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In February, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention warned that the United States should brace for a domestic coronavirus outbreak. Just one month later, the World Health Organization officially declared COVID-19 a pandemic, and President Trump announced a national state of emergency. Over the past nine months, the number of confirmed cases of COVID-19 has risen dramatically, with more than 71.1 million across the globe. But the U.S. has suffered the largest outbreak in the world. As of December 13, more than 16.2 million people across every state; Washington, D.C.; and four territories have tested positive for the disease, and nearly 300,000 people with the virus have died.
It is hard to overstate the severity of the national trajectory: Across the U.S., coronavirus cases are surging to terrifying, unprecedented levels, with nearly every state suffering what one trusted tracker has characterized as “uncontrolled spread.” The U.S. recorded over 4 million new cases in November, more than double October’s record of 1.9 million. Per the New York Times, there are “almost no hopeful signs in the data,” although the approval of a vaccine does present a bright spot.
Here’s everything to know about the spread of the virus in the U.S.
How many new coronavirus cases have been confirmed in the U.S.?
As of December 13, there have been at least 16,262,400 confirmed cases of COVID-19 in the U.S., and the death toll is now at least 298,649.
Back in May, President Trump predicted that the U.S. would see “anywhere from 75,000, 80,000, to 100,000” fatalities from the virus. Now, the U.S. has reported more deaths from COVID-19 than any other country, and is seeing the highest single-day increases of any country in the world. Though the U.S. accounts for 4 percent of the world’s population, it has had around 20 percent of the world’s coronavirus deaths — by far the largest gap of any affluent country. Still, many public-health experts believe that the official numbers significantly underestimate the pandemic’s true toll.
Though cases had been on a downward trajectory after the widespread lockdowns in March and April, the virus spread rapidly throughout the summer — especially in regions of the country that were early to reopen, including the South and West. Now, the New York Times reports, the U.S. is averaging roughly six times as many new cases per day and thrice as many deaths. Over the past week, the country has reported an average of 208,097 new cases per day, a 28 percent increase from the average just two weeks earlier. Throughout late October and early November, the nation also broke new records for daily cases almost as soon as it set them: Just one day after the daily tally surpassed 90,000, on October 30, the country reported more than 99,000 new cases. On November 4, the country clocked over 100,000 new cases for the first time since the pandemic began. On November 10, the tally was 139,855. On November 13, more than 181,000 new cases were reported in a 24-hour timespan. As of November 29, more than 170,000 people were testing positive across the country on an average day. The numbers have continued to trend upward this month, with a record-breaking 3,000-plus deaths recording on December 9. One epidemiologist recently warned the Times: “The worst is yet to come in the next week or two or three.”
Texas became the first state to surpass 1 million total cases on November 10, and now counts 1,473,706 total cases. Texas has had the nation’s largest outbreak for weeks, but has now been surpassed by California, which just became the first state to add more than 30,000 new cases in a single day, and counts 1,558,275 total. In comparison, New York, the early epicenter of the pandemic, has recorded a total of 770,804 cases. For weeks, the worst outbreaks have been occurring in rural areas within the Upper Midwest, the Great Plains, and the Mountain West, although the situation is dire across the country, and case counts have recently begun climbing in mid-sized and large cities. With numbers rising in almost every state across the board — Hawaii continues to be an exception — many officials are considering stay-at-home measures and other precautionary measures to mitigate the spread, which shows no sign of abating.
Public-health experts expected a situation like this. On October 18, Michael Osterholm, director of the Center for Infectious Disease Research and Policy at the University of Minnesota, told NBC that “the next six to 12 weeks are going to be the darkest of the entire pandemic.” Thanksgiving and the holiday season have been particularly concerning lately, as public-health experts say that small indoor gatherings are driving new COVID-19 outbreaks. “You get one person who’s asymptomatic and infected and then all of a sudden, four or five people in that gathering are infected,” Fauci said during a recent livestreamed interview. “To me, that’s the exact scenario that you’re going to see on Thanksgiving.”
On November 19, CDC officials gave the agency’s first public briefing since August, advising the country against Thanksgiving travel, and gatherings outside their immediate households. Nonetheless, the Transportation Security Administration says it screened more airline passengers — 1,070,967 of them — the day before Thanksgiving than it has on any day since March. The week leading up to the holiday reportedly saw 6.8 million people filter through the nation’s airports. “The travel, the congregate setting, not wearing masks — the chances are that you will see a surge superimposed upon a surge,” Fauci said of holiday gatherings. “What we’re doing now is going to be reflected two, three weeks from now.” Now, that prediction appears to be proving true.
The largest COVID-19 outbreaks have been in nursing homes, correctional facilities, and meat-processing plants. Additionally, federal data shows that Black and Latino people in the U.S. have been three times as likely to contract the virus as white people and that they have been nearly twice as likely to die from it. While elderly and immunocompromised people accounted for a large share of COVID-19 infections at the start of the pandemic, in recent months, younger people have been testing positive more than any other age group, and many outbreaks have been linked to schools and universities that have resumed in-person classes. As of November, roughly 1.2 million children have tested positive since the beginning of the pandemic, the American Academy of Pediatrics reported.
