US Covid-19 cases hit 20 million

NEW YORK: The United States marked the New Year on Friday (Saturday in Manila) by passing the extraordinary milestone of 20 million Covid-19 cases after global celebrations welcoming in 2021 were largely muted by the pandemic.

CRISIS POINT Medical workers remove a stretcher from an ambulance near medical tents outside the emergency room at UCI Medical Center in Irvine, California on Jan. 1, 2021. After months spent tamping down
surges and keeping the coronavirus at manageable levels, a variety of factors combined to bring California to a crisis point in the pandemic. AP PHOTO

The US has floundered in its efforts to quell the virus, which is spreading rapidly across the country and has already caused over 346,000 deaths — by far the highest national death toll.

Worldwide hopes that Covid-19 vaccines will bring a rapid end to the pandemic in 2021 have been shaken by the slow start to the US vaccination program, which has been beset by logistical problems and overstretched hospitals.

Nearly 2.8 million people in the US have already received their first jabs, but the figure fell well behind the 20 million inoculations that President Donald Trump’s administration promised by the end of 2020.

The desperate race to vaccinate is set to dominate the coming year, with the coronavirus already killing at least 1.8 million people since emerging in China in December 2019, according to a tally from official sources compiled by Agence France-Presse.

German firm BioNTech said Friday it was racing to ramp up production of its Covid-19 jab to fill a shortage left by the lack of other approved vaccines in Europe.

Countries including Britain, Canada and the United States approved the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine earlier and have since also greenlighted jabs by US firm Moderna or Oxford-AstraZeneca.

“The current situation is not rosy, there’s a hole because there’s an absence of other approved vaccines and we have to fill this gap,” BioNTech co-founder Ugur Sahin told Der Spiegel weekly.

Criticism of the slow pace of the vaccine rollout has grown louder in recent days. In Germany, senior doctors have complained that hospital staff are left waiting for vaccines despite being in a priority group.

France has seen similar complaints, prompting the government to announce that health workers aged over 50 could get the shot from Monday — sooner than originally planned.

The French government on Friday announced that a nationwide nighttime curfew would be lengthened in 15 regions where infections are high. The curfew will begin at 6 p.m. rather than 8 p.m., including in the Mediterranean city of Nice.

“The virus is continuing to spread… but with a disparity between regions,” said a French government spokesman, confirming that theaters, cinemas and concert halls would not be able to reopen on January 7, the most recent earliest date given.

Also, in France, some 2,500 partygoers attended an illegal New Year rave near Rennes, clashing with police who tried to stop it, authorities said.

But worldwide, normally extravagant midnight celebrations in cities such as Sydney, New York, Rio de Janeiro and Edinburgh were scaled back or canceled, and crowds banned from attending.

Rio saw one upside: 89-percent less garbage on Copacabana beach, which is left clogged with trash each year after its New Year party.

“We were ready for any scenario. But congratulations to the people of Rio, who listened to the authorities’ calls to avoid large crowds and stay home,” said municipal sanitation chief Flavio Lopes.

Travelers braving trains between London and Paris on the first day after Britain’s exit from the European Union customs union experienced additional checks but appeared more worried by the extra rules required for travel due to Covid-19.

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