The U.S. on Monday stood on the brink of 400,000 reported coronavirus deaths, almost double the total of the next most severely hit nation and still mourning more than 20,000 deaths per week. The U.S. has added almost 4 million new infections this month, and the emergence of new variants only figures to add to that total.
The pace of vaccinations is picking up but remains well below the optimistic estimates from public health experts when the first vaccines were authorized last month.
Health and Human Services Secretary Alex Azar had forecast 20 million first-shot vaccinations in December and another 30 million in January. More than halfway through January, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reports 10.6 million people have received their first shot, less than 2 million the required booster.
Despite the hurdles, grassroots efforts are underway to ensure that at-risk people of color are not left behind.
In the headlines:
►The U.S. surpassed 24 million COVID-19 cases and California topped 3 million infections on Monday, according to data from Johns Hopkins University.
►With Los Angeles County approaching 14,000 COVID-19 deaths since the pandemic started, CNN reports that an air quality regulator has suspended for 10 days the limit on the number of cremations than can be authorized.
►More than 31 million vaccine doses have been distributed to states, but less than half of them have been used thus far. USA TODAY's vaccine panel expects the rate of inoculations to improve under the Joe Biden administration.
►A California man who told police that COVID-19 left him afraid to fly has been arrested after hiding at Chicago's O'Hare International Airport for three months. The man told authorities he was too “scared to go home due to COVID," so he found a badge that gave him access to a restricted area and sustained his months-long stay by relying on other passengers to give him food.
The totals: There have been more than 95.4 million infections reported globally and more than 2 million deaths, according to Johns Hopkins University data. In the U.S., there have been more than 24 million infections and nearly 400,000 deaths.
A closer look: The feds told Illinois to leave Rochelle Foods alone. Then came a second COVID-19 outbreak.
Officials worried about impact of foreign variants
Amid a continued winter surge of coronavirus infections that has resulted in COVID-19 deaths rising in 30 states, the emergence of new, highly contagious variants is raising concerns among public health experts and elected officials.
New mutations have been identified in Britain, South Africa and Brazil, prompting New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo to call on the U.S. government to curtail travel from those countries. “Stop those people from coming here,'' Cuomo said Monday. "Why are you allowing people to fly into this country, and then it’s too late?”
Federal authorities have already restricted travel from Britain and Brazil, as well as requiring proof of a negative coronavirus test for anyone flying into the country. But the UK variant has made its way to the U.S., and California officials have also identified another strain spreading across the state.
New California mutation multiplying quickly
Another new variant of the coronavirus — potentially more infectious but apparently not more dangerous than the current dominant strain — is on the rise in California, drawing the attention of public health officials.
The mutation, dubbed L452R, has been detected on a few occasions dating back to March but appears to have been very rare until November.
Between Nov. 22 and Dec. 13, the variant made up 3% of California cases where the virus had been genetically sequenced. Between Dec. 14 and Jan. 3 that rose to 25%, said Dr. Charles Chiu, a professor of medicine and expert in viral genomics at the University of California-San Francisco.
It appears the variant, different from the one found in the UK, is more communicable, but there’s no evidence that it makes people any sicker. There is some concern that the parts of the virus that are mutating might have an effect on the effectiveness of vaccines, but the data so far is very preliminary, Chiu said.
“The takeaway is not that we need to start worrying about this,” said Dr. Sara Cody, Health Officer and Director of Public Health for Santa Clara County, which encompasses Silicon Valley. “The takeaway is that we need to lean in and learn more about it.”
– Elizabeth Weise
Nationwide COVID-19 memorial scheduled Tuesday in DC
A nationwide memorial to honor the lives lost to COVID-19 is scheduled for Tuesday evening, according to the Presidential Inaugural Committee.
Even though Washington, D.C., is at a heightened level of security following the Jan. 6 riots, the memorial "will feature a lighting around the the Lincoln Memorial Reflecting Pool," the PIC said in a statement on Monday afternoon.
President-elect Joe Biden – along with Dr. Jill Biden, Vice President-elect Kamala Harris and her husband Douglas Emhoff – will participate in the event to light the reflecting pool with 400 lights to honor lives lost to COVID-19. This is the first-ever lighting around the reflecting pool at the Lincoln Memorial.
Iconic buildings like the Empire State Building in New York to the Space Needle in Seattle are also scheduled to be illuminated. In addition, hundreds of towns, cities, tribes, landmarks and communities all across the country have also committed to joining the tribute in a national moment of unity.
The inauguration "represents the beginning of a new national journey – one that renews its commitment to honor its fallen and rise toward greater heights in their honor," said PIC CEO and president of Delaware State University Tony Allen. "In that spirit, it is important that we pay tribute to those we have lost – and their families – and come together to unite our country, contain this virus and rebuild our nation,” he said.
Americans gaining trust in vaccines
Acceptance of the COVID-19 vaccine continues to soar, a new USA TODAY/Suffolk University Poll finds, but pessimism about when things in the United States will return to normal also is on the rise.
Both results may be signs that the messages from President-elect Joe Biden are being heard. He has taken the vaccine himself on camera, and he has also cautioned that the pandemic is going to get worse before it gets better. Now 56% of those surveyed say they will take the vaccine as soon it's available to them, a jump of 10 percentage points since December and 30 points since October.
"The more people that get a vaccination and they see that it's safe ... then more people are willing to go get it," said Shellie Belapurkar, 50, a nurse-practitioner from Nashua, New Hampshire, who was among those surveyed. She has gotten the vaccine herself and has been volunteering at a clinic each week to give it to others.
– Susan Page and Sarah Elbeshbishi
Trump adding chaotic response to COVID to his legacy
Besides being the first president to get impeached twice, Donald Trump will have a stain on his legacy with arguably longer-lasting consequences: mishandling the coronavirus pandemic.
The national death toll could surpass 400,000 Monday. Not since Woodrow Wilson was in office during the 1918 flu pandemic – which killed about 675,000 in this country and 50 million worldwide – had a president overseen the loss of so many American lives. Trump showed disdain for mask-wearing recommended by public health experts – despite being infected himself.
“What’s so troubling about this loss of life is it was preventable,” said Dr. Steven Woolf, director emeritus of the Center on Society and Health at Virginia Commonwealth University. “This is an infectious disease we knew how to prevent. ... . And yet, we did not mount a response to wage war against this virus."
Contributing: The Associated Press
This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: COVID updates: Variants a new threat as death toll approaches 400,000