Downtrend in new U.S. infections stalls, fueling concerns over virus variants’ spread
- Dr. Anthony Fauci warned Sunday against the relaxation of COVID-19 protocols.
- While the baseline of cases has fallen in the US, he said the too soon relaxation could lead to a “rebound.”
- About 70,000 new COVID-19 cases are still diagnosed each day in the US.
U.S. Surpasses 500,000 Covid-19 Deaths, a Monumental Loss of Life
The United States reached a staggering milestone on Monday, surpassing 500,000 known coronavirus-related deaths in a pandemic that has lasted almost a year. The nation’s total virus toll is higher than in any other country in the world. It has far surpassed early predictions of loss by some federal experts. And it means that more Americans have died from Covid-19 than did on the battlefields of World War I, World War II and the Vietnam War combined.
The United States accounts for about 20 percent of the world’s known Covid deaths, but makes up just 4.25 percent of the global population.
About one in 670 Americans has died of Covid-19, which has become a leading cause of death in this country, along with heart disease and cancer, and has driven down life expectancy more sharply than in decades. The losses, monumental for the country, have been searingly personal for the relatives and friends of the 500,000.
U.S. deaths from Covid-19 came faster as the pandemic wore on. The country’s first known Covid-19 death occurred in Santa Clara County, Calif., on Feb. 6, 2020, and by the end of May, 100,000 people had died. It took four months for the nation to log another 100,000 deaths; the next, about three months; the next, just five weeks.
The virus has reached every corner of America, devastating dense cities and rural counties alike through surges that barreled through one region and then another.
500,000 deaths is …
Three times the number of people who died in the U.S. in any kind of accident, including highway accidents, in 2019 (167,127).
More than eight times the number of deaths from influenza and pneumonia (59,120).
More than ten times the number of suicides (48,344).
More than the number of deaths from strokes, diabetes, kidney disease, Alzheimer’s and related causes, combined (406,161).
Only heart disease (655,381) and cancer (599,274) caused more deaths.
When full data for 2020 is available from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, Covid-19 will certainly be one of the leading killers.
A month ago, the pandemic looked bleak. More than 750,000 coronavirus cases were tallied worldwide in a single day. Infections surged across the entire United States. New variants identified in the United Kingdom, Brazil and South Africa threatened the rest of the world.
Cases are an imperfect measure, and uneven records and testing mask the scope of outbreaks, especially in parts of Africa, Latin America and South Asia. But fewer patients are showing up at hospitals in many countries with the highest rates of infection, giving experts confidence that the decline is real. The lull in many of the world’s worst outbreaks creates a critical opportunity to keep the virus in retreat as vaccinations begin to take effect.
A COVID end in sight for Hawaii?
Lt. Gov. Josh Green (doctor) who serves as Hawaii’s coronavirus preparedness coordinator, says the acute COVID-19 public health crisis could be over in less than three months, and that life may likely start getting back to normal for many residents by summer.
Still, there seems general agreement that many social and recreational activities can probably resume in the spring, although with precautions. “I think you can say the end is in sight,” he said.
Green points to several metrics showing the public health crisis appears to be abating. It’s not just the daily case count, Green said, which had dropped to a seven-day average of 41 as of Friday, according to the Department of Public Health.
Another key number is the infection rate, which is now at 0.8%, and dropping. That means of every 8,000 people tested, fewer than 70 turn out to have the virus, he said. And he predicted the rate soon will be closer to 0.6%.
But now we have vaccines, and that’s a big difference, Green says.
The virus simply won’t have as much chance to jump from person to person and run amok. He projects 350,000 people in Hawaii will have at least started getting vaccines by March 1; 600,000 by April 1; 850,000 by May 1 and more than 1 million by June 1. And as more people get vaccinated, the virus will have fewer available hosts to infect.
Hawaii state’s changing public health policy:
COVID-19 vaccinations, who’s next…
Older Hawaii residents with pre-existing medical conditions that make them vulnerable to severe cases of COVID-19 will likely have to wait another month before vaccines begin rolling out for them, and the same goes for residents in their mid-to-late 60s.
