Post-holiday COVID-19 surge hits new deadly records

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Even as Washington’s attention is focused on President Trump’s second impeachment, the coronavirus pandemic is setting a string of new records as it gets increasingly worse in the U.S.

The anticipated surge following holiday gatherings has now arrived, leading to a stunning number of cases, hospitalizations and deaths rising every day.

On Tuesday alone, a record 4,327 people in the U.S. died from the virus, according to Johns Hopkins University. In just the past week, a New York Times tracker showed the seven-day average for deaths rose from about 2,600 per day to about 3,300.

And the numbers keep climbing.

“We went from a very high baseline level of infections to even higher,” Anthony Fauci, the government’s top infectious disease expert, said at a forum hosted by Schmidt Futures on Tuesday. “And as we’ve seen over the past week and a half or so since the ending of the holiday season, everything seems to be a record.”

“We’re in a very difficult situation and it is getting worse,” he added. “I hope that as we get towards the end of January, that we’ll see a peaking and a turning around, particularly if people hang in there and don’t get discouraged by COVID-19 fatigue and let down on their public health measures.”

But now, an even greater threat is looming in the form of new virus variants. One strain that was first detected in the United Kingdom is thought to be significantly more contagious, and it’s already been identified in multiple U.S. states.

Given the increased infectiousness, the new variant is expected to become more common in the U.S., prompting public health officials to ramp up their calls for Americans to take precautions like mask-wearing, avoiding indoor gatherings, distancing from others and washing hands.

New variants of the virus could impede efforts to flatten the curve of cases. In Ireland, which has been hit hard by the U.K. strain, a recent surge has been illustrated by an essentially vertical line measuring the case count.

“This strain’s destiny is to become dominant here in the weeks ahead,” tweeted Eric Topol, professor of molecular medicine at Scripps Research. “That means going vertical.”

He urged ramped-up efforts to slow the spread of the virus to fight the new strain, including getting high-quality N95 masks to the public, spreading rapid tests that can be used at home and increasing vaccination rates.

There are already more than 200,000 new cases every day in the U.S. The record number of COVID-19 hospitalizations, at more than 130,000, is putting a tremendous strain on hospitals and threatening care for people without the coronavirus.

“There are 27,000 COVID patients in ICUs right now,” tweeted Ashish Jha, dean of the Brown University School of Public Health. “On October 2, there were 7,000. And in order to accommodate the increase, hospitals are reducing access of non-COVID patients to ICU care.”

While vaccines provide a light at the end of the tunnel, they will not be widely available for several months, meaning there is still a brutal period to get through before they have widespread effect. 

“If you’re counting on vaccines to make a big difference this winter, you will be sorely disappointed,” said Richard Besser, president of the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation and former acting director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. “It’s these other measures that we have to double down on. If we don’t, we will lose hundreds of thousands of lives, deaths that could have been prevented.”

But experts say that picking up the pace of a slow-starting vaccination campaign can help in the weeks ahead.

The Trump administration on Tuesday announced steps aimed at speeding up the process, including recommending that states lift restrictions on eligibility to everyone 65 and older and with a preexisting condition that puts them at high risk. The administration will also stop holding doses of vaccine in reserve for second doses, meaning more will be released immediately, a step the incoming Biden administration had previously called for.

President-elect Joe Biden has promised more federal support for states to help speed up vaccinations, but with strained and long-underfunded local health departments taking the lead, the challenge remains daunting.

Vivek Murthy, the incoming surgeon general and a top coronavirus adviser to Biden, said he is optimistic the incoming administration can turn the situation around, but tempered expectations that there would be an immediate improvement in the toll of the virus.

“Everything is not going to get better on day one,” he said at the forum hosted by Schmidt Futures. “In fact, the numbers based on what we see now, in the modeling, will get worse before they get better, because we have still yet to see the full impact of the holiday surge.”

Reid Wilson contributed.

Tags Anthony Fauci Coronavirus COVID-19 Donald Trump Joe Biden Pandemic Vivek Murthy
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