US coronavirus: US Covid-19 deaths pass 500,000

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“As a nation, we can’t accept such a cruel fate. We’ve been fighting this pandemic for so long. We have to resist becoming numb to the sorrow,” the President said. “We have to resist viewing each life as a statistic or a blur or on the news. We must do so to honor the dead, but equally important care for the living, those they left behind.”

A flag atop the White House and flags at the US Capitol were lowered to half-staff Monday afternoon.

The pandemic is far from over. But Americans can steer its course — and help prevent many more families from suffering inconsolable grief.

Major challenges ahead

Live updates on the coronavirus pandemic and vaccines
As numbers of new cases and hospitalizations go down, however, reports of highly contagious variants go up.
“I am worried about this variant — the B.1.1.7 variant (first found in the UK),” said Dr. Peter Hotez, dean of the National School of Tropical Medicine at Baylor College of Medicine.

“If that takes over, the numbers are going to start to spiral up again. There’s no end to what the death toll will look like unless we can vaccinate ahead of it.”

But as the number of vaccinations slowly increase, some Americans say they won’t get a Covid-19 vaccine — hurting the chances of herd immunity and hindering a return to normal life.

Where we stand with vaccinations

More than 44.1 million Americans have received at least one dose of their two-dose vaccines, according to the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
About 19.4 million have been fully vaccinated. That’s about 5.9% of the US population — far less than the estimated 70% to 85% of Americans who would need to be immune to reach herd immunity.
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Some states are still grappling with vaccine delays after severe weather walloped much of the country last week.

But the US will likely be caught up by the middle of this week, said Dr. Anthony Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases.

“Obviously it is a setback because you’d like to see the steady flow of vaccine getting out there to get into people’s arms, but we can play pretty good catch-up,” Fauci told NBC on Sunday.

To speed up vaccinations, some experts have suggested delaying second vaccine doses to get more first doses into people’s arms.

Both vaccines on the US market — developed by Pfizer-BioNTech and Moderna — require two doses, the second of which are intended to be administered 21 days and 28 days after the first, respectively.

Fauci told CNN Sunday the US is currently sticking with the vaccine schedule that is backed up by data from clinical trials.

“The science points directly towards continuing with what we know … from the clinical trial,” he said.

Good news (for now) on cases and hospitalizations

Nationwide, the rates of new Covid-19 cases, hospitalizations and deaths are declining.

The number of patients hospitalized with Covid-19 has fallen for the 40th day in a row, according to the COVID Tracking Project.

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Daily deaths have declined 24% this past week compared to the previous week, according to data from Johns Hopkins University.

Dr. Rochelle Walensky, director of the CDC, earlier Monday touted encouraging numbers in declining new cases, deaths, and hospital admissions, but also offered a note of caution.

The seven-day average of deaths reported each day is at its the lowest since the beginning of December, she said.

At a White House coronavirus task force briefing held before the death toll was updated, Walensky noted the falling death rate but said the total number of Covid-19 fatalities is “a truly tragic reminder of the enormity of this pandemic, and the loss it has afflicted on our personal lives and our communities. While the pandemic is heading in the right direction there is still much work to do.”

About 1,700 cases of coronavirus variants strains first spotted in the UK, South Africa and Brazil have been reported in the US, according to the CDC.
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But that figure is probably nowhere near the actual number of variant cases in the US, since the US has lagged behind dozens of other countries in genome sequencing per 1,000 Covid-19 cases.
Walensky has said the US has ramped up sequencing to find variants and will keep doing so.

The vast majority of variant cases so far involve the highly contagious B.1.1.7 variant first detected in the UK.

Experts with the University of Washington’s Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation (IHME) said over the weekend that while the B.1.1.7 strain likely accounts for less than 20% of current infections in the US, that number will likely soar to 80% by late April.

‘Now is not the time to let your guard down’

What happens next largely depends on personal responsibility and how many people get vaccinated, the IHME team said.
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“Managing the epidemic in the next four months depends critically on scaling up vaccination, trying to increase the fraction of adults willing to be vaccinated above three-quarters, and strongly encouraging continued mask use and avoiding situations where transmission is likely, such as indoor dining, going to bars, or indoor gatherings with individuals outside the household,” the team wrote.

The American Medical Association, the American Hospital Association and the American Nurses Association also pleaded for Americans to help quash the pandemic.

“With new, more contagious variants of the virus circulating throughout the U.S., now is not the time to let your guard down and scale back on the measures that we know will work to prevent further illness and deaths — wearing masks, practicing physical distancing, and washing hands,” a joint statement said.

Why we could be wearing masks next winter, too

Some Americans have discovered an unexpected perk to wearing masks in the winter — they protect against brutally cold air, not just against coronavirus.

And Americans might be wearing them next winter, when some health experts say Covid-19 might flare up again.

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Fauci hopes that doesn’t happen, he said, adding it’s “possible” people may be wearing masks in 2022.

There may be other ways everyday life will be different from the past, said infectious disease specialist and epidemiologist Dr. Celine Gounder.

“I do think we’re looking at some new normals. I think the handshake, for example, is probably going away,” she said.

“I do think masks in the cough/cold/flu season in the winter months would make a lot of sense. That clearly, really insulated the Southeast Asian countries from some of the worst of this, understanding the importance of wearing masks.”

For those who have already been vaccinated, health experts say they should keep wearing a mask. That’s because it takes weeks for vaccines to fully kick in and because vaccines don’t guarantee a person won’t pass coronavirus on to others.
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“It’s estimated that about 70% of Americans must be vaccinated before we get to herd immunity through vaccination,” CNN medical analyst Dr. Leana Wen said. “That’s the point where enough people have the immune protection that the virus won’t spread anymore.”

And slowing the transmission of coronavirus also hinders the chances of the virus mutating further.

“The evidence was pretty compelling by last March or April that uniform wearing of masks would reduce transmission of this disease,” National Institutes of Health Director Dr. Francis Collins told “Axios on HBO” on Sunday.

The politicization of face masks probably led to many unnecessary deaths, he said.

“A mask is nothing more than a life-saving medical device, and yet it got categorized in all sorts of other ways that were not factual, not scientific and, frankly, dangerous,” he added. “And I think you can make a case that tens of thousands of people died as a result.”

CNN’s DJ Judd, Amanda Watts, Jessica Firger, Naomi Thomas and Michael Nedelman contributed to this report.

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