NEW DELHI — More than a year after the pandemic began, infections worldwide have surpassed their previous peak. The average number of coronavirus cases reported each day is now higher than it has ever been.
“Cases and deaths are continuing to increase at worrying rates,” said World Health Organization chief Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus on Friday.
A major reason for the increase: the ferocity of India’s second wave. The country accounts for about one in three of all new cases.
It wasn’t supposed to happen like this. Earlier this year, India appeared to be weathering the pandemic. The number of daily cases dropped below 10,000 and the government launched a vaccination drive powered by locally made vaccines.
But experts say that changes in behavior and the influence of new variants have combined to produce a tidal wave of new cases.
India is adding more than 250,000 new infections a day — and if current trends continue, that figure could soar to 500,000 within a month, said Bhramar Mukherjee, a biostatistician at the University of Michigan.
While infections are rising around the country, some places are bearing the brunt of the surge. Six states and Delhi, the nation’s capital, account for about two-thirds of new daily cases. Maharashtra, home to India’s financial hub, Mumbai, represents about a quarter of the nation’s total.
Mohammad Shahzad, a 40-year-old accountant, was one of many desperately seeking care. He developed a fever and grew breathless on the afternoon of April 15. His wife, Shazia, rushed him to the nearest hospital. It was full, but staffers checked his oxygen level: 62, dangerously low.
For three hours, they went from hospital to hospital trying to get him admitted, with no luck. She took him home. At 3:30 a.m., with Shahzad struggling to breathe, she called an ambulance. When the driver arrived, he asked if Shahzad truly needed oxygen — otherwise he would save it for the most serious patients.
The scene at the hospital was “harrowing,” said Shazia: a line of ambulances, people crying and pleading, a man barely breathing. Shahzad finally found a bed. Now Shazia and her two children, 8 and 6, have also developed covid-19 symptoms.
From early morning until late at night, Prafulla Gudadhe’s phone does not stop ringing. Each call is from a constituent and each call is the same: Can he help to arrange a hospital bed for a loved one?
Gudadhe is a municipal official in Nagpur, a city in the interior of Maharashtra. “We tell them we will try, but there are no beds,” he said. About 10 people in his ward have died at home in recent days after they couldn’t get admitted to hospitals, Gudadhe said, his voice weary. “I am helpless.”
Kamlesh Sailor knows how bad it is. Worse than the previous wave of the pandemic, like nothing he’s ever seen.
Sailor is the president of a crematorium trust in the city of Surat. Last week, the steel pipes in two of the facility’s six chimneys melted from constant use. Where the facility used to receive about 20 bodies a day, he said, now it is receiving 100.
“We try to control our emotions,” he said. “But it is unbearable.”
Anthony Fauci on Friday said that a lack of facts “likely did” cost lives over the last year in the nation’s efforts to fight the coronavirus pandemic.
In an appearance on CNN, the nation’s leading infectious diseases expert was directly asked whether a “lack of candor or facts” contributed to the number of lives lost during the coronavirus pandemic over the past year.
“You know it very likely did,” Fauci said. “You know I don’t want that … to be a sound bite, but I think if you just look at that,you can see that when you’re starting to go down paths that are not based on any science at all, that is not helpful at all, and particularly when you’re in a situation of almost being in a crisis with the number of cases and hospitalizations and deaths that we have.”
“When you start talking about things that make no sense medically and no sense scientifically, that clearly is not helpful,” he continued.
President Biden on Thursday unveiled a new national coronavirus strategy that is, in part, aimed at “restoring trust in the American people.”
When asked why that was important, Fauci recognized that the past year of dealing with the pandemic had been filled with divisiveness.
“There’s no secret. We’ve had a lot of divisiveness, we’ve had facts that were very, very clear that were questioned. People were not trusting what health officials were saying, there was great divisiveness, masks became a political issue,” Fauci said.
“So what the president was saying right from the get-go was, ‘Let’s reset this. Let everybody get on the same page, trust each other, let the science speak.’”
Fauci, who was thrust into the national spotlight last year as part of former President Trump‘s coronavirus task force, often found himself at odds with the former president. Trump frequently downplayed the severity of the virus and clashed publicly with Fauci.
Speaking during a White House press briefing on Thursday, Fauci said it was “liberating” to be working in the Biden administration.
There have been more than 24,600,000 coronavirus infections in the U.S. since the pandemic began, according to a count from Johns Hopkins University. More than 410,000 people have died.
