Guardian(UK) More than 500,000 people have now died from Covid-19 in the US, just over a year after the country detected its first cases of a virus that has wrought almost unprecedented loss. Yet, 616,000 is being predicted by June.

Deaths breached half a million on Monday, according to data from Johns Hopkins University, bringing the total to 500,071 . More than 28 million people have also tested positive for coronavirus in the US.

Both numbers are the worst in the world and the pandemic has thrown a harsh spotlight on the country’s ability to cope with such a disaster, especially during the tumultuous tenure of Donald Trump, whose administration botched the government response.

In a primetime address on Monday night, Joe Biden spoke to the gravity of the milestone.

“As a nation, we can’t accept such a cruel fate,” the president said in a speech, which was followed by a moment of silence and candle lighting ceremony at the White House. “While we’ve been fighting this pandemic for so long, we have to resist becoming numb to the sorrow. We have to resist viewing each life as a statistic.”

After a devastating winter surge in cases, for the first time in months, the average number of daily new coronavirus cases in the US fell below 100,000 on 12 February. Even with the decrease in cases, the US is still experiencing 1,500 to 3,500 deaths a day and public health officials have warned recent progress could easily reverse.

Perhaps the biggest threat is the new variants of the virus, which appear to spread more quickly and easily. Scientists are working to understand how these variants could change the effectiveness of vaccines as the US attempts to ramp up the scale of its inoculation distribution.

About 13% of the US population, or 43 million people, have received their first dose of the vaccine, according to the Washington Post. Biden pledged this month to make 600m doses of the vaccine available by the end of July.

To avoid another spike in cases, the director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), Rochelle Walensky, said mask-wearing guidelines must remain in place and people must continue to use physical distancing to stop the virus’s spread.

A year on from the first known Covid infections in the US, Joe Biden’s administration has made the health and economic response to the pandemic a White House priority, after Donald Trump spent most of 2020 minimizing and dismissing its grim toll.

In the first year of the pandemic, more people died from Covid-19 than those who die from respiratory diseases, guns and car crashes in the US in an average year.

Joe Biden, Jill Biden, Kamala Harris and Doug Emhoff attend a moment of silence and candle lighting ceremony at the White House.
Joe Biden, Jill Biden, Kamala Harris and Doug Emhoff attend a moment of silence and candle lighting ceremony at the White House. Photograph: Jonathan Ernst/Reuters

Earlier this month, a Lancet commission said the US could have averted 40% of the deaths from Covid-19, had the country’s death rates corresponded with the rates in other high-income G7 countries.

Trump’s administration reacted slowly at the start of the pandemic and then frequently sought to undermine the science around the virus, including spreading unfounded conspiracy theories and unverified treatments. Trump, who was eventually infected himself, especially inflamed racial tensions by blaming China and also flouting widely accepted practices, such as mask-wearing.

Dr Anthony Fauci, the nation’s top infectious disease expert, said political divisiveness – which helped transform mask wearing from a public health measure to a political statement – has contributed significantly to the “stunning” Covid death toll.

Meanwhile the emergence of more contagious variants of the coronavirus – especially those from South Africa and Brazil, which have been shown to reduce the immunity from natural infections and vaccines – have made it challenging to predict when the US will be able to put the pandemic behind it, Fauci told Reuters in an interview Monday.

Fauci and Biden have said the United States should return to something approaching pre-pandemic normal life around Christmas. But that could change, Fauci cautioned.

Covid-19 deaths, hospitalizations and cases have disproportionately affected Black, Latino and Indigenous people. American Indian or Alaska Native people have died at 2.4 times the rate of white people, Black people at 1.9 times the rate and Latino people at 2.3 times the rate, according to the CDC.

It’s been just over a year since the first known US death from Covid-19 on 6 February 2020, though the death wasn’t reported until April of that year. In early February 2020, the country’s first confirmed cases were detected in people returning from abroad, though it is now believed the virus had been spreading in the country for months before.

It was in Seattle in late February 2020 that the quick spread of the illness became evident to the US, as the virus swept through a long-term care facility, leading to the deaths of at least 46 people.

Local lockdowns were soon implemented in many parts of the country, and by early April, New York City had become the center of the global outbreak.

In October, scientists at the University of Washington warned the US death toll could reach half a million people by the end of February. The University’s Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation now projects the death toll will be 616,000 by 1 June.

The scientists said the trajectory of the next four months will be determined by vaccine distribution, declining virus transmission in warmer months, new variants and individual adherence to mask-wearing and other public health guidelines.