The DOH newest change is allowing people 70 to 75 years old to become eligible sometime in mid-March during the so-called 1b phase. This expanded eligibility, comes with what some call a newly defined group or subset of the previously declared older individuals previously defined as Phase 1c qualified.
Hawaii Department of Health Director Libby Char told lawmakers today, in somewhat vague fashion, that the 1c phase would start in the spring, but precisely when was unclear. Char went onto in her public remarks, that before 1c vaccinations begin, an older subset of eligible 1c group residents will go first, regardless of their health status. At the same time younger people, also scheduled for 1c and with chronic diseases, will just have to wait.
Char stressed Hawaii is “vaccinating the right people as quick as we can,” but she said there have been challenges, including shipping delays caused by winter storms on the U.S. continent.
A new shipment of some 70,000 vaccine doses is expected to help Hawaii make up lost ground this week, she said.
Three million shots a day
Unlike his processor, President Biden has been quite cautious in setting its public vaccination goals. The U.S. presently is averaging 1.7 million COVID-19 vaccinations per day.
Experts now project three million shots per day — probably by April. At that pace, half of adults would receive their first shot by April and all adults who wanted a shot could receive one by June, saving thousands of lives and allowing normal life to return by midsummer.
President Biden told CNN today that anybody who wanted a vaccine would be able to get one “by the end of July.”
Pandemic in retreat?
The number of new coronavirus cases continues to plummet, as does the number of Americans hospitalized with symptoms.
Deaths have also begun to decline. And the number of daily vaccination shots has nearly tripled over the last month.
It’s been a long time since the virus news was as encouraging as it is right now.
The overall situation is still bad. The virus is spreading more rapidly in the U.S. than in almost any other large country, and more than 2,500 Americans are dying daily.
Newly contagious variants may create future outbreaks. For now, though, things are getting better — and a combination of vaccinations, mask wearing and social distancing has the potential to sustain the recent progress.
At least 3,255 new coronavirus deaths and 94,893 new cases were reported in the United States on Feb. 10.
Over the past week, there has been an average of 104,559 cases per day, a decrease of 36 percent from the average two weeks earlier.
As of Thursday morning, more than 27,328,400 people in the United States have been infected with the coronavirus according to a New York Times database.
- For the first time since Election Day, fewer than 100,000 new cases were announced nationwide daily on Sunday, Monday and Tuesday. Case numbers have been falling rapidly for a month.
- Deaths are also beginning to decrease, though they remain extremely high. Eight states are averaging more than 100 deaths a day.
- The continued spread of variants could threaten the country’s progress in the weeks ahead.
- The pace of vaccination continues to slowly increase, with roughly 1.5 million doses being administered each day.
- States are leaving fewer vaccine doses unused. Through Tuesday, every state but Rhode Island had reported using at least 60 percent of the doses they received.
Hawaii trails behind Pacific island territories in the state’s ratio of vaccinations to population. Hawaii ranks 18th in states’ population vaccinated.
Hawaii seniors 75 and older who received their first COVID vaccine during the past 3 weeks are soon scheduled to receive their second (booster) shot — and that has put a squeeze on supplies, limiting others access to the vaccine. Since the kupuna population 75 and older started getting their first doses of the Pfizer vaccine their second doses will be available starting this week. Moderna recipients are expected to receive their second dose staring next week. Hawaii’s Kupuna population 65 – 74 years of age, many with pre-existing conditions placing them at very high risk, will likely have to wait to May- June under Hawaii’s 1c protocol before they qualify vaccination. Many mainland states have set their 1b (Hawaii’s present stage of the vaccination protocol) for 65 years old and older, including California, Oregon, and Washington.
Hawaii Pacific Health and Queen’s Medical Center are prioritizing second dose recipients ahead of first time applicants, in a statewide vaccine environment already taxed by limited vaccine supplies. Tens of thousands of seniors are in the group due for their second doses, limiting the number of people able to get their first dose for the next few weeks.
