The deadliest month yet of the coronavirus outbreak in the US drew to a close with certain signs of progress: Covid-19 cases and hospitalisations are plummeting, while vaccinations are picking up speed.
The question is whether the nation can stay ahead of the fast-spreading mutations of the virus.
Deaths are running at about 3,150 per day on average, down slightly, by about 200, from their peak in mid-January.
An average of 544 people died every day in California last week, and on Saturday the state reached the grim milestone of 40,000 deaths overall, according to data compiled by Johns Hopkins University.
In barely a year since the virus was first detected in the state, 1 in 1,000 Californians have died from it.
But as the calendar turned to February on Monday, the number of Americans in the hospital with Covid-19 fell below 100,000 for the first time in two months.
New cases of infection are averaging about 148,000 day, down from almost a quarter-million in mid-January. And cases are trending downward in all 50 states.
“While the recent decline in cases and hospital admissions are encouraging, they are counterbalanced by the stark reality that in January we recorded the highest number of Covid-19 deaths in any month since the pandemic began,” said Dr Rochelle Walensky, director of the Centres for Disease Control and Prevention.
Deaths do not move in perfect lockstep up or down with the infection curve.
They are a lagging indicator, because it can take a few weeks for people to get sick and die from Covid-19.
Vaccination drive picking up pace
After a slow start, the vaccination drive that began in mid-December is picking up the pace. More than 31.1 million doses have been administered in the US, according to the CDC.
That is up from 16.5 million on the day President Joe Biden took office, January 20.
The number of shots dispensed in the week and a half since Biden’s inauguration has been running at close to 1.5 million per day on average, well over the president’s oft-stated goal of 1 million per day. More than 5.6 million Americans have received the required two doses, the CDC said.
Three mutated variants of the virus from Britain, South Africa and Brazil have been detected in the US The British one spreads more easily and is believed to be deadlier, but the South Africa one is prompting even more concern because of early indications that vaccines may not be as protective against it.
The more the virus spreads, the more opportunities it has to mutate.
Walensky urged Americans to get vaccinated as soon as shots become available to them, and stressed it is no time to relax basic precautions such as wearing masks.
Meanwhile, a snowstorm Monday forced the closing of many vaccination sites in the Northeast, including in New York City and Connecticut.
And a plan to reopen Chicago schools to roughly 62,000 students for the first time since March remained in doubt. Last-minute negotiations over Covid-19 safety measures with the teachers’ union stalled, increasing the possibility of a strike or lockout if educators do not show up for work.
Deaths in California remain staggeringly high
The victims of Covid-19 have been young and old, though mostly older. Some were fit and healthy, many more had a medley of underlying medical conditions.
California’s death toll has climbed rapidly since the worst surge of the pandemic started in mid-October.
New cases and hospitalisations surged to record highs but have declined rapidly in the last two weeks.
Deaths remain staggeringly high, however, with more than 3,800 in the last week.
It took six months for California to record its first 10,000 deaths, then four months to double to 20,000. In just five more weeks the state reached 30,000. It then took only 20 days to get to 40,000.
Now only New York has more deaths — fatalities there have topped 43,000 — but at this pace California will eclipse that too.
For much of the year, California was a model for how to control the virus.
It issued the first statewide shutdown last March and has imposed an ever-changing number of restrictions that have frustrated business owners but that state officials insist have saved lives.
California cases hit people of colour hardest
Cases and deaths in California have disproportionately hit people of colour and poorer communities, where families live in more crowded housing and among those without health insurance.
Many also work in jobs with a higher risk of exposure.
The death rate for Latinos is 20 per cent higher than the statewide average, according to figures from the Department of Public Health.
Deaths of Black people are 12 per cent higher. Case rates are 39 per cent higher in communities where the median income is less than $40,000.
Los Angeles County, the nation’s most populous with a quarter of the state’s nearly 40 million residents, has more than 40 per cent of California’s virus deaths.
In November, the daily number of Latino deaths was 3.5 per 100,000 residents. It’s now 40 deaths per 100,000, an increase of more than 1100 per cent.
The death toll has brought other grim signs. Morgues and funeral homes have been overwhelmed and refrigerated trucks have been holding bodies.
‘It broke my heart’: Daughter’s harrowing experience as mum dies
Maria Rios Luna said it took almost three weeks to have her mother’s body picked up from the hospital where she died in early January because there were 200 other bodies.
Her mom, Bernardina Luna de Rios, had always found ways to make ends meet raising seven kids on her own after she survived a car wreck that killed her husband, she said.
Rios Luna, 22, said she was especially cautious with her mother since the pandemic began. She carried hand sanitiser everywhere and washed her hands immediately upon returning to the home they shared with her sister and two children.
She was the one who went to pick up groceries so her mom, who was generally healthy other than her rheumatoid arthritis, could stay home. But still the virus found its way into their house in Fontana, east of Los Angeles.
Her 59-year-old mother wound up in the hospital struggling to breathe and her condition deteriorated. Her mother told them not to worry, that she believed in God and that things happened for a reason.
When her heart began to fail, her children were allowed to view their mom through a window while a nurse inside held a phone to Bernardina’s ear, so they could speak to her.
“Once I saw her in the bed, it honestly, it broke my heart,” Rios Luna said. “I had never seen my mom so vulnerable.”
After the visit, her mother’s liver stopped working, then her lungs. She died the next day.
“We feel like she waited for us to go see her,” Rios Luna said.
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