The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

As coronavirus death toll surpasses 350,000, Trump calls U.S. count ‘far exaggerated’

Infectious-disease expert Anthony S. Fauci on Jan. 3 disputed a claim by President Trump that federal data on coronavirus deaths is overblown. (Video: Reuters)
Placeholder while article actions load

President Trump on Sunday took a break from his election-focused tweetstorm to question the government’s reported counts of infections and deaths from the coronavirus. Meanwhile, despite the president’s denials, the nation’s death toll surpassed a grim milestone Sunday of more than 350,000.

Speaking on the Sunday morning news shows, the nation’s top health officials, including Anthony S. Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, and Surgeon General Jerome M. Adams contradicted Trump’s claim that the counts are “far exaggerated.”

“The numbers are real,” Fauci said on NBC News’s “Meet the Press.”

“We have well over 300,000 deaths. We’re averaging 2,000 to 3,000 deaths per day,” Fauci said. “All you need to do . . . is go into the trenches, go into the hospitals, go into the intensive care units and see what is happening. Those are real numbers, real people and real deaths.”

The nation topped or neared 200,000 reported cases for the sixth straight day Sunday. More than 125,000 people are battling covid-19, the disease caused by the virus, in hospitals across the country, according to data compiled and reviewed by The Washington Post.

Virus vaccine has arrived, but frustrated Americans are struggling to sign up

Fauci’s objection appeared to draw Trump’s wrath as he tweeted: “Something how Dr. Fauci is revered by the LameStream Media as such a great professional, having done, they say, such an incredible job, yet he works for me and the Trump Administration, and I am in no way given any credit for my work.”

Trump has claimed he deserves recognition for the record speed researchers took to develop two vaccines that were authorized by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration. But it is unlikely the immunization effort underway will prevent the majority of infections, hospitalizations and deaths expected this winter, especially amid a surge following the holidays.

Fauci and others have warned that travel during the Christmas and New Year’s holidays could further spur transmission of the virus. Yet, despite guidance, Saturday marked one of the busiest days of the pandemic at airports. Nearly 1.2 million people passed through airport security checkpoints, according to the Transportation Security Administration.

Travel aside, contact tracing has shown that close, often indoor gatherings popular this time of year are the source of much of the nation’s avoidable infections.

India approves two vaccines as it prepares for massive immunization push

“There’s been congregate settings where people innocently and understandably were gathering for social and family get-togethers against the advice of public health officials like myself, even though it’s very difficult to do that when you have a family-oriented season,” Fauci said.

“It’s unfortunate. But it was predictable that we were going to see the number of cases that we’re seeing now,” Fauci added. “My concern is that it could get worse over the next couple of weeks as we see the lag that happens when an event occurs like the Christmas and New Year’s holiday.”

Projections for the coming weeks are “pretty scary,” Adams told CNN’s Jake Tapper. But Adams said people should “have hope” amid a ramp-up in vaccinations as officials resolve snags in the complex distribution plan.

“In the last 72 hours, we saw 1.5 million first shots reported,” Adams said. “If you extrapolate that out . . . that’s 500,000 a day. But I want people to know that over the next week or two is when we really should be paying attention closely and continue to see this ramp up.”

As of Saturday, more than 4.2 million people had received the first dose of the coronavirus vaccines being distributed to mainly health-care workers and the elderly — a figure that falls short of the 20 million people who were supposed to be vaccinated by this time, according to early estimates. More than 13 million doses were distributed, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, but local health departments and state officials have complained that a lack of communication and resources from the federal government has hampered their ability to get shots into arms.

Early vaccination in prisons, a public health priority, proves politically charged

“Some health departments have only received vaccines as recently as this week,” said Oscar Alleyne, an epidemiologist and chief of programs and services for the National Association of County and City Health Officials, which includes about 3,000 local health departments. “I had one health department that told me they had received their vaccines the day after Christmas.”

Adams acknowledged there were hurdles preventing the vaccination effort from progressing quickly, including the holidays and an overwhelming number of infections.

“A lot of the local capacity to be able to vaccinate was being used for testing and responding to surges,” he said.

On CBS News’s “Face the Nation,” Moncef Slaoui, chief science adviser to Operation Warp Speed, mostly deflected questions about the national lag in administering the vaccine and said his team is available for requests from states for assistance.

He said there are discussions with Moderna and the FDA about whether doses can be adjusted to accelerate administration.

Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti (D) said the difficulty in administering the vaccine in his city is the lack of resources. “There’s no question that we have a shortage of medical personnel.”

Garcetti also said the spike in coronavirus cases in his city of 4 million is a result of “spreading in the home,” including during holiday gatherings.

“I think the vaccine has made everyone so hopeful they can relax their behavior,” he said. “We cannot.”

Garcetti urged people to double down on precautions as what is expected to be “the darkest month” advances. On New Year’s Day, Los Angeles County posted more than 14,000 new cases and is seeing its largest infection rates recorded to date, according to Post data.

“We’ve done everything right, but this virus doesn’t care what you’ve done in the past, only what you’re doing today,” Garcetti said.

He added: “What’s happening in Los Angeles can and will be coming to many communities across America.”