The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Coronavirus updates Death toll approaches 400,000, far exceeding Trump’s benchmark for success in containing the virus

Two nurses put a ventilator on a patient in a covid-19 unit at St. Joseph Hospital in Orange, Calif., earlier this month. (Jae C. Hong/AP)
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The coronavirus death toll in the United States is fast approaching 400,000, double the upper limit of what President Trump said would signal his administration’s success in responding to the pandemic.

As of Friday morning, the virus had killed more than 388,000 people in the United States, according to The Washington Post’s analysis of pandemic data. With more than 3,000 Americans dying of the virus daily on average, the country could surpass the bleak figure before Trump leaves office Wednesday.

Just over one year after the first death was reported in Wuhan, the world has counted more than 2 million deaths. It took nine months to surpass 1 million, and less than half that time to reach Friday’s milestone.

The U.S. death toll exceeds some of the worst predictions laid out at the beginning of the pandemic and stretches far beyond what Trump himself said was tolerable under the federal government’s efforts to slow the spread of infections. If deaths remained below 200,000, he said in March of last year, it would show his administration had “done a very good job.”

“Four hundred thousand is an astounding number of deaths,” said Howard Markel, a medical historian at the University of Michigan. He noted that the total dead could end up rivaling the country’s fatalities in the 1918 flu pandemic, which killed more than half a million people in the United States.

“Those kinds of numbers have a mind-numbing effect on us, particularly if you weren’t affected yourself,” he said, “but we can’t discuss this enough.”

A White House spokesman didn’t immediately respond to a request for comment.

Here are some significant developments:

  • The highly contagious variant of the coronavirus first seen in the United Kingdom will become the dominant strain in the United States within about two months, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention predicted Friday in its most sobering warning yet about mutations in the virus.
  • The federal government’s vaccine reserve was already exhausted when the Trump administration announced this week that it would begin releasing coronavirus vaccine doses held for second shots, according to state and federal officials briefed on distribution plans. Now, health officials nationwide are grappling with the reality that their vaccine stocks may not immediately increase.
  • President-elect Joe Biden has selected David Kessler, a close adviser on the coronavirus crisis, to lead the next administration’s efforts to accelerate the manufacture, distribution and administration of coronavirus vaccines, the Biden transition team announced Friday morning.
  • Biden laid out a $1.9 trillion emergency relief plan Thursday night that will serve as an early test of his ability to steer the nation out of a pandemic disaster and rapidly deteriorating economy.
  • Biden also unveiled his administration’s vaccination plan, which aims to put 100 million shots in arms within 100 days using FEMA-created community vaccination centers in places like school gymnasiums, sports centers and community centers.
  • New Jersey’s decision to allow the state’s estimated 2 million smokers to get vaccinated before teachers and public service workers is drawing intense criticism from some public health experts, who say the risks aren’t significant enough to bump them to the top of the list.

Daily coronavirus cases and deaths have repeatedly reached record heights over the past two months, as increased travel and indoor gatherings over the holidays fueled the biggest surge of infections since the virus reached U.S. soil.

A bright spot began to emerge this week, however, as the numbers appeared to plateau. The seven-day average for hospitalizations — a key indicator for the severity of the virus spread — fell nationwide by about 2.6 percent, according to The Post’s tracking. Data from the Covid Tracking Project also showed hospitalizations tapering, particularly in the Midwest and Northeast.

“A glimmer of hope in hospitalization data — signs of slowing in all four regions,” Caitlin Rivers, an epidemiologist at Johns Hopkins Center for Health Security, wrote in a tweet. “Progress is fragile and shadowed by the threat of more transmissible variants. But for now, I’m cheering our step in the right direction.”

Still, hospitalizations remained more than twice what they were during surges in the spring and summer, The Post’s tracking shows. Daily reported deaths in the United States reached a record 4,254 on Tuesday and topped 4,000 again on Wednesday for the third time ever.

The seven-day average for daily infections remained high — well above 200,000, due to both increased testing and double-digit positivity rates — but was trending downward overall.

Public health experts voiced optimism about the trajectory but warned that a new variant of the virus, could pose problems as it emerges in states around the country. The variant, known as B.1.1.7, is not known to cause more severe illness, but researchers say it’s about 50 percent more transmissible.

“We may have finally hit the apex after was has seemed like interminable ascent. But it is time to double down defense vs the B.1.1.7 superspreader strain,” Eric Topol, founder and director of the Scripps Research Translational Institute, said in a tweet. “That is what is next up.”

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention predicted Friday that the variant, which first appeared in the United Kingdom, could account for the majority of cases in the United States by March, heightening the urgency of getting people vaccinated.

“MORE SPREAD — MORE CASES — MORE DEATHS,” read an informal CDC informational graphic released Friday.

To combat the spread, Biden’s transition team told The Post this week that they were prepared to meet the ambitious goal of 100 million shots in arms but have run into “uneven cooperation” from the Trump administration, which until this week didn’t include Biden aides in meetings of Operation Warp Speed, the administration’s vaccine initiative.

On Friday, Biden called the vaccine rollout under Trump a “dismal failure” and said more needed to be done to expand access to underserved and hard-to-reach areas.

“If you were to ask most people today, they couldn’t tell you who exactly is getting vaccinated,” he said.

To date, about 11.7 million vaccine doses have been administered, according to The Post’s tracking, a little more than half the number of injections that Trump officials said would be performed by the start of the year.

States were expecting a windfall of vaccine vials after Health and Human Services Secretary Alex Azar announced this week that the federal government would release doses reserved for second shots. But state and federal officials briefed on distribution plans say no such reserve exists, dashing hopes that states could significantly expand immunization efforts in the near future.

Oregon Gov. Kate Brown (D) said she was told by Gustave F. Perna, chief operating officer of Operation Warp Speed, that shipments won’t ramp up next week. She demanded answers about why there is no federal reserve of doses. Seniors in Brown’s state will need to wait longer than anticipated because of the change, while teachers will begin receiving vaccinations on Jan. 25.

“This is a deception on a national scale,” she tweeted. “Oregon’s seniors, teachers, all of us, were depending on the promise of Oregon’s share of the federal reserve of vaccines being released to us.”

Biden is seeking to steer $20 billion to speed up the federal government’s faltering vaccine rollout under the $1.9 trillion emergency relief package he unveiled Thursday night. Another $50 billion would pay for a “massive expansion” of testing and $130 billion to help schools reopen safely.

To help lead the new administration’s vaccination efforts, Biden on Friday selected Kessler, a close adviser on the coronavirus crisis. He is expected to take over the role played by Moncef Slaoui, the chief scientific adviser to Operation Warp Speed.

Recent polling shows more Americans may be warming up to the vaccines. In an Axios-Ipsos poll released Tuesday, 60 percent of respondents said they are very likely or somewhat likely to get the vaccine, up eight percentage points since mid-December and 12 points from a month ago. Polling by Pew in November showed that a similar percentage would definitely or probably get the shot, up from about 51 percent in September.

But health experts say a far greater portion of Americans will need to be immunized to eradicate the coronavirus.

“Eighty-five to 95 percent is where you’re really shooting,” said Markel, of the University of Michigan. “The only thing that will squelch the power of this very stealthy virus is for as many of us to get the vaccine as possible.”