As 2020 nears its end, the US still is setting one-day records for COVID-19 deaths and the number of coronavirus patients in hospitals.
More than 3,740 coronavirus deaths were reported Wednesday in the US, the most reported in a single day during the pandemic and the second straight day that record was set, Johns Hopkins University data show.
And the outlook is grim for January. More than 80,000 Americans could die of COVID-19 over the next three weeks, a new US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention ensemble forecast projects -- offering a stark reminder the nation is still facing challenging times.
The new prediction comes amid ongoing vaccine distributions -- a rollout experts say has been slower than they'd hoped. Vaccines will only make any meaningful impact once they're widely available to the public, possibly not until summertime, experts have said.
In the meantime, COVID-19 hospitalizations are soaring. The US set a record Wednesday for number of COVID-19 patients in hospitals on a given day, at 125,200, according to the COVID Tracking Project.
And many states are reporting alarming trends.
California's Los Angeles County hit a grim milestone Wednesday, surpassing 10,000 total COVID-19 deaths, and one health official there said any progress made over the summer had "completely evaporated." Texas reported a record number of hospitalizations for the third day in a row. Mississippi and Louisiana saw their highest single-day case counts.
New Orleans officials urged "extreme caution" during New Year's Eve, announcing bars, breweries, and live adult entertainment venues must close indoor facilities starting at 11 p.m. Wednesday.
"Please stay at home and ring in the New Year safely with the members of your immediate household," Mayor LaToya Cantrell said in a statement.
In Georgia, where the average number of new daily coronavirus cases is more than double what it was just six weeks ago, officials are again preparing to use Atlanta's large convention center as an overflow medical center. The Georgia World Congress Center "will begin accepting patients at the end of this week," with 60 beds available, Gov. Brian Kemp said Thursday.
In Nevada, a similar message: Gov. Steve Sisolak urged residents to avoid high-risk activities to slow the spread of the virus in the state.
"I know people want to celebrate the end of 2020, and I don't blame them. But if we don't start making smart choices at the start of 2021, we will look a lot and feel a lot more like 2020 than any of us want it to be," the governor said.
Celebratory gatherings and travel could help drive another surge of infections -- followed by hospitalizations and deaths -- health officials have warned. But millions have opted to spend the holidays away from home. More than a million people passed through airport security checks Tuesday, for the fourth straight day after the Christmas holiday.
'We need to be doing a better job' on vaccine rollout, official says
More than 2.7 million doses of the vaccine have been administered, according to the latest CDC numbers, and more than 12.4 million have been distributed in the US.
The numbers are still a far cry from the 20 million vaccinations that officials had promised by the end of the year.
"We need to be doing a better job, but all vaccine programs start somewhat slow," Assistant Secretary for Health Adm. Dr. Brett Giroir told CNN on Wednesday, adding he expects distribution to ramp up soon and that the US is on track to distribute 20 million vaccine doses by the first week of January.
"I know we will be distributing about 30 million more in January and potentially up to 50 million more in February," he said.
State leaders have also expressed concern at the slow pace. Pennsylvania Gov. Tom Wolf said he was "personally disappointed," noting his "expectations were too high that the vaccine would have been rolled out faster" and in a "more efficient manner than it has been."
Ohio Gov. Mike DeWine said Wednesday he was not satisfied with the number of vaccines that have been administered in the state so far and urged administrators to get vaccines out "as quickly as they can."
"We can't control how fast the vaccine comes into the state of Ohio. And we know that there's a scarcity," the governor said, adding what the state can control is how fast the vaccine gets out once it is delivered.
In other parts of the country, more governors announced updated vaccination schedules this week.
Georgia officials declared plans to add adults 65 and older, law enforcement officers, firefighters and first responders to the current group of individuals eligible to receive the vaccine. In West Virginia, the governor announced the state will begin "vaccinations today to the general population that is in excess of 80 years of age."
In Nevada, officials said people 75 and older will be included in Tier 2 of the state's COVID-19 vaccine distribution plan and will be vaccinated at the same time as the first group of Nevada's frontline workers. Residents between 65 and 74 years of age and people with underlying health conditions will be part of the Tier 3 group, along with the second group of essential workers.
2 states have recorded cases of the UK variant
Meanwhile, officials in two states this week reported cases of a COVID-19 variant first identified in the UK that experts have said is more transmissible than prior strains.
California health officials announced Wednesday the variant had been detected in a 30-year-old San Diego man, who is not hospitalized and had very few social interactions during his potential contagious period.
"Understanding that it is here in San Diego really underscores the significance of what we have been asking and continue to ask everyone to do," said San Diego County Supervisor Nathan Fletcher. "Wear the face covering, avoid close contact with people you don't live with, avoid large indoor settings and don't leave your home unless it is essential."
The first known case of the UK variant in the US was in Colorado, state officials said earlier this week. At least 27 countries have now reported cases of the variant, per CNN reporting.
Data suggests the new COVID-19 variant has been circulating undetected in the US and transmitted from person to person, the CDC says.
"Public health authorities in Colorado detected a variant that was first identified in the UK, in a person who reported no travel history, the lack of reported travel history suggests this variant has been transmitting from person to person in the United States," said Dr. Henry Walke, the CDC's COVID-19 incident manager.
Even though there is no evidence the variant causes more severe symptoms or increased risk of death, it could lead to more cases and "put even more strain on our heavily burdened health care systems," Walke said.
But the vaccines that are being distributed across the country will likely protect against the variant, Giroir said Wednesday.
"We do expect -- we haven't proven it 100%, but we will soon -- we do expect that the vaccines now being administered or under development will cover this strain very well," Giroir said.
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