Coronavirus Update

Jan. 7, 2021, 6:15 a.m. EST

U.S. could see up to 150,000 more COVID-19 deaths by February as new strain takes hold, expert warns

More infectious variant makes it even more crucial to get vaccine program on track after early disappointment, says Dr. Ashish Jha

By Ciara Linnane, MarketWatch


Getty Images

The U.S. set a fresh record for hospitalizations with the coronavirus-borne illness COVID-19 on Wednesday, as experts said the new, far more infectious variant makes it even more crucial to get the nation’s so-far underwhelming vaccine program on track.

The U.S. added at least 238,999 new cases on Tuesday and at least 3,664 people died, according to a New York Times tracker. The U.S. has averaged 219,684 new cases every day in the past week, confirming the worst case scenario forecasts of experts who said the holiday season would lead to fresh surges.

There was a record of 131,195 COVID-19 patients in U.S. hospitals on Tuesday, according to the COVID Tracking Project, breaking the record of 128,210 set a day earlier. The U.S. continues to lead the world by cases, at 21 million, according to data aggregated by Johns Hopkins University, and by deaths, at 359,077, or about a fifth of the global total.

The new variant of the virus, that first emerged in the U.K. where it has run rampant, has been found across the U.S. and is likely spreading in communities.

‘We should expect, without further action, that as the new strain takes hold, we will see an additional 10 million infections in the U.S. between now and end of February and during that time, we could easily see an additional 100,000 to 150,000 deaths.’

Dr. Ashish K. Jha, dean and professor of health services, policy and practice, Brown University School of Public Health

“It is, at this point, almost surely too widespread to be contained in any specific state or region of our country,” said Dr. Ashish K. Jha, dean and professor of health services, policy and practice at the Brown University School of Public Health, in a statement. “This new variant is significantly more infectious, threatening a rapid increase in rates of new cases and a much, much more deadly and destructive pandemic. This demands an urgent rethinking of our current policy responses.”

The variant has been named B.1.1.7 and is estimated to be 40% to 70% more infectious than the original virus, said Jha, although it does not so far seem to make people sicker. Officials expect it to respond to the vaccines that have so far been granted emergency use authorization for use in the pandemic. A strain that Jha called a “close cousin” of the new variant has been found in South Africa and the U.K. but has not yet been detected in the U.S.

A significant increase in rates of infection will translate into a much, much more deadly pandemic, he said.

“One epidemiologist, (Adam Kucharski, associate professor at the London School of Hygiene & Tropical Medicine), comparing a 50% increase in severity of disease with a 50% increase in infectiousness, in a hypothetical in a town with 10,000 infections increased infectiousness would lead to a five-fold increase in deaths over a month – because a lower death rate of a very large number of cases produces many more deaths than a higher death rate but a lower number of cases,” said Jha.

The new variant is estimated to account for about 1% of all infections now, but will likely account for the vast majority by March.

“We should expect, without further action, that as the new strain takes hold, we will see an additional 10 million infections in the U.S. between now and end of February and during that time, we could easily see an additional 100,000 to 150,000 deaths,” he said.

That means it is more important than ever for Americans to comply with public safety measures experts have recommended throughout the pandemic, namely frequent hand washing, social distancing and wearing a face mask in all public spaces. People should avoid gatherings that bring more than one household together, and testing must be improved, he said.

“And finally, we must redouble our efforts to vaccinate as many people as we possibly can,” said Jha.

Read now: There is only a slim chance that the vaccine will stop the COVID pandemic this year

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s vaccine tracker shows that just 4.8 million people had been dosed as of 9.00 a.m. ET on Jan. 5, and just 17 million doses had been distributed. That’s far below the most recently revised number of 20 million deliveries promised by the administration of President Donald Trump, and way off the original promise of 100 million.

Trump has left it to states to administer the vaccine program — tweeting that it was “up to the states to administer” and then calling some states “very slow” — meaning that stressed state health departments, which have already had to deal with testing, contact tracing, public information campaigns and deciding when or whether schools or businesses should be open or closed, are now tasked with handling the biggest public health effort in decades.

See: January will be worst month for U.S. pandemic so far with post-holiday travel cases seen surging

In other news:

• The European Union has granted emergency use authorization to the COVID-19 vaccine developed by Moderna Inc. (NAS:MRNA) , MarketWatch’s Jack Denton reported. The European Commission is expected to quickly grant authorization for the vaccine, allowing it to be deployed across Europe, where COVID-19 infections remain very high and millions of people continue to live under strict lockdown measures. The prospective clearance of the Moderna vaccine comes as governments across Europe face challenges in rolling out the vaccine at scale. In France, President Emmanuel Macron faces national criticism over the inoculation campaign, which lags its European peers.

