NEW YORK – Coronavirus deaths are rising in nearly two-thirds of American states as a winter surge pushes the overall toll toward 400,000 amid warnings that a new, highly contagious variant is taking hold.
New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo on Monday pleaded with federal authorities to curtail travel from countries where new variants are spreading.
Referring to new versions detected in Britain, South Africa and Brazil, Cuomo said: “Stop those people from coming here. ... Why are you allowing people to fly into this country and then it's too late?”
The U.S. government has curbed travel from some of the places where the new variants are spreading – such as Britain and Brazil – and recently it announced that it would require proof of a negative COVID-19 test for anyone flying into the country.
But the new variant seen in Britain is already spreading in the U.S., and the Centers for Disease Control and Protection has warned that it will probably become the dominant version in the country by March. The CDC said the variant is about 50% more contagious than the virus that is causing the bulk of cases in the U.S.
Although the variant does not cause more severe illness, it can cause more hospitalizations and deaths simply because it spreads more easily. In Britain, it has aggravated a severe outbreak that has swamped hospitals, and it has been blamed for sharp leaps in cases in some other European countries.
As things stand, many U.S. states are already under tremendous strain. The seven-day rolling average of daily deaths is rising in 30 states and the District of Columbia, and on Monday the U.S. death toll surpassed 398,000, according to data collected by Johns Hopkins University – by far the highest recorded death toll of any country in the world.
One of the states hardest hit during the recent surge is Arizona, where the rolling average has risen over the past two weeks from about 90 deaths per day to about 160 per day on Jan. 17.
“It's kind of hard to imagine it getting a lot faster than it is right now, because it is transmitting really fast right now,” said Dr. Joshua LaBaer, director of the Biodesign Institute research center at Arizona State University. “But there is some evidence that Thanksgiving didn't help things.”
Rural Yuma County is now one of the state's hot spots. Exhausted nurses there are now regularly sending COVID-19 patients on a long helicopter ride to hospitals in Phoenix when they don't have enough staff. The county has lagged on coronavirus testing in heavily Hispanic neighborhoods and just ran out of vaccines.
But some support is coming from military nurses and a new wave of free tests for farmworkers and the elderly in Yuma County.
Amid the rise in cases, a vast effort is underway to get Americans vaccinated – what Cuomo called “a footrace” between the vaccination rate and the infection rate. But the campaign is off to an uneven start. According to the latest federal data, about 31.2 million doses of vaccine have been distributed, but only about 10.6 million people have received at least one dose.
In California, which passed 3 million known coronavirus infections Monday, the state epidemiologist is urging a halt to more than 300,000 vaccinations using a Moderna vaccine version because some people received medical treatment for possible severe allergic reactions.
Dr. Erica S. Pan on Sunday recommended that providers stop using shots from a particular lot until an investigation is completed, said fewer than 10 people, who all received the vaccine at the same community site, needed medical attention over a 24-hour period.
In other areas of the country, officials are working to ensure that people take the vaccine once they're offered it amid concerns that many people are hesitant. Maryland Gov. Larry Hogan, in a livestreamed event on Martin Luther King Jr. Day, received a shot, and urged other Marylanders to do likewise.