NEW YORK — Coronavirus deaths are rising in nearly two-thirds of American states as a winter surge pushes the overall toll toward 400,000 amid warnings that a new, highly contagious variant is taking hold.
As Americans observed a national holiday Monday, New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo pleaded with federal authorities to curtail travel from countries where new variants are spreading.
Referring to new versions detected in Britain, South Africa and Brazil, Cuomo said: “Stop those people from coming here…. Why are you allowing people to fly into this country and then it’s too late?”
The U.S. government has already curbed travel from some of the places where the new variants are spreading — such as Britain and Brazil — and recently it announced that it would require proof of a negative COVID-19 test for anyone flying into the country.
But the new variant seen in Britain is already spreading in the U.S., and the Centers for Disease Control and Protection has warned that it will probably become the dominant version in the country by March. The CDC said the variant is about 50% more contagious than the virus that is causing the bulk of cases in the U.S.
While the variant does not cause more severe illness, it has been blamed for causing more hospitalizations and deaths because it spreads more easily.
As things stands, many states are already under tremendous strain. The seven-day rolling average of daily deaths is rising in 30 states and the District of Columbia, and on Monday the U.S. was approaching 398,000 deaths overall, according to data collected by Johns Hopkins University — by far the highest recorded death toll of any country in the world.
One of the states hardest it during the recent surge is Arizona, where the rolling average has risen over the past two weeks from about 90 deaths per day to about 160 per day on Jan. 17.
Rural Yuma County — known as the winter lettuce capital of the U.S. — is now one of the state’s hot spots. Exhausted nurses there are now regularly sending COVID-19 patients on a long helicopter ride to hospitals in Phoenix when they don’t have enough staff. The county has lagged on coronavirus testing in heavily Hispanic neighbourhoods and just ran out of vaccines.
But some support is coming from military nurses and a new wave of free tests for farmworkers and the elderly in Yuma County.
Amid the surge, a vast effort is underway to get Americans vaccinated, but the campaign is off to an uneven start. According to the latest federal data, about 31.2 million doses of vaccine have been distributed, but only about 10.6 million people have received at least one dose.
Maryland Gov. Larry Hogan, in a livestreamed event on Martin Luther King Jr. Day, received a shot, and urged other Marylanders to do likewise.
“We’re all looking forward to the day we can take off and throw away our masks … when we can go out for a big celebration at our favourite crowded restaurant or bar with all our family and friends,” Hogan said. “The only way we are going to return to a sense of normalcy is by these COVID-19 vaccines.”
Hogan’s wife, Yumi, also got a dose by a National Guard medic, as did Lt. Gov. Boyd Rutherford and his wife, Monica.
In New York, Cuomo said the state, which has recorded more than 40,000 deaths, as “in a footrace” between the vaccination rate and the infection rate. He said federal authorities needed to improve their efforts to get vaccine doses distributed swiftly.
Similar challenges are surfacing worldwide.
The World Health Organization chief on Monday lambasted drugmakers’ profits and vaccine inequalities, saying it’s “not right” that younger, healthier adults in some wealthy countries get vaccinated against COVID-19 before older people or health care workers in poorer countries.
Director-General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus began WHO’s executive board meeting by lamenting that one poor country received a mere 25 vaccine doses while over 39 million doses have been administered in nearly 50 richer nations.
“Just 25 doses have been given in one lowest income country — not 25 million, not 25,000 — just 25. I need to be blunt: The world is on the brink of a catastrophic moral failure,” Tedros said. He did not specify the country, but a WHO spokeswoman identified it as Guinea.
Tedros, an Ethiopian who goes by his first name, nonetheless hailed the scientific achievement behind rolling out coronavirus vaccines less than a year after the pandemic erupted in China, where a WHO-backed team has now been deployed to look into origins of the coronavirus.
“Vaccines are the shot in the arm we all need, literally and figuratively,” Tedros said. “But we now face the real danger that even as vaccines bring hope to some, they become another brick in the wall of inequality between the worlds of the world’s haves and have-nots.”
David Crary, The Associated Press