Coronavirus Update: U.S. COVID death toll nears 550,000 as Dr. Birx says most could have been avoided


The U.S. death toll from the coronavirus-borne illness COVID-19 was nearing 550,000 on Monday, a day after the coordinator of the White House task force under Donald Trump said most of those fatalities could have been avoided if Trump’s administration had acted quickly and decisively.

Dr. Deborah Birx told CNN there was no excuse for the excess deaths.

“I look at it this way. The first time we have an excuse. There were about a hundred thousand deaths that came from that original surge. All of the rest of them, in my mind, could have been mitigated or decreased substantially,” said Birx, who retired from her role in December.

Birx was among six top public health officials who assessed the U.S. response to COVID-19 over the past year in a CNN documentary special, “Covid War: The Pandemic Doctors Speak Out,” that aired Sunday night.

Birx said the Trump administration acted too slowly and then failed to quickly learn lessons as the first wave of infections hit last spring, and that stronger social-distancing guidelines and shutdown regulations could have made a major difference. Trump was repeatedly criticized for downplaying the risk of COVID-19, making false claims about the virus, and focusing on the economy at the expense of public health.

“The majority of people in the [Trump] White House did not take this seriously,” Birx told CNN.

Read more: Vast majority of U.S. COVID-19 deaths could have been prevented, Birx says

The U.S. added at least 45,552 new cases of COVID on Sunday, according to a New York Times tracker, and at least 487 people died. Those numbers are likely underreported given reduced staffing at hospitals and healthcare centers at weekends. The bad news is that the U.S. has averaged 63,199 cases a day in the past week, up 15% from the average two weeks ago.

New York and New Jersey have retaken their positions as the states with the highest rates of infection, a grim statistic that experts say is due to reopening moves and overall pandemic fatigue that is leading people to drop their guard and abandon public health measures, which are still needed as the vaccine push continues.

See now: Americans have tired of wearing masks and social distancing before; here’s what happened next

New Jersey has reported about 647 new cases per 100,000 residents in the past 14 days, the Associated Press reported. New York has averaged 548. Neither state is seeing anything like the stress on hospitals and morgues experienced when they were at the epicenter of the U.S. pandemic last spring. But the upward trend in cases has raised concerns that reopening moves, which include indoor dining and attendance at sports events at limited capacity, may be premature, especially as more contagious variants have been circulating.

At the White House’s Monday coronavirus briefing, Dr. Rochelle Walensky, the head of the CDC, said she has sense of “impending doom” as cases rise despite the vaccination effort.

”Now is one of those times when I have to share the truth and I have to hope and trust you will listen,” a visibly emotional Walensky told reporter. “Right now I’m scared.”

She urged Americans not to let their guard down, especially now that the vaccine drive has pushed into high gear.

 “Please hold on a little while longer. I so badly want to be done. I know you all so badly want to be done. We are almost there but not quite yet,” she said.

New York City’s public advocate, Jumaane Williams, urged New York to pause reopening plans. “I ask the governor to stick to the science, trust the experts, and pause the planned reopenings now, before they take effect and more are infected,” Williams said.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s vaccine tracker is showing that, as of 6 a.m. Eastern time on Sunday, 180.6 million doses had been delivered to states, 143.5 million doses had been administered and 93.6 million people had received at least one dose of the two-dose vaccines developed by Pfizer Inc.

and German partner BioNTech SE

and Moderna Inc.
equal to 28.2% of the population.

By now, 51.6 million Americans are fully vaccinated, either by receiving two doses of two-dose vaccines or one of Johnson & Johnson’s

one-dose vaccine, equal to 15.5% of the population.

Among Americans 65 and over, 26.5 million people are fully vaccinated, equal to 48.4% of that group.

Don’t miss: Vaccines are here. That’s no reason to call off the hunt for effective COVID-19 treatments.

In other news relating to the pandemic, the World Health Organization’s final report on the origins of the virus, a joint WHO-China study that has not yet been publicly released but that media organizations have obtained, suggests the most likely pathway is that it spread from an original host animal, likely a bat, to another intermediate host animal before being transmitted to humans, as AFP reported.

