President Donald Trump removes his face mask on Saturday before delivering his first in-person speech since testing positive for coronavirus
President Donald Trump removes his face mask on Saturday before delivering his first in-person speech at the White House since testing positive for coronavirus © Reuters

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Ardis Cerny does not wear a face mask, even though she is 71 and living in a coronavirus hotspot. Nor do her 90-year-old neighbours.

Like some other Republicans, Ms Cerny believes the risk from the virus has been overplayed by a liberal establishment determined either to damage Donald Trump or scare his voters.

Even as new cases climb steadily across the US, especially in Ms Cerny’s home state of Wisconsin, she and many of her friends see the president’s rapid recovery from the disease as further evidence that they do not need to change their behaviour.

Public health experts worry that the string of public events that Mr Trump is planning in the coming days will further undermine trust in official coronavirus guidelines and accelerate a “winter wave”. In places such as Wisconsin, a swing state where coronavirus cases are rife, the effect could fuel the already rising infection rate.

Ms Cerny said Mr Trump’s recovery “makes me a little happier, because now I know if I get sick there is a whole panoply of things that I can take to get cured pretty fast”.

“I have been going to restaurants for the last three months, we’ve eaten inside if they didn’t have room outside, and I have experienced no problems.”

Line chart of Seven-day average per cent positive rate showing Wisconsin's Covid positivity rate is hovering near a record high

She added: “I rarely wear a mask unless I go to stores that absolutely require it. Here in Waukesha you don’t see many masks.”

Mr Trump restarted campaign events this week following his coronavirus recovery, having left hospital just a week ago. The president is trying to narrow the wide gap that his Democratic rival Joe Biden has opened in the polls.

But he does so just as new cases have begun to climb rapidly across much of the country. According to data from the Covid Tracking Project, the US reported more than 50,000 new cases each day from Wednesday to Saturday — the first four-day streak above that level since early August.

On Monday the number of people currently in US hospitals with coronavirus topped 35,000 for the first time since early September, according to the Covid Tracking Project. The latest tally, of 35,056 patients, represents a 17 per cent increase over the past four weeks, and a rise of 16 per cent from seven days ago.

The US has already had more than 200,000 deaths from coronavirus, but the University of Washington predicts that figure will almost double by the end of January unless efforts are made to limit large gatherings and social interactions.

Tom Frieden, the former head of the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, said: “This is bad. We are seeing a big rise in cases and that is going to be followed inevitably by hospitalisations and deaths.”

Mr Frieden believes the recent White House outbreak was a missed opportunity. “In a confident, rational White House, this could have become a teachable moment for the US: this is how you do strategic testing, this is how you do contact tracing, this is how you do quarantine. Instead, this is going to make the current spread worse,” he said.

Bar chart of Seven-day average of positive Covid-19 cases per 100,000 people showing Per capita coronavirus case rates are at record highs in 15 US states

One of the metrics scientists watch most closely is the percentage of tests that come back positive, because it helps clarify that a rise in cases is a result of the disease spreading more quickly rather than just an increase in testing.

The World Health Organization has advised governments that before reopening, positivity rates should be at 5 per cent or lower for at least 14 days. According to Johns Hopkins University, 31 US states are at present above that rate.

Wisconsin has one of the highest positivity rates, at about 20 per cent. Iowa, another swing state where Mr Trump will hold a rally on Wednesday, has a positivity rate of 18 per cent.

In many places the recent spread has been triggered by one-off events such as universities reopening.

But in others, scientists believe that people who were already sceptical of public health advice have completely lost trust in official coronavirus guidelines and returned to their old ways of life — whether they are ultra-Orthodox Jews in New York or Republican voters in rural Wisconsin.

Bill Feehan, the Republican party chair of La Crosse County in western Wisconsin, said: “I don’t think Covid-19 is really a concern for people on our side. We had our annual Lincoln Day dinner three weeks ago — 175 people showed up and no one cared about wearing a mask. We had them available, but no one wanted them.”

Many Trump supporters believe government scientists have lied to them from the start about the pandemic, views that were partly fuelled by Mr Trump’s own criticisms of his top health officials.

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“I honestly believe that the virus was brought into the US for political reasons. It just seems way, way too convenient that it happened in an election year,” said Earla Mae Clearmont, a Republican voter from Walworth County, a rural area in southern Wisconsin.

Health experts hope that whatever the political debate surrounding coronavirus, Americans will still take the necessary actions to stop it spreading as they see cases continue to rise.

“The public response is what will save lives until safe and effective vaccines are available to all who want them,” said Barry Bloom, professor of public health at Harvard University.

This argument does not seem to hold sway among Trump supporters in Wisconsin, however. “I’d feel awful if someone died because of me,” said Ms Clearmont. “But I have to think of what makes me able to function in my own little world.”

Line chart showing how Trump and Biden are doing in the US national polls

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