Lois Beckett and agencies contributed reporting

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Italy ‘misled WHO on pandemic readiness’ weeks before Covid outbreak

Preparations not reviewed since 2006 but self-reporting in February 2020 claimed they were at highest level

A memorial dedicated to the victims of the coronavirus pandemic in Codogno, Lombardy
A memorial dedicated to the victims of the coronavirus pandemic unveiled on 21 February in Codogno, Lombardy, one year after the first local transmission took place there. Photograph: Carlo Cozzoli/Rex/Shutterstock

 

Guardian (UK) Italy allegedly misled the World Health Organization (WHO) on its readiness to face a pandemic less than three weeks before the country’s first locally transmitted coronavirus case was confirmed.

Each year, countries bound by the International Health Regulations (IHR) – an international treaty to combat the global spread of disease – are required to file a self-assessment report to the WHO on the status of their preparedness for a health emergency.

Italy undertook its last self-assessment report on 4 February 2020. In section C8 of the report, seen by the Guardian, where countries have to evaluate their overall readiness to respond to a public health emergency, the author marks Italy in ‘level 5’, which is the highest status of preparedness.

The category states that a country’s “health sector emergency response coordination mechanism and incident management system linked with a national emergency operation centre have been tested and updated regularly”.

However, it emerged last year that Italy had not updated its national pandemic plan since 2006, a factor that may have contributed to at least 10,000 Covid-19 deaths during the first wave and which is a key element in an investigation into alleged errors by authorities being carried out by prosecutors in Bergamo, the Lombardy province that was severely affected in the pandemic’s early stage.

The self-assessment document has been given to the Bergamo prosecutors as additional evidence towards a civil lawsuit filed by the families of Covid-19 victims in December against leading politicians for alleged criminal negligence over their handling of the pandemic.

Italy’s first local coronavirus transmission was confirmed on 21 February in the Lombardy town of Codogno, and two days later an outbreak occurred in the hospital of the Bergamo town of Alzano Lombardo. But unlike Codogno, which was immediately quarantined along with nine other towns in Lombardy and one in Veneto, the Alzano Lombardo hospital was reopened a few hours after the outbreak while Bergamo province only went into lockdown with the entire Lombardy region two weeks later.

Bergamo prosecutors last year questioned Giuseppe Conte, who until earlier this month was prime minister; Roberto Speranza, the health minister; Luciana Lamorgese, the interior minister; and Attilio Fontana, president of the Lombardy region, as part of their investigations. They also questioned Giuseppe Ruocco, current general secretary for the health ministry and a general director of preventive health from 2012-2014, in January.

Conte, who was questioned by prosecutors last June, told the Guardian in an interview in October that, if summoned, he would be willing to be questioned again, but that he did everything he possibly could do manage a really difficult situation. Speranza, who was questioned last June and again in January, has not commented publicly on the investigation, neither have Lamorgese, Fontana or Ruocco.

Ruocco reportedly contradicted Italy’s self-assessment report of February 2020 by confirming to prosecutors that the pandemic plan was last drafted in 2006, despite the country being obliged to update the plan according to WHO guidelines in 2013 and 2018.

In an analysis of the self-assessment document compiled by Pier Paolo Lunelli, a retired army general, 60 out of 70 answers provided by Italy were judged to be “groundless”. Lunelli wrote in his analysis, which has been given to prosecutors, that the document “constitutes a castle of evidence which certifies the [level of] unpreparedness we approached the coronavirus emergency with”.

“We lied to the Italian citizens claiming we were ready,” added Lunelli. “Worse, we tried to deceive even the WHO, the EU and the ‘provident’ European countries, declaring to have capabilities which, in the light of the facts, we did not have.”

Italy, which was the first European country to be hit by the pandemic, had registered 95,992 coronavirus-related deaths as of Monday – the highest toll in Europe after the UK.

Consuelo Locati, the lawyer representing the families behind the civil lawsuit, said the self-assessment report could represent “resounding evidence of all the premises for false representation”.

Locati is preparing to write to Italy’s new prime minister, Mario Draghi, to ask for a compensation law for the relatives of coronavirus victims.

Locati claimed that not only was Italy’s pandemic plan severely outdated, but that it had never been tested to establish if it worked.

