A medical worker administers a Pfizer-BioNTech COVID-19 vaccine to Audrey Matthews at a drive-through vaccination site at the Strawberry Festival Fairgrounds in Plant City, Florida [Octavio Jones/Reuters]
The daily COVID-19 death toll in the United States hit a record 4,327 on Tuesday, according to a Johns Hopkins University tally, as the Trump administration moved to accelerate the roll-out of vaccinations across the country.
The US daily death toll first surpassed 4,000 on January 8, amid a marked increase following a holiday season that saw widespread travel.
With a total of 382,624 deaths, the US has the highest toll in the world and it has also reported the highest number of infections, with 22,959,610 confirmed cases of COVID-19, according to Johns Hopkins.
In an effort to speed up the distribution and administration of vaccines, the Trump administration on Tuesday released the rest of the doses it had been keeping in reserve and recommended states immediately open inoculations to those aged 65 and over.
Federal and state health officials have scrambled in recent days to step up vaccination programmes that had given shots to only 9.3 million Americans as coronavirus infections remain at record highs in many US states nearly two weeks into the new year.
Many US states had strict rules in place giving shots to healthcare workers and nursing home residents first, telling “non-essential workers” they might wait months for their turn.
“We’ve already distributed more vaccine than we have healthcare workers and people in nursing homes,” US Health and Human Services Secretary Alex Azar told ABC News.
“We’ve got to get to more channels of administration.”
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s tracking of distribution on Wednesday showed that 10,278,462 doses of the jab have been administered as of Wednesday, of a total of 29,380,125 distributed doses.
The US had set a goal of administering 20 million vaccines before the end of 2020.
Azar said the outgoing administration, which had been keeping doses in reserve to make sure that all those who got a first inoculation receive their second shot on schedule, was now confident enough in the supply chain to release that stockpile.
Last week, a spokesman for President-elect Joe Biden, who takes office on January 20, said the incoming administration would release more of the reserved doses. The Biden team made the announcement after eight Democratic state governors wrote a letter to the Trump administration urging it to release more reserved vaccines.
The pace of vaccinations has risen to 700,000 a day nationwide and was expected to hit one million a day within 10 days, officials said.
“Michigan and states across the country remain ready to get more shots in arms, which is why the Trump Administration’s decision to grant our request and release millions of doses of the vaccine is so crucial,” Michigan Governor Gretchen Whitmer said in a statement.
Whitmer, who had backed the lower vaccination age, is seeking permission from the US government to buy 100,000 vaccine doses directly from manufacturer Pfizer.
Amid mounting criticism over the roll-out of the vaccine in New York state, Governor Andrew Cuomo announced last week that New York would allow a much wider swath of the public to get inoculated, including anyone 75 or older, teachers and first responders.
Cuomo said on Tuesday that vaccinations would broaden to people 65 and older and younger people who are immunocompromised.
“I don’t want New Yorkers to think that we are not doing everything we can to make them eligible for the vaccine, because I want to keep people in New York as calm as we can keep people in these anxious times”, Cuomo said in a Tuesday conference call with reporters.
New York Governor Andrew Cuomo delivers remarks on COVID-19 at the Riverside Church in Manhattan, New York City, on November 15, 2020 [File: Andrew Kelly/Reuters]California, the nation’s most populous state, with some 40 million residents, has emerged as a leading US epicentre of the pandemic despite reimposing some of the most stringent restrictions on social gatherings and business activity.
COVID-related deaths, considered a “lagging indicator” in the pandemic’s trajectory, have mounted steadily in California, crossing the grim milestone of 30,000 to date as of Tuesday, the news agency Reuters reported.
Dr Mark Ghaly, California Health and Human Services Secretary, said there were some encouraging trends in an online briefing with reporters.
The number of newly hospitalised coronavirus patients statewide has declined to 2,500 admissions every 24 hours over the past two days, down from 3,500 in previous days, Ghaly said.
He called it “the biggest signal to me that things are beginning to flatten and potentially improve”.
Ghaly cited several other promising trends, including a slowdown in confirmed daily case numbers – 36,487 reported on Tuesday, down from a weekly average of 42,000 cases a day – and a levelling off in the rate of diagnostic tests coming back positive.
Moreover, a five percent uptick in COVID patients in hospitals over the past 14 days marked the lowest rate of increase in more than two months, Ghaly said.
He acknowledged that health officials were “absolutely” worried about the spread of a more infectious variant of the coronavirus that emerged in Britain and has been detected in the US and other countries.
California has confirmed 38 cases of the so-called UK variant since state medical authorities first detected it in San Diego County on December 30.
Ghaly said the latest wave of cases, while apparently less severe than anticipated, has yet to peak because those infected over the year-end holidays could ultimately wind up hospitalised, making it vital for Californians to stay vigilant until vaccines become widely available.