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US passes 400,000 coronavirus deaths

The United States on Tuesday passed 400,000 deaths from COVID-19, a stunning total that is only climbing as the crisis deepens. 

The country is now averaging more than 3,000 coronavirus deaths every day, according to Johns Hopkins University data, more than the number of people killed in the Sept. 11, 2001, terror attacks, and the daily death toll has been rising. The effects of a surge in gatherings and travel over the holidays are now coming into focus. 

The grim milestone of 400,000 deaths came on the last full day in office for President TrumpDonald TrumpProsecutors focus Trump Organization probe on company's financial officer: report WHO official says it's 'premature' to think pandemic will be over by end of year Romney released from hospital after fall over the weekend MORE, who has long rejected criticism of his handling of the pandemic.

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The situation threatens to get even worse as a new, more contagious variant of the virus becomes more prevalent. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) warned last week that one of the new variants, first discovered in the United Kingdom, could be the predominant strain in the U.S. by March. 

Vaccines offer hope, but it is crucial for the inoculation campaign to progress as quickly as possible to get as many people protected before the new variant takes greater hold. 

The U.S. vaccination campaign has started slowly, though there are signs it is beginning to pick up some speed. President-elect Joe BidenJoe BidenSenate Democrats negotiating changes to coronavirus bill Rural Americans are the future of the clean energy economy — policymakers must to catch up WHO official says it's 'premature' to think pandemic will be over by end of year MORE has pledged a more aggressive federal role in the vaccination effort, including using the National Guard and the Federal Emergency Management Agency to set up more vaccination sites.

In the short term, however, the country is in for a bleak period. 

Biden’s incoming CDC director, Rochelle WalenskyRochelle WalenskyOvernight Health Care: Senate to vote on .9 trillion relief bill this week | J&J vaccine rollout begins | CDC warns against lifting restrictions 41 percent say they are not willing to receive coronavirus vaccine CDC director warns states against lifting COVID-19 restrictions MORE, said Sunday on CBS's “Face the Nation” that she expects 500,000 COVID-19 deaths by the middle of February. 

“I think we still have some dark weeks ahead,” she said. 

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The country passed 300,000 deaths in mid-December.

At the end of March, as the crisis was beginning, Trump said that if deaths were limited to between 100,000 and 200,000 “we all, together, have done a very good job.” The country has long ago exceeded those numbers. 

The U.S. has by far the most COVID-19 deaths of any country in the world. Brazil follows with around 210,000, and India and Mexico are around 150,000, according to Johns Hopkins University. 

More than 124,000 people are in the hospital with coronavirus in the U.S., according to the COVID Tracking Project, though the number is starting to decline somewhat from a peak of more than 130,000 about a week ago. 

The spread of the more contagious variant, however, threatens to send that number spiking again.