“It concerns us that we’re going to be limited to mostly doing second shots and not being able to schedule new appointments for first shots,” said HPH CEO Raymond Vara.
Lt. Gov. Josh Green remains hopeful that the federal government will start sending more vaccines to the islands in the weeks ahead. His expectation is that wider distribution of the vaccine will become available by March.
California Runs Out of Vaccine Doses
Braking News – Thursday, 2-11-21
Facing a shortage of coronavirus vaccine doses, Los Angeles will temporarily close five of its inoculation sites, including one of the country’s largest, at Dodger Stadium, raising new questions about the federal government’s handling of supplies and distribution.
By Thursday, the city will have exhausted its supply of the Moderna vaccine for first-dose appointments, Mayor Eric Garcetti said at a news conference. The centers will be closed on Friday and Saturday with plans to reopen by Tuesday or Wednesday of next week, he said.
“We’re vaccinating people faster than new vials are arriving here in Los Angeles,” Mr. Garcetti said. “I’m concerned as your mayor that our vaccine supply is uneven, it’s unpredictable and too often inequitable.”
Significant COVID-19 News
Oxford vaccine shown to have only limited effect against South African variant of coronavirus
- Leading vaccine scientists are calling for a rethink of the goals of vaccination programs, saying that herd immunity through vaccination is unlikely to be possible because of the emergence of variants like that in South Africa.
- The comments came as the University of Oxford and AstraZeneca acknowledged that their vaccine will not protect people against mild to moderate Covid illness caused by the South African variant. The Oxford vaccine is the mainstay of the UK’s immunization program and vitally important around the world because of its low cost and ease of use.
U.S. military to help states with coronavirus vaccine sites
- More than 1,000 active-duty military personnel are poised to support state vaccination sites, the White House said on Friday as the Biden administration continues to look for ways to ramp up the national inoculation effort.
- New infections in the United States have dropped 17 percent over the past week, but the daily death toll remains high; in total, more than 454,000 people have died of covid complications nationwide.
- Public health officials have warned Americans to avoid large gatherings on Super Bowl Sunday.
Hawaii’s Department of Health reported Friday the presence of the B.1.1.7 (UK) mutant variant of COVID-19, has been detected in Oahu.
Oxford/AstraZeneca vaccine protects against virus variant dominant in the U.K., but far less effective on South African strain of the virus.
The vaccine developed by Oxford University and AstraZeneca protects against the highly transmissible coronavirus variant that is dominant in the United Kingdom, according to results from ongoing clinical trials in Britain.
Oxford researchers reported Friday that their vaccine was 75 percent effective against the new variant first detected in the U.K., known as B.1.1.7 — compared with 84 percent efficacy against the original strain that appeared here at the beginning of the pandemic.
J&J Vaccine Falls Short in Covid-19 Effectiveness
Johnson & Johnson (NYSE:JNJ) said on Friday that its one-shot coronavirus vaccine failed to demonstrate the extremely high effectiveness that many had hoped to see. The efficacy of J&J’s vaccine came in at 66% in preventing moderate and severe disease, 85% against severe disease alone, and fully effective to prevent hospitalization and death from the virus. Figures differed a bit by geography, including 72% effectiveness in the U.S. and 57% in South Africa, which has seen a recent new variant of the disease come up.
Those numbers are far below Moderna’s 94% and Pfizer’s 96% effectiveness rates. J&J argued that earlier trials didn’t take newly mutated variants of COVID-19 into account, thereby adding an extra challenge for the Johnson & Johnson trials.
Nevertheless, the failure of J&J to come up with a highly effective vaccine that requires just one dose and avoids special handling raises introduces additional unknowns into the nation’s supply and demand response to the coronavirus pandemic.
U.S. vaccine program struggles
During the White House’s coronavirus briefing Friday, Anthony S. Fauci, the U.S.’s top infectious-disease expert said that the United States must do more to halt the spread of coronavirus and framed the spread of variant strains.
