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Biden says COVID-19 death toll will likely top 500,000 next month, asks Americans to wear mask for his first 100 days

The COVID-19 death toll in the United States will likely top 500,000 next month, President Joe Biden said in a news conference Thursday, as he portrayed his administration’s plan to respond to the pandemic as a “wartime undertaking.”

Part of that plan involves asking Americans to wear masks for the first 100 days of his administration — a step that could save thousands of lives, he said — as it works to improve the vaccine rollout.

“The masks have become a partisan issue, unfortunately,” Biden said, “but it’s a patriotic act.”

“The fact is they’re the single best thing we can do,” he said. “If we do this as Americans, the experts say by wearing a mask from now until April, we’d save more than 50,000 lives.”

More than 408,000 Americans have died of COVID-19 as of Thursday afternoon, according to data from Johns Hopkins University. More than 62,000 deaths have been recorded this month, making January 2021 the second deadliest month of the pandemic, behind December 2020.

Biden’s warning of tens of thousands more deaths in just a few weeks echoes the latest ensemble forecast by the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, which projects the death toll could reach up to 508,000 by February 13.

Biden’s remarks came on his first full day in office, which marked one year since the first patient with COVID-19 was identified in the US. That number has since ballooned to more than 24.5 million as of Thursday, according to Johns Hopkins.

The President signed a series of executive orders to address the crisis on several fronts, including setting up a pandemic testing board.

“Let me be clear: Things are going to get worse before they get better,” Biden said, adding that a memorial he held for COVID-19 victims this week will not be the last.

“But let me be equally clear: We will get through this. We will defeat this pandemic,” he said.

New cases slightly down

While the US is far from out of the woods, CNN analysis of Johns Hopkins data shows slight dips in new daily cases.

New cases are down 21% compared to last week, the largest week-over-week drop since the pandemic began. As of Wednesday the average number of new cases over the last seven days remained high, at 194,252 — but that marked a dip below the 200,000 per day average the country has consistently seen for weeks.

As of Thursday morning, 43 states were reporting decreases in new COVID-19 cases greater than 10% compared to last week, according to CNN’s analysis.

Six states — Maine, New Hampshire, New Jersey, South Carolina, Texas and Vermont — were holding steady compared to the week prior. Only Virginia showed an upward trend in cases greater than 10% compared to last week.

And according to data from the COVID Tracking Project, the US has a 9.81% positivity rate over the last seven days, dropping below the 10% threshold for the first time since late November.

Biden team tackles COVID-19

There remain significant challenges with vaccine supply across the country, according to state officials. And sources tell CNN that Biden and his advisers are inheriting no coronavirus vaccine distribution plan from the outgoing Trump administration.

But Dr. Anthony Fauci, the nation’s top infectious disease expert and Biden’s chief medical adviser, said the United States can reach the President’s goal of 100 million shots in 100 days — and may even be able to surpass it.”

“The President has made this his top priority,” Fauci told ABC’s “Good Morning America,” adding he was set to meet with Biden later Thursday to brief him on COVID-19 and vaccine distribution.

“As he says, he’s going to do everything that he needs to do to make sure we have a successful rollout of the vaccines, get it into people’s arms and get as many people vaccinated as we possibly can,” Fauci said.

New CDC director Dr. Rochelle Walensky on Thursday told NBC News the agency was working with the federal government’s Operation Warp Speed, vaccine manufacturers and the states to understand the supply issues.

But in the meantime, “right now, I think we still have vaccine on the shelves that we need to get into people,” she said. Federal officials are looking at a “diverse” rollout plan, she said, involving community vaccination centers, stadiums and mobile units to get vaccines to everyone across the country.

Biden also announced the US would rejoin the World Health Organization, a move Fauci said was important for an effective global response.

“The official announcement that we are rejoining, we’re going to live up to our financial commitments and a whole bunch of other things, it was really a very good day,” Fauci said. “The response I’m getting from my colleagues all over the world is really very, very refreshing.”

‘A constant pattern of basically running out’ of vaccine

As of Wednesday, more than 16.5 million doses have been administered in the US, and nearly 2.2 million Americans are fully vaccinated, the CDC said. And the push to get people vaccinated has grown even as officials work to meet demand with limited supply.

“Demand for the vaccine will be much greater than the supply for some time,” Iowa Gov. Kim Reynolds said in a Thursday news conference.

She said her state is 46th nationally in the amount of doses allocated, with just 19,500 doses each week, though the state is ranked 15th for administering the vaccine. She’s not sure why the state is receiving few doses but hopes that Iowa will be allocated more doses in the coming weeks, perhaps by the first week of February.

“We are doing a lot with relatively little vaccine,” Reynolds said.

New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo said the state is administering about 65,000 doses a day — a rate that will deplete its current supply in two or three days. “What’s clear now is that we will be going from week to week and you will see a constant pattern of basically running out, waiting for the next week’s allocation and then starting up again,” Cuomo said.

The state will receive 250,400 doses next week, but Cuomo urged Biden to increase the supply to states immediately.

“At this current rate of supply, it takes seven and a half months to get enough vaccine for the currently eligible population,” Cuomo said.

Wisconsin Gov. Tony Evers issued a statewide mask mandate on Tuesday while the state waited for more vaccine doses.

“At the end of the day, vaccine supplies are limited, so while we continue to ask the federal government for more vaccines and faster, we have to keep working together to stop the spread today,” Evers said, “by continuing to wear our masks, staying home whenever we can, avoiding gatherings, and doubling down on our efforts to keep our friends, neighbors, and families safe.”

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