US endures deadliest week of the coronavirus pandemic

The US has experienced the deadliest week of the coronavirus pandemic, with fatalities topping 3,000 a day in a sign of the toll the latest surge in cases and hospitalisations has taken on the country while it awaits the imminent rollout of a vaccine.

The US Food and Drug Administration is poised to authorise use of the Pfizer/BioNTech vaccine on an emergency basis, while the US government announced on Friday that it will purchase another 100m doses of Moderna’s vaccine candidate, which it is expected to authorise shortly after an advisory group meeting next week.

While federal and state governments are preparing to rush out vaccines as soon as they are approved, officials caution that it will take months to distribute the jab widely.

In the meantime, state and local leaders have enacted further restrictions on their economies in the hope of preserving hospital resources and stopping yet another surge surrounding the Christmas holiday.

Over the past week 16,327 people across the country died from coronavirus, a record for a seven-day period, and averaging about 2,280 fatalities a day. The US reported 3,000 coronavirus deaths on Thursday, just one day after crossing the threshold for the first time.

Since the start of the pandemic, 283,555 deaths have been attributed to coronavirus, according to Covid Tracking Project data, more than any other country. Johns Hopkins University, which uses an alternative methodology, has tallied 294,056 deaths, a toll that exceeds the number of Americans killed in battle during the second world war.

Line chart of Seven-day average of coronavirus deaths for the US and main geographic regions showing The US is averaging more coronavirus deaths a day than ever

“This week marked another tragic milestone in our fight against Covid-19,” Joe Biden, the US president-elect, said on Friday. “More than 3,000 deaths in one single day . . . This is serious business.”

Robert Redfield, director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, warned at a Council on Foreign Relations event this week that the death toll each day from the virus in the US could exceed that from the September 11 attacks or the Japanese assault on Pearl Harbor “probably for the next 60 to 90 days”.

Deaths tend to lag coronavirus cases and hospitalisations, meaning the recent increase in fatalities is probably a reflection of infection trends leading up to the Thanksgiving holiday in late November.

Anthony Fauci, one of the top officials in the coronavirus task force, said on Monday he expected the full effect of “the Thanksgiving surge would be another week, a week and a half from now”, and running the risk that other festive season events could be “superimposed” upon that.

Unlike the first wave that hit US northeastern states in spring, then a surge in the sunbelt over summer, the latest phase of the pandemic has had a broad impact on regions across the country.

Twenty-six states reported their highest monthly death tolls of the pandemic in November, and trends show few signs of improvement.

State and local leaders have reintroduced restrictions on their economies, worried that a sustained increase in cases could overwhelm hospital staff and resources, jeopardising their ability to help save lives. 

California, the most populous US state, has been among the most aggressive as it deals with daily cases, hospitalisations and fatalities that have outstripped its previous peaks from the summer.

Column chart of Number of people currently hospitalised with coronavirus, by main geographic region showing The number of hospitalisations has surged since October

Much of California is under stay-at-home orders to preserve dwindling capacity in its intensive care units. On Friday authorities revealed that available ICU beds across the state were at a record low of 1,450, while cases jumped by 35,468, a single-day record. A further 159 deaths were attributed to coronavirus, down from a record 220 on Thursday.

Starting on Monday the state of Virginia will be subject to a late-night curfew, restricting residents to only essential trips between 10pm and 5am. It will run until January 31. The state’s governor, Ralph Northam — who tested positive for Covid-19 in September — also reduced the size of social gatherings and expanded Virginia’s rules on masks.

Indoor dining in New York City will close from Monday, Governor Andrew Cuomo announced on Friday. The state’s most populous city failed to stabilise its hospitalisation rate over a five-day period, a recently introduced target, as officials hope to prevent a repeat of the city’s crisis in spring.

Pennsylvania has also banned indoor dining, closed gyms and cinemas and temporarily halted school sports as it contends with a worsening outbreak.

Tom Wolf, the state’s governor, announced on Wednesday he had tested positive for coronavirus. Last week he warned Pennsylvania would run out of ICU beds by mid-December.

While most of the country is battling with new restrictions and renewed outbreaks, there are some glimmers of hope. In the Midwest region, where infections soared in September and October, several states are experiencing declining trends in daily cases and hospitalisations from peak levels.

Nebraska could loosen coronavirus-related measures as early as Saturday after hospitalisations showed a steady decline, Governor Pete Ricketts said on Friday. The state is one day away from meeting criteria that would allow authorities to increase limits on indoor gatherings, permit some elective surgeries and ease physical distancing rules.

Additional reporting by Hannah Kuchler in New York

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