— most recently, a variant first identified in South Africa was reported in South Carolina — as a “wake-up call” to ramp up inoculation efforts.
The U.S. continues to struggle with its vaccine rollout; just 6.6 percent of the population has received the first dose of the vaccine since it became available in December.
The Biden administration has set a goal of vaccinating at least 1 million Americans per day, officials reiterated, a pace that the United States has narrowly exceeded over the past week.
The emergence of new, mutant versions of the virus was expected, said Fauci and Rochelle Walensky, the director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, and they warned that more are likely to come. Those mutations also will challenge the ability of existing treatments and vaccines to curb the virus’ spread.
Hawaii Covid-19 Infection and Death Rates Decline in early February
COVID-19 Mutant Variant Linked To California, Finds It Way to Hawaii
DOH reported today that A COVID-19 variant associated with several outbreaks in California has infected one person on Oahu who had traveled to the mainland and a second person on Maui who had not travel to California recently. Hawaii scientists were able to recognize three mutations to the virus’ spike protein — which it uses to enter human cells — characteristic of the variant detected in California.
The mutant virus discovered in Hawaii is known as L452R and is suspected to be associated with increased transmissibility, although further research is needed to verify that assumption.
“What is known is that the prevalence of viral strains with this mutation have greatly increased in California around the same time that case rates in that state have also greatly increased”, Hawaii State Laboratories Division Administrator Edward Desmond said. Hawaii DOH reported 1,656 new infections during the past two weeks.
The state also recorded several COVID-19 infections among people after they got their first of two vaccine doses. Those who have received both doses of the vaccine should expect full immunity approximately two weeks after their second dose.
The vaccines currently being distributed are believed to still be effective in preventing illness, even against the newer strains.
…as of Feb 4, 2021
U.S. COVID-19 Death Toll Projected to Reach One-half Million by April; Global Case Count Nears 100 Million, Over 2 Million Dead
First U.S. case of Mutant COVID-19 virus identified
Just as vaccines begin to offer hope for a path out of the pandemic, officials in Britain on Saturday sounded an urgent alarm about what they called a highly contagious new variant of the coronavirus circulating in England.
On Tuesday of this week, a Colorado man became the first known U.S. case of the newly identified strain of Covid-19 circulating in the UK. The new variant is thought to be far more contagious than the previous strain of COVID-19 in which scientists, the world’s medical community, and governments have built their response assumptions and the current vaccines have been based. Newly established variants have prompted some countries to restrict travel to-from the UK.
The Colorado man who contracted the new variant, called B.1.1.7, is in his 20s, and had no travel history, according to the state’s health department. In a statement, Colorado Governor Jared Polis said that health officials are conducting an investigation into how the man might have contracted the virus, while he recovers in isolation.
Although the new variant had not been found in the US until now, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention noted that it was likely already circulating through the country.
The new variant has also recently been detected in at least 17 countries, including South Korea, Spain, Australia and Canada. On Christmas Day, the CDC issued new guidelines for travelers from the UK, requiring proof of a negative Covid-19 test.
All viruses evolve, and the coronavirus is no different. “Based on scientific understanding of viruses, it is highly likely there are many variants evolving simultaneously across the globe,” Mr. McDonald, of the C.D.C., said. “However, it could take weeks or months to identify if there is a single variant of the virus that causes Covid-19 fueling the surge in the United States similar to the surge in the United Kingdom.”
In recent days, the world has watched with curiosity and growing alarm as scientists in the U.K. have described a newly identified variant of the coronavirus that appears to be more contagious than, and genetically distinct from, more established variants.
Citing the rapid spread of the virus through London and surrounding areas, Prime Minister Boris Johnson imposed the country’s most stringent lockdown since March. “When the virus changes its method of attack, we must change our method of defense,” he said.
The British announcement also prompted concern that the virus may evolve to become resistant to the vaccines just now rolling out. The worries are focused on a pair of alterations in the viral genetic code that may make it less vulnerable to certain antibodies.
Viruses mutate all the time. Most of the new variants die out. Sometimes they spread without altering the virus’s behavior. Very occasionally, they trigger dramatic changes.