Over the last year, COVID-19 has taught us painful lessons about the pitfalls of wishful thinking. Early in the pandemic, some people speculated that the virus would slow down over as the weather got warmer over the summer months; instead, the U.S. experienced a deadly wave of new cases. A few months ago, I hoped that here in Southern California, it would be easier for people to avoid spreading the virus than in colder parts of the country, because people can socially distance outdoors more easily year-round. Instead, our outbreak is now among the world’s deadliest—on Monday, California became the first state to report more than 3 million cases of the virus. Here in Los Angeles County, so many people are dying that officials temporarily lifted air quality regulations to permit more cremations, the Los Angeles Times reports.
California’s struggles to contain COVID-19 can at least partly be attributed to pandemic fatigue—after nearly a year of wearing masks and avoiding contact with others, people’s resolve is simply wearing thin. However, while we may feel done with the virus, it isn’t done with us—between 70 and nearly 120 people per 100,000 have died of COVID-19 in California every day in the last week, while more than 3,200 have died each day nationwide; the U.S. just today passed the grim milestone of 400,000 COVID-19 deaths.
If California can’t get its outbreak under control, more pain could lie ahead. Officials have discovered that new variants of the virus are spreading in the Golden State, including a more transmissible strain first identified in the U.K., where caseloads are skyrocketing and hospitals are overwhelmed. What’s happening here in California could be a bellwether for the rest of the country, as the virus continues its spread mostly unchecked across the country and world.
Regardless of which variant is spreading, experts say the defensive measures remain the same: we need to keep wearing our masks (new research shows just how effective they are), maintaining physical distance from others, and spend as much time as possible at home. It’s natural to want to give up—or even bend just a little—and spend time with friends and family we haven’t seen in ages, or do other risky things. That temptation is all the more real now that multiple highly effective vaccines are here, and the end of the pandemic seems within sight. But the vaccination process has gone frustratingly slowly so far, and not enough of us have the necessary protection to let our collective guard down, especially given the presence of at least one highly transmissible mutation.
With those alarming new variants spreading across the globe, it’s probably time to recalibrate our behavior in favor of safety—until more people are inoculated, it’s vital for us to reduce spread through other proven means. In the coming weeks, Californians and Americans elsewhere must buckle down, with their eyes on the final mission: ensuring that as many people as possible survive to see the end of the pandemic.
While 28.4 million doses of the COVID-19 vaccine have been shipped to various U.S. states as of this morning, only about 10.6 million doses have been administered thus far, according to TIME’s vaccine tracker—representing 3.2% of the overall U.S. population.
India launched its nationwide coronavirus vaccine rollout on Saturday, starting with healthcare workers, according to the New York Times.Prime Minister Narendra Modi has said that the 1.3 billion-person country aims to vaccinate 300 million healthcare and other front line workers by July. More than 10.5 million people have been infected in India, and more than 152,500 people have died.
Yesterday, New York Governor Andrew Cuomo asked Pfizer whether his state could purchase vaccines directly from the pharmaceutical company, thus bypassing the federal government. But Dr. Celine Gounder, who’s advising President-elect Joe Biden on the pandemic, said that such a strategy could create problems. “I think we’ve already had too much of a patchwork response across the states,” Grounder said in an interview with CNBC today; she also argued that Cuomo’s idea could create a bidding war among states for vaccines.
TODAY’S CORONAVIRUS OUTLOOK
The Global Situation
More than 95.5 million people around the world had been diagnosed with COVID-19 as of 3 p.m. E.T. today, and more than 2 million people have died. On Jan. 18, there were 514,013 new cases and 9,276 new deaths confirmed globally.
Here’s how the world as a whole is currently trending:
Here’s where daily cases have risen or fallen over the last 14 days, shown in confirmed cases per 100,000 residents:
And here is every country with over 1.5 million confirmed cases:
Hua Chunying, a spokeswoman for China’s foreign ministry, is pushing back on findings from an independent World Health Organization report that was critical of Beijing’s early response to the COVID-19 outbreak. China’s early lockdowns, Chunying said, helped reduce deaths and infections, Al Jazeera reports. Still, China has been criticized for failing to adequately disclose the scope and nature of the outbreak when it first began.
German leaders have agreed to extend a lockdown for businesses and schools until Feb. 14 and to require medical masks on public transportation,Reuters reports. While Germany is now reporting fewer than half as many new cases as it was a month ago, experts have raised concerns about new coronavirus variants that are thought to be more contagious, some of which have been detected in the country.
The Situation in the U.S.
The U.S. had recorded more than 24 million coronavirus cases as of 3 p.m. E.T. today. More than 400,000 people have died. On Jan. 18, there were 141,999 new cases and 2,422 new deaths confirmed in the U.S.
