Pandemic reaches grim milestone as Biden moves to take charge
With average new infections totaling 111,000 per day, President-elect Joseph R. Biden Jr. is confronting a coronavirus pandemic that is surging out of control.
Coronavirus cases surged to a record Monday, with the United States now averaging 111,000 cases each day for the past week, a grim milestone amid rising hospitalisations and deaths that cast a shadow on positive news about the effectiveness of a potential vaccine.
As the number of infected Americans passed 10 million and governors struggled to manage the pandemic, President-elect Joe Biden tried Monday to use his bully pulpit — the only tool at his disposal until he replaces President Donald Trump in 72 days — to plead for Americans to set aside the bitterness of the 2020 election and wear a mask.
“It doesn’t matter who you voted for, where you stood before Election Day,” Biden said in Delaware after announcing a Covid-19 advisory board charged with preparing for quick action once he is inaugurated. “It doesn’t matter your party, your point of view. We can save tens of thousands of lives if everyone would just wear a mask for the next few months. Not Democratic or Republican lives — American lives.”
Hours before Biden’s remarks, drugmaker Pfizer announced that an early analysis of its coronavirus vaccine trial suggested the vaccine was robustly effective in preventing Covid-19, a promising development that sent stock prices soaring. The world has waited anxiously for any positive sign that there will be an end to the pandemic that has killed more than 1.2 million people worldwide.
“It’s extraordinary,” Dr. Anthony Fauci, the government’s top infectious disease expert, said on CNN. “It is really a big deal.”
Biden called the development “excellent news” but cautioned that the country was still “facing a very dark winter.” The average daily death toll in the US is inching back toward 1,000, and hospitals nationwide are strained with patients. The president-elect said that Americans would need to rely on basic precautions, like wearing masks, to “get back to normal as fast as possible.”
“It’s clear that this vaccine, even if approved, will not be widely available for many months yet to come,” he said. “The challenge before us right now is still immense and growing.”
The sheer breadth of that challenge was striking Monday: More than 784,000 cases have been announced in the US over the past week, more than in any other week of the pandemic. The country now averages 900 deaths each day, and 28 states added more cases in the seven-day period ending Sunday than in any other weeklong stretch of the pandemic. No states are reporting sustained reductions in cases.
Coronavirus hospitalisations, perhaps the clearest measure of how many people are severely ill, are approaching record levels set during earlier surges of the pandemic, according to data collected by the Covid Tracking Project. A wave of more than 59,200 patients threatened to overwhelm hospitals in communities across the country Monday.
The outlook is especially grim in the Midwest and Great Plains, where North Dakota, South Dakota, Iowa, Wisconsin and Nebraska had more new cases per capita over the past week than any others. In the Iowa county that includes Des Moines, more than 400 cases are being identified on an average day. In Milwaukee County, Wisconsin, around 900 new cases are emerging each day. The Nebraska county that includes Omaha is averaging about 460 cases daily, a roughly threefold increase in one month. In Ohio, reports of new cases have risen by 91 per cent over the past two weeks.
At the White House, which has been the site of several high-profile outbreaks in recent months, Ben Carson, the secretary of housing and urban development, tested positive for the coronavirus Monday, according to a spokesperson for the agency. He became the latest in a long list of administration officials, including Trump himself, to contract the virus.
At least three people who attended an election party at the White House last week, including Carson, have tested positive for the virus. At the event, several hundred people gathered in the East Room for several hours, many of them not wearing masks as they mingled while watching the election returns.
David Bossie, an adviser to Trump who attended the election night party, tested positive Sunday, two people familiar with the diagnosis said. Mark Meadows, the White House chief of staff, tested positive for the virus the day after the election, aides said, although he tried to keep it quiet.
Carson, a neurosurgeon who ran unsuccessfully for the Republican presidential nomination in 2016, has defended Trump’s response to the virus and is a member of the White House virus task force. An aide said he was in “good spirits” but declined to specify his treatments.
Beyond the impact of the virus itself, when Biden takes office, he will face a sobering economic reality.
Even as the Dow Jones Industrial Average gained nearly 3 per cent on news of the vaccine, the economy remained depressed by the spread of the virus. There were 10 million fewer Americans working in October than in February, according to the Labor Department, and the pace of job growth has slowed every month since June. Airlines and other tourism-related industries are nowhere close to regaining their normal levels of customers. And several indicators suggest consumers have pulled back on dining and some other activities in recent weeks as infections have surged anew.
Governor Andrew Cuomo of New York raised doubts that the Trump administration could handle vaccine distribution, even if a vaccine did become available in the coming weeks, suggesting that governors would have to step in.
“The Trump administration is rolling out the vaccination plan, and I believe it’s flawed,” Cuomo said Monday on Good Morning America on ABC. “They’re basically going to have the private providers do it, and that’s going to leave out all sorts of communities that were left out the first time when Covid ravaged them.”
Biden, moving to signal to Americans that he is prepared to take charge after a chaotic year, named a new coronavirus task force headed by a former commissioner of food and drugs, Dr. David Kessler; a former surgeon general, Dr. Vivek Murthy; and a Yale public health expert, Dr. Marcella Nunez-Smith.
Biden will have the difficult task of governing a country that is deeply divided about how much the government should do to slow the virus at the expense of jobs, schooling, recreation, socialising and religious gatherings. The president-elect vowed to “spare no effort” in fighting the virus, with the goal of getting the economy “running at full speed again.”
His comments contrasted Trump’s. The president has spent the past eight months dismissing or playing down the need for Americans to wear masks, saying frequently — and falsely — that public health experts disagree about masks’ effectiveness.
Vice President Mike Pence, who serves as chair of Trump’s coronavirus task force, convened the group Monday after meeting about once a week over the past several months. But Trump, who remains in office until January, is openly at odds with his own virus advisers, including about mask wearing.
The wave of cases sweeping through much of the country remains largely a matter for state and local officials whose citizens are divided over the need for restrictions, impatient to improve the economy and fatigued by the pandemic.
Unlike in the spring, when a vast majority of states issued stay-at-home orders for at least a few weeks, there has been no broad agreement around such sweeping measures. More than half of the states issued mask mandates at some point this year, and some officials have tried targeted shutdowns on bars and indoor dining. But public health officials acknowledge that there is little public appetite for a return to full lockdowns.
That has left governors and mayors racing to sort through new restrictions while trying not to alienate their constituents.
In Utah, Governor Gary Herbert, a Republican, declared Sunday that local hospitals were full and that a mask mandate and two-week state of emergency would begin immediately.
“We are in the midst of a serious pandemic,” he said in a videotaped message that was sent to residents’ cellphones. “The number of infections in our state is growing at an alarming rate.”
Herbert, who has been slow to enact restrictions aimed at slowing the spread of the coronavirus, announced new rules that would apply statewide, including cancelling high school extracurricular activities and limiting social gatherings to within households.
But he did not close bars or restaurants and declined to impose restrictions on churches.
In Utah, the increase in coronavirus cases — more than 2,000 new infections a day — has sent ripples of alarm throughout Salt Lake City. Stores began limiting purchases of certain items like toilet paper and cleaning supplies. Shelves in a local Costco last weekend were low on staples like pasta and flour.
In Nebraska, Governor Pete Ricketts, a Republican, announced a series of specific restrictions Monday that stopped short of any sweeping directive. People can still eat indoors at restaurants, but dining will be limited to eight people per table. Masks will be required in some businesses — but only if there is close contact between people for 15 minutes or more. Dancing at weddings will not be allowed — unless people dance at their own tables.
Governor J.B. Pritzker of Illinois said Monday that he would impose more stringent restrictions on three regions of the state, including suburbs of Chicago and southern Illinois, that are seeing surges in coronavirus infections.
“The virus is winning the war by now,” Pritzker said, urging the public to wear masks. “The situation has worsened considerably in certain areas of the state.”
In New York City, Mayor Bill de Blasio warned Monday that the city was “getting dangerously close” to a second wave and said that further lockdowns were possible if New Yorkers did not regain control of the virus. “Unfortunately, it could mean even having to shut down parts of our economy again,” he said.
At Biden’s closed-door briefing with his Covid advisory board, which took place remotely over a video conference call Monday, three leaders of the panel provided updates on the pandemic while others members of the group introduced themselves, according to a person familiar with the discussion.
One member, Dr. Rick Bright, is a former top vaccine official in the Trump administration who was ousted as the head of the Department of Health and Human Services’ Biomedical Advanced Research and Development Authority. He told lawmakers that officials in the government had failed to heed his warnings about acquiring masks and other supplies.
“Lives were endangered, and I believe lives were lost,” Bright told a House subcommittee in May.
Written by: Michael D. Shear
Photographs by: Amr Alfiky, Kathryn Gamble and Pete Marovich
© 2020 THE NEW YORK TIMES
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