Few people are seen on a street in New York City, the United States, March 19, 2020. (Xinhua/Wang Ying)

 With weak social distancing policies and insufficient testing coverage, the US may become the next epicenter of the COVID-19 pandemic, experts warned, suggesting that millions could be infected.

Data from John Hopkins University showed 69,246 reported COVID-19 cases as of 24:00 pm Thursday Beijing time, behind China’s 81,782 and Italy’s 74,386. 

Yuan Hongyong, vice dean of the Institute of Public Safety Research of Tsinghua University, believes there would be a tremendous outbreak in the US in the near future unless the US government deliberately hides the numbers. Yuan and his team have developed a prediction model based on data from the World Health Organization (WHO) and had released prediction results of some key countries stricken by the COVID-19 pandemic, including South Korea, Japan, Italy and Spain on Wednesday. 

However, Yuan told the Global Times on Thursday that they were not able to give a specific trending model and peak value for the US due to the low detection rate in the country. He estimated that the infection number could reach millions given the current information.  

Mei Xinyu, a research fellow at the Chinese Academy of International Trade and Economic Cooperation, said that the number of COVID-19 cases in the US could exceed 100,000 by this weekend. 

There are also many models in the US estimating the peak and worst-case scenario of the country’s COVID-19 situation.

Meanwhile, a US CDC report earlier this month estimated that up to 214 million Americans would be infected by December. An estimated 21 million people would need hospital care and 200,000 to 1.7 million could die by the end of the year.

Experts warned that the US medical system may collapse if millions of patients flood hospitals due to a serious lack of beds, ventilators and medical staff. Experts cited slow government response and low detection rate for rapidly expanding infections in the US, urging the US government to launch more strict quarantine policies and pay more attention to rural areas, where medical conditions are comparatively poor. 

The US announced it would provide free COVID-19 tests on March 18, which is probably a reason for the recent rapidly expanding new cases in the country, according to some experts. The US has witnessed a daily increase of more than 10,000 new cases for three straight days as of Thursday. 

But others noted that tests performed in different areas are unbalanced and widespread testing is still lacking in the US, which indicates more cases will come along with the expanding test coverage.  

“The coronavirus pandemic is accelerating” in the US, CNN reported Thursday, citing Anthony Fauci, director of the US National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases.  

Margaret Harris, a WHO spokesperson, also warned as early as Tuesday that the US could become the new center of the global coronavirus pandemic due to the accelerating number of cases. 

A peddler wearing facial mask looks after his booth near Times Square in New York City, the United States, March 19, 2020. (Xinhua/Wang Ying)

Fauci said New York City dominates the situation in the US, as 60 percent of US infections have been reported in New York City metropolitan areas while 56 percent of the new cases have been reported in these areas. 

Mei estimates that New York City would soon overtake Wuhan and become the city with the most confirmed cases in the world. 

New York City reported 20,011 COVID-19 cases with 280 deaths as of 5:30 pm Wednesday, while Wuhan has reported 50,006 confirmed cases as of Wednesday. 

According to present trends in the US, “on Saturday the total number of coronavirus cases will become larger than in China – a figure which will send a shock wave around the world,” said John Ross, a senior fellow at Chongyang Institute for Financial Studies of Renmin University of China.

“The situation in the West on the coronavirus is catastrophic – far worse than at the worst period in China. This is disguised in popular understanding by the fact that China’s population is so much larger than any Western country,” he noted.

“In the US in relative terms the situation is already almost 3 times worse in proportion to population than the worst moment in China,” Ross noted.