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U.S. coronavirus cases reach half a million, death toll close to topping world

Coronavirus outbreak: Cuomo says New York’s COVID-19 death toll a ‘consequence of the actions that we take’
WATCH: Coronavirus outbreak: Cuomo says New York’s COVID-19 death toll a ‘consequence of the actions that we take’

The total number of confirmed novel coronavirus cases in the United States surpassed half a million Friday, according to counts from Johns Hopkins University and Reuters — accounting for nearly a third of all worldwide cases.

The country’s case total of 501,419 by midnight ET is greater than the combined total of the three countries with the next highest counts in the world: Spain, Italy and France. The U.S. total is over three times what Spain has reported, at 158,273.

The U.S. was also close to surpassing Italy as the country with the most deaths from COVID-19 Friday night. Italy has seen 18,849 deaths, while the U.S. has reported 18,758, according to Johns Hopkins at midnight.

READ MORE: Coronavirus deaths top 100,000 worldwide

Earlier Friday, the worldwide death toll surpassed 100,000. Nearly 1.7 million people around the world have tested positive for COVID-19.

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Just over two weeks ago, on March 26, the U.S. surpassed Italy and China to become the country with the most cases of COVID-19, the disease caused by the novel coronavirus. A day later, the number of cases surpassed 100,000, the first country to do so.

The country’s cases, and the resulting deaths, have only continued to climb since then as federal and state governments scramble to confront the pandemic.

New York state has accounted for more than half of the nation’s deaths and has seen a particularly grim week, as fatal cases surged by more than 3,000 between Monday and Friday. Mass graves are being used to bury some of the dead.

Coronavirus outbreak: New York buries COVID-19 dead in mass grave on Hart Island
Coronavirus outbreak: New York buries COVID-19 dead in mass grave on Hart Island

Detroit, Louisiana and Washington, D.C., have also been identified as recent hotspots, following deadly outbreaks in California and the greater Seattle area.

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Yet despite the record-setting numbers, U.S. President Donald Trump and his aides expressed optimism on Friday that the spread of the coronavirus could be slowing.

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Trump, who last month had expressed hope that the country’s economy could reopen this coming Easter Sunday, said on Friday that he would be announcing the launch of what he dubbed the “Opening our Country” task force next Tuesday to work toward that goal.

“I want to get it open as soon as possible,” he said at the Good Friday briefing, while adding: “The facts are going to determine what I do.”

READ MORE: New York sees uptick in bodies buried at mass gravesite amid coronavirus pandemic

The Trump administration has been criticized for being slow to respond to the pandemic, and for appearing to prioritize the economy over national lockdowns and physical distancing measures even after ramping up the federal response.

The Washington Post reported that Trump took Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin’s warnings on the economic toll that wide shelter-in-place orders would have over advice from health officials like Health and Human Services Secretary Alexander Azar that such measures were necessary to slow the spread of the virus. CNN reported Trump only stepped up his messaging on the crisis after seeing the toll the crisis was already having on Wall Street, where stock markets plunged for several consecutive days early last month.

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Trump’s comments Friday came at the end of a week that officials had warned would be a devastating one for the country, even calling it this generation’s Pearl Harbor. Models from the U.S. Centres for Disease Control and Prevention have warned the U.S. could eventually see a minimum of 100,000 deaths by the summer.

Coronavirus outbreak: Trump says ‘tremendous progress is being made’ in U.S. due to ‘aggressive’ COVID-19 strategies
Coronavirus outbreak: Trump says ‘tremendous progress is being made’ in U.S. due to ‘aggressive’ COVID-19 strategies

Health experts have warned that if the country rolls back restrictions too quickly, case levels could once again begin to soar, especially without widespread testing to determine who might be a carrier of the virus. Research has shown that people can be highly infectious even if they are not displaying symptoms.

Yet states are starting to report signs of hope that the virus could be slowing in some parts of the country. New York reported that the number of people in intensive care dropped for the first time there since mid-March. Hospitalizations are also slowing there, with 290 new patients admitted in a single day versus daily increases of more than 1,000 last week.

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California Gov. Gavin Newsom said Friday that planning is now underway on how to eventually reopen the state, after health officials said their projections may end up being lower than anticipated thanks to strict social distancing measures.

—With files from the Associated Press