Meanwhile, members of Congress spent hours convened during proceedings meant to count the electoral college votes of President-elect Joe Biden. Those proceedings were interrupted when hordes of rioters — many maskless — forced their way through barricades, some scaling the walls of the Capitol building, in a violent day that ended with four people dead. Overnight, shaken lawmakers affirmed Biden’s win.
One congressman who was on the floor of the House as Congress convened Wednesday announced hours later that he had tested positive. Early Thursday, newly sworn-in Rep. Jake LaTurner (R-Kan.) said on Twitter that he was not experiencing symptoms and will not return to the House floor “until he is cleared to do so.”
Craig Spencer, director of Global Health in Emergency Medicine at New York-Presbyterian/Columbia University Medical Center, had just walked away from receiving his second coronavirus vaccine dose when he saw news of rioters descending on the Capitol.
He said if not for the siege on the Capitol — in addition to fatigue with news related to the pandemic — the story of the day late Wednesday might have been the record death count.
“We’re a year into this and we set a record death toll yesterday, and it’s going to be higher sometime in the next week and higher again in the coming weeks,” he said, adding: “Unlike this massive acute onslaught of insurrection … people have just gotten used to the fact that thousands of people will die.”
He described the chaotic scene Wednesday as a “culmination.”
“With an insurrection fomented by the person in power, on the same day there was a record death toll fomented by the person in power that’s basically given up, and not talking about and not seemingly concerned with the fact that every week we see another record set,” he said.
Health and Human Services Secretary Alex Azar tweeted that the agency was “committed to a peaceful and orderly transition of power over the next 13 days,” and said that more than 300 meetings have been held with Biden’s transition team, since before the Thanksgiving holiday, as the incoming administration readies to take over the response to the pandemic.
But the pandemic will continue to worsen before the Biden administration is able to step in, experts say.
The nation’s death toll will continue to surge through January after Americans have gathered and traveled during the holidays, said Anthony S. Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, and efforts to enforce greater restrictions will only “blunt that acceleration.”
“That’s going to really require people concentrating very, very intensively on doing the kinds of public health measures that we talk about all the time. Now’s not the time to pull back on this,” Fauci told NPR.
Fauci, who has been tapped to assist with the Biden administration’s coronavirus response, said the new White House would take several steps that the Trump administration isn’t to curb the pandemic: encouraging mask use for the first 100 days, ensuring greater cooperation with states and ramping up immunizations efforts to 1 million shots in arms a day.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reports that more than 5.3 million people have received at least the initial dose of a coronavirus vaccine and that nearly 17.3 million doses have been sent to states as of Wednesday morning.
U.S. vaccine distribution got off to a “rocky beginning,” National Institutes of Health Director Francis S. Collins acknowledged in an interview with The Washington Post. But Collins said he was “not totally surprised by that.”
“The next couple of weeks are going to be really critical to see how we can get this distribution system up and going more smoothly,” Collins said, adding: “We had this remarkable plan that [Operation] Warp Speed had put in place to have doses ready to go the very next day after the FDA approval, but that’s a lot of logistics. … So maybe we shouldn’t be too shocked that it didn’t go like clockwork.”
Rachel Levine, secretary of health in Pennsylvania and president of the Association of State and Territorial Health Officials, said Thursday she anticipates that there will soon be a ramping up of vaccine administration.
During a call with reporters hosted by the association, Levine also said she thinks more vaccine doses, in addition to more funding, are two resources that will be critical to speeding up distribution.
Steven Stack, Kentucky’s commissioner of public health, also pushed back on the idea that the vaccine rollout has so far been a “failure,” and pointed to messaging at the national level for setting high expectations.
“I wish that rather than overpromising realistically what the quantities were … had we just projected realistic quantities, the public wouldn’t have seen this as a shortcoming, they would have recognized it for the incredible accomplishment it was to even have this much vaccine this fast,” Stack said on the call.
As officials work toward ramping up vaccine distribution that could eventually end the pandemic, a new challenge has emerged. Health officials and experts say a mutant variant of the coronavirus first reported in Britain, which is considered more transmissible, could become much more common in the U.S. in coming weeks. There’s no evidence that the variant carries more risk of severe disease or death, and so far it’s only been detected in a small fraction of infections, but there are signs that it will spread.
Officials in three additional states, Connecticut, Pennsylvania and Texas, announced Thursday that they had identified cases of the variant. In Pennsylvania, the patient tested positive after “known international exposure.” In a statement, John Hellerstedt, Texas’s health commissioner, said the individual patient there “had no travel history,” suggesting the variant is already circulating in the state. In Connecticut, two people, 15 and 25, in New Haven County separately traveled and became infected, Gov. Ned Lamont (D), and it was confirmed both were variant cases.