U.S. COVID-19 death toll surpasses 400,000

The U.S. death toll from the coronavirus hit 400,000 Tuesday, one day before President-elect Joseph R. Biden takes the oath of office on a pledge to make the pandemic his number-one priority.

A once-unfathomable mark, the nation crossed the grim milestone shortly before 3 p.m., according to the Johns Hopkins coronavirus tracker.

Mr. Biden and Vice President-elect Kamala Harris plan to memorialize the dead in a somber Washington ceremony late Tuesday. Four hundred lights representing each 1,000 of the victims will surround the reflecting pool on the National Mall, as other cities hold similar vigils.

The mournful tone stands in contrast to President Trump’s approach. He frequently said the U.S. was “turning the corner” and lifting other nations in the battle against the disease.

Mr. Trump focused on medical advancements in fighting the pandemic, from building a surplus supply of ventilators that help people who cannot breathe on their own to shepherding a portfolio of vaccines and antibody therapeutics.

He received one of the antibody cocktails during his October bout with the disease, dubbing it a “cure,” and characterized vaccines from U.S.-based companies as gifts to the world even as the U.K. beat America to the punch in using the one from Pfizer and German company BioNTech.

Other times, Mr. Trump said he served as a “cheerleader for the country,” admitting to reporter Bob Woodward he liked to play down the virus threat and later telling campaign crowds the U.S. was rounding the turn despite signs the pandemic was getting far worse.

His health secretary, Alex Azar, struck a somber tone in a Tuesday address to his department before he leaves on Wednesday.

“This is a national tragedy. We have lost members of our own HHS family, some of whom put their lives on the line by providing front-line care in the Indian Health Service. Many other members of our HHS family have lost loved ones or friends,” said Mr. Azar, who held a moment of silence in his live-streamed speech.

The U.S. death toll far exceeds that of any other nation, with Brazil in second position at about 210,000. However, populations differ and it is unclear if other nations are as diligent or transparent in recording COVID-19 deaths.

The global COVID-19 death toll recently surpassed 2 million as countries battle variants of the virus discovered in the U.K. and South Africa that appear to spread faster than previously known versions.

Scientists have detected mutated versions from Ohio to Germany in recent days due to frequent sequencing of the virus, though it’s not always clear which might be more contagious.

Scientists believe that existing vaccines will work against the variants.

There are some positive signs on the horizon. Hospitalizations are down to 123,000 from a peak of 131,000 one week ago, and the seven-day rolling average of cases is about 207,000 per day compared to nearly 250,000 a week ago.

Mr. Trump, who will fly to his Florida home on Wednesday, issued an order Monday lifting travel restrictions on Brazil and wide swaths of Europe as of Jan. 26. He left bans on China and Iran intact.

Airlines had been pushing for the relaxation, arguing they can test passengers, but Mr. Biden’s team said it will reject the move and, if anything, tighten travel rules.

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