Coronavirus Update: Biden issues call for unity as U.S. death toll tops 500,400

Just one day after the U.S. recorded half a million deaths from the coronavirus-borne illness COVID-19, the death toll hit 501,315, as President Joe Biden called for unity and urged his fellow Americans to mask up and get vaccinated in an effort to contain the deadly pandemic.

The U.S. numbers are by far the worst in the world with its case number — 28 million — more than the next two countries’ combined, according to data aggregated by Johns Hopkins University. The U.S. accounts for about 25% of the global case tally and 20% of its death toll, devastating numbers for the world’s leading economy. More Americans have now died of COVID than died in military combat in World War I, World War II and the Vietnam War combined.

“Today I ask all Americans to remember,” Biden said at a candlelit ceremony to honor the dead late Monday.

“Remember those we lost, those we left behind,” he said. “But as we all remember, I also ask us to act, to remain vigilant, to stay socially distant, to mask up. Get vaccinated when it’s your turn. We must end the politics and misinformation that has divided families, communities and the country and has cost too many lives already. It’s not Democrats and Republicans who are dying from the virus, it’s our fellow Americans.”

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Biden has made ending the pandemic a key priority of his administration, a turnaround in strategy after his predecessor consistently played down the gravity of the situation and said the virus would “disappear.”

Dr. Anthony Fauci, head of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, said Monday the “stunning” U.S. death toll was exacerbated by political divisiveness.

“Even under the best of circumstances, this would have been a very serious problem,” Fauci said in an interview with Reuters, noting that political strife had made the wearing of a face mask in public a political statement, rather than a public safety measure.

“However, that does not explain how a rich and sophisticated country can have the most percentage of deaths and be the hardest-hit country in the world,” said Fauci, who is also Biden’s chief medical adviser. “That I believe should not have happened.”

Read also: This is the best way to fix the chaos surrounding COVID-19 vaccine appointments

The sad milestone comes as case numbers and hospitalizations continue to fall dramatically from their January peaks. The U.S. has averaged 66,977 cases a day for the past week, down 40% from two weeks ago, according to a New York Times tracker.

There were 55,403 COVID patients in U.S. hospitals on Monday, according to the COVID Tracking Project, down from 56,159 a day earlier and down about 60% from their January peak.

On the vaccine front, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s vaccine tracker is showing that as of 6 a.m. ET Monday, 75.2 million doses had been delivered to states, 64.2 million doses had been administered and 44.1 million people had received one or more doses.

The Subcommittee on Oversight and Investigations of the Committee on Energy and Commerce will hold a hearing later Tuesday called, “Pathway to Protection: Expanding availability of COVID-19 vaccines.” The hearing will have representatives of Moderna Inc. MRNA, -5.77%, Pfizer Inc. PFE, -1.02%, Johnson & Johnson JNJ, -0.88%, AstraZeneca PLC AZN, -0.83% AZN, -2.49% and Novavax Inc. NVAX, -0.76%, on their plans to increase vaccine manufacturing.

In testimony released in advance of the hearing, Johnson & Johnson said that it plans to deliver about 20 million doses of its COVID-19 vaccine by the end of March.

J&J’s still-investigational COVID-19 vaccine candidate is currently under review at the Food and Drug Administration, though the federal government has already agreed to purchase 100 million doses of the company’s single-dose vaccine in the first half of the year. 

The House Budget Committee approved on Monday a $1.92 trillion bill to carry out Biden’s coronavirus relief plan, the first step toward likely House passage by the end of the week.

On Monday, a group of major public health agencies and associations called on lawmakers to include paid sick leave in the bill, arguing that otherwise, many Americans will be forced to choose between eating and protecting others from infection.

“Our nation has experienced a great deal of suffering and loss at the hands of the pandemic,” the group wrote in an open letter to Congress. “There is a light at the end of this tunnel though, as a new normal is coming. Until we reach that day, our country needs paid sick leave for all workers to save lives and keep the economy moving.”

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In other news:

 • A new study finds that teachers may be more important drivers of COVID-19 transmission in schools than students, the Associated Press reported. The paper released Monday by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention studies nine COVID-19 transmission clusters in elementary schools in the Atlanta suburb of Marietta in December and January. That included one cluster where 16 teachers, students and relatives of students at home were infected. In only one of the nine clusters was a student clearly the first documented case, while a teacher was the first documented case in four clusters. In another four, the first case was unclear. Of the nine clusters, eight involved probable teacher-to-student transmission. Two clusters saw teachers infect each other during in-person meetings or lunches, with a teacher then infecting other students.

