Fauci laments 'historic' Covid toll as US nears 500,000 deaths

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Anthony Fauci listens to Joe Biden at the National Institutes of Health in Bethesda, Maryland.
Anthony Fauci listens to Joe Biden at the National Institutes of Health in Bethesda, Maryland. Photograph: Saul Loeb/AFP/Getty Images
Anthony Fauci listens to Joe Biden at the National Institutes of Health in Bethesda, Maryland. Photograph: Saul Loeb/AFP/Getty Images
in New Orleans

Last modified on Mon 22 Feb 2021 10.05 EST

As the US approached half a million Covid-19 deaths, the country’s top infectious disease expert, Dr Anthony Fauci, struggled for words to convey the grim magnitude of the death toll from the pandemic.

“It’s terrible,” he told CNN’s State of the Union on Sunday. “It’s really horrible. It is something that is historic. It’s nothing like we’ve ever been through in the last 102 years, since the 1918 influenza pandemic.”

Fauci added that “decades from now” people would be “talking about this a terribly historic milestone in the history of this country. To have these many people to have died from a respiratory born infection, it really is a terrible situation that we’ve been through and that we’re still going through.”

The US death toll stood at 497,957, according to Johns Hopkins University. The US has long had the highest Covid-19 death toll of any country. According to the World Health Organization it has one of the worst per capita death rates, at 148.61 per 100,000. Countries including the UK, Italy and Portugal have higher per capita rates.

Although infection rates have been steadily declining since record highs in early January, the US still recorded 13,347 deaths and more than 500,000 new cases in the past week, according to Johns Hopkins.

Last week an average of 1.32m vaccines were administered each day, according to a tracker by Bloomberg News. The federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) said more than 61m doses had been administered in the US, with about 5.47% of the population now fully vaccinated.

Fauci, who is Joe Biden’s chief medical adviser, acknowledged in an interview with NBC’s Meet the Press that cold weather across the US south had set back vaccine rollout, but projected the deficit would be made up by the middle of next week.

“It’s a temporary setback,” he said. “And when you just, you know, put your foot to the accelerator and really push, we’ll get it up to where we need to be by the middle of the week.”

The Biden administration has pledged to administer 150m vaccinations by 29 April.

On CNN, Fauci acknowledged that despite the rollout of vaccines, Americans could still be asked to wear masks into 2022.

“I think it is possible that that’s the case,” Fauci said. “It depends on what you mean by normality … if normality means exactly the way things were before we had this happen to us … I can’t predict that. Obviously I think we’ll have a significant degree of normality beyond the terrible burden that all of us have been through over the last year.”

Fauci added that only when transmission rates fell significantly and vaccines had been rolled out to the point of “minimal, minimal threat” of transmission would mask requirements begin to be dropped.

“When it [transmission] goes way down and the overwhelming majority of the people in the population are vaccinated, then I would feel comfortable in saying, you know, ‘We need to pull back on the masks’,” he said.

Elsewhere on Sunday, former deputy national security adviser Matt Pottinger told CBS the Trump administration “misjudged” the need to advocate for mask-wearing a year ago, in the early stages of the pandemic.

“We misjudged the nature of this thing to think that it was like flu,” he told Face the Nation. “One of the mistakes that followed on from that was the misjudgment by public health officials in this country to not advocate for the widespread generalised use of face coverings, cloth masks, surgical masks and what have you.”

Pottinger continued: “The mask misstep cost us dearly. It was the one tool that was widely available, at least homemade, you know, cotton masks were widely available. It was the one effective, widely available tool that we had in the arsenal to deal with this. But public health officials were stuck in this sort of flu mentality. It was a grave misstep.”