The United States will within hours record its unfathomable 500,000th death from COVID-19 paradoxically at a moment of rare hope in the pandemic. Yet the tragic landmark will occur with the White House loath to predict when the crisis may ease as it balances critical political and epidemiological risks.
A warning from Dr. Anthony Fauci on CNN Sunday that Americans could be wearing masks into 2022 came as leading medical associations pleaded for extended vigilance from people exhausted by months of self-isolating and the punishing economic impact of the worst public health calamity in 100 years. But the national dichotomy between fear and hope was exemplified by an announcement that more vaccines than ever are being sent to states and a fast ebbing of new cases of the novel coronavirus across most of the country.
The symbolic power of the half a million figure emphasizes the horror of the nightmare that seized the country a year ago. On February 23, 2020, ex-President Donald Trump crowed that “we have it very much under control” and “we’ve had no deaths,” revealing his unpreparedness for the disaster that was about to unfold on his watch.
In a contrast to the former President, who rarely shouldered the nation’s collective grief, President Joe Biden and first lady Jill Biden plan to mark the 500,000th American death from COVID-19 with a candlelighting ceremony at the White House Monday that will include Vice President Kamala Harris and her husband Doug Emhoff.
The current death toll of nearly 499,000 represents more than six average NFL stadiums worth of victims — in the days when carefree crowds could still pack into mass sporting events. Each is a grandparent, parent, son, daughter or sibling taken in a horrendous death toll — the world’s worst in the pandemic — almost equivalent to the combined US losses in two world wars.
“It’s terrible, it’s really horrible,” Fauci, the government’s top infectious diseases specialist, told CNN’s Dana Bash on “State of the Union.”
“People decades from now are going to be talking about this as a terribly historic milestone in the history of this country, to have these many people to have died from a respiratory-borne infection,” Fauci said.
Reasons for hope amid fresh warning signs
The crisis swept away one President — who didn’t sufficiently prioritize the health of his nation over his own political prospects — and is now testing another, who is vowing this week to be “laser focused” on a $1.9 trillion COVID relief package designed to hasten the end of the pandemic and to ease its awful economic consequences.
Perhaps more than at any previous moment of the current crisis, there are reasons for optimism that even if normality is months away, the hopelessness of the darkest winter in modern American history may be lifting.
New COVID-19 cases are falling sharply across the country, amazingly down by a quarter week-on-week. Deaths, a lagging indicator, are also beginning to ease. The vaccine effort is cranking up and is likely to overcome a slowdown caused by a blitz of winter weather by the middle of the week. More than 63 million vaccine doses have been administered and Biden says there will be enough shots available for every American by the end of July. More studies suggest that the Moderna and Pfizer vaccines authorized in the US may also prevent infection and not just symptomatic disease, a key factor in ending the pandemic. The arrival of spring in a few weeks, and warmer weather that makes it harder for the virus to spread, may bring more than the usual sense of renewal this year.
Still, there are many reasons to be cautious. The arrival in the US of viral variants from the UK and South Africa underscores how the country is in a race against time to vaccinate before the virus mutates further. New US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention data on Sunday showed 1,700 cases in the US of the fast-spreading variants, which experts fear could dominate home-grown infections within weeks. And the struggle to open schools after some kids have been stuck in nearly a year of online learning is a lesson in just how difficult it will be to get the economy and the country fully and safely open again.
Such complications — and a desire to brace the country for the long haul if necessary — are informing a hyper cautious approach from Biden, which in itself contrasts with the misplaced bullishness of the previous White House.
“God willing, this Christmas will be different than the last,” the President said in Michigan on Friday, expanding on a comment he had first made in a CNN town hall in Wisconsin earlier in the week.
“But I can’t make that commitment to you. There are other strains of the virus. We don’t know what could happen in terms of (vaccine) production rates. Things can change. But we’re doing everything the science has indicated we should do, and people are stepping up.”
Fauci explained Biden’s caution on “State of the Union” when he noted that the President had warned against making projections.
“These are just projections that are estimates and a lot of things can happen to modify that. And that’s the reason why we have got to be careful, because you have variants that you need to deal with. There are so many other things that would make a projection that I give you today, on this Sunday, wind up not being the case six months from now,” Fauci said.
The uncertainty was one reason why Fauci said that it was “possible” mask wearing might still be necessary into 2022, depending on the level of virus that remains in the community over the next year or so.
“When it goes way down, and the overwhelming majority of the people in the population are vaccinated, then I would feel comfortable in saying, we need to pull back on the masks, we don’t need to have masks,” Fauci said.
The fast decline in COVID-19 cases, reflecting the tailing off of the holiday season surge, will inevitably increase pressure for a swifter return to business as usual. Indeed some states have already significantly eased restrictions on restaurants and retail industries. The shifting dynamics will cause a growing political headache for the President if he seeks a deliberate pace to reopening. The lesson of Trump’s over-hasty demands to get back to normal last summer, which helped cause a disastrous surge of infections, is that declaring victory too fast is unwise and could create the conditions for existing and evolving mutations of the virus to find a foothold and lengthen the pandemic.
Three influential medical associations on Sunday issued a warning that despite signs of hope, the challenges from COVID-19 remain serious.
“With new, more contagious variants of the virus circulating throughout the US, now is not the time to let your guard down and scale back on the measures that we know will work to prevent further illness and deaths,” the American Medical Association, American Hospital Association and American Nurses Association said in a statement.
It’s a message that mirrors the White House’s own — cautious optimism but with the knowledge that the pernicious nature of this murderous pandemic, which has consistently busted through projected death tolls and could claim tens of thousands more lives, means that nothing can be taken for granted.