The global case tally for the coronavirus-borne illness COVID-19 edged closer to 97 million on Thursday with the U.S. accounting for 24 million of those cases, as President Joe Biden wasted no time in implementing his plan to address a crisis that has caused the loss of more than 406,000 American lives.
Biden will sign 10 Executive Orders and other directives on Thursday to bolster management of the pandemic, from expanding testing to increasing the supply of essential personal protective equipment to making, distributing and administering vaccines. The new president said he would instruct agencies to invoke the Defense Production Act to address the shortfalls in equipment, isolation gowns, swabs, test reagents and all of the other materials needed by hospitals and health care workers battling the deadly illness.
The previous administration was widely criticized for failing to create a national plan and leaving it to exhausted state health departments to manage every aspect of the crisis. After his inauguration Wednesday, Biden signed executive orders to bring the U.S. back into the World Health Organization his predecessor had withdrawn from and mandated the wearing of face masks in the White House and other federal buildings. His White House COVID-19 Response Team comprised of leading health experts will now pick up the baton.
Dr. Anthony Fauci, head of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, addressed the board of the WHO via video link early Thursday and pledged that the U.S. would work with the agency to support the international response.
“Given that a considerable amount of effort will be required by all of us, the United States stands ready to work in partnership and solidarity to support the international Covid-19 response, mitigate its impact on the world, strengthen our institutions, advance epidemic preparedness for the future, and improve the health and well-being of all people throughout the world,” Fauci said.
His comments came exactly one year since the U.S. recorded its first case of COVID-19. Fauci said the U.S. will also join COVAX, a program created by the WHO to ensure that poorer nations get access to vaccines.
The U.S. recorded another 184,453 new cases on Wednesday, according to a New York Times tracker, and at least 4,357 people died. The U.S. has averaged 194,711 cases a day for the past week, although that is down 16% from the average two weeks ago.
There were 122,700 COVID-19 patients in U.S. hospitals, according to the COVID Tracking Project, down from more than 130,000 in the first weeks of the year. The U.S. continues to lead the world by cases and fatalities, according to data aggregated by Johns Hopkins University.
In his inaugural address, Biden paused for what he described as his first act as president — a moment of silent prayer for the victims of the pandemic.
Biden said he would “press forward with speed and urgency” in coming weeks. “For we have much to do in this winter of peril and significant possibilities — much to repair, much to restore, much to heal, much to build and much to gain,” he said in the speech.
Biden’s national strategy for guiding the U.S. out of the pandemic is based on seven goals, beginning with the task of restoring trust with the American people.
“We can and will beat COVID-19. America deserves a response to the COVID-19 pandemic that is driven by science, data, and public health — not politics,” the White House said in a statement.
Biden will create a COVID-19 Response Office that will be responsible for coordinating the response across all agencies and departments and monitoring outcomes using a date-driven, evidence-based approach. There will be regular briefings to keep the public informed and provide real-time data to policymakers at the federal, state and local levels.
“The Administration will prioritize outreach to state and local governments, the public and private sectors, vulnerable communities, students, workers, and community leaders, using input from these stakeholders to drive the government’s COVID-19 response,” said the statement.
Experts welcomed the new approach. Dr. Peter Hotez, dean of the National School of Tropical Medicine and professor of pediatrics and molecular virology and microbiology at Baylor College of Medicine, told CNN that Biden was sending an important message to the American people.
In other news:
• Of all the news about the virus that has wreaked havoc for the last year, the emergence of several possibly more infectious variants in different parts of the world is worrying. Why? Some of the new variants, including the B.1.1.7 identified by health officials in the United Kingdom, the P1 in Brazil, and the B.1.351 in South Africa, are thought to be more transmissible, which then raises questions about infection rates, the severity of disease, and the burden on hospitals already struggling with an ever-growing number of cases. “When they’re hyper-transmissible, they double every week,” Dr. Eric Topol, founder and director of the Scripps Research Translational Institute, said in a Jan. 13 interview. “They go exponential.” This is why Topol, an expert on many things digital health and a longtime advocate of genomic sequencing, is arguing for wider spread utilization of genomic sequencing surveillance in the U.S., he told MarketWatch’s Jaimy Lee in an interview.
• Germany may need to close its borders to neighboring countries if they do not move faster to curb COVID-19 infections, according to the chief of staff of Chancellor Angela Merkel, Reuters reported. Helge Braun told local broadcaster ARD that it is key to get transmission under control now that there are new, more infectious variants of the virus. “The danger is that when the infections in a country go up, this mutation becomes a quasi majority variant and then the infection can no longer be controlled,” he said. “And therefore even stricter entry rules at our internal borders are unavoidable, and since everyone does not want that, it is important that we act together now.”
• Portugal set a record of more than 14,600 new cases on Wednesday, propelling it to the top of the list of worst surges in the world, the Associated Press reported. Portugal has the highest seven-day average rate in the world of new cases per 100,000 population and the second-highest rate of new deaths, according to the Johns Hopkins data. Overall, the country of 10.3 million people has 581,605 confirmed cases, and 9,465 confirmed deaths.
• The Chinese city of Shanghai reported three locally transmitted COVID-19 cases on Thursday, raising concerns about a new wave of infections in the country, the Nikkei Asia reported. The city is now conducting mass testing of all hospital workers after two workers at different facilities returned “suspicious” test results.
• There was bad news for fans of music festivals Thursday when the organizers of Britain’s Glastonbury festival canceled the event for a second year in a row, the AP reported. Organizers Michael Eavis and Emily Eavis said that “In spite of our efforts to move heaven & earth, it has become clear that we simply will not be able to make the Festival happen this year. We are so sorry to let you all down,” they said in a statement. They said everyone who had put down a deposit on tickets for the 2020 festival, which also was canceled, would be able to attend in 2022.
The number of confirmed cases of COVID-19 worldwide climbed above 96.9 million on Thursday, the Johns Hopkins data shows, and the death toll rose to 2.07 million. About 53.5 million people have recovered from COVID-19.
Brazil has the second highest death toll after the U.S. at 212,831 and is third by cases at 8.6 million.
India is second worldwide in cases with 10.6 million, and third in deaths at 152,869.
Mexico has the fourth highest death toll at 144,371 and 13th highest case tally at 1.7 million.
The U.K. has 3.5 million cases and 93,469 deaths, the highest in Europe and fifth highest in the world.
China, where the virus was first discovered late last year, has had 98,544 confirmed cases and 4,801 deaths, according to its official numbers.
What’s the economy saying?
The number of Americans who applied for jobless benefits fell in the last full week of Donald Trump’s presidency, but layoffs were still running at the highest level in months after a record coronavirus surge, MarketWatch’s Jeffry Bartash reported.
Initial jobless claims filed traditionally through the states declined by 26,000 to a seasonally adjusted 900,000 in the seven days ended Jan. 16, the government said Thursday.
Economists surveyed by Dow Jones/The Wall Street Journal had forecast initial jobless claims to total 925,000.
Another 423,734 applications were filed through a temporary federal-relief program.
Adding up new state and federal claims, the government received 1.38 million applications last week, based on actual or unadjusted figures. Combined claims have yet to drop below 1 million a week since last spring.
“Conditions are unlikely to improve until infections can be curbed and the economy can reopen more completely,” said chief U.S. economist Rubeela Farooqi of High Frequency Economics.
The Philadelphia Federal Reserve’s business condition index jumped to 26.5 in January from 9.1 in December. This topped expectations of a reading of 10.5 in January, according to a Wall Street Journal poll of economists.
It’s the highest level since last February, just before the pandemic shut down the U.S. economy.
The six-month outlook rose to 52.8, from 43.1 last month. New orders, employment and shipments all jumped in January. There were signs of inflationary pressures in the supply chain.
Separately, U.S. home builders started construction on homes at a seasonally-adjusted annual rate of 1.67 million in December, representing a 5.8% increase from the previous month’s figure, the U.S. Census Bureau reported Thursday.
Permitting for new homes occurred at a seasonally-adjusted annual rate of 1.71 million, up 4.5% from November.
Compared with December 2019, housing starts were up 5%, while permits were up 17%. It was the highest level housing starts and building permits have reached since 2006.
Both figures came in ahead of analysts’ expectations, reflecting growth in the single-family sector. Economists polled by MarketWatch had expected housing starts to occur at a pace of 1.56 million and building permits to come in at a pace of 1.61 million.