The US has surpassed half a million Covid-19 deaths

On Monday, just over a year after the first known Covid-19 death in the United States, the US surpassed 500,000 confirmed deaths from the coronavirus.

Dr. Anthony Fauci, the country’s leading infectious disease expert, said Sunday that the death toll is “almost unbelievable.”

“But it’s true,” Fauci told NBC’s Chuck Todd on Meet the Press Sunday. “This is a devastating pandemic. And it’s historic. People will be talking about this decades and decades and decades from now.”

The grim milestone, likely an undercount, comes after a bleak winter. For much of January, the US reported well over 3,000 Covid-19 deaths each day. Overall case numbers also exploded: Since early December, 14 million more people have tested positive for the virus, doubling the total number of US cases.

As of Saturday, the US is still reporting a seven-day rolling average of more than 1,900 deaths per day, though cases have fallen sharply to levels last seen in October 2020.

More than in any other country, the virus has been allowed to rage out of control in the US. According to the Johns Hopkins Covid-19 dashboard, the US has almost twice as many Covid-19 deaths as Brazil, which is second in deaths, and over 17 million more total confirmed cases than India, which is second in cases. Of the more than 2.46 million deaths from Covid-19 worldwide, the US has recorded slightly more than one-fifth.

In late March last year, Fauci and Dr. Deborah Birx, the former White House coronavirus task force coordinator, predicted that 240,000 deaths would be on the high end of the possible US death toll; the country hit that mark in mid-November, according to CNN’s Ryan Struyk, and the death toll has more than doubled since then.

As the New York Times pointed out on Sunday, half a million US deaths also exceeds the US death toll “on the battlefields of World War I, World War II and the Vietnam War combined.”

There are reasons to be hopeful as the US picks up the pace with vaccinations

As March approaches, however, an accelerating vaccination campaign and falling cases offer hope that things could improve soon — and maybe even return to something resembling normal by the summer.

Currently, according to CNN, the US is administering about 1.5 million doses of vaccine per day, but public health officials believe that number could pick up soon. On Sunday, Fauci told CNN’s Dana Bash that “of course you’d like to see” over 2 million doses per day being administered by the end of April.

Vaccine availability should also begin to open up in the late spring or summer, Fauci said earlier this week, and by July, the country would “likely have all 600 million doses that we contracted for to vaccinate 300 million people.”

As of Sunday, according to a Centers for Disease Control and Prevention tracker, the US had administered more than 63 million vaccine doses. Because both of the vaccines authorized by the Food and Drug Administration for emergency use thus far require two shots to be fully effective, that’s not the same as the number of people actually vaccinated. But 17 million people have still received both doses of the vaccine, and many more have had their first of two shots.

Research suggests that even one dose of the Pfizer/BioNTech vaccine, which was the first vaccine candidate to be approved for emergency use in the US, can provide “robust immunity” from symptomatic cases of the disease. Additionally, Pfizer data first reported on Sunday indicates that the vaccine is almost 90 percent effective at preventing virus transmission outside a clinical setting, a hopeful finding for vaccines’ ability to keep infection levels low.

The data about virus transmission — which comes from an Israeli study — has yet to be peer-reviewed, but it’s still a promising early sign. According to Bloomberg, Pfizer and BioNTech “are working on a real-world analysis of data from Israel, which will be shared as soon as it’s complete.”

As vaccinations pick up, case numbers in the US are also falling dramatically. As the Atlantic’s James Hamblin points out, that could bode well for the summer.

If vaccination rates continue to rise and case numbers continue to fall, “it would mean that many aspects of pre-pandemic life will return even before summer is upon us,” Hamblin wrote Friday. “Because case numbers guide local policies, much of the country could soon have reason to lift many or even most restrictions on distancing, gathering, and masking. Pre-pandemic norms could return to schools, churches, and restaurants. Sports, theater, and cultural events could resume. People could travel and dance indoors and hug grandparents, their own or others’.”

Still, top public health officials are preaching caution as things begin to look up in the US, particularly as Covid-19 variants continue to spread in the country.

Last Sunday, CDC Director Rochelle Walensky warned that a more infectious — and possibly more deadly — coronavirus variant first seen in the UK could become “the dominant strain by the end of March.”

“Now more than ever, with continued spread of variants that stand to threaten the progress we are making, we must recommit to doing our part to protect one another,” Walensky said at a press conference Friday. “Wear a well-fitting mask, social distance, avoid travel and crowds, practice good hand hygiene, and get vaccinated when the vaccine is available to you.”

And mask-wearing will likely be necessary for some time yet. Fauci told CNN on Sunday that Americans may still need to wear masks in 2022, and noted on Fox News Sunday that it could take until next year for children, particularly young children, to be vaccinated.

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