TUESDAY, Feb. 23, 2021 (HealthDay News) -- President Joe Biden marked the unthinkable milestone of half a million Americans lost to coronavirus with a somber, candlelit ceremony at the White House on Monday night.
"The people we lost were extraordinary," Biden said. "They span generations. Born in America, immigrated to America. But just like that, so many of them took their final breath alone in America."
The nation's coronavirus death toll is now higher than in any other country in the world. It has surpassed early predictions of loss by some federal experts, and more Americans have died from COVID-19 than did on the battlefields of World War I, World War II and the Vietnam War combined, The New York Times reported.
The United States now accounts for about 20 percent of the world's known coronavirus-related deaths, but makes up just 4.25 percent of the global population, the Times reported.
About 1 in 670 Americans has died of COVID-19, and it has become a leading cause of death in the country, along with heart disease and cancer, the Times said. The pandemic has also driven down life expectancy more drastically than seen in decades.
During the early days of the pandemic, Dr. Anthony Fauci, the nation's top infectious disease expert, and Dr. Deborah Birx, the official coordinating the coronavirus response at the time, projected that even with strict stay-at-home orders, the virus might eventually kill as many as 240,000 Americans — a number that seemed unimaginable at the time.
Less than a year later, the virus has killed more than twice that number. It has spread to every corner of America, decimating both densely populated cities and rural counties.
In New York City, more than 28,000 people have died of the virus — or roughly 1 in 295 people. In Los Angeles County, the toll is about 1 in 500 people, the Times reported. In Lamb County, Texas, where 13,000 people live scattered across 1,000 square miles, the loss is 1 in 163 people.
The virus has torn through nursing homes and other long-term care facilities, which account for over 163,000 deaths, roughly one-third of the country's death count.
Minorities have suffered far more than others during the pandemic: the coronavirus death rate for Black Americans has been almost two times higher than it is for white Americans, 2.3 times higher for Hispanics than for white Americans; and 2.4 times higher for Native Americans, the Times reported.
By Monday, about 1,900 COVID deaths were being reported, on average, most days — down from more than 3,300 at peak points in January. The slowing was a welcome relief, but scientists said the emergence of more contagious variants make it difficult to project the future of the pandemic.
COVID infections plummet
There has been some good news of late: New coronavirus infections in America have plunged to levels not seen in months.
The seven-day rolling average is now under 65,000 and the daily death toll is also dropping, with fatalities decreasing by 30 percent in the past week, the Washington Post reported. But Fauci cautioned on Sunday that masks might still be needed in 2022 and refused to predict when "normal" would return.
"I think it is possible that is the case," he told CNN when asked whether Americans will still be wearing masks next year. The level of new infections must go "way down," he added, before he could say people needn't wear face coverings.
Luckily, not only deaths and new infections are declining: The number of Americans hospitalized for COVID-19 is at its lowest since early November, the Times reported.
There were 56,159 people hospitalized as of Feb. 21, the lowest level since Nov. 7. The number of U.S. hospitalizations has steadily and rapidly declined since mid-January, when the seven-day average reached about 130,000, the Times reported.
Experts say several factors may explain why the country's coronavirus metrics have been improving over the past few months: more widespread mask use and social distancing, more effective public health messaging, and a growing number of people who have been vaccinated. The most vulnerable, like residents of nursing homes and other elderly people, were among the first to receive the vaccine.
The change is perhaps most evident in intensive care units: Heading into her night shift in the I.C.U. at Presbyterian Rust Medical Center in Rio Rancho, N.M., Dr. Denise Gonzales, the center's medical director, told the Times that she has seen a difference in her staff.
"People are smiling. They are optimistic," she said. "They're making plans for the future."
Pfizer, Moderna vaccines less effective against South African variant
Two of the world's leading coronavirus vaccines don't work as well against a more contagious South African variant, though both did manage to neutralize the virus, two new studies show.
But experts pointed out that what level of neutralization is needed to actually protect against the variant is still unclear and these latest studies on the Pfizer and Moderna vaccines were done in a lab setting, and not the real world, the Post reported. Both reports were published last week in the New England Journal of Medicine.
"These are in vitro studies and we don't know if there is a threshold for neutralization that defines protection. In fact, we don't even know that there is a quantitative correlation between antibodies levels and protection," NEJM Editor-in-Chief Eric Rubin said in a podcast on the findings. "It is very concerning that we don't know the clinical significance of these findings."
The two studies used genetically engineered versions of the South African variant against blood samples from vaccinated volunteers, the Post reported. The strain has been identified in many countries, including the United States, along with a variant first identified in Britain that scientists say is also highly contagious.
Moderna's research letter in the NEJM on its COVID-19 vaccine showed a sixfold drop in antibody levels against the South Africa strain, the newspaper said. The shot's efficacy against the variant has not yet been determined.
Pfizer, in testing its vaccine against the variant in a lab, found the shot generated about a third of the antibodies that are normally mobilized with the original strain. The activity, however, appeared to be enough to neutralize the virus.
Still, Pfizer said in a statement that it was "taking the necessary steps… to develop and seek authorization" for an updated vaccine or booster shot that could better combat the variant.
As of Tuesday, nearly 64.2 million people had received at least one dose of a COVID-19 vaccine, including 19.4 million people who have received both doses, according to the CDC.
A global scourge
By Tuesday, the U.S. coronavirus case count passed 28.2 million while the death toll passed 500,000, according to a Times tally. On Tuesday, the top five states for coronavirus infections were: California with over 3.5 million cases; Texas with more than 2.6 million cases; Florida with nearly 1.9 million cases; New York with nearly 1.6 million cases; and Illinois with nearly 1.2 million cases.
Curbing the spread of the coronavirus in the rest of the world remains challenging.
In India, the coronavirus case count was more than 11 million by Tuesday, a Johns Hopkins University tally showed. Brazil had just over 10.2 million cases and more than 247,000 deaths as of Tuesday, the Hopkins tally showed.
Worldwide, the number of reported infections passed 111.8 million on Tuesday, with nearly 2.5 million deaths recorded, according to the Hopkins tally.
The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has more on the new coronavirus.
SOURCES: Washington Post; The New York Times; CBS News; CNN