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March 5, 2021, 10:57 a.m. EST

U.S. COVID-19 death toll tops 520,000 as Dr. Fauci cautions against reopening too soon

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Ciara Linnane

The U.S. death toll from the coronavirus-borne illness COVID-19 climbed above 520,000 on Friday, as Dr. Anthony Fauci became the latest health expert to slam state officials for prematurely dropping restrictions on movement at a time when their case numbers remain high and their vaccine programs are making slow progress.

 “I don’t know why they’re doing it but it’s certainly, from a public health standpoint, ill-advised,” Fauci, head of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, told CNN’s Erin Burnett.

Fauci said the decision by Texas and Mississippi to drop precautions, including in the case of Texas, its statewide face mask mandate, is “inexplicable.”

Past instances where declining case numbers also encouraged states to move too quickly to reopen, “and we know what happened next. What we don’t need right now is another surge.”

Fauci’s comments echoed those of the head of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention over the past week. Dr. Rochelle Walensky has repeatedly warned that declining case numbers have stalled at a high level, and urged Americans to stick with the recommended safeguards — frequent hand washing, social distancing and wearing a face mask in public — until it’s their turn to be vaccinated.

See also: California lawmakers OK $6.6 billion plan with incentives for schools to reopen

Dr. Peter Hotez, dean of the National School of Tropical Medicine and professor of pediatrics and molecular virology and microbiology at the Baylor College of Medicine in Houston, told MSNBC the good news right now is that the vaccines are working.

“The best news I can offer is we are going to vaccinate our way out of this, because we have new information now that these vaccines are not only stopping symptomatic illness, which we knew from the clinical trials, but data coming out of Israel that shows that two doses –this was a study published in the New England Journal (of Medicine) last week — that the vaccine is actually helping asymptomatic transmission.

“So we’re going to prevent people from becoming PCR positive. That means we can vaccinate our way out of this epidemic if the other vaccines perform that way. The hard part right now is about preventing people form dying before we have enough vaccine available.”

Hotez also addressed the challenges facing long-haulers, those patients who continue to suffer sometimes severe symptoms for months after testing positive. He said low-income and minority communities were being hit especially hard as they don’t have the same access to therapies and clinics as wealthier communities.

The CDC’s vaccine tracker is showing that as of 6 a.m. ET Thursday, 109.9 million doses had been delivered to states, 82.6 million doses had been administered and 54 million people had received one or more doses, equal to 16.3% of the population.

President Joe Biden said this week vaccine supply would be greatly boosted by the news that Merck /zigman2/quotes/209956077/composite MRK +0.70% will help produce rival Johnson & Johnson’s /zigman2/quotes/201724570/composite JNJ -0.40% newly authorized one-shot vaccine , likening the partnership between the two drug companies to the spirit of national cooperation during World War II.

The White House is expecting to take delivery of enough coronavirus vaccine for all adults by the end of May—two months earlier than anticipated, because of the Merck deal.

A Gallup survey published Friday found that Americans have become much more optimistic about their views of the trajectory of the pandemic and worries about access to testing, medical supplies and services have eased. A full 60% of those polled said they believe the crisis is getting better, while 26% said it’s staying the same and 14% said it’s getting worse.

“This record-high optimism likely reflects the steep decline in new COVID-19 cases in the U.S. in late January and early February,” said the authors of the survey. 

The U.S. added at least 67,415 new COVID cases on Thursday, according to a New York Times tracker, and at least 1,949 people died. The U.S. has averaged 62,924 cases a day for the past week, down 14% from the average two weeks ago.

The U.S. continues to lead the world by case numbers and deaths, according to data aggregated by Johns Hopkins University. The U.S. has 28.8 million confirmed cases of COVID, or about 25% of the global total, and 520,367 fatalities, or about a fifth of the global toll.

In other news:

• Moderna Inc. /zigman2/quotes/205619834/composite MRNA -3.97% is pursuing approval for its COVID-19 vaccine in Japan in partnership with Takeda Pharmaceutical Co. /zigman2/quotes/201302442/delayed JP:4502 -0.33% , MarketWatch’s Jaimy Lee reported. Takeda submitted the new drug application and will be tasked with importing and distributing the vaccine from the Cambridge, Mass.-based company. Takeda is also conducting the Phase 1/2 trial of the vaccine in adults who are at least 20 years old there; enrollment ended in February. If approved, Takeda will distribute 50 million doses of Moderna’s two-dose vaccine in Japan in the first half of 2021.

• The National Institutes of Health said Thursday that it stopped enrollment in two clinical trials evaluating experimental COVID-19 therapies after discovering they likely do not provide a benefit to hospitalized patients. The treatment candidates are GlaxoSmithKline PLC /zigman2/quotes/209463850/composite GSK +0.39%   /zigman2/quotes/200381158/delayed UK:GSK +1.32% and Vir Biotechnology Inc.’s /zigman2/quotes/214486077/composite VIR -1.59%  monoclonal antibody therapy and the privately held Brii Biosciences Inc.’s monoclonal antibody cocktail. Vir  told investors on Thursday that the NIH had notified the company about stopping the trial. There were no safety concerns for either therapy.

• New research indicates that ivermectin, a type of treatment for parasitic worms, does not help patients with mild COVID-19 recover any faster. The peer-reviewed  study , published Thursday in JAMA, examined the findings of a double-blind, randomized trial conducted in Cali, Colombia, in roughly 475 people with mild symptoms of COVID-19. Researchers concluded “the findings do not support the use of ivermectin for treatment of mild COVID-19, although larger trials may be needed to understand the effects of ivermectin on other clinically relevant outcomes.” The drug first caught the attention of clinicians in the early days of the pandemic after an  in-vitro preprint study  said the drug can inhibit replication of SARS-CoV-2, the virus that causes COVID-19. However, the Food and Drug Administration and others said that trials needed to be conducted before the drug should be prescribed to COVID-19 patients.

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