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National Notebook

500,000 Americans should not have died of COVID-19, Fauci says

Dr. Anthony Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases.
Dr. Anthony Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases.Al Drago/Bloomberg

Half a million people should not have died of COVID-19 in one of the world’s richest and most sophisticated countries, said Dr. Anthony S. Fauci, the nation’s leading infectious-disease expert.

In remarks to Reuters, Fauci called the US death toll “stunning” and said “intense” political divisiveness contributed to the nation’s poor handling of the pandemic.

“This is the worst thing that’s happened to this country with regard to the health of the nation in over 100 years,” he said.


New cases ease but hot spots dot the East Coast

New coronavirus cases and hospitalizations are on the downswing in the United States and around the world, but hot spots along the East Coast have been sticking around longer compared to the rest of the country.


In the current wave of regional outbreaks, eight states that border the Atlantic Ocean have seen upticks in the past few months and only recently have started to level off or decline.

South Carolina leads the nation with the highest rate of new virus cases, followed by New York, New Jersey, Rhode Island, North Carolina, Florida, Delaware, and Georgia.

It has become a familiar pattern across the country — cases go up in one region, and down in another — a sequence driven in some part by weather. A few months ago, the Upper Midwest, where it starts to get cold in the fall, was outpacing other regions in new infections. And before that, cases in the Sun Belt surged.

“It’s whack-a-mole,” said Leana Wen, an emergency physician and public health professor at George Washington University. “One part of the country sees a surge, and then another, and then it declines.”

New cases have declined to half their peak globally, largely because of steady improvements in some of the same places that endured devastating outbreaks this winter. The global decline has been driven by six countries, led by the United States, which still leads the world in the number of new cases a day, based on a seven-day average, followed by Brazil and France.


Public health experts in the worst-hit countries attribute the progress to some combination of increased adherence to social distancing and mask wearing, the seasonality of the virus, and a buildup of natural immunity among groups with high rates of existing infection.

“It’s a great moment of optimism, but it’s also very fragile in a lot of ways,” said Wafaa El-Sadr, an epidemiologist at Columbia University’s Mailman School of Public Health. “We see the light at the end of the tunnel, but it’s still a long tunnel.”

Even the states seeing the most new cases are seeing steady improvement, however. Over the last two weeks, New York has seen a 14 percent decline in new cases and a 24 percent decline in coronavirus-related deaths. South Carolina’s declines are even more dramatic.

The number of Americans hospitalized for COVID-19 is at its lowest since early November, according to data from the Covid Tracking Project. Globally, new cases have plummeted to half their peak.

“We’re moving in the right direction, just not as fast as other places,” said Simone Wildes, an infectious disease expert at South Short Health in Weymouth, referring to the East Coast. She wondered if the regional lag could be attributed in part to lower vaccination rates among Black Americans, with high populations in East Coast urban centers. “As more vaccines become available, we want to make sure this particular group gets all the information they need,” she said.



Putting the pandemic’s deathly scale in perspective

The enormous scale of illness and death wrought by the coronavirus is traced in figures that have grown so far beyond the familiar yardsticks of daily life that they can sometimes be difficult to get a handle on.

The news on Monday that the United States had recorded 500,000 COVID-19-related deaths in just a year is just the latest example.

One way to put that in context is to compare it to other major causes of death in 2019, the year before the pandemic took hold in the country.

500,000 deaths is . . .

Three times the number of people who died in the United States in any kind of accident, including highway accidents, in 2019 (167,127).

More than eight times the number of deaths from influenza and pneumonia (59,120).

More than 10 times the number of suicides (48,344).

More than the number of deaths from strokes, diabetes, kidney disease, Alzheimer’s, and related causes, combined (406,161).

Only heart disease (655,381) and cancer (599,274) caused more deaths.


Variant found in California raises worries

A variant first discovered in California in December is more contagious than earlier forms of the coronavirus, two new studies have shown, fueling concerns that emerging mutants like this one could hamper the sharp decline in cases over all in the state and perhaps elsewhere.


In one of the new studies, researchers found that the variant has spread rapidly in a San Francisco neighborhood in the past couple of months. The other report confirmed that the variant has surged across the state, and revealed that it produces twice as many viral particles inside a person’s body as other variants do. That study also hinted that the variant may be better than others at evading the immune system — and vaccines.

“I wish I had better news to give you — that this variant is not significant at all,” said Dr. Charles Chiu, a virologist at the University of California San Francisco. “But unfortunately, we just follow the science.”

Neither study has yet been published in a scientific journal. And experts don’t know how much of a public health threat this variant poses compared with others that are also spreading in California.


US to approve vaccine makers’ freezer storage requests

Federal regulators have informed Pfizer and BioNTech that they plan to approve the companies’ request to store their vaccine at standard freezer temperatures instead of in ultracold conditions, potentially expanding the number of sites that could administer shots, according to two people familiar with the companies who spoke on condition of anonymity.

Pfizer and BioNTech, its German partner, said Friday that they had submitted new data to the FDA showing their vaccine could be safely stored at -13 to 5 degrees Fahrenheit for up to two weeks. That could open up the possibility that smaller pharmacies and doctors’ offices could administer shots using their existing refrigerators or freezers.


Regulators had previously approved distribution only if the vaccine was stored in freezers that kept it between -112 and -76 degrees Fahrenheit. Pfizer ships its vials in specially designed containers that can be used as temporary storage for up to 30 days, then refilled with dry ice every five days. The vaccine can be refrigerated for up to five days in a standard refrigerator if it had not yet been diluted for use in patients.