By Ciara Linnane
Just hours after the official U.S. COVID-19 death toll passed the one million mark, the White House held its first coronavirus briefing in six weeks and the first to be led by new COVID response coordinator Dr. Ashish Jha.
The briefing as expected signaled that the administration of President Joe Biden would extend its declaration of the pandemic as a public health emergency.
Jha called on Congress to release the funds needed for the next phase of the pandemic, which will be used to secure vaccines, treatments and therapies in advance of an expected wave of cases in the fall and winter.
“Without additional resources, we will find ourselves in a fall or winter with people getting infected and no treatments available for them because we will have run out,” he said.
The U.S. officially surpassed one million COVID deaths late Tuesday, according to data from Johns Hopkins University . But other tallies already showed at least one million deaths and President Joe Biden had lamented the grim milestone.
“1 million empty chairs around the family dinner table,” Biden said last week . “As a nation, we must not grow numb to such sorrow. To heal, we must remember. We must remain vigilant against this pandemic and do everything we can to save as many lives as possible.”
“While 1 million COVID-19 deaths is a mind-boggling number, we know that the U.S. actually reached this tragic milestone some time ago,” Crystal Watson, the public health lead at Hopkins’ Coronavirus Research Center and a senior scholar at the Johns Hopkins Center for Health Security, said in a statement. “Hundreds of thousands more people have died from COVID-19 in the U.S. than are officially counted.”
COVID cases continue to rise and trend at the highest levels seen since November, driven by the BA. 2 variant of omicron, and two other subvariants that appear to be even more infectious.
The U.S. is averaging 100,732 cases a day, up 61% from two weeks ago, according to a New York Times tracker. It’s the first time daily cases have topped 100,000 since early December.
Cases are higher in nearly every state, but the Northeast and Midwest are being particularly hard hit with case reports in both regions now higher than they were at the peak of last summer’s delta surge. There are concerns that case numbers are even higher, as many people are now testing at home and the data are not being collected.
The country is averaging 22,642 hospitalizations a day, up 27% from two weeks ago, but still far below the levels seen during previous peaks.
The daily death toll has fallen below 400 to 318 on average, down 7% from two weeks ago.
An independent panel of experts who presented a report to the World Health Organization exactly a year ago, that found COVID-19 was a “preventable disaster” exacerbated by a lack of global coordination and dithering at every point of the outbreak, has revisited the issue and offered new insights on the response.
The Independent Panel for Pandemic Preparedness and Response said the world is still “tinkering” and not transforming the system in a new report published Wednesday.
The report found “insufficient, inequitable, and now flagging attention to addressing COVID-19. The work underway to transform the international system lacks coherence, urgency, and focus. Reform proposals are being deliberated in different fora, but are not sufficiently connected, and remain still largely stuck in processes that will take years to deliver.”
The authors called for “whole-of-government and whole-of-society approaches at the national level,” and for an independent global council to keep attention focused on pandemic preparedness long after COVID is no longer an emergency.
“New pandemic threats will emerge. The risks of not being better prepared for them are great, and inaction is hard to fathom,” they wrote.
Other COVID-19 news you should know about:
• The head of the World Health Organization said China’s extreme approach to containing the coronavirus is unsustainable because of the highly infectious nature of the omicron variant, but that it’s up to every country to decide what policy to pursue, the Associated Press reported. At a media briefing on Tuesday, WHO Director-General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus described China’s “zero-COVID” strategy as “not sustainable” after similar remarks last week drew sharp criticism from China. “We know the virus better and we have better tools, including vaccines, so that’s why the handling of the virus should actually be different from what we used to do at the start of the pandemic,” Tedros said. He added that the virus had changed significantly since it was first identified in Wuhan in late 2019, when China largely stopped its spread with lockdowns.
• North Korean leader Kim Jong Un again slammed his country’s response to its first confirmed COVID-19 outbreak as immature, accusing government officials of inadequacies and inertia as fever cases swept the country, state media reported on Wednesday as Reuters reported. North Korea reported 232,880 more people with fever symptoms, and six more deaths after country revealed the COVID outbreak last week. It did not say how many people had tested positive for COVID-19.
• Germany plans to spend another 830 million euros ($872 million) to buy new coronavirus vaccines that will allow the country to deal with a series of possible variants this fall, the health minister said Wednesday, according to an AP report. Health Minister Karl Lauterbach said that the government, via the European Union, already has ordered enough of the existing vaccines and of one that has been developed by Germany’s BioNTech SE (NAS:BNTX) to counter the omicron variant. He said the new funding is earmarked for a vaccine being developed by Moderna Inc. (NAS:MRNA) to tackle both omicron and other variants.
• A man in western Japan who received 46.3 million yen ($358,000) in COVID-19 relief money from his town by mistake before gambling it all away is now contrite and wants to pay it back “little by little,” according to a person familiar with the case, Kyodo News reported. The 24-year-old resident of Abu in Yamaguchi Prefecture had earlier refused to return the money, and, according to this person, said he spent all the money in several overseas internet casinos.
Here’s what the numbers say
The global tally of confirmed cases of COVID-19 topped 524.9 million on Wednesday, while the death toll rose above 6.28 million, according to data aggregated by Johns Hopkins University .
The U.S. leads the world with 82.8 million cases and 1,000,317 fatalities.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s tracker shows that 220.7 million people living in the U.S. are fully vaccinated, equal to 66.5% of the total population. But just 102.4 million are boosted, equal to 46.4% of the vaccinated population.