And the question now facing scientists is straightforward: Does the mutated virus represent an increased health risk? Or has its recent rapid spread through southern England occurred because it has arisen in people who are infecting a lot of other people, possibly because they are ignoring Covid-19 restrictions?
The British variant has 23 mutations, including several that affect how the virus locks onto human cells and infects them. These mutations may allow the variant to replicate and transmit more efficiently, said Muge Cevik, an infectious disease expert at the University of St. Andrews in Scotland and a scientific adviser to the British government.
But several experts urged caution, saying it would take years, not months, for the virus to evolve enough to render the current vaccines impotent.
“No one should worry that there is going to be a single catastrophic mutation that suddenly renders all immunity and antibodies useless,” Dr. Bloom said.
Scientists are worried about these variants, but not surprised by them. Researchers have recorded thousands of tiny modifications in the genetic material of the coronavirus as it has hopscotched across the world.
Some variants become more common in a population simply by luck, not because the changes somehow supercharge the virus. But as it becomes more difficult for the pathogen to survive — because of vaccinations and growing immunity in human populations — researchers also expect the virus to gain useful mutations enabling it to spread more easily or to escape detection by the immune system.
“This thing’s transmitting, it’s acquiring, it’s adapting all the time,” said Dr. Ravindra Gupta, a virologist at the University of Cambridge, who last week detailed the deletion’s recurrent emergence and spread. “But people don’t want to hear what we say, which is: This virus is mutating.”
What we Know So far …
Scientists believe that although initial mutated versions of COVID-19 appear to be more contagious, it does not cause a more severe illness than other established variants. Research is still ongoing, however, and it remains uncertain whether the new variant is actually more transmissible due to a genetic advantage, or whether it is simply spreading so widely due to fluke super-spreader events. A report from Public Health England found that the new variant in the UK has not been linked to higher rates of hospitalization or death.
Is it more contagious than other viruses?
It appears so. In preliminary work, researchers in the U.K. have found that the virus is spreading quickly in parts of southern England, displacing a crowded field of other COVID-19 variants that have been circulating for months. Some scientists have raised the possibility that the increase in transmission is at least partly the result of how it infects children. Normally, children are less likely than teenagers or adults to get infected or pass on the virus. But the new variant may make children “as equally susceptible as adults,” said Wendy Barclay, government adviser and virologist at Imperial College London.
Does it cause more severe disease?
There is no strong evidence that it does, at least not yet. But there is reason to take the possibility seriously. In South Africa, another lineage of the coronavirus has gained one particular mutation. The mutant variant is spreading quickly through coastal areas of South Africa. And in preliminary studies, doctors there have found that people infected with this variant carry a heightened viral load — a higher concentration of the virus in their upper respiratory tract. In many viral diseases, this is associated with more severe symptoms.
Will the variant render the new COVID-19 vaccines ineffective?
Many experts doubt that it will have any great impact on vaccines, although it’s not yet possible to rule out any effect.
The issue is whether the new variant will be able to bypass the protection offered by the Covid-19 vaccines now being administered across Britain and United States.
“If the new variant was going to have a big impact on disease severity, we would have seen that by now,” said Ewan Birney, deputy director general of the European Molecular Biology Laboratory and joint director of its European Bioinformatics Institute in Cambridge.
The U.S. Food and Drug Administration has authorized two vaccines, one from Moderna and the other from Pfizer and BioNTech. Both vaccines create immunity to the coronavirus by teaching our immune systems to make antibodies to a protein that sits on the surface of the virus, called spike. The spike protein latches onto cells and opens a passageway inside. Antibodies produced in respone to the vaccines stick to the tip of the spike. The result: The viruses can’t get inside.
It is conceivable that a mutation to a coronavirus could change the shape of its spike proteins, making it harder for the antibodies to gain a tight grip on them. The mutations include eight in the spike gene. But our immune systems can produce a range of antibodies against a single viral protein, making it less likely that viruses can easily escape their attack.