• CVS Health Inc.  CVS, -1.19%  is looking forward to the chance to meet tons of new shoppers in the coming months as it administers the COVID-19 vaccine, offering the pharmacy retailer a unique business opportunity, MarketWatch’s Tonya Garcia reported. CVS has provided COVID-19 testing, with about 15 million tests administered at its 4,800 locations across the country, according to Karen Lynch, chief executive of CVS. The pharmacy retailer has also launched a program, Return Ready, designed to help companies and universities prepare for the return of workers and students, with 100 clients enrolled. The federal government selected CVS to administer COVID vaccines at long-term care facilities, administering more than three million doses to patients and workers. By mid-March, CVS says it will have administered both doses of the vaccine at assisted-living facilities.

See: Walgreens and CVS are on a hiring spree looking to fill 35,000 jobs for COVID-19 vaccine

• South Africa’s health minister Sweli Mkhize has decried the “vaccine nationalism” that has hampered his country’s response to the crisis., the Guardian reported. His government has proposed that J&J’s vaccine, which has the advantage of being one-dose and not having the refrigeration requirements of other vaccines, be “preferentially deployed” in South Africa, which is struggling with a new variant of the illness that is far more infectious than the original virus.

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• Greek hospital doctors staged a one-day strike on Tuesday and many marched in the capital, Athens, to protest what they called “suffocating” conditions at hospitals dealing with COVID, Reuters reported. With around 6,000 deaths, Greece has fared better than much of Europe in containing the pandemic and prevented its health service, battered by years of financial crisis, from collapsing. But intensive care units at state hospitals are operating at roughly 80% capacity and doctors want the government to create new units for COVID-19 patients instead of using already existing ones, as well as to hire more staff and to use resources from the private sector.

• There was good news for AMC Entertainment Holdings Inc. stock AMC, +17.56%, which rallied after New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s announcement that New York City movie theaters can open at 25% capacity next week. Wedbush analyst Michael Pachter reiterated the neutral rating he’s had on AMC for the past 11 months, but said Cuomo’s announcement was a “ray of light” for the company. “We think there is significant pent-up desire to go out to the movies, and this could potentially add meaningfully to AMC’s March/Q1 and Q2 results given that AMC’s NYC theaters are some of its highest performing theaters in its domestic circuit,” Pachter wrote in a note to clients. He said NYC’s move should entice other densely populated areas to reopen. “That said, we question whether the pent-up desire will result in demand as people may remain reluctant to attend the movies until they receive their vaccine, or in the case that the transmission rate significantly falls,” Pachter wrote.

See also: Even one dose of Pfizer vaccine reduces coronavirus-infection risk, Public Health England says

Latest tallies

The global tally for confirmed cases of the coronavirus that causes COVID-19 climbed above 111.9 million on Tuesday, the Johns Hopkins data shows, and the death toll climbed above 2.47 million.

About 63 million people have recovered from COVID.

Brazil has the second highest death toll at 247,143 and is third by cases at 10.2 million.

India is second worldwide in cases with 11 million, and fourth in deaths at 156,463.

Mexico has the third highest death toll at 180,536 and 13th highest case tally at 2 million.

The U.K. has 4.1 million cases and 121,536 deaths, the highest in Europe and fifth highest in the world.

China, where the virus was first discovered late last year, has had 100,79674 confirmed cases and 4,833 deaths, according to its official numbers.

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What’s the economy saying?

Americans grew more confident in the economy in February amid a sharp decline in coronavirus cases, but they were still worried about how long the effects of the pandemic will linger, MarketWatch’s Jeffry Bartash reported.

The index of consumer confidence rose to a three-month high of 91.3 in February from a revised 88.9 in January, the Conference Board said Tuesday.

Economists polled by Dow Jones and The Wall Street Journal had forecast a smaller increase to 91.0.

Other measures of confidence, including the consumer-sentiment survey and daily report by Morning Consult, have also been moving higher. The Morning Consult poll is part of the MarketWatch Coronavirus Recovery Tracker.

Consumer confidence is still far below pre-pandemic levels, however. The index stood at 132.6 before the viral outbreak last year.

A separate report found that home prices rose at the fastest pace in seven years in December, as MarketWatch’s Jacob Passy reported.

The S&P CoreLogic Case-Shiller 20-city price index posted a 10.1% year-over-year gain in December, up from 9.2% the previous month. On a monthly basis, the index increased 0.8% between November and December.

It was the first time that home prices saw a double digit increase since January 2014, according to Selma Hepp, deputy chief economist at CoreLogic.

Additionally, the broader S&P CoreLogic Case-Shiller national price index, which covers the entire country, demonstrated a 10.4% gain year-over-year in December, up from 9.5% the prior month.

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The Dow Jones Industrial Average DJIA, +0.05% was down about 0.5% and the S&P 500 SPX, +0.13% was down 0.8%.

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