TUESDAY, Jan. 19, 2021 (HealthDay News) -- On the eve of his inauguration, President-elect Joe Biden will preside over a ceremony on Tuesday evening that will honor those who have died during the coronavirus pandemic.
Four hundred lights will be illuminated along the perimeter of the Lincoln Memorial reflecting pool, with each light representing 1,000 Americans who have died of COVID-19. The ceremony comes as the country's coronavirus death toll neared 400,000 on Tuesday, The New York Times reported. Similar ceremonies will unfold at the Empire State Building in New York City, the Space Needle in Seattle and other landmarks.
Biden has declared that the overarching goal of his administration will be getting the pandemic under control in the coming months.
On Monday night, President Trump ordered an end to the ban on travelers from Europe and Brazil that had been aimed at stopping the spread of new coronavirus variants to the United States, but Biden's aides said Biden would rescind the order as soon as he takes office on Wednesday.
"With the pandemic worsening, and more contagious variants emerging around the world, this is not the time to be lifting restrictions on international travel," Jennifer Psaki, who will be Biden's White House Press Secretary, tweeted on Monday.
Trump's order came as the country experienced a post-holiday surge in cases that has overwhelmed some hospitals and led to record numbers of deaths. At the same time, the national vaccination rollout has been slow and chaotic. Adding to these issues, a more contagious virus variant that first surfaced in Britain has now been detected in at least 20 U.S. states, scientists say, even as other variants are being discovered.
In California, health officials said Sunday that a coronavirus variant first identified in Denmark has spread through the northern part of the state as health officials race to determine whether it may be more transmissible.
This rising variant is distinct from the highly contagious British variant, which has also been found in California, the Washington Post reported. Federal health officials predict the British variant could become the dominant strain in the United States by March, based on its proven higher transmissibility.
Experts stress that they need to look more closely at the latest variant, known as L452R, before declaring it more contagious or more dangerous than the virus already broadly circulating. But researchers have identified the new variant in about 25 percent of samples collected between Dec. 14 and Jan. 3, a surge from 3.8 percent of samples collected in the preceding three-week period, the Post reported.
"That is suggestive [of higher transmissibility], and it's a little worrisome," Charles Chiu, a virologist at the University of California, San Francisco, said during a Sunday media briefing on the variant. He also expressed concern that a mutation associated with this new variant might make it more resistant to vaccines because it occurs in a critical part of the spike protein that is targeted by the vaccines. But the virus must be grown in a lab and tested more fully before any conclusions can be drawn, he added.
Biden details massive vaccination effort
On Friday, Biden described an ambitious national vaccination plan that will deliver coronavirus vaccines to far more people and invoke a wartime law to boost vaccine production.
In a speech in Delaware, Biden told Americans that, "The honest truth is this: Things will get worse before they get better."
He pledged to ramp up vaccination availability in pharmacies, build mobile clinics to get vaccines to underserved rural and urban communities and encourage states to expand vaccine eligibility to people 65 and older, the Times reported. Biden also vowed to make racial equity a priority in fighting a virus that has disproportionately infected and killed minorities.
"Our plan is as clear as it is bold: get more people vaccinated for free, create more places for them to get vaccinated, mobilize more medical teams to get the shots in people's arms, increase supply and get it out the door as soon as possible," he said. "You have my word… we will manage the hell out of this operation."
But Biden faces a stark reality: With only two federally authorized vaccines in circulation, supplies will likely be limited for the next several months.
Even if Biden invokes the Korean War-era Defense Production Act, it may take some time to ease vaccine shortages. The law has been invoked already, to important but limited effect, the Times reported. Biden has promised to build mass vaccination sites and develop new programs to serve high-risk people, including the developmentally disabled and those in jail. But those promises will only be achieved if there are vaccines available.
"It won't mean that everyone in this group will get vaccinated immediately, as the supply is not where it needs to be," Biden conceded. But as new doses become available, he promised, "we'll reach more people who need them."
The vaccine distribution plan comes one day after Biden proposed a $1.9 trillion pandemic "rescue" package that includes $20 billion for the vaccine effort. Biden has said repeatedly that he intends to get "100 million COVID vaccine shots into the arms of the American people" by his 100th day in office.
As of Friday, nearly 12.3 million Americans had been vaccinated while over 31 million doses have been distributed, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
A global scourge
By Tuesday, the U.S. coronavirus case count passed 24.1 million while the death toll passed 399,000, according to a Times tally. On Tuesday, the top five states for coronavirus infections were: California with more than 3 million cases; Texas with over 2.1 million cases; Florida with more than 1.5 million cases; New York with over 1.2 million cases; and Illinois with more than 1 million cases.
Curbing the spread of the coronavirus in the rest of the world remains challenging.
In India, the coronavirus case count was nearly 10.6 million by Tuesday, a Johns Hopkins University tally showed. Brazil had over 8.5 million cases and over 210,000 deaths as of Tuesday, the Hopkins tally showed.
Worldwide, the number of reported infections passed 95.6 million on Tuesday, with over 2 million deaths recorded, according to the Hopkins tally.
The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has more on the new coronavirus.
SOURCES: New York Times; Washington Post; CBS News