WHO director-general Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus said the agency had received the report over the weekend and that all hypotheses remain open. “All hypotheses are open, from what I read from the report,” Tedros told a virtual press conference in Geneva, adding that they “will need further study.”

See also: It’s a ‘question of time’ before another virus jumps from animal to human, says co-inventor of flu treatment Tamiflu. Preventative therapies are needed.

In other news:

• Critical-care doctors in Paris say surging coronavirus infections could soon overwhelm their ability to care for the sick in the French capital’s hospitals, possibly forcing them to choose which patients they have the resources to save, the AP reported. The sobering warnings were delivered Sunday in newspaper opinions signed by dozens of Paris-region doctors. They came as French President Emmanuel Macron has been vigorously defending his decision not to completely lockdown France again as he did last year. Since January, Macron’s government has instead imposed a nationwide overnight curfew and followed that with a grab-bag of other restrictions.

• Moderna Inc. 

has shipped the 100 millionth dose of its COVID-19 vaccine to the U.S. government and expects to meet its delivery commitments for all current orders, including delivering a second 100 million doses by the end of May and a third 100 million by the end of July. Since the vaccine was granted emergency-use authorization by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration in December, Moderna shipped more than 16 million doses in January, 26 million in February and 44 million to date in March. “Looking forward, the company expects to ship 40-50 million doses per month to the U.S. Government to fulfill its commitments. All U.S. government supply comes from Moderna’s dedicated supply chain in the U.S.,” Moderna said in a statement.

• England has lifted some of its lockdown restrictions and is now allowing people to meet up in groups of six, or two householders, outdoors, the Guardian reported. Meetings of this kind will not be allowed to happen indoors until May 17 at the earliest. Organized outdoor sports are also resuming, and outdoor swimming pools have been reopened. But the government is emphasizing continued caution as Europe experiences a fresh wave of infections and as new variants emerge that are far more infectious than the original virus.

• Mexico’s government has acknowledged that the country’s true death toll from the coronavirus pandemic now stands above 321,000, almost 60% more than the official test-confirmed number of 201,429, the AP reported. Mexico does little testing, and, because hospitals were overwhelmed, many Mexicans died at home without getting a test. The only way to get a clear picture is to review “excess deaths” and review death certificates. On Saturday, the government quietly published such a report, which found there were 294,287 deaths linked to COVID-19 from the start of the pandemic through Feb. 14. Since Feb. 15 there have been an additional 26,772 test-confirmed deaths.

•Eli Lilly & Co. LLY, -0.79%, Vir Biotechnology Inc. VIR, -3.84% and GlaxoSmithKline PLC GSK, +0.29%GSK, -0.67% on Monday reported positive data from a Phase 2 trial evaluating the combination of two monoclonal antibodies in treating low-risk adult COVID-19 patients. The trial found combining Lilly’s bamlanivimab with Vir’s VIR-7831 showed a 70% reduction in persistently high viral load at day 7 compared to placebo. “These virology data support our belief that bamlanivimab and VIR-7831 together could be a promising option for COVID-19 treatment,” Lilly’ s Chief Scientific Officer Dr. Daniel Skovronsky said in a statement. The trial is expected to enroll up to 1,000 patients.

See also: CVS to start administering COVID-19 vaccinations in 4 additional states on March 31

Latest tallies

The global tally for the coronavirus-borne illness rose above 127 million on Monday, according to data aggregated by Johns Hopkins University, with the U.S. accounting for a quarter of that number at more than 30 million. The death toll rose above 2.78 million, with the U.S. accounting for about a fifth, or 549,335. 

At least 72 million people have recovered from COVID-19.

Brazil is second globally in cases at 12.5 million and also second with a death toll at 312,206.

India is third worldwide in cases with 12 million and fourth in deaths at 160,9491,843.

The U.K. has 4.3 million cases and 126,834 deaths, the highest in Europe and fifth highest in the world.

China, where the virus was first discovered late last year, has had 101,676 confirmed cases and 4,841 deaths, according to its official numbers.

Additional reporting by Mike Murphy in San Francisco.

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