• The head of the World Health Organization said that he is “disappointed” Chinese officials haven’t finalized the permissions to allow a team of experts into China to examine the origins of COVID-19, the Associated Press reported. WHO Director-General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, in a rare critique of Beijing, said members of the international scientific team began departing from their home countries over the last 24 hours as part of an arrangement between WHO and the Chinese government. “Today, we learned that Chinese officials have not yet finalized the necessary permissions for the team’s arrival in China,” Tedros said during a news conference in Geneva. “I’m very disappointed with this news, given that two members had already begun their journeys and others were not able to travel at the last minute, but had been in contact with senior Chinese officials,” he said.

• The Netherlands is finally preparing to start its COVID-19 vaccine program, becoming the last country in the EU to do so, the BBC reported. The Dutch government has come in for criticism over the delay, with former public health director, Roel Coutinho, warning the country’s “shameful” vaccination strategy was “going to cost lives.” During an emergency debate in parliament, opposition politicians called the approach “chaotic and confusing.” The Netherlands has 852,921 confirmed cases of COVID-19, the Johns Hopkins data show, and at least 12,095 people have died.

• The Geneva-based Press Emblem Campaign nongovernmental organization said Wednesday that more than 600 journalists have died of COVID-19 since the start of the pandemic, with Latin America leading with more than half of known victims, AFP reported. At least 145 deaths were recorded in Asia, with 94 in Europe, 23 in North America and 28 in Africa. The press freedom group called for journalists to have priority access to vaccines upon request.

Don’t miss: Telemedicine provides people with a lifeline during the pandemic — but once again highlights the divide between rich and poor

• CVS Health Corp. (NYS:CVS)  plans to give the first dose of COVID-19 vaccines in roughly 8,000 skilled-nursing facilities in 49 states by Jan. 25, MarketWatch’s Jaimy Lee reported. The program allows both residents and employees of the facilities to get one of the two authorized COVID-19 vaccines right now; both groups are considered by the U.S. government to be at high risk of contracting the coronavirus. CVS said it also plans to publish its national and state vaccination figures every day at 4 p.m. It also said that while uptake among residents remains “encouragingly high,” the actual number of residents is about 20% to 30% lower than facility projections that were based on bed count. “Initial uptake among staff is low, part of which is likely due to facilities wanting to stagger vaccinations between visits,” said the drugstore chain.

Click to Play

Students Share Lessons From Their Virtual 2020

As Covid-19 changed their lives, students shared unexpected upsides with WSJ’s Julie Jargon. Photo Illustration: Adele Morgan

Latest tallies

The number of confirmed cases of COVID-19 worldwide climbed above 86.7 million on Wednesday, the Johns Hopkins data show, and the death toll rose to 1.9 million. At least 48 million people have recovered from COVID-19.

Brazil has the second highest death toll after the U.S. at 197,732 and is third by cases at 7.8 million.

India is second worldwide in cases with 10.4 million, and third in deaths at 150,114.

Mexico has the fourth highest death toll at 128,822 and 13th highest case tally at 1.5 million.

The U.K. has 2.8 million cases and 77,370 deaths, the highest in Europe and fifth highest in the world.

China, where the virus was first discovered late last year, has had 96,335 confirmed cases and 4,788 deaths, according to its official numbers.

See also: Scotland to impose new lockdown starting at midnight

What’s the economy saying?

Employers in the private sector shed 123,000 jobs in December, the first decline since April, according to the ADP National Employment Report, MarketWatch’s Greg Robb reported.

Economists polled by MarketWatch had expected a December gain of 60,000 private sector jobs.

What happened: Job losses were primarily concentrated in retail and leisure and hospitality.

Private-sector service providers subtracted 105,000 jobs in December. Meanwhile goods producers shed 18,000 jobs. Manufacturing lost 21,000 jobs.

By company size, small businesses lost 37,000 private-sector jobs in December and large businesses lost 147,000. Medium-sized businesses, defined as firms with 50 to 499 employees, added 37,000 jobs.

See: ‘We forget about them as being essential workers.’ COVID-19 has made farm workers even more vulnerable — and created momentum to protect them

Economists use ADP’s data as a guide to the Labor Department’s employment report, which will be released Friday which covers government jobs in addition to the private sector.

Economists polled by MarketWatch expect the government’s report to show a slowing in job growth in December with nonfarm employment up by only 50,000 last month.

The Dow Jones Industrial Average (DOW:DJIA)  was last up 1.4%, while the S&P 500 (S&P:SPX)  was up 0.9%.

Link to MarketWatch's Slice.