How has the Trump administration responded to the pandemic?
In March, President Trump declared a national emergency over the coronavirus pandemic, effectively freeing up to $50 billion in federal funds to help states and territories fight the spread of the virus. He also signed a $2 trillion stimulus plan, the largest in modern American history, which sent direct payments of around $1,200 to millions of Americans who earn less than $99,000, along with an additional $500 per child. Negotiations on a second, scaled-back aid proposal bill were ongoing until, in early October, the president ordered Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin to put everything on hold until after the election. Meanwhile, the Trump administration has asked the Supreme Court to overturn the Affordable Care Act, which could take away health-insurance access from as many as 23 million Americans.
President Trump has repeatedly downplayed the seriousness of the current outbreaks and told his supporters at a rally in Ohio in September that the virus “affects virtually nobody.” He has previously, falsely, claimed that “99 percent” of cases are “totally harmless” — despite the fact that he told journalist Bob Woodward in early February that he knew the virus was airborne and “more deadly than even your strenuous flus.” On October 1, Trump announced that he and Melania had tested positive for the coronavirus. Although he reportedly worried he “could be one of the diers,” after being treated with several different drugs, Trump was back to holding large public events one week later, repeating his claim that the coronavirus is “disappearing.” (Meanwhile, infections within the president’s orbit still continue to climb.)
What is Biden’s coronavirus-response plan?
Days after winning enough electoral votes to secure the presidency, President-elect Joe Biden announced his coronavirus task force, which was met with widespread praise — namely because, unlike Trump’s task force, Biden’s includes an impressive slate of epidemiologists and infectious-disease experts. Whereas Trump’s team was led by Vice-President Mike Pence, who fueled an HIV outbreak in Indiana while he was governor, Biden’s will be led by Vivek Murthy, surgeon general under Obama. Additionally, the president-elect has pledged to reverse Trump’s withdrawal from the World Health Organization, and spoken about his plans to enforce mask mandates and expand testing infrastructure. On December 4, Biden said he would ask the country to commit to wearing masks for 100 days. He has also said he wants to distribute 100 million vaccines in that time.
But none of this will be simple. Biden has inherited a public-health crisis that is all but certain to get much, much worse before he is inaugurated. And, if Republicans maintain control of the Senate, he’ll likely meet resistance in implementing all of his plans.
When will we get a coronavirus vaccine?
Researchers worldwide have been working around the clock to develop a safe and effective vaccine and get it on the market as soon as possible, a process that can sometimes take up to a decade. On November 9, we received a much-needed bit of promising news: Pfizer, one of the four U.S. drug companies with a vaccine in late-stage trials, announced that its two-dose vaccine was more than 90 percent effective in preventing COVID-19 in an ongoing trial, according to an early analysis. Now, the company believes its product to be 95 percent effective. Shortly thereafter, Moderna announced that late-stage trials of its vaccine also showed a 95 percent efficacy rate.
On December 11, the FDA authorized Pfizer’s vaccine for emergency use, and the first round of vaccinations — for health-care workers at high risk of exposure to the virus — will begin Monday, December 14. Moderna’s vaccine could be distributed starting December 21.
However, as epidemiologists have long warned, distributing a vaccine to the public is logistically challenging, so it’s unlikely we’ll have widespread distribution until early-to-mid-2021. Meaning, we won’t be abandoning masks or social-distancing precautions anytime soon. The Pfizer vaccine, in particular, presents a shipping puzzle: It must be stored at negative 94 degrees Fahrenheit in special, deep-freeze “suitcases,” and those can only be opened two times a day for 180-second intervals, at best. Moderna’s option can be stored at temperatures between 36 to 46 degrees Fahrenheit.
Meanwhile, other potential coronavirus treatments are undergoing clinical studies to determine their efficacy. On October 22, the Food and Drug Administration formally approved the country’s first treatment for COVID-19, the anti-viral drug remdesivir, which the FDA commissioner called “an important scientific milestone in the COVID-19 pandemic.” The FDA also recently issued emergency authorization to an antibody therapy called bamlanivimab. And on November 21, the FDA granted emergency authorization for the experimental antibody cocktail made by Regeneron, which Trump touted as a miracle cure, for treating COVID patients.
What should I do to minimize my coronavirus risk?
The two best ways to protect yourself and others from the coronavirus, according to public-health experts, is to wear a face mask and practice social distancing. (38 states, plus Washington, D.C., and Puerto Rico, require residents to wear masks in public settings when social distancing is not possible.) Also, maybe consider lowering the decibel of your voice, as some research shows that speaking quietly instead of yelling — which sends an abundance of respiratory droplets and aerosols out into the air — can lower the rate of virus transmission.
If you have symptoms associated with coronavirus — particularly coughing, fever, respiratory issues — call your doctor before showing up at their office: The virus is highly contagious and you want to limit the possibility of spreading it. If you are sick, the CDC recommends that you stay home and self-isolate, confining yourself to one room as much as possible and wearing a mask when you have to interact with others. Wash your hands frequently — soap and water and at least 20 seconds of scrubbing — and avoid touching shared household items, cleaning “high touch” surfaces (like your phone) regularly.
This post is being regularly updated with new developments.