Here’s how the country as a whole is currently trending:
And here’s where daily cases have risen or fallen over the last 14 days, shown in confirmed cases per 100,000 residents.
President-elect Joe Biden plans to continue a travel ban on non-U.S. citizens from European countries and Brazil, reversing outgoing President Donald Trump’s order to end the ban on Jan. 26, six days into Biden’s presidency. Jennifer Psaki, Biden’s incoming press secretary, tweeted that the Biden administration plans “to strengthen public health measures around international travel.” A week ago, the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention ordered that almost all airline passengers must have a negative coronavirus test or proof of recovery before entering the U.S.
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 Trump, who has long rejected criticism of his handling of the pandemic.
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 Biden 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.
“I think we still have some dark weeks ahead,” she said.
The country passed 300,000 deaths in mid-December.
At the end of March, as the crisis was beginning, Trump said that if deaths are 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 over 130,000 about a week ago.
The spread of the more contagious variant, however, threatens to send that number spiking again.
Health officials stress they haven’t determined whether the variant might be more contagious or resistant to vaccines.
A coronavirus variant first identified in Denmark has ripped through Northern California — including outbreaks at nursing homes, jails and a hospital in the San Jose area — prompting state and local officials to investigate whether it may be more transmissible.
California officials disclosed the rise of the variant Sunday night after genetic monitoring linked it to a fast-growing share of new cases, as well as to the outbreaks in Santa Clara county, which includes San Jose.
This rising variant is distinct from the highly contagious mutation discovered by Britain, which has also been found in California, and which federal health officials projectcould become the dominant strain in the United States by March based on its proven higher transmissibility.
Experts stress that they need to look more closely at the circumstances of the Northern California outbreaks, as well as at the latest variant — this one, known as L452R — before declaring it more contagious or more dangerous than the virus already broadly circulating.
The L452R variant was first detected in northern Europe in March and has since been confirmed in more than a dozen states, including California in May. The discovery did not garner much attention at the time because all viruses change constantly as they replicate. But public health authorities deem some variants to be “of concern” if evidence suggests they might be more contagious, potentially deadlier or resistant to vaccines.
California publicized the latest variant at a late Sunday news conference after researchers identified it in about 25 percent of samples collected between Dec. 14 and Jan. 3, a surge from 3.8 percent of samples collected in the preceding three-week period.
“That is suggestive, and it’s a little worrisome,” Charles Chiu, a virologist at the University of California at San Francisco said at the briefing. But Chiu stressed it was too early to conclude the variant is more infectious because scientists do not know whether their sampling was representative or whether the variant’s increase might be due to random chance, or even a series of superspreader events.
Officials urged people to follow public health guidelines to minimize the risk of contracting the variant as new daily cases in the hard-hit state plateau at more than 38,000, while deaths average more than 515 daily.
“It’s too soon to know if this variant will spread more rapidly than others,” said Erica Pan, California’s state epidemiologist, “but it certainly reinforces the need for all Californians to wear masks and reduce mixing with people outside their immediate households to help slow the spread of the virus.”
Genetic sequencing of viruses is still limited in the United States, preventing health officials from having a real-time picture of all the strains of coronavirus spreading across the country and their prevalence.
California’s preliminary data is based on fewer than 400 samples that overwhelmingly came from the state’s north. Southern California is the heaviest hit part of the state, with deaths in Los Angeles County reaching one every seven minutes and ICU beds and oxygen running out, although hospitalizations have begun to plateau. Environmental regulators on Sunday temporarily lifted limits on cremations because of a backlog in Los Angeles County.
The L452R strain in California raised alarms because it is associated with several large outbreaks in Santa Clara County, including one at a hospital that infected at least 90 people and killed one staff member. Officials at Kaiser Permanente San Jose Medical Center said a staff member wearing an inflatable Christmas tree costume to spread holiday cheer likely spread coronavirus-laden droplets instead.
Sara Cody, Santa Clara’s top public health official, described that episode as a “very unusual outbreak with a lot of illnesses, and it seemed to spread quite fast.” The county is working with state health officials and the CDC to investigate what happened, she said.
Cody cautioned that the outbreak could have been driven by factors unrelated to the variant, such as changes in ventilation or personal protective equipment practices at the hospital.
“The takeaway is not that we need to start worrying about this,” Cody said Sunday. “The takeaway is, this is a variant that’s becoming more prevalent, and we need to lean in and understand more about it.”
County officials on Monday disclosed other places where the variant had been found as a result of aggressive genetic sequencing, “including cases associated with the Kaiser outbreak, skilled nursing facility outbreaks, cases in jails and shelters, and specimens from testing sites in the community,” according to a statement. “This suggests that the variant is now relatively common in our community.”
