LOS ANGELES - More than 5 million people have tested positive for COVID-19 in the United States, a grim milestone that comes just days after the global death count from the novel coronavirus reached over 700,000.
As of Aug. 9, there were more than 19.6 million confirmed COVID-19 cases globally, according to the most recent data available from the Johns Hopkins Coronavirus Resource Center. In the U.S. alone, as of Aug. 9, there were more than 162,000 COVID-19 deaths.
The United States' confirmed case count far surpasses that of any other country. Brazil is the country with the second-highest number of confirmed cases with over 3 million, followed by India with over 2.1 million and Russia with more than 886,000, according to Aug. 9 data from Johns Hopkins.
Coinciding with the confirmed cases milestone is a drop in the number of tests performed for the coronavirus in the United States, even as the number of infections remains high. According to an Aug. 5 report from the Associated Press, the number of new confirmed daily COVID-19 deaths the U.S. has risen by more than 1,000 a day, a worrisome trend that officials attribute largely to Americans getting discouraged over having to wait hours to get a test and days or weeks to receive their results.
The confirmed case milestone also comes at a time when parents and education officials across the country are deliberating the risks of reopening schools.
"It doesn’t matter if you open schools in July, like we did, or if you open in August, September or October. All schools are going to have to deal with the issue of positive COVID-19 test results," said Lee Childress, superintendent of Corinth School District in Mississippi, where more than 100 students are quarantined at home after being exposed to a handful of infected classmates.
Administrators say it might be difficult to control the mixing and mingling that happens at every school. Asymptomatic carriers could silently spread the virus to many others. A student might not remember every contact, or be reluctant to tell the truth because that would mean forcing friends into quarantine.
Contact tracing might prove difficult "when you have that many students and they have multiple contacts inside of a building," said Dallas schools chief Michael Hinojosa.
Schools are reopening as new infections run at about 54,000 a day in the U.S. While that’s down from a peak of well over 70,000 in the second half of July, cases are rising in nearly 20 states, and deaths are climbing in most of them.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) predicted the U.S. could see an increase of 11,000 COVID-19 deaths per week by Aug. 22, based on data gathered from forecasts from 34 different modeling groups.
The CDC forecasts that total U.S. deaths from COVID-19 could reach 173,000 by Aug. 22 — with a possible range between 168,000 to 182,000.
New cases began surging in June after many U.S. states reopened their economies, resulting in some governors pausing reopening plans or closing certain businesses once again.
Dr. Deborah Birx, the White House coronavirus task force coordinator, said Aug. 2 that the virus was "extraordinarily widespread" in the U.S. and infections in urban and rural America marked a "new phase" for the pandemic in the country.
The U.S. State Department also lifted its "Global Level 4 Health Advisory" on Thursday, which was previously put in place to limit international travel amid the coronavirus pandemic.
With health and safety conditions improving in some countries and potentially deteriorating in others, the Department is returning to our previous system of country-specific levels of travel advice (with Levels from 1-4 depending on country-specific conditions), in order to give travelers detailed and actionable information to make informed travel decisions," the U.S. State Department said in a notice posted online.
The 5 million cases milestone also comes just hours after President Donald Trump signed executive orders to revive an expired unemployment benefit and defer some payroll taxes, contending he is taking action after lawmakers failed to agree on a new coronavirus relief package.
Trump moved to continue paying a supplemental federal unemployment benefit for millions of Americans out of work during the outbreak. However, his order called for up to $400 payments each week, one-third less than the $600 people had been receiving. Congress allowed those higher payments to lapse on Aug. 1, and negotiations to extend them have been mired in partisan gridlock, with the White House and Democrats miles apart.
The executive orders could face legal challenges questioning the president's authority to spend taxpayer dollars without the express approval of Congress. Trump largely stayed on the sidelines during the administration’s negotiations with congressional leaders, leaving the talks on his side to chief of staff Mark Meadows and Treasury Secretary Steve Mnuchin.
While there is no approved COVID-19 vaccine available for widespread distribution as of yet, the phase 3 clinical trial of a vaccine developed by Moderna and the National Institutes of Health began in late July.
According to the New York Times’ Coronavirus Vaccine Tracker, there are six vaccines in the large-scale efficacy test and 12 that are in expanded safety trials.
Previous projections as to when a COVID-19 vaccine may be available have ranged from 12 to 18 months. However, in late July, Dr. Anthony Fauci said that he is "cautiously optimistic" that there will be a vaccine available by the end of the year and into the start of 2021, according to a July 31 report from the Associated Press.
Don’t look for a mass nationwide vaccination right away, Fauci told lawmakers. There will be a priority list based on recommendations from scientific advisers. Topping the list could be critical workers, such as medical personnel, or vulnerable groups of people such as older adults with other underlying health problems.
"But ultimately, within a reasonable period of time, the plans now allow for any American who needs a vaccine to get it within the year 2021," Fauci said.
The Associated Press and FOX News contributed to this report.