Brazil reported a record spike of daily coronavirus infections Thursday, as widespread criticism continues to dog President Jair Bolsonaro for playing down the outbreak. The country has confirmed more than 438,000 cases, the world's second-highest number after the United States.
The rise in cases comes as São Paulo, the state with the highest number of registered deaths, prepares to ease restrictions in some areas.
Brazil's Health Ministry reported 26,417 new confirmed cases in the previous 24 hours. For the third consecutive day, the country's official tally of newly registered COVID-19 deaths — 1,156 — topped 1,000, although many of the deaths occurred days earlier and were not logged until now.
The virus has killed 26,754 Brazilians, according to the official count. Just under a quarter of those fatalities were in São Paulo, considered the national epicenter of the pandemic. Despite this, the governor has announced a gradual loosening of restrictions, even as medical researchers warn infections have not yet peaked in Brazil.
In the city of São Paulo, Brazil's business capital, shopping centers and some stores will be permitted to open beginning Monday. Numerous social distancing measures and the wearing of masks will be required. Bars, restaurants, theaters and sports centers will remain closed.
A group of mayors in neighboring municipalities, where nonessential businesses are still closed, has complained to state authorities, saying the governor's move could bring more cases of infection into their neighborhoods.
Until now, Gov. João Doria has urged São Paulo state residents to stay home, with patchy results. His approach put him at loggerheads with Bolsonaro, who has scoffed at the virus as a "little flu" and wants social distancing measures to be restricted to people older than 60.
While some parts of Brazil are under lockdown, others are moving to ease restrictions, including the vast rainforest state of Amazonas, one of the areas hardest hit by the coronavirus.
Its governor has announced certain nonessential businesses can reopen on Monday. That decision has drawn criticism from Arthur Virgílio Neto, mayor of the Amazonas capital Manaus.
A surge of COVID-19 cases last month collapsed Manaus' health system. Authorities buried the dead in mass graves because cemeteries were overwhelmed.
Virgílio Neto is warning that although the number of deaths in Manaus has since gone down, it is too soon to start reopening the local economy — because a potential second wave of COVID-19 could prove even more deadly than the first.