(Updates with latest data)
By Maria Caspani and Kate Kelland
NEW YORK, Oct 23 (Reuters) - The U.S. death toll from COVID-19 could surpass 500,000 by February unless nearly all Americans wear face masks, researchers said on Friday, as 14 states set new records for one-day increases in infections.
The latest estimate by the widely cited University of Washington's Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation reflects fears that cold winter weather will drive Americans indoors, where the virus is more likely to spread.
Nationwide, 76,195 new cases were reported on Thursday, according to a Reuters analysis, just shy of the single-day record high of 77,299 reported on July 16. Only India has reported more cases in a single day: 97,894, on Sept. 17.
"We are heading into a very substantial fall/winter surge," said IHME director Chris Murray, who co-led the research.
The number of possible deaths could drop by 130,000 if 95% of Americans would cover their faces, the IHME said, echoing a recommendation by Anthony Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases.
U.S. Health Secretary Alex Azar attributed the increase in cases nationwide to the behavior of individuals, saying household gatherings have become a "major vector of disease spread."
Asked about an assertion by President Donald Trump during Thursday night's presidential debate that the United States is "rounding the turn" on the pandemic, Azar told CNN that Trump was trying to provide hope to Americans waiting for a vaccine.
Pennsylvania, a swing state which is expected to play a crucial role in the Nov. 3 presidential election, reported its largest single-day increase in cases since the pandemic began. "Daily increases are now comparable with what we saw in April 2020," the Pennsylvania Department of Health said in a statement issued on Friday.
Also reporting record one-day increases were the states of Alaska, Arkansas, Illinois, North Carolina, North Dakota, Ohio, Oregon, Rhode Island, South Dakota, Tennessee, Utah, Wisconsin and Wyoming.
On Thursday, there were 916 reported fatalities in the United States, a day after the country recorded over 1,200 new deaths for the first time since August.
Also on Thursday, the number of COVID-19 patients in U.S. hospitals climbed to a two-month high. There are now more than 41,000 hospitalized patients with coronavirus across the country, up 34% from Oct. 1, according to a Reuters analysis.
North Dakota, with 887 new cases on both Thursday and Friday, remains the hardest-hit state, based on new cases per capita, followed by South Dakota, Montana and Wisconsin, according to a Reuters tally.
Eight states reported record numbers of COVID-19 patients in the hospital on Friday: Alaska, Kentucky, New Mexico, North Dakota, Ohio, Oklahoma, West Virginia and Wyoming.
In Tennessee, hospitals in Nashville said they have experienced a 40% increase in patients admitted for the coronavirus.
Dr. Jeff Pothof, an emergency medicine physician at University of Wisconsin Health in Madison, expressed worry about lack of compliance with public health measures in the state, where some groups have challenged Democratic Governor Tony Evers' COVID-19 restrictions in court.
"If we don't get that and we have such tremendous prevalence of COVID-19 in our communities, I don't see a great way out of this," Pothof said. "The picture isn't rosy."
Chicago Mayor Lori E. Lightfoot announced a curfew on nonessential businesses beginning at 10 p.m. on Friday. She warned residents to avoid social gatherings of more than six people and end all gatherings by 10 p.m.
Nearly 2,500 people were hospitalized in Illinois, the state's top public health official, Dr. Ngozi Ezike, told a news conference.
The Northeast remains the one region of the county without a significant surge in cases, but infections are trending higher. Boston public schools shifted to online-only learning this week.
(Reporting by Maria Caspani and Caroline Humer in New York, Kate Kelland in London, Lisa Shumaker in Chicago, by Anurag Maan in Bengaluru, Doina Chiacu in Washington. D.C. and Dan Whitcomb in Los Angeles Editing by Daniel Wallis, Bill Tarrant and Sonya Hepinstall)
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