The US is braced for a post-holiday coronavirus surge as its death toll nears 350,000, with thousands more predicted to die in the coming month and doctors warning they are at “breaking point”.
New Year’s Day saw 160,606 new cases and 2,051 deaths, according to Johns Hopkins University, bringing the total caseload to 20.1m and the death toll to 347,788.
The Friday figures were down on previous days: more than 10,000 died of Covid-19 in the US in just the last three days of 2020. But given record-keeping backlogs caused by the holiday period, numbers are expected to rise again.
The University of Washington’s Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation has projected that more than 100,000 could die in the next month alone.
Hospitalisations are also soaring. The Covid Tracking Project reported a record 125,379 Covid-19 patients in hospital on Thursday and 125,057 on Friday despite more than 20 states not providing complete data.
“We really are at a breaking point,” Nicole Van Groningen, a doctor at Cedars-Sinai medical center in Los Angeles, told CBS. “We are setting records every day in terms of patients we are caring for patients who have Covid-19.”
Earlier this week, top infectious disease expert Dr Anthony Fauci warned January could be “even worse than December”.
“That’s what we’re concerned about – that in addition to the surge, we’re going to have an increase superimposed upon that surge which could make January even worse than December,” he told CNN.
He added: “I think we just have to assume that it’s going to get worse.”
The bleak forecast comes amid problems with vaccine distribution that have led the US to significantly miss its target of 20m inoculations by the end of 2020, a failure Fauci called “disappointing”.
Leaders of the federal vaccine programme, Operation Warp Speed, said on Wednesday only 2.1 million people had been vaccinated despite more than 14m doses being distributed.
The Republican senator Mitt Romney criticised federal handling of the vaccination rollout, saying it was “inexcusable” that the programme was “woefully behind”.
“That comprehensive vaccination plans have not been developed at the federal level and sent to the states as models is as incomprehensible as it is inexcusable,” he said.
A new and highly contagious variant of the virus, B117, first detected in the UK, has been found in Colorado, California and Florida. According to a reanalysis of more than 2m tests, it may have been in the US since October and already be widespread.
In Washington on Friday, in a rare New Year’s Day session in the Senate, Republicans rejected Donald Trump’s demand for $2,000 Covid-19 stimulus payments.
Democrats made a final attempt to push a House-passed bill that would boost $600 direct aid payments already approved by Congress to $2,000, as demanded by Trump. But Republicans blocked a vote, arguing for a more targeted approach.
Such a rejection of Trump’s top priorities, alongside the first veto override of his presidency, of the annual defence spending bill, showed an unusual willingness by the GOP to confront its own president.
Trump hit back on Twitter, branding Republican senators “Pathetic!!!” and adding: “Now they want to give people ravaged by the China Virus $600, rather than the $2,000 which they so desperately need. Not fair, or smart!” However, he appeared more focused on his battle to overturn the presidential election.
Democrats vowed to swiftly revive the plan for $2,000 checks when the new Congress is sworn in on Sunday.
A member of the Republican delegation, the Louisiana congressman-elect Luke Letlow, died of complications from Covid-19 on Tuesday at the age of 41. John Bel Edwards, the governor, ordered flags flown at half-staff to mark Letlow’s funeral, which was being held on Saturday.
In Virginia, Republicans said the state senator Ben Chafin had died after contracting the coronavirus. He was 60.