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Step by step: how England’s Covid lockdown will be lifted

Boris Johnson has set out a plan for reopening in four stages, with a minimum of five weeks between each

A man sits outside a closed pub in Eton, Berkshire
A man sits outside a closed pub in Eton, Berkshire. Most outdoor venues including pubs and restaurants will be allowed to open during step 2. Photograph: Maureen McLean/Rex/Shutterstock
Political correspondent

 

Boris Johnson has announced detailed plans for the unlocking of England amid the coronavirus vaccination programme. Here is the proposed timetable, in four stages, and other initiatives announced by Downing Street.

No 10 is stressing that after the first step the subsequent stages of reopening could be subject to delay and that the programme would be guided by “data rather than dates”.

 

There is a minimum of five weeks between each stage – four weeks to collect and assess data and then a week for people and businesses to prepare for the next step.

All the changes will be England-wide with no return to regional tiers. The only exception could be localised efforts if a new variant of the virus is detected, for example additional testing.

Step 1, part 1 – 8 March

  • All pupils and college students return fully, with before- and after-school clubs opened. For a period, secondary school pupils and older will wear masks in classes.
  • People can meet one other person outside for, say, a coffee or picnic, not just for exercise. Children will still count towards this.
  • Care home residents can receive one regular, named visitor.
  • The “stay at home” order will otherwise stay in place.

Step 1, part 2 – 29 March

  • Outdoor gatherings allowed of up to six people, or two households if this is larger, not just in parks but also gardens.
  • Outdoor sport for children and adults will be allowed including outdoor swimming pools.
  • The official stay at home order will end, but people will be encouraged to stay local – the definition of local will largely be left to people’s discretion.
  • People will still be asked to work from home where possible, with no overseas travel allowed beyond the current small number of exceptions.

Step 2 – no earlier than 12 April

  • Reopening of non-essential retail, hair and nail salons, and public buildings such as libraries.
  • Most outdoor venues open, including pubs and restaurants but only for outdoor tables and beer gardens. Customers will have to be seated but there will be no need to have a meal with alcohol.
  • Also reopening will be settings such as zoos and theme parks. However, social contact rules will apply here, so no indoor mixing between households and limits on outdoor mixing.
  • Indoor leisure facilities such as gyms and pools can also open but again people can only go alone or with their own household.
  • Reopening of holiday lets with no shared facilities, but only for one household.
  • Funerals can have up to 30 attendees, while weddings, receptions and wakes can have 15.
  • While it is not part of step 2, this is the earliest point after which the bulk of university students could know about the resumption of face-to-face classes. A review of this will take place at the end of the Easter holidays.

Step 3 – no earlier than 17 May

  • Most mixing rules lifted outdoors, with a limit of 30 people meeting in parks or gardens.
  • Indoor mixing will be allowed, up to six people or, if it is more people, two households.
  • Indoor venues such as the inside of pubs and restaurants, hotels and B&Bs, play centres, cinemas, museums and group exercise classes will reopen. The new indoor and outdoor mixing limits will remain for pubs and other hospitality venues.
  • This will be the earliest date at which international holidays could resume, subject to a review – see the list of reviews below.
  • For sport, indoor venues can have up to 1,000 spectators or half capacity, whichever is lower; outdoors the limit will be 4,000 people or half capacity, whichever is lower. Very large outdoor seated venues, such as big football stadiums, where crowds can be spread out, will have a limit of 10,000 people, or a quarter full, whichever is fewer.
  • Weddings will be allowed a limit of 30 people, with other events such as christenings and barmitzvahs also permitted.

Step 4 – no earlier than 21 June

  • All legal limits removed on mixing will be removed and the last sectors to remain closed, such as nightclubs, will reopen. Large events can take place.
  • There are likely to be changes to wider social distancing measures but this will be decided in a separate review – also see below.

Four reviews taking place within the unlocking process

  • On whether “Covid status certificates” – ie vaccine or test passports – could be used to help reopen the economy and/or reduce restrictions on contact. This will be set out ahead of step 4. Officials say it is not a foregone conclusion that these will be used.
  • An “events research programme”, with pilots to test the effects of larger crowds and/or reduced social distancing. This will start in April.
  • A Department for Transport review into how to allow more inbound and outbound travel as soon as possible, given worries over new variants of Covid. It will report on 12 April, but international travel will not resume before 17 May at the earliest.
  • A review of social distancing, for example the 1 metre-plus rule, and on masks and working from home. This will conclude before step 4.

Commons scrutiny and votes

  • For most of the rules the government will lay a statutory instrument, a form of legislation, before 8 March and it will be debated and voted on before the Easter recess.
  • Before this there will be a much more limited measure to allow one-to-one outdoor meetings and the reopening of venues such as after-school clubs.