US death toll passes 250,000 as New York shuts schools

Midwest region emerges as new epicentre, Minnesota governor says the state is at 'dangerous point'

NEW YORK: The US death toll from Covid-19 surpassed a grim new milestone of 250,000 on Wednesday, as New York City's public school system, the nation's largest, called a halt to in-classroom instruction, citing a jump in coronavirus infection rates.

The decision to shutter schools and revert exclusively to at-home learning, starting yesterday, came as state and local officials nationwide imposed restrictions on social and economic life to tamp down a surge in cases and hospitalisations heading into winter.

Eight months after New York City emerged as the nation's first major flashpoint of the epidemic - its hospitals besieged and streets virtually devoid of human activity - the epicentre has shifted to the upper Midwest.

Governor Tim Walz of Minnesota, one of several states in the region dogged by the country's highest case rates per capita, ordered all restaurants, bars, fitness centres and entertainment venues closed, and all youth sports cancelled, for four weeks. More than 90 per cent of hospitals' intensive care unit beds are already occupied in the eastern half of the state, Mr Walz said, adding: "We are at a dangerous point in this pandemic."

The action by New York schools, announced by Mayor Bill de Blasio via Twitter, doubtless came as a relief to some teachers, many of whom have expressed fear of being placed at increased risk of exposure.

But it will bring renewed hardship for working parents once more.

"I could lose my job. ... I am stuck between bills and my son, and it is a hard choice," said Mr Felix Franco, 30, a US Postal Service employee who has been on leave recovering from the virus himself since spring and was planning to return to work in two weeks.

He has no one else lined up to care for his six-year-old during the school day and is already behind on his monthly car bill and racking up credit card debt.

New York joins other large school districts in cities like Boston and Detroit that have recently cancelled in-person learning. Within the past week, the Clark County School District, which includes Las Vegas and is the fifth largest in the US, and Philadelphia's public school system both postponed plans to return to in-person instruction.

As of Wednesday, the virus had claimed at least 250,016 lives in the US, which has documented about 11.5 million infections, according to a Reuters tally.

NBC News said on Wednesday that more than 900 Mayo Clinic personnel in Minnesota and Wisconsin had been found infected in the past two weeks - a third of the cases among the medical centre's Midwestern staff since March.

White House spokesman Kayleigh McEnany called the wave of new restrictions an overreach.

"We don't lose our freedom in this country. We make responsible health decisions as individuals." - REUTERS