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Death toll hits 500 000 in US as vaccinations race virus

Global deaths related to Covid-19 have surpassed 2.46m
Healthcare workers prepare to administer doses of the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine in Denver on February 20. Image: Bloomberg

A half-million Americans are now dead as a result of the novel coronavirus that first hit US shores just a little more than a year ago, a sad milestone that’s left families mourning nationwide.

US deaths passed the 500 000 mark on Monday. Global deaths related to Covid-19 have surpassed 2.46 million, with the US leading all countries with more than twice the number recorded by the next closest, Brazil, according to Bloomberg’s virus tracker.

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Hospitalisations and deaths have fallen since peaking in early January as treatments have improved, a rising number of Americans have gotten natural immunity from surviving the virus, and more people are getting shots of vaccines produced by either Moderna or the Pfizer-BioNTech SE team. There’s still a growing threat, though, from swift-moving mutations that have emerged from the UK, South Africa and Brazil, and are now increasingly seen in the US.

“Half a million deaths,” said Anthony Fauci, the US’s top infectious disease doctor, on CNN’s “State of the Union” broadcast on Sunday. “It’s terrible. It is historic. We haven’t seen anything even close to this for well over a hundred years since the 1918 pandemic of influenza.”

President Joe Biden, in remarks before a candle-lighting ceremony at the White House honouring the Americans who died of the virus, called the loss a “heartbreaking” milestone.

“That’s more Americans who’ve died in one year in this pandemic than in World War I, World War II and the Vietnam War combined,” he said. “That’s more lives lost to this virus than any other nation on earth.”

About 657 000 in the US died during the 1918 influenza pandemic with no vaccines available and no antibiotics to treat secondary infections, according to the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. At least 50 million died worldwide.

In the beginning of March 2020, only three coronavirus-related deaths had been recorded in the US By mid-April, the seven-day average for deaths topped 2 000. There have been more than 88 200 deaths just in the last month.

While less than 1% of the US population lives in nursing homes and other long-term care facilities, about 35% of deaths have occurred there as of February 18, according to the Long-Term Care COVID Tracker. The need to isolate residents to protect them from infection came at a high cost as families couldn’t talk with and care for older parents and grandparents, and sometimes left them unable to say goodbye.

Turnaround

Lately, though, there’s been the sense that a turnaround may be possible. Weekly deaths in long-term care centres fell to 4 239 as of February 18 after reaching more than 7 000 a month earlier.

The number of hospital beds occupied by Covid-19 patients on February 18 fell to the lowest number since November 18, according to the US Department of Health & Human Services. Still, the overall number remain high at 63 523.

At the same time, more Americans have now received at least one dose of a vaccine than have tested positive for the virus since the pandemic began. As of Sunday, 63.1 million doses had been given to people in the US, a number that leads the world. In the last week, an average of 1.33 million doses a day were administered.

Speed up

To speed up vaccinations after a rocky start, the US government on January 12 began encouraging states to start immunising all residents 65 and older, along with those ages 16 and older with certain medical conditions.

The changes would open vaccinations up to more than a third of the US population. The Biden administration has said that it’s working to expand the supply of vaccines to help meet that goal.

By speeding up vaccination, health officials hope to cut off the spread of the mutations emerging from the UK, South Africa and Brazil, the latter two of which have shown an ability to weaken — though not yet overcome — the Pfizer vaccine.

Swift-moving variants

The mutation that emerged from the UK has been particularly aggressive, identified in 1,523 cases in 42 states as of Thursday. Federal officials have expressed concern it could soon become dominant nationwide.

The variant from South Africa, first identified in the US on Jan. 28, has now infected 21 Americans in 10 states, according to the CDC, with Idaho joining the list as the 11th on Friday. The mutation that emerged from Brazil is the latest to reach US shores. It’s now been identified in five cases in four states — Maryland, Florida, Oklahoma and Minnesota.

It’s not yet clear any of these highly-contagious mutations are necessarily deadlier. But the increased level of contagion alone is a problem, with more transmissions potentially leading to further surges before the vaccination campaign can take hold.

© 2021 Bloomberg

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US population 330 million

Covid current (flu deaths) 0.15% of population

Cancer deaths 2020 600,000+

Up to 13 million: estimated number of people in the United States living with latent TB infection

Priorities a bit screwed

2.46 million of 7.64 billion is 0.032%…wow

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