Chiu, the virologist who conducted the genetic sequencing, said a deeper investigation must be done to determine if the strain is more transmissible like the one found in the United Kingdom.
He also raised concerns that a mutation associated with the variant might make it more resistant to vaccines because it occurs in a critical part of the spike protein that is targeted by the vaccines,but he added that the virus must be grown in a lab and tested more fully before any conclusions can be drawn.
“Mutations happen all the time,” said William Hanage, an epidemiologist at the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health. “Some of them take off and the great majority of them don’t. The main reason why we are paying attention to this is because this mutation has previously been noted as being of particular concern in terms of diminishing the efficacy of the immune response.”
Carlos del Rio, a professor of medicine and global health at Emory University, said the rising prevalence of the variant shows the urgent need for more genetic sequencing in the United States and for greater compliance with public health measures such as wearing masks and avoiding crowds.
“We really need to hunker down because if you are really concerned about mutations, stop transmission,” del Rio said. “The more mutations you see, the more uncontrolled transmission you will see.”
After starting the new year with record-high cases, deaths and hospitalizations, the United States is starting to see signs of slowing spread despite fears of a post-holiday surge that would continue through January. The seven-day average of new infections has slowed since last Tuesday, and hospitalizations have started to plateau, according to Washington Post tracking.
Still, Scott Gottlieb, a former Food and Drug Administration commissioner, warned that the advent of more transmissible variants could reverse that progress.
“As current epidemic surge peaks, we may see 3-4 weeks of declines in new cases but then new variant will take over,” Gottlieb tweeted Sunday, referring to the British variant. “It’ll double in prevalence about every week. It’ll change the game and could mean we have persistent high infection through spring until we vaccinate enough people.”
President Trump on Monday moved to lift restrictions imposed on travelers to the U.S. from much of Europe and Brazil that were implemented last year to slow the spread of the novel coronavirus, though the action is expected to be stopped by the incoming Biden administration.
Trump issued an executive order terminating the travel restrictions on the United Kingdom, Ireland, Brazil and the countries in Europe that compose the Schengen Area effective Jan. 26. The order came two days before Trump leaves office. President-elect Joe Biden’s team immediately signaled they would move to reverse the order.
“With the pandemic worsening, and more contagious variants emerging around the world, this is not the time to be lifting restrictions on international travel,” tweeted incoming White House press secretary Jen Psaki.
“On the advice of our medical team, the Administration does not intend to lift these restrictions on 1/26. In fact, we plan to strengthen public health measures around international travel in order to further mitigate the spread of COVID-19,” Psaki continued.
The order states that Trump’s action came at the recommendation of outgoing Health and Human Services Secretary Alex Azar.The memo cites the new order from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) that requires passengers traveling by air to the U.S. to receive a negative COVID-19 test within three days before their flight departs, saying it will help prevent travelers from spreading the virus.
The Trump administration’s travel restrictions on China and Iran will remain in place, however, because, the order states, the countries “repeatedly have failed to cooperate with the United States public health authorities and to share timely, accurate information about the spread of the virus” and therefore cannot be trusted to implement the CDC’s order.
“Accordingly, the Secretary has advised me to remove the restrictions applicable to the Schengen Area, the United Kingdom, the Republic of Ireland, and the Federative Republic of Brazil, while leaving in place the restrictions applicable to the People’s Republic of China and the Islamic Republic of Iran,” Trump’s order states. “I agree with the Secretary that this action is the best way to continue protecting Americans from COVID-19 while enabling travel to resume safely.”
Though Trump signed the order on Monday, the action does not take effect until six days after he leaves office and Biden is inaugurated.
The order comes as coronavirus cases and deaths continue to hit worrisome, record-high levels on a daily basis. Nearly 400,000 people in the U.S. and more than 2 million people globally have died from COVID-19. While two vaccines have been approved for emergency use in the U.S., the Trump administration has fallen far short of early targets in distributing and administering the vaccine.
The order will be one of the final actions that Trump takes with respect to the pandemic, after being widely criticized for regularly minimizing the threat posed by the virus.
Trump announced in mid-March of last year that he would impose travel restrictions on individuals entering the United States from the 26 countries that compose the Schengen Area, weeks after the first case was reported in the U.S. The move initially attracted scrutiny because it did not include the U.K. or Ireland, and the Trump administration later moved to restrict travel from those countries as well.
Trump later placed travel restrictions on Brazil at the end of May.
The executive order lifting the travel restrictions was one of several released by the White House on Monday as the final hours of Trump’s presidency wind down. Trump is also expected to grant a final slew of pardons before he leaves office on Wednesday.