NEW YORK (REUTERS) - As the events that unfolded in Washington on Wednesday captured the nation's attention, the raging coronavirus pandemic claimed its highest US death toll yet, killing more than 4,000 people in a single day, according to a Reuters tally.
Covid-19 hospitalisations stood at 132,051, stetting a grim record for the fourth day in a row as of late Wednesday night, a Reuters analysis of public health data showed.
As thousands of mostly unmasked supporters of President Donald Trump laid siege to the US Capitol, daily reported cases of the novel coronavirus again soared past the 250,000 mark, taking the total case tally to 21.2 million.
The deadly virus surging in most of the nation is hammering parts of California most severely, including the Los Angeles metropolitan area, pushing hospitals to their limits.
Earlier this week, public health officials ordered the suspension of elective surgeries for at least three weeks in more than a dozen southern and central counties in the state.
Nevada, New Hampshire, Oklahoma and Pennsylvania logged their highest single-day death toll on Wednesday.
The latest surge is compounded by the rapid spread of a new, highly transmittable Covid-19 variant that was first detected in the United Kingdom in December and has now spread to at least seven US states, including New York, Colorado and California.
The Pennsylvania Department of Health on Thursday (Jan 7) announced the first confirmed case of the variant in Dauphin County, where an individual tested positive "after known international exposure."
The variant was also identified in Texas on Thursday, contracted by a resident, with no history of travel, of Harris County, which includes the Houston metropolitan area, the Texas Department of State Health Services said.
With the strain on stretched healthcare systems increasing across the country, federal and local officials announced steps to speed the sluggish pace of inoculating eligible residents with two authorised coronavirus vaccines.
On Wednesday, top health officials announced plans to start distributing Covid-19 vaccines through pharmacies around the country earlier than expected this week as states have struggled to administer supplies they have been allocated.
The lack of a federal blueprint for the crucial final step of getting the vaccines into tens of millions of arms has left state and local officials in charge of the monumental effort, creating a patchwork of different plans across the nation.
The partnership with 19 pharmacy chains will eventually allow the Operation Warp Speed programme to deliver vaccines to as many as 40,000 locations around the country, US officials said at a news conference on Wednesday.
US Health and Human Services Secretary Alex Azar also said that states should not let recommendations to prioritise certain groups, like healthcare workers, slow the pace of vaccinations.
Azar urged states not to keep vaccines sitting in freezers too long for distribution to priority workers and has encouraged governors to skirt government recommendations for who should receive vaccines first if it can speed inoculations of others.
If states are struggling to distribute the vaccine, "then by all means you want to be opening up to people 70 and over or 65 and over," he said.
Who should be inoculated has been the subject of yet another spar between New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio and the state's governor, Andrew Cuomo.
On Thursday, de Blasio lashed out at Cuomo for shutting down the mayor's plan to start vaccinating some residents in group 1b, outlined by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, which includes people aged 75 and older as well as frontline essential workers.
De Blasio argued that the city's public hospitals have "thousands of slots available" due in part to a substantial contingent of health workers who declined to be vaccinated.
Cuomo, who has lamented the slow supply of vaccines from the federal government, has argued all healthcare workers should be vaccinated before moving on to the next category.
In neighboring New Jersey, Governor Phil Murphy said on Wednesday that vaccinations are being offered to people in the 1b category, including law enforcement and fire fighters, as well as other frontline essential workers.
Murphy said he anticipated there will be fluidity to inoculations, with several groups offered them at once to be sure no vaccine expires and is wasted.
"It is not necessary to vaccinate all individuals in one phase before moving on to the next phase," Judy Persichilli, the state's health commissioner, said at a news briefing alongside the governor.