The US marked the first day of 2021 by surpassing the dismal landmark of 20 million coronavirus cases, as hospitals, undertakers, vaccine administrators and ordinary families struggled across the nation.
More than 10,000 Americans died in the last three days of 2020 as the year finished with the pandemic, which has never been under control in the US since the start of the outbreak last January, breaking all the wrong world records.
The US has almost twice as many confirmed coronavirus cases as the next worst-hit country, India. The south Asian nation has 10.2m cases among a population of 1.3 billion, whereas the US on Friday reached 20m infections with a population of 328m.
Almost 350,000 Americans have died because of Covid-19, according to the coronavirus resource center at Johns Hopkins University, by far the world’s highest death toll. The country with the second most fatalities is Brazil, where 195,000 people have died from coronavirus.
California, whose second wave of infections this autumn and winter has proved to be a sickness tsunami, morgues in some places are overflowing and undertakers are turning away grieving families, the Los Angeles Times reported. More than 150 people are dying every day in Los Angeles county alone as deaths have soared in December.
Hospitalizations are surging in Texas and public health authorities in Harris county, which includes the Houston metropolis, spent the week begging Texans to cancel New Years Eve celebrations and “cancel all gatherings”.
On 1 January, shortly after midnight at Houston’s United Memorial Medical Center (UMMC), Duc Nguyen sat up in his hospital bed for a video call with his wife.
The glow of a television and a street lamp outside his window provided the only light as a nasal cannula delivered oxygen to his lungs.
It was not how the 33-year-old had envisioned welcoming in the new year, but he said he was grateful UMMC had a vacant bed so he could be treated for pneumonia brought on by Covid-19.
Nguyen said he was confident he would recover, but he predicted the worst days of the pandemic were ahead.
“It’s not over yet,” he rasped.
UMMC nurse Tanna Ingraham has herself overcome two bouts of Covid-19, which has decimated frontline healthcare workers across the country.
In normal times, Ingraham might have rung in the new year sharing drinks with friends.
Instead, she was still coming to terms with the sudden death this week of a patient who had just been taken off a ventilator amid signs she had been on the mend.
The patient was 43, the same age as Ingraham, who choked back tears as she drew the tubes from the patient’s corpse and placed her into a body bag – a task she has grown used to this year.
The death represented yet another American for whom the miraculous vaccines now being hastily distributed and haphazardly administered in the US, as the government fell far short of its own goals to vaccinate 20 million citizens by the end of 2020, came too late.
“I’m just hoping that at the end of this there is going to be a light because, honestly, that’s the only thing that keeps me going. That and my faith,” Ingraham said, adding: “So, 2021 I’m ready.”
David Persse of the Houston health department said that the risk of further US spread of the highly infectious new coronavirus variant discovered in Britain was a “huge concern”.
“We are all sort of bracing to see if that occurs,” he said.
Infections and hospitalizations are rising again in New York, especially New York City, the worst hotspot in the world last spring during the first wave of the pandemic, while vaccinations are behind schedule.
In south Florida, seniors seeking inoculation jammed phone lines and crashed a state health department website this week as they tried to make appointments, the Sun-Sentinel reported.
Broward County, around Fort Lauderdale and Boca Raton, said appointments for vaccination are already booked through February.
Florida has recorded 1.3m coronavirus cases, with the highest one-day total of the entire pandemic in the state reported on Thursday, just over 17,000 new cases.