Brazil’s COVID-19 death surge set to pass the worst of record U.S. wave

By Pedro Fonseca

RIO DE JANEIRO (Reuters) – Brazil’s brutal surge in COVID-19 deaths will soon surpass the worst of a record January wave in the United States, climbing well beyond an average 3,000 fatalities per day, scientists predict, as contagious new variants overwhelm hospitals.

Brazil’s overall death toll trails only the U.S. outbreak, with nearly 333,000 killed, according to Health Ministry data, compared with more than 555,000 dead in the United States.

But with Brazil’s healthcare system at the breaking point, the country could also exceed total U.S. deaths, despite having two-thirds the population, two experts told Reuters.

“It’s a nuclear reactor that has set off a chain reaction and is out of control. It’s a biological Fukushima,” said Miguel Nicolelis, a Brazilian doctor and professor at Duke University, who is closely tracking the virus.

Right-wing President Jair Bolsonaro has pushed back against mask-wearing and lockdowns that public health experts consider necessary. The country dragged its feet last year as the world raced to secure vaccines, slowing the launch of a national immunization program.

With weak measures failing to combat contagion, Brazil’s COVID-19 cases and deaths are accumulating faster than ever. On the other hand, a widespread U.S. vaccination campaign is rapidly curtailing what has been the world’s deadliest outbreak.

Nicolelis and Christovam Barcellos, a researcher at Brazilian medical institute Fiocruz, are separately predicting that Brazil could surpass the United States in both overall deaths and the record for average deaths per day.

As soon as next week, Brazil may break the record U.S. seven-day average for deaths, forecasts the Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation (IHME) at the University of Washington. The U.S. average for daily deaths peaked at 3,285 in January.

The IHME forecast does not currently extend beyond July 1, when it projects Brazil could reach 563,000 deaths, compared with 609,000 U.S. casualties expected by then.

(Reporting by Pedro Fonseca; Writing by Jake Spring; Editing by Brad Haynes and Jonathan Oatis)

A day that will live in infamy: U.S. crosses 500,000th COVID-19 death

By Maria Caspani and Anurag Maan

NEW YORK (Reuters) – The United States on Monday crossed the staggering milestone of 500,000 COVID-19 deaths just over a year to the day since the coronavirus pandemic claimed its first known U.S. victims in Santa Clara County, California.

The country had recorded more than 28 million COVID-19 cases and 500,054 lives lost as of Monday afternoon, according to a Reuters tally of public health data, although daily deaths and hospitalizations have fallen to the lowest level since before the Thanksgiving and Christmas holidays.

About 19% of total global coronavirus deaths have occurred in the United States, an outsized figure given that the nation accounts for just 4% of the world’s population.

“These numbers are stunning,” Dr. Anthony Fauci, a top infectious disease adviser to President Joe Biden told ABC News’ “Good Morning America” program. “If you look back historically, we’ve done worse than almost any other country and we’re a highly developed, rich country.”

Biden and Vice President Kamala Harris are set to commemorate the huge loss of life due to COVID-19 later on Monday during an event at the White House that will include a speech by the president, a moment of silence and a candle lighting ceremony.

Biden will also order that U.S. flags on federal property be lowered to half staff for five days, White House spokeswoman Jen Psaki told reporters.

The National Cathedral in Washington will also toll its bells 500 times on Monday evening to honor the lives lost to COVID-19 in a livestream event, according to a notice on its website.

In 2020, the virus has taken a full year off the average life expectancy in the United States, the biggest decline since World War Two.

Sweeping through the country at the beginning of last year, the U.S. epidemic had claimed its first 100,000 lives by May.

The death toll doubled by September as the virus ebbed and surged during the summer months.

Pandemic-weary Americans, like so many around the world, grappled with the mountain of loss brought by COVID-19 as health experts warned of yet another coronavirus resurgence during the upcoming fall and winter months.

Americans lost mothers and fathers, husbands and wives, brothers, sisters and friends to the virus. For many, the grief was amplified by the inability to see loved ones in hospitals or nursing homes and by the physical distancing imposed by authorities to curb the virus spread.

By December, the death toll had reached 300,000 as the United States entered a deadly post-holiday season that would claim 230,000 lives in the span of less than three months.

With numbers that made the appalling toll early in the pandemic pale by comparison, deaths recorded between December and February accounted for 46% of all U.S. COVID-19 fatalities, even as vaccines finally became available and a monumental effort to inoculate the American public got underway.

Despite the grim milestone, the virus appears to have loosened its grip as COVID-19 cases in United States fell for the sixth consecutive week. However, health experts have warned that coronavirus variants initially discovered in Britain, South Africa and Brazil could unleash another wave that threatens to reverse the recent positive trends.

Fauci cautioned against complacency and urged Americans to continue public health measures such as wearing masks, physical distancing and avoiding crowds while officials race to inoculate the population, particularly with these more contagious new variants circulating.

“We’ve got be really careful and not just say ‘OK we’re finished now, we’re through it,” he told ABC.

(Reporting by Maria Caspani in New York and Anurag Maan in Bengaluru and Susan Heavey in Washington; Writing by Maria Caspani; Editing by Bill Berkrot and Lisa Shumaker)

Europe extends and tightens lockdowns, with fingers crossed for vaccines

By Claudia Cristoferi and John Revill

ROME/ZURICH (Reuters) – Governments across Europe announced tighter and longer coronavirus lockdowns and curbs on Wednesday amid fears of a fast-spreading variant first detected in Britain, with vaccinations not expected to help much until the spring.

Vaccines are being rolled out across the continent, but not as quickly as many countries had wished, and the effects are not expected until inoculations are widespread among the population.

Italy will extend its COVID-19 state of emergency to the end of April, Health Minister Roberto Speranza said as infections show no sign of abating.

Switzerland announced tighter measures to tackle new variants of the COVID-19 virus and extended the closure of restaurants, cultural and sport sites by five weeks to run until the end of February.

Germany is also likely to have to extend COVID-19 curbs into February, Health Minister Jens Spahn said, stressing the need to further reduce contacts to fend off the more infectious variant first identified in Britain.

The German cabinet approved stricter entry controls to require people arriving from countries with high caseloads or where the more virulent variant is circulating to take coronavirus tests.

Chancellor Angela Merkel told a meeting of lawmakers on Tuesday that the coming 8 to 10 weeks would be very hard if the more infectious variant spread to Germany, according to a participant at the meeting.

Health Minister Spahn told Deutschlandfunk radio it would take another two or three months before the vaccination campaign really started to help.

The Dutch government said late on Tuesday it would extend the lockdown, including the closure of schools and shops, by at least three weeks until Feb. 9.

“This decision does not come as a surprise, but it is an incredible disappointment,” Prime Minister Mark Rutte told a news conference, adding that the threat posed by the new variant was “very, very worrying”.

He said the government was considering imposing a curfew, but was reluctant and had sought outside advice before deciding on such severe restrictions.

In France, President Emmanuel Macron was discussing possible tighter rules with senior ministers. A nationwide curfew could be brought forward to 6 p.m. from 8 p.m., as has already happened in parts of the country, French media reported.

The French government’s top scientific adviser said new restrictions were needed in light of the variant first detected in Britain, adding that if vaccines were more widely accepted the crisis could be over by September.

“The coming three months will be difficult, the situation will slightly improve during the spring but should really get better at the end of the summer,” Jean-Fran├žois Delfraissy told franceinfo radio.

In Switzerland, officials cancelled the Lauberhorn World Cup downhill race, out of fear that the new variant – brought in by what health authorities said was a single British tourist – was spreading now spreading rapidly among locals.

At least 60 people have tested positive in the Alpine resort of Wengen in the last four weeks.

Switzerland, which has so far taken a lighter touch to restricting business and public life than its neighbors, said it will close shops selling non-essential supplies from Monday.

It also ordered companies to require that employees work from home where possible. The country also eased rules on allowing pandemic-hit businesses to apply for state financial aid in hardship cases.

There was more optimistic news from Poland, where COVID-19 case numbers have stabilized after surging in the autumn.

“I hope that in two to three weeks the restrictions will be a little smaller, the vaccine will work,” Poland’s Finance Minister Tadeusz Koscinski said in an interview for Money.pl.

“Some restrictions will remain for quite a long time, but I think that 80% of these restrictions will start to disappear at the turn of the first and second quarter.”

(Reporting by Anthony Deutsch and Bart Meijer in Amsterdam, John Miller in Zurich, Benoit Van Overstraeten in Paris, Sabine Siebold and Hans-Edzard Busemann in Berlin, Pawel Florkiewicz in Warsaw, writing by Emma Thomasson; editing by Philippa Fletcher and Nick Macfie)