Record US deaths prompt urgent calls for mask-wearing, stay-at-home orders

People wait in line to get tested for Covid-19 in New York City's Brooklyn on Dec 1, 2020. PHOTO: AFP

WASHINGTON (REUTERS) - US leaders urgently called on Americans to wear masks and threatened even more drastic stay-at-home orders after deaths from the coronavirus set a single-day record, with two people dying every minute.

More than 213,830 new cases and 2,861 deaths were reported on Thursday (Dec 3), according to a Reuters tally of official data, with several experts projecting the death toll will soon surpass 3,000 per day.

President-elect Joe Biden promised a new national strategy that will impose mask mandates where he will have authority, such as in federal buildings and for interstate travel, once he takes over from departing President Donald Trump on Jan 20.

Beyond the mandate, he urged people to voluntarily wear masks, a novel approach after lax public discipline to date and Mr Trump's own timid endorsement of mask-wearing.

"On the first day I'm inaugurated... I'm going to ask the public for 100 days to mask, just 100 days to mask, not forever, 100 days," Mr Biden told CNN in an interview on Thursday. "And I think we'll see a significant reduction if we incur that - if that occurs, with vaccinations and masking, to drive down the numbers considerably."

Two promising vaccine candidates could receive emergency use authorisation from the US Food and Drug Administration this month and start being injected into the arms of healthcare workers, first responders and nursing home residents before the New Year.

Dr Anthony Fauci, a member of the White House coronavirus task force, said on Friday (Dec 4) he expected to see another surge in coronavirus infections two or three weeks after the Nov 26 Thanksgiving holiday, when many Americans travelled to visit family, and feared that Christmas shopping and parties would fuel another spike.

"We're in a very precarious situation right now. There certainly is light at the end of the tunnel with a vaccine, but we're not there yet. So we really have to intensify our public health measures to try and blunt this trajectory," Dr Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, told NBC's Today show.

Dr Fauci said he has accepted Mr Biden's offer to be his chief medical adviser, as well as keep his current position.

"I said yes right on the spot," Dr Fauci said, while also endorsing Biden's 100-day plea.

Washington University's Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation (IHME) now projects 538,893 Covid-19 deaths by April 1, nearly double the current death toll since the pandemic began.

That same model shows that universal mask-wearing could reduce the death toll by 66,000, according to Dr Carlos Del Rio, executive associate of the Emory University School of Medicine in Atlanta.

"And while we are really excited about the vaccine, the reality is the model says the vaccine probably by April 1 will only save about 10,000 or up to 11,000 deaths," Dr Del Rio told CNN on Friday.

More than 100,000 Covid-19 patients were hospitalised in the United States, straining healthcare professionals and reducing care for people suffering other ailments.

California's governor on Thursday imposed strict new stay-at-home restrictions that will be triggered on a region-by-region basis when less than 15 per cent ICU capacity is available.

State and local authorities across the country have ordered a wide range of limitations on social and economic life.

Michigan Governor Gretchen Whitmer said on Thursday she may extend a three-week "pause" on some private and economic activities.

Ohio Governor Mike DeWine said on Thursday his state's hospitals "not only remain in crisis but the crisis is worsening", as his state reported its fifth-highest case count of the pandemic.

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