Brazil registered 1,179 coronavirus deaths in the past 24 hours, the health ministry said Tuesday, as the pandemic exacted its worst daily toll yet in the hardest-hit Latin American country.

The overall death toll in Brazil now stands at 17,971, the ministry said. This was the first time the daily toll exceeded 1,000.

New infections in the past 24 hours totaled 17,408, bringing the total to 271,628, the third-highest in the world after the United States and Russia.

The pandemic appears to be gaining pace rapidly in Brazil, and experts say the peak there is not expected until early June.

Public health experts also say the government figures may grossly understate the death and infection tolls -- perhaps by as many as 15 times or more -- because Brazil carries out very little coronavirus testing.

Brazil recently jumped three spots in 72 hours to take third place in the world in number of known infections, overtaking Britain, Spain and Italy.

Already, hospitals are close to the breaking point in some areas, including Sao Paulo, Rio de Janeiro and the northwestern state of Amazonas.

People wear face masks as they walk along Ipanema Beach in Rio de Janeiro on May 19, 2020. The peak of Brazil's outbreak is not expected until June Photo: AFP / Carl DE SOUZA

Far-right President Jair Bolsonaro is in open conflict with most of the country's 27 state governors as he downplays the virus and presses for the end of stay-at-home measures to rescue Latin America's largest economy, which is now forecast to be headed for deep recession.

Bolsonaro announced his interim health minister, army general Eduardo Pazuelo, would issue a new treatment protocol Wednesday expanding the use of the anti-malaria drug chloroquine to treat even mild cases of COVID-19.

Like his US counterpart Donald Trump, to whom he is often compared, Bolsonaro has hailed chloroquine as a potential wonder drug against the new coronavirus, even though some studies have cast doubt on its effectiveness and safety.

Bolsonaro cited Trump's own decision to take the related drug hydroxychloroquine preventively as evidence of its benefits.

Bolsonaro's insistence on the large-scale use of chloroquine to fight the coronavirus reportedly led to the resignation of his previous health minister, Nelson Teich.

Teich, an oncologist, held the job for less than a month. He replaced Luiz Henrique Mandetta, whom Bolsonaro fired, also after clashing over coronavirus policies.

Comparing the virus to a "little flu" and condemning the "hysteria" around it, Bolsonaro has refused to accept health experts' recommendations on responding to the pandemic.

He wants an end to stay-at-home measures and regularly flouts social distancing practices himself, hitting the streets for rallies by his supporters, hosting barbecues and going to the shooting range.

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