostly spreading among young people, who have gone out to bars and social events amid the reopenings. Those in younger age groups are less likely to die from a coronavirus infection.
However, it takes time to die from the coronavirus, so death tolls tend to lag behind case counts by three to four weeks. That means deaths may still begin to rise across the country. In places like Texas and Arizona, that has already begun.
A precursor to deaths — hospitalizations — is currently on the rise in many states with the worst surges. Alabama, California, Georgia, North Carolina, South Carolina, and Texas all reported record-breaking hospitalization rates this week, according to The Washington Post.
COVID-19 databases tell slightly different versions of the same story
Different organizations use their own methods to track coronavirus cases across the US, which yield different results.
Data from the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) suggests that there have been four record-setting days since June 25 (not five) though a higher record of daily cases: 57,718 new cases on July 3.
The CDC recorded a much higher, earlier spring peak than the other databases, logging 43,438 new cases on April 6. Johns Hopkins recorded a spring peak of 36,291 new cases on April 24.
This discrepancy could come from different case-tracking methods. Johns Hopkins and other databases update their numbers in real time, as states and counties publish new data. The CDC, however, counts new cases on the date that states submit them to the agency. Its website recommends deferring to local health departments if there is a mismatch between their data and the CDC's, since it "may be due to the timing of the reporting and website updates."
Still, all these databases show cases rising rapidly in Texas, Arizona, Florida, and many other states. The overarching trend in the numbers is the same, even if the specifics differ.
"I would not be surprised if we go up to 100,000 [cases] a day if this does not turn around, and so I am very concerned," Anthony Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, told the Senate on June 30, adding, "it could get very bad."
Emergency rooms and intensive-care units across the US are already showing signs of strain. The mayors of Houston and Austin have warned they have just two weeks until their hospitals start hitting capacity. In Florida, Miami-Dade county hospitals could max out by August, according to local news site WPLG.
To prevent further spread, Fauci has recommended mandating face masks and keeping indoor bars closed. He has also emphasized that young, healthy people should continue taking precautions, since they could still fall seriously ill or spread the virus to more vulnerable people.
"We are still knee-deep in the first wave of this," Fauci said on Monday. "We went up, never came down to baseline, and now it's surging back up. So it's a serious situation that we have to address immediately."