US staggers under new, record Covid-19 surge as vaccination targets fall short

With more than 63,000 dead in just 26 days, December has been the deadliest month for the US since the pandemic began. PHOTO: AFP

WASHINGTON - The US risks losing ground against the Covid-19 coronavirus as a new post-holiday surge fills hospitals and the scale of vaccine administration falls below expectations.

Adding to worries is the detection revealed on Tuesday, of the first known case of the more contagious UK variant in Colorado, in a young man in his 20s with no travel history, suggesting local transmission of unknown origin.

In a statement, Colorado Governor Jared Polis said: "The individual has no close contacts identified so far, but public health officials are working to identify other potential cases and contacts through thorough contact tracing interviews."

This came as the United States' death toll from the virus continues to mount, with a fresh post-holiday surge on top of the previous, post-Thanksgiving one.

With more than 63,000 dead in just 26 days, December has been the deadliest month for the US since the pandemic began.

Even worse is coming, experts warn.

On Tuesday, the US recorded a new daily high of more than 3,700 new deaths linked to the coronavirus. It also reported the most hospitalisations from Covid-19, with more than 124,600 patients nationwide.

Several states are experiencing record levels of new infections. Georgia Governor Brian Kemp said the state was about to open a temporary hospital with an additional 60 beds. Texas officials reported a record 11,700 hospitalisations.

In Los Angeles County, California, hospitals are reportedly running out of oxygen, with Covid-19 inpatient numbers nearing 7,200 - almost 1,000 times higher than just two months ago. Stay-at-home orders were renewed indefinitely on Tuesday for almost the entire state.

Meanwhile, the vaccine rollout is encountering problems. Fewer doses than predicted are being shipped to states. And many states are short of resources.

States and public health officials have been asking for more than US$8 billion in additional funding for the vaccination drive. The Donald Trump administration has thus far provided just US$340 million. "We're trying to do everything on a shoestring, when really we need vast amounts of money invested," Ms Ann Lewandowski of the Rural Wisconsin Health Cooperative told the media this week.

Around US$8 billion is provided for in the coronavirus stimulus package signed by President Trump last Sunday, so there is some hope that the effort will scale up once the funds are disbursed. But meanwhile, the effort has fallen behind.

While Health and Human Services Secretary Alex Azar has said every American will be able to get the vaccine by the end of June 2021 - which presumes a rate of vaccination of 3.5 million a day - the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention on Monday said 2.1 million doses of coronavirus vaccines have been administered in two weeks.

Dr Leana S. Wen, visiting professor of health policy and management at the George Washington University Milken Institute School of Public Health, tweeted on Tuesday: "At the current rate of #covid19 vaccinations, it will take the U.S. 10 years to inoculate 80% of Americans."

She blamed the underperformance on "overpromising then moving the goalpost. Diffusing responsibility to states without giving them guidance or resources."

"It is a real tragedy to have vaccines sit in warehouses when thousands are dying every day," she tweeted.

Dr Anthony Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, said on Monday: "We are below where we want to be.

"Not being responsible myself for the rollout, I can't personally guarantee that we're going to catch up. I hope we do."

On Tuesday, President-elect Joe Biden in a speech criticised the speed of vaccine distribution under the Donald Trump administration .

But he also tempered expectations, saying: "This will take more time than anyone would like and more time than the promises from the Trump administration have suggested."

"This is going to be the greatest operational challenge we've ever faced as a nation but we are going to get it done. It's going to take a vast new effort that is not yet underway." he added.

On Tuesday, the coronavirus for the first time took the life of a Congressman. Louisiana Republican Luke Letlow, 41, elected this month and due to be sworn in on Sunday, tested positive on Dec 18.

On Dec 19 he was hospitalised, and treated with steroids and the antiviral drug Remdesivir. Eleven days after testing positive, he died, leaving behind his wife and two children.

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