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US deaths account for 20% of world’s total of 2.4M; Johnson & Johnson plans 20M vaccine doses by end of March. Latest COVID-19 updates

President Joe Biden remembered the 500,000 American lives now lost to COVID-19 at a Monday evening ceremony outside the White House, drawing on his own experience with heartbreak to personalize the unfathomable tragedy while exhorting Americans to wear masks and take other steps to prevent spread of the virus.

He pointed out the death toll from the pandemic is higher than the number of U.S. service members killed in battle during World War I, World War II and the Vietnam War combined.

“The people we lost were extraordinary. They spanned generations,” Biden said. “Born in America, emigrated to America. Just like that so many of them took their final breath alone in America. As a nation, we can’t accept such a cruel fate. While we’re fighting this pandemic for so long, we have to resist becoming numb to the sorrow.”

The U.S., with about 4% of the world’s population, has recorded 25% of the COVID-19 cases and 20% of the fatalities. Experts warn that about 90,000 more deaths are likely in the next few months, despite the country’s massive vaccination campaign.

Already the outbreak has driven down life expectancy and left 4.5 million grieving relatives in the U.S. For every American who dies of COVID-19, an average of nine family members are left mourning. 

“It struck, like, the core of our family,” one such son said.

But even as the nation reaches what Dr. Anthony Fauci called a “terribly historic milestone,’’ there are signs of better days ahead. Not only have infections, hospitalizations and deaths been dwindling since a post-holiday spike in January, but two highly effective vaccines are finding their way into millions of American arms, and another one might be authorized soon.

It is a race against time, though, because coronavirus variants are spreading across the country and threaten to touch off another surge of cases.

The White House team also said this weekend that despite the precipitous drop in cases this month, infection levels remain above last summer’s peak and life won’t return to normal for quite some time

As the vaccination effort continues, public health officials are preaching vigilance and continued adherence to well-known mitigation measures – masking, social distancing, hand washing and avoiding large gatherings – hoping to avoid yet another COVID-19 landmark.

Also in the news:

►The House is focusing this week on President Joe Biden’s $1.9 trillion coronavirus relief package. Democrats in Congress aim to pass the whole proposal by mid-March, and it currently includes a new round of checks for Americans, renewal of the Paycheck Protection Program and an extension of a federal boost for unemployment benefits.

►States will need to administer annual standardized achievement exams to students in 2021, but they can modify or delay the tests, the U.S. Department of Education said Monday.

►Amid the national debate about reopening schools during the pandemic, a new study from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention suggests teachers may be more likely to transmit the virus than students.

►California Gov. Gavin Newsom on Tuesday plans to sign a state-sized coronavirus relief package that will include $600 one-time payments for 5.7 million people with low-to-moderate incomes. The bill was approved Monday by state lawmakers.

📈 Today’s numbers: The U.S. has more than 28.18 million confirmed coronavirus cases and 500,200 deaths, according to Johns Hopkins University data. The global totals: More than 111.7 million cases and 2.47 million deaths. More than 75.2 million vaccine doses have been distributed in the U.S. and about 64.1 million have been administered, according to the CDC.

📘 What we’re reading: Language and cultural barriers have made it difficult for many people of color, immigrants and non-English-speaking communitiesto get a COVID-19 vaccine. Here’s how we break them down.

USA TODAY is tracking COVID-19 news. Keep refreshing this page for the latest updates. Want more? Sign up for our Coronavirus Watch newsletter for updates to your inbox and join our Facebook group.

Johnson & Johnson plans to provide 20M vaccine doses by end of March

Drugmaker Johnson & Johnson says it will be able to provide 20 million U.S. doses of its single-shot COVID-19 vaccine by the end of March, assuming it gets the greenlight from federal regulators.

J&J disclosed the figure in written testimony ahead of a Congressional hearing Tuesday looking at the country’s vaccine supply. White House officials cautioned last week that initial supplies of J&J’s vaccine would be limited.

The company reiterated that it will have capacity to provide 100 million vaccine doses to the U.S. by the end of June. That supply will help government officials reach the goal of having enough injections to vaccinate most adult Americans later this year. On a global scale the company aims to produce 1 billion doses this year.

U.S. health regulators are still reviewing the safety and effectiveness of the shot and a decision to allow its emergency use is expected later this week. J&J’s vaccine would be the first in the U.S. that requires only a single shot.

Why get COVID vaccine if you still have to wear a mask? Immediate benefits, experts say

Get a COVID-19 vaccine and you’ll be counseled to keep wearing a mask and keep staying away from other people. So, what’s the point?

There’s an immediate benefit to the individual who gets a vaccine, said Andy Slavitt, White House senior advisor on the COVID-19 response. “People are interested in taking the vaccine,” he said at a Monday news conference, because “they don’t want to be sick and they don’t want to die.”

Getting two shots of either the Moderna or Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine reduces an individual’s risk of developing symptomatic COVID-19 by about 95%, according to large research trials.

But life won’t get back to something like normal for the broader society until national infection rates come down further, according to Dr. Rochelle Walensky, the head of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

– Karen Weintraub

Contributing: The Associated Press

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