Wisconsin Governor Tony Evers declared a new public health emergency and extended a face coverings mandate into November to fight a flare-up of coronavirus cases, as the United States surpassed the grim milestone of 200,000 Covid-19 deaths on Tuesday.
In-person social gatherings led to cases skyrocketing among people aged 18 to 24, Evers said, as he pleaded with students who returned to colleges for the fall semester to stay out of bars and wear masks.
"We are seeing an alarming increase in cases across our state, especially on campus," the governor said in a statement announcing his decision.
Evers' previous mask mandate, part of a second public health emergency he issued in late July, was due to expire on Monday and has been challenged in court by a conservative group arguing the governor, a Democrat, violated state law in using emergency powers more than once.
Wisconsin has experienced one of the highest percentage increases of coronavirus cases nationwide over the past two weeks, and has the second-highest rate of positive coronavirus tests in the nation at 17%, according to a Reuters tally.
The United States continues to have world's highest number of Covid-19 deaths. On a weekly average, it is losing about 800 lives each day to the virus, according to a Reuters tally. That is down from a peak of 2,806 daily deaths recorded on April 15.
'SOBERING' AND 'STUNNING'
During the early months of the pandemic, 200,000 deaths was regarded by many as the maximum number of lives likely to be lost in the United States to the virus.
"The idea of 200,000 deaths is really very sobering and in some respects stunning," Dr. Anthony Fauci, the top US infectious diseases expert, told CNN.
Thousands of tiny US flags covered part of the National Mall near the Washington Monument in the nation's capital on Tuesday to commemorate the lives lost in the pandemic.
House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, a Democrat, spoke in front of the multitude of star-spangled banners and called on Americans to embrace science.
"This was preventable - not all of it, but much of it," Pelosi said referring to the pandemic's US death toll.
On Monday, US President Donald Trump said he had done a phenomenal job on the pandemic that has infected nearly 6.9 million Americans.
"It affects virtually nobody. It's an amazing thing," Trump told supporters at a Swanton, Ohio, campaign rally on Monday night. "It affects ... elderly people with heart problems and other problems - if they have other problems that's what it really affects, that's it," he said, contrary to all scientific evidence.
Trump has admitted to playing down the danger of the coronavirus early on because he did not want to "create a panic."
With barely six weeks left before the election on Nov. 3, Trump trails Democratic rival Joe Biden nationally in every major opinion poll and is neck and neck in states that could decide the outcome. Trump's handling of the pandemic and subsequent economic downturn has battered his standing among many voters.
Trump has frequently questioned scientific experts - including those in his own administration - on everything from the timing of a vaccine to reopening schools and businesses and the importance of face covering to curb the virus' spread. He has refused to support a national mask mandate and held large political rallies where few wore them.
Biden, who often wears a mask and has said he would require masks nationwide, on Tuesday acknowledged the 200,000 US deaths as a "staggering number that's hard to wrap your head around."
"There's a devastating human toll to this pandemic - and we can't forget that," he wrote on Twitter.
The University of Washington's health institute is forecasting coronavirus fatalities reaching 378,000 by year end, with the daily death toll potentially skyrocketing to 3,000 per day in December.
Over 70% of those in the United States who have lost their lives to the virus were over the age of 65, according to Centers for Disease Control and Prevention data.
Deaths rose 5% last week after falling for four weeks in a row, according to a Reuters analysis.
Six out of every 10,000 residents in the United States has died from Covid-19, one of the highest rates among developed nations.