Coronavirus Update: U.S. COVID death toll tops 530,000 as Biden pledges vaccines open to all by May

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The U.S. death toll from the coronavirus-borne illness COVID-19 climbed above 530,000 on Friday, a day after President Joe Biden used the anniversary of the day the World Health Organization declared a pandemic to pledge to make all Americans eligible for vaccination by May 1.

In his first address to the nation since taking office, Biden announced an expansion of efforts to accelerate the vaccine program, including deploying an additional 4,000 active-duty troops to support vaccination efforts and allowing more people — such as medical students, veterinarians and dentists — to deliver shots.

He is also directing more doses toward some 950 community health centers and up to 20,000 retail pharmacies, to make it easier for people to get vaccinated closer to their homes.

Biden said his administration will launch a website to help people find doses and raised the prospect of “independence from this virus” by the July 4 holiday, as the Associated Press reported.

Speaking in the White House East Room, Biden began by his 24-minute address by honoring the “collective suffering” of Americans over the past year and then offered them a vision for a return to a modicum of normalcy this summer.

“We are bound together by the loss and the pain of the days that have gone by,” he said. “We are also bound together by the hope and the possibilities in the days in front of us.”

The speech came just hours after Biden signed into law a $1.9 trillion relief package that he said will help defeat the virus, nurse the economy back to health and deliver direct aid to Americans struggling to make ends meet. Some will receive cash distributions as soon as this weekend.

The U.S. added at least 62,690 new cases on Thursday, according to a New York Times tracker, and at least 1,522 people died. The U.S. has averaged 56,613 new cases a day in the past week, down 18% from two weeks ago.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s vaccine tracker is showing that as of 6 a.m. ET Thursday, 131 million doses had been distributed to states, 98.2 million doses had been administered and 64 million people had received at least one dose, equal to 19.3% of the population. Of that number, 33.9 million have received two doses and are fully vaccinated, equal to 10.2% of the population.

See now: Fewer people take a ‘wait and see’ approach to COVID-19 vaccine — here’s what changed their minds

There are continued concerns about side effects, including blood clots, that have been detected in some of the countries that authorized and are using the vaccine developed by AstraZeneca Plc AZN, -0.79% AZN, -0.86% and Oxford University. On Thursday, Denmark, Norway, Iceland and Bulgaria paused their rollout of that vaccine and Austria stopped using a specific batch to investigate a post-vaccine death caused by blood clots, the AP reported.

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On Friday, Italy, Romania and Thailand halted their use of the vaccine. France, Poland and Nigeria, meanwhile, said they would continue using the AstraZeneca shot even as national regulators investigate.

“At this stage, the benefit of vaccination is judged superior to the risk,” said France’s health minister, Olivier Veran.

The suspensions were the latest trouble for AstraZeneca, which had a public spat with the European Union earlier this year over supply delays and which also faced concerns about its efficacy in older adults. While EU regulators approved it for use in all adults, some countries have set age restrictions — though many are now lifting those. The trouble also comes as many EU countries have struggled to quickly ramp up vaccinations.

Read also: COVID vaccine passports may be coming — what’s the downside?

In other news:

• Novavax Inc. NVAX, +5.58% said studies show its COVID-19 vaccine is highly effective. The company said a completed late-stage clinical study showed that its vaccine candidate NVX–CoV2373 was 96.4% effective against “mild, moderate, and severe disease caused by the original COVID-19 strain.

• Italy’s government is expected to close schools, restaurants and shops later Friday as its hospitals come under pressure from a new wave of COVID infections, the Guardian reported. Prime Minister Mario Draghi is expected to hold a cabinet meeting shortly to decide new restrictions for the eurozone’s third-largest economy, which on Thursday recorded almost 26,000 new Covid-19 cases and 373 deaths. Italy was hit hard by the pandemic last spring when it was Europe’s hotspot, but succeeding in improving its numbers via a strict lockdown.

Alerts and web-browser tools can help you book a Covid-19 vaccine appointment. WSJ’s Joanna Stern met up with Kris Slevens, an IT guy who has booked over 300 appointments for New Jersey seniors, to learn the best tricks to compete in the vaccine-booking Hunger Games. Photo illustration: Emil Lendof for The Wall Street Journal

• Germany’s health minister Jens Spahn has warned the nation to brace for “some very challenging weeks” as more infectious COVID variants drive a rise in new cases, the Washington Post reported. “The situation remains serious. The case numbers are rising again — slowly, but they are rising,” Health Minister Jens Spahn said in remarks in Berlin on Friday. Germany has reported more than 12,800 new coronavirus cases in the past 24 hours and an additional 252 deaths. The day before, the country recorded its biggest daily increase in new cases in five weeks, posting more than 14,300 new infections, according to the Robert Koch Institut.

•Hong Kong’s finance sector was roiled Thursday by a coronavirus outbreak that emanated from fitness centers in the city, with large banks, brokerages and asset managers vacating some offices and employees rushing to get tested for Covid-19, The Wall Street Journal reported. HSBC Holdings HSBC, +0.10% told employees to vacate an entire floor of its headquarters, located in the city’s Central district, after an employee tested “preliminarily positive” for the virus, according to people who saