The US coronavirus death toll was pushed higher during the holiday season © Jae C Hong/AP

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The US death toll from coronavirus has surpassed 500,000, underscoring the pandemic’s devastation as officials raced to roll out vaccinations as quickly as possible to prevent another surge.

The solemn milestone came nearly a year after the first fatality from the virus was recorded in the country. The US death toll of 500,201 is by far the highest in the world in absolute terms and more than double the 247,143 deaths in Brazil, the country with the second-highest number of fatalities, according to data from Johns Hopkins University.

The number of US coronavirus cases and hospitalisations experienced the biggest increases after the Thanksgiving and Christmas holidays. The daily death toll surpassed 4,000 several times in January, making it the deadliest month of the pandemic in the US, with more than 94,000 confirmed fatalities.

“This is really just an awful, awful loss,” Ashish Jha, dean of the Brown University School of Public Health said, adding that losing 500,000 Americans was “unimaginable” a year ago when Donald Trump predicted that 100,000 to 240,000 people could die from the virus.

President Joe Biden ordered flags at the White House and on federal property to be lowered to half-mast for the next five days out of respect for the victims.

“We have to resist viewing each life as a statistic,” he said on Monday evening ahead of a candle lighting ceremony.

“As we all remember, I also ask us to act, to remain vigilant, to stay socially distant, to mask up, to get vaccinated when it’s your turn. We must end the politics and misinformation that has divided families, communities and the country and has cost too many lives already.”

Column chart of  showing US coronavirus deaths by major geographical region

There have been signs in recent days that the US has managed to wrestle the disease’s trajectory downwards after a punishing few months that saw hospitals overwhelmed.

Coronavirus hospitalisations are down about 58 per cent since peaking in January, to 56,159, according to Covid Tracking Project data. Over the past week, the US has reported an average of 64,301 infections a day, a 74 per cent drop from a peak rate of more than 247,000 in early January.

Nearly every state is recording declines in these metrics, bringing the seven-day average of deaths below 2,000 a day for the first time since early December.

Cases are expected to fall as vaccines are distributed more widely. More than 44m Americans have received at least one dose of a coronavirus vaccine, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

While there were some delays to vaccinations because of winter storms last week — causing the seven-day average of vaccinations to fall to 1.46m as of February 17 — the Biden administration is on track to reach its goal of 100m doses within its first 100 days.

The wild card facing public health officials is the emergence of new, more infectious variants of the virus that could hamper the effectiveness of the vaccine rollout.

Rochelle Walensky, director of the CDC, last week warned that the B.1.1.7 variant, which was first detected in the UK, was “likely to be the dominant strain” in the US in the coming months and urged Americans to avoid unnecessary travel.

The US was still counting the number of cases of the strains in the thousands. The CDC said there have been 1,661 cases of B.1.1.7 in 44 states; 22 cases of 501.V2, which was first discovered in South Africa; and five of P1, which originated in Brazil.

However, the US could be underestimating the number of such cases because it is just beginning to increase genomic surveillance, which previously hampered its ability to understand the spread of the variants.

Farmworkers in California wait to receive the BioNTech/Pfizer vaccine © Bing Guan/Bloomberg

Experts were divided about the effect of the strains, said Brown University’s Jha. Some fear the US will experience a wave similar to those registered in the UK, Denmark and Portugal. Others, including Jha, are hopeful the US will take preventive measures and benefit from being further along in the vaccine rollout.

“This is not the time to start relaxing policies. It is not the time to say, ‘Let’s open up restaurants and bars’,’’ Jha said. “This is the time to stay relatively hunkered down until we have a lot more clarity about where this is going to go.”

So far, Covid-19 vaccines have been able to tackle the variant first discovered in the UK, but there are concerns about whether the South African strain will evade immune responses generated by the vaccine.

The US vaccine rollout will receive a boost from new jabs, beginning with Johnson & Johnson, which is likely to receive an emergency authorisation after the regulator holds its advisory meeting on Friday.

J&J plans to supply 100m doses to the US in the first half of 2020. However, Anthony Fauci, the chief medical adviser to the Biden administration, said J&J would not significantly boost supplies in the short term.

In the spring, the Food and Drug Administration is likely to consider vaccines from Novavax and Oxford/AstraZeneca for approval, which, together, could boost supplies by up to 400m. The Biden administration has already ordered enough doses to fully vaccinate every American. 

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