(CNN) — The United States will record its incomprehensible 500,000th death from covid-19 in a matter of hours, paradoxically, at a time of unusual hope during the pandemic. However, the tragic milestone will occur with a White House reluctant to predict when the crisis will ease, while balancing critical political and epidemiological risks.
A warning from Dr. Anthony Fauci on CNN on Sunday that Americans could wear face masks until 2022 came as major medical associations called for increased vigilance on people already exhausted from months of self-isolation and the economic impact of the worst public health calamity. in 100 years. But the national dichotomy between fear and hope was made clear with the announcement that more vaccines are being shipped to states than ever before and with a rapid decline in new coronavirus cases in most parts of the country.
The symbolic power of the half million figure underscores the horror of the nightmare that gripped the country a year ago. On February 23, 2020, former President Donald Trump boasted that “we have it under control” and “we have had no deaths,” revealing his lack of preparation for the disaster that was about to unfold during his term.
In contrast to the former president, who rarely bore the nation’s collective grief, President Joe Biden and First Lady Jill Biden plan to commemorate the 500,000th U.S. Covid-19 death with a candle-lighting ceremony. at the White House on Monday. It will include Vice President Kamala Harris and her husband Doug Emhoff.
The current death toll of nearly 499,000 is equivalent to more than six average NFL stadiums filled with casualties – in the days when crowds could still fill massive sporting events. Each is a grandfather, father, son, daughter or brother who is part of a horrendous death toll – the worst in the world in the pandemic – almost equivalent to the combined losses of the United States in two world wars.
“It’s terrible, it’s really horrible,” Fauci, the government’s top infectious disease specialist, told CNN’s Dana Bash on “State of the Union.”
“In the coming decades, people are going to talk about this as a terribly historic milestone in the history of this country, that so many people have died of a respiratory infection,” Fauci said.
Reasons for hope and new warning signs
The crisis took a president – who did not give sufficient priority to the health of his nation over his own political perspectives – and is now putting another to the test, who promises to be “focused” this week on a package of aid for the covid of $ 1.9 trillion, designed to accelerate the end of the pandemic and alleviate its dire economic consequences.
Perhaps more than at any time prior to the current crisis, there is reason for optimism that even with months to go before a return to normalcy, the hopelessness produced by the darkest winter in modern American history may be fading.
New cases of covid-19 are falling dramatically across the country, surprisingly by up to a quarter when compared week to week. Deaths, a lagging indicator, are also beginning to decline. The vaccination effort is increasing and is likely to overcome a slowdown caused by a winter weather storm in the middle of the week. More than 63 million doses of vaccines have been administered, and Biden says there will be enough vaccines available to all Americans by the end of July. More studies suggest that Moderna and Pfizer vaccines, licensed in the US, can also prevent infection and not just symptomatic disease, a key factor in ending the pandemic. The arrival of spring in a few weeks and warmer weather that makes it difficult for the virus to spread can create a greater sense of renewal this year.
Still, there are many reasons to be cautious. The arrival in the US of viral variants first detected in the UK and South Africa underscores that the country is in a race against time to vaccinate before the virus continues to mutate. New data from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) showed 1,700 U.S. cases of the fast-spreading variants on Sunday, which experts fear may tame local infections in weeks. And the struggle to open schools after many children have been trapped in nearly a year of online learning is a lesson in how difficult it will be to get the economy and the country fully and safely reopened.
Such complications, and the desire to prepare the country for the long term if necessary, show Biden’s extremely cautious approach, which in itself contrasts with the misplaced optimism of the previous White House.
“God willing, this Christmas will be different than before,” the president said in Michigan on Friday, expanding on a comment he had first made on a CNN forum in Wisconsin earlier in the week.
But I can’t commit to you. There are other variants of the virus. We don’t know what could happen in terms of production rates (of vaccines). Things can change. But we are doing everything that science has indicated we should do and people are stepping up. “
Fauci explained Biden’s precautions on the “State of the Union” show when he noted that the president had warned against making screenings.
“These are just projections that are estimates and a lot can happen to change it. And that’s why we have to be careful, because there are variants that must be dealt with. There are many other things that would make a projection that I give you today, this Sunday, different in six months, “said Fauci.
This uncertainty is one of the reasons that Fauci said it was “possible” that the use of masks would still be necessary in 2022, depending on the level of virus that remains in the community for the next year or more.
“When it goes down a lot and the vast majority of people in the population are vaccinated, then I would feel comfortable saying: we have to take off our masks, we don’t need to wear masks,” Fauci said.
The rapid decline in COVID-19 cases, reflecting the slowing increase in the Christmas season, will inevitably increase the pressure for a faster return to normalcy. In fact, some states have already significantly eased restrictions on restaurants and retail industries. The changing dynamics will cause a growing political headache for the president if he is seeking a deliberate pace for reopening. The lesson from Trump’s hasty demands to get back to normal last summer, which helped spark a disastrous wave of infections, is that declaring victory too quickly is not prudent and could create the conditions for existing and ongoing mutations. evolution of the virus find a foothold and prolong the pandemic.
Three influential medical associations issued a warning on Sunday that despite signs of hope, challenges from COVID-19 remain dire.
“With newer and more contagious variants of the virus circulating in the United States, now is not the time to lower our guard and reduce the measures that we know will work to prevent further illness and death,” said the American Medical Association, the American Hospital Association and the American Nurses Association in a statement.
It is a message that reflects that of the White House: cautious optimism but knowing that the pernicious nature of this deadly pandemic, which has consistently exceeded the projected death toll and could claim tens of thousands more lives, means that it is not you can take nothing for granted.
CNN’s Arlette Saenz and Jessica Firger contributed to this story.