The US CDC says a more transmissible COVID-19 variant first discovered in the UK has been found in 10 states.
More than 400,000 people in the United States have died as a result of the novel coronavirus, Johns Hopkins University said on Tuesday, as many states around the country struggle with mounting infections and hospitalisations.
The US has recorded the most deaths from COVID-19 in the world, and also has the highest number of cases. More than 24.2 million of the world’s 96.1 million cases of the illness have been confirmed in the US.
The death toll rose above 400,000 on President Donald Trump’s last full day in the White House. He has consistently downplayed the pandemic and questioned the science even though he was himself diagnosed with the disease last October.
The incoming president Joe Biden, who will take the oath of office on Wednesday, has promised determined action to bring the pandemic under control.
On Tuesday evening, Biden and Vice President-elect Kamala Harris signalled the changing stance as they attended a ceremony in the capital to commemorate those who had died from COVID-19.
“To heal, we must remember. It’s hard sometimes to remember, but that’s how we heal. It’s important to do that as a nation,” Biden said.
Al Jazeera’s John Hendren, reporting from Washington DC, said the sombre ceremony was held “to announce to the country that President Biden will take a very different approach [from Trump], that this [pandemic] will be a top priority for him”.
“This was an announcement to America that things are still challenging, but they’re going to be OK,” Hendren said.
Last week, Biden announced a $1.9 trillion stimulus package proposal designed to jump-start the struggling US economy and speed up the US response.
Public health officials have criticised the Trump administration’s COVID-19 vaccine roll-out, saying it has been slower than expected and “chaotic”.
Many states are struggling to vaccinate people, while hospitalisations and intensive care admissions continue to mount.
California has been particularly hard hit. The populous state has recorded more than 35,000 new daily cases of COVID-19 over the past seven days, the Los Angeles Times reported, while deaths are also on the rise.
“The state has averaged 466.7 daily deaths over the last week, an increase of 32.2 percent from two weeks ago,” the newspaper said on its website on Tuesday.
Last week, the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention also warned that a more infectious strain of COVID-19, first detected in the United Kingdom, could become the dominant variant in the US by March.
While that strain is more easily transmissible, experts say it does not cause more severe illness or spread differently.
But the incoming director of the CDC, Dr Rochelle Walensky, told the Face the Nation programme on the weekend that US coronavirus-related deaths could exceed 500,000 by mid-February.
“I think we still have some dark weeks ahead,” she said.
Dr William Petri, a professor of medicine at the University of Virginia, told Al Jazeera that the US is in the third wave of the pandemic “likely due to travel over the Thanksgiving and Christmas holidays here”.
The flouting of public health guidelines, such as wearing masks and avoiding non-essential travel, has contributed to the high rates of infection, said Petri, who added that the COVID-19 vaccines provide some hope.
“That’s what’s going to lead us out of the pandemic,” he said.
Biden has promised that 100 million COVID-19 shots will be administered in his first 100 days in office.