By Lisa Shumaker

(Reuters) – The United States has seen its highest ever number of new COVID-19 cases in the past two days, keeping the pandemic a top election issue as Vice President Mike Pence travels the country to campaign despite close aides testing positive.

The United States reported 79,852 new infections on Saturday, close to the previous day’s record of 84,244 new cases. Hospitalizations are also rising and have hit a two-month high and deaths are trending upwards, according to a Reuters tally. (Graphic: https://tmsnrt.rs/34pvUyi)

So far in October, 29 states have set records for increases in new cases, including five considered key in the Nov. 3 presidential election: Ohio, Michigan, North Carolina, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin.

Cases in the Midwest set a new record on Saturday and the number of hospitalized COVID-19 patients in that region hit an all-time high for the ninth day in a row.

Hospitals are strained in several states including North Dakota, which is the hardest hit based on recent new cases per capita, according to a Reuters analysis.

The city of El Paso in Texas is asking residents to stay home for the next two weeks and the wider El Paso County closed its parks and recreational facilities for 14 days.

In addition, an El Paso County judge ordered late Sunday a 10 p.m. to 5 a.m. curfew due to the COVID crisis. The curfew order went into effect immediately, but it does not apply to essential workers or people traveling.

Over the last three weeks, the number of hospitalized COVID-19 patients in the El Paso area has tripled to a record 786, according to state data. (http://www.epstrong.org/)

“If we continue on this trend, we risk detrimental effects to our entire healthcare system,” the city’s public health director, Angela Mora, said in a statement.

“For the sake of those hospitalized and the frontline healthcare workers working tirelessly each day to care for them, we ask you to please stay home for two weeks and eliminate your interactions with those outside your household until we can flatten the curve.”

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On Saturday, Texas Governor Greg Abbott asked the federal government to allow the use of an army medical center at Fort Bliss by non-coronavirus patients to ease the burden on hospitals.

On Sunday, Abbott said state emergency management officials will open an alternate care site this week, initially with 50 beds, at the El Paso Convention and Performing Arts Center.

NEW WHITE HOUSE OUTBREAK

Pence’s chief of staff, Marc Short, tested positive on Saturday as well as multiple other senior aides. Despite the outbreak, the White House said the vice president would press ahead with campaigning, visiting North Carolina on Sunday and Minnesota on Monday.

The new infections offered a reminder of the way Trump – who was hospitalized for three nights this month after contracting COVID-19 – and those around him have downplayed the advice of public health experts to wear masks and observe social distancing guidelines to stem COVID-19 transmission.

Asked on CNN’s “State of the Union” why Pence was not following U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention guidelines to quarantine for 14 days after such exposure, Meadows on Sunday cited the vice president’s status as “essential personnel.”

The latest outbreak follows what health experts described as a super-spreader event at the White House on Sept. 26 where President Donald Trump announced his nomination of Amy Coney Barrett to the Supreme Court.

(Reporting by Lisa Shumaker in Chicago; additional reporting by Rich McKay in Atlanta; Editing by Daniel Wallis and Stephen Coates)