WASHINGTON: The daily US COVID-19 death toll has surpassed 3,000 for the first time, prompting pleas for Americans to scale back Christmas plans even with vaccines on the cusp of winning regulatory approval.
COVID-19 deaths reached 3,253 on Wednesday, pushing up the US total since the start of the pandemic to 289,740. A record 106,219 people were hospitalised with the highly infectious disease, threatening to overwhelm many healthcare systems.
Healthcare professionals and support staff, exhausted by demands of the pandemic, have been watching patients die alone as millions of Americans refuse to follow medical advice to wear masks and avoid crowds and smaller gatherings to contain the virus' spread.
In California's San Joaquin Valley agricultural region, less than 2 per cent of intensive care unit (ICU) beds remain unoccupied, the California Department of Public Health said Thursday.
The number of available ICU beds continued to drop throughout the most populous US state, with just 7.7 per cent availability in the heavily populated Southern California region.
Nursing home residents and staff have also felt the burden.
"This is a pandemic that no one has ever experienced in our lifetimes," Stephen Hanse, president of the New York State Health Facilities Association and the New York State Center for Assisted Living, told Reuters on Thursday.
The one-day death toll exceeded the number of lives lost from the attacks of Sep 11, 2001, underscoring the human toll and the call for Americans to redouble efforts.
"No Christmas parties. There is not a safe Christmas party in this country right now," Dr. Michael Osterholm, a member of US President-elect Joe Biden's COVID-19 advisory board, told CNN on Thursday.
"It won't end after that, but that is the period right now where we could have a surge upon a surge upon a surge," Osterholm said.
More than half of US states have recently introduced or resumed restrictions to try to curtail the rampant spread of the virus.
On Thursday, Virginia Governor Ralph Northam imposed a midnight-to-5am curfew among other measures that will kick in on Monday and last through at least Jan 31.
"Case numbers have been rising for weeks, they're higher now than they've ever been during this entire pandemic, Northam told a news briefing.
Providing a ray of hope, a vaccine could start reaching healthcare workers, first responders and nursing home residents within days in what Hanse called "light at the end of the tunnel."
A panel of independent medical experts later on Thursday recommend that the US Food and Drug Administration authorise emergency use of a vaccine from Pfizer and German partner BioNTech.
FDA consent could come as early as Friday or Saturday, followed by the first US injections on Sunday or Monday, Moncef Slaoui, chief adviser to the Trump administration's Operation Warp Speed vaccine development program, told Fox News.
A second vaccine developed by Moderna will be reviewed by the advisory panel next week.
Biden, who succeeds President Donald Trump on Jan 20, has set a goal of vaccinating 100 million people within the first 100 days of his administration.
Meanwhile, as in California, ICUs at hundreds of hospitals across the country were at or near capacity, data from the US Department of Health and Human Services showed.
California reported just under 30,000 new cases of COVID-19 on Wednesday and 220 deaths, bringing the total of fatalities in there to 20,463.
The pandemic has also forced millions out of work, as state and local officials impose restrictions on social and economic life to contain the outbreak.
Congress, meanwhile, has struggled to end a months-long stalemate over economic assistance.
Disagreements remain over business liability protections demanded by Republicans and aid to state and local governments, whose budgets have blown up by the pandemic, sought by Democrats before a final deal is reached on pandemic assistance.