The United States’ coronavirus death toll could reach 534,000 by February 27, according to an ensemble forecast by the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention — which would amount to about one death per minute over the last year.
The US first reported a Covid-19 death on February 29 last year, though at least two earlier deaths from the virus were later discovered and counted. Wednesday’s forecast, which would add about 83,000 deaths to the current tally of more than 450,800, comes as health experts urge a faster pace for vaccinations to get ahead of more-transmissible variants, which they fear could send cases surging.
The best way to prevent variants from dominating the pandemic is to prevent the replication of the virus through quick vaccination and health measures to prevent spread, said National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases Director Dr. Anthony Fauci.
Currently, the US is not vaccinating at a rate fast enough to get ahead of the variants, he said, but “we’re getting better and better,” Fauci told NBC News on Wednesday.
The number of variants in the US and how quickly they are spreading can be difficult for researchers to trace because of the amount of genetic sequencing it takes throughout the country, according to New York City’s health adviser, Jay Varma.
“I think the safest thing to do is for us to plan on the assumption that there are a lot more cases than the variants than we know about,” Varma said.
Given the unknowns about the variants and the length of time it will take to get the US at a herd immunity threshold with vaccines, this is not the time to give up on masks, Dr. Ricardo Franco of the Center for AIDS Research at the University Alabama at Birmingham said.
“This game is at halftime,” Franco said. “We need to keep pushing and not give the virus a chance to play well in the second half.”
New vaccines offer hope
Two more vaccines could soon be joining the fight against the virus.
In the preprint posted Tuesday by researchers at the University of Oxford, the AstraZeneca Covid-19 vaccine showed 66.7% efficacy against symptomatic disease starting two weeks after the second shot. Oxford researchers also suggested the vaccine may reduce transmission of the virus, rather than simply reducing the severity of disease.
“I certainly have every reason to believe the Brits, but I’d like to see the data myself,” Fauci told NBC’s Savannah Guthrie of the data that has not yet been peer-reviewed.
However, if it is true that it stops transmission, he said, “That’s good news, you know, yet again another vaccine candidate in the mix.”
The data suggests that the vaccine can reduce transmission by as much as two-thirds, “which is a stunning discovery if true,” Richard Horton, editor in chief of The Lancet, told CNN on Wednesday.
The Lancet is currently conducting a scientific peer review of the research.
Meanwhile, Johnson & Johnson is expected to apply to the Food and Drug Administration this week for emergency use authorization for its one-dose vaccine candidate. If authorized, it would be the third vaccine to be allowed in the US market, joining two-dose products from Pfizer/BioNTech and Moderna.
“I don’t want to get ahead of the FDA, but I would not be surprised … if this (emergency use authorization for Johnson & Johnson) happens within the next week or two,” Fauci told NBC on Wednesday.
Schools districts and teachers at odds over reopening
The push to get students back into the classroom amid the pandemic has brought lawsuits and threats of strikes.
However, CDC Director Dr. Rochelle Walensky said Wednesday that data increasingly supports the safety of returning to schools under the right conditions.
With weekly screenings of students, teachers and staff using rapid antigen tests, schools can reduce their infections by 50% for high schools and 35% for primary schools, according to a new study by the Rockefeller Foundation.
But many cities are feeling frustration as schools or teachers express hesitation to return.
Chicago schools were supposed to bring students back to campus Monday, but negotiations between the district and teachers continue to avoid a strike.
In Minneapolis, after a weekend ruling that teachers cannot be forced to go back to in-person learning if they had previously asked for accommodations to work remotely, the public school district is moving forward with plans to start resuming classes for pre-K through fifth-graders on Monday. More than half of the families opted to keep their students learning remotely.
The city of San Francisco sued its own school district on Wednesday for failing to open the schools.
“The undisputed scientific consensus is that schools can reopen safely for teachers, staff and students with proper precautions, and that in-person instruction is not causing spikes in Covid-19 infections. Let’s follow the science and get the school doors open,” city attorney Dennis Herrera said in a virtual news conference.
Black and Hispanic people in the US vaccinated disproportionally less
Though Black and Hispanic Americans are often impacted by coronavirus a disproportionally higher rate, they are receiving vaccinations less, according to analysis from the Kaiser Family Foundation.
More than 20 states now report Covid-19 vaccination data by race or ethnicity, and inequities in Covid-19 vaccination are present in all of them, the analysis found.
Black people have received a smaller share of vaccinations than their share of Covid-19 cases in all 23 reporting that data, and the same is true for Hispanic people in all 21 states reporting that data.
In most of those states, Black and Hispanic people also received a smaller share of Covid-19 vaccinations than their share of deaths, with Vermont and Missouri as the exceptions.
In Vermont, the share of vaccinations among Black people was equal to the share of Covid-19 deaths among Black people, and in Vermont and Missouri, the share of vaccinations among Hispanic people were higher than the share of Covid-19 deaths among Hispanic people.
A CNN analysis of state vaccination data last week found that vaccine coverage is twice as high among White people on average than it is among Black and Hispanic people.
CORRECTION: A version of this story on Thursday morning stated that Johnson & Johnson had sought emergency use authorization for its vaccine candidate from the Food and Drug Administration. As of that time, the company had not announced such an application.