Biden team takes charge of Covid-19 response at crucial juncture

One year to the day since the first diagnosed case of coronavirus in the US, Joe Biden has taken office in the middle of a pandemic that has stretched hospital resources to their limits and claimed the lives of about 400,000 Americans.

The president in his inauguration speech on Wednesday reflected on a “deadly virus” that had also cost millions of jobs and closed businesses and called for a unified response to address what he said “may well be the toughest and deadliest period of the virus”.

The new administration is taking office at a time of competing forces that could pull the evolution of the pandemic in any direction. Leaders and public health officials are racing to keep the vaccine rollout on track and restore public trust in an effort to blunt the risks posed by a newly identified, more infectious strain of the disease, while the death toll lurches higher.

Since the start of the pandemic in the US, almost 24m Americans have tested positive for coronavirus, while 392,428 people have died, according to Tuesday data from Covid Tracking Project. Johns Hopkins University, which uses an alternate methodology, has reported a death toll of more than 400,000.

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States have already attributed more than 53,000 deaths to coronavirus so far in January, about 24,000 fatalities shy of December’s toll, the deadliest month of the pandemic so far. CDC estimates suggest the number of US fatalities from the pandemic could reach up to 508,000 by February 13.

In his first act as president, Mr Biden called for the crowds at the Capitol and at home to join him in a moment of silent prayer to remember the people who died in the past year because of the pandemic.

The headline numbers underline the scale of the pandemic within the US, but recent trends suggest there could be some reprieve following a surge in cases, hospitalisations and deaths that may have peaked in early January, in the wake of the holiday season.

The US averaged 197,930 cases a day over the past week, according to data from Covid Tracking Project. Ten days earlier, the US was averaging a record 244,707 cases a day.

The number of people in hospital with coronavirus was 123,820, the latest tracking project data showed. While it is the lowest level in more than two weeks, healthcare resources around the country have been strained by the number of patients being treated. 

Deaths tend to lag behind trends in hospitalisations and cases. For the first time this month, the US saw the daily death toll from the pandemic exceed 4,000 on several occasions. That trend has begun to ease in the past few days, however, and the US has averaged 2,997 deaths a day over the past week. 

Mr Biden has pledged to vaccinate 100m Americans within his first 100 days in office, and also plans to call on everyone in the country to wear a mask during that time.

In the five weeks since the first vaccines were shipped, about 36m doses have been distributed to states, but only 14.3m people have received at least one shot so far, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention — well below the Trump administration’s goal of having distributed 20m jabs by the end of 2020.

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