The United States has suffered its deadliest month yet of the coronavirus outbreak. The death toll has now climbed past 440,000, with more than 95,000 lives lost in January alone.
Deaths are running at about 3150 per day on average, down slightly by about 200 from their peak in mid-January.
Nevertheless, there are some encouraging signs of progress: Covid-19 cases and hospitalisations are plummeting as vaccinations pick up speed. The number of Americans in the hospital with Covid-19 has today fallen below 100,000 for the first time in two months. New cases of infection are averaging about 148,000 per day, falling from almost a quarter-million in mid-January. And cases are trending downward in all 50 states.
The question now is whether the nation can stay ahead of the fast-spreading mutations of the virus.
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"While the recent decline in cases and hospital admissions are encouraging, they are counterbalanced by the stark reality that in January we recorded the highest number of Covid-19 deaths in any month since the pandemic began," said Dr Rochelle Walensky, director of the Centres for Disease Control and Prevention.
Deaths do not move in perfect lockstep up or down with the infection curve. They are a lagging indicator, because it can take a few weeks for people to get sick and die from Covid-19.
Dr Philip Landrigan, an epidemiologist at Boston College, said vaccines are a factor in the sharp drop in cases but are not the primary cause. Instead, he said, the crisis has become increasingly "depoliticised" in recent weeks as more people come to grips with the threat and how they can help slow the spread of the virus.
"I don't think you can underestimate the importance of this culture change. I think it's critically important," he said. After a slow start, the vaccination drive that began in mid-December is picking up the pace. More than 32.2 million doses have been administered in the US, according to the CDC. That is up from 16.5 million on the day President Joe Biden took office, January 20.
The number of vaccine shots dispensed in the week and a half since Biden's inauguration has been running at around 1.3 million per day on average, well over the President's oft-stated goal of 1 million per day. More than 5.9 million Americans have received the required two doses, the CDC said.
Three mutated variants of the virus from Britain, South Africa and Brazil have been detected in the US. The British one spreads more easily and is believed to be deadlier, but the South Africa one is prompting even more concern because of early indications that vaccines may not be as protective against it.
The more the virus spreads, the more opportunities it has to mutate. Walensky urged Americans to get vaccinated as soon as shots become available to them, and stressed it's no time to relax basic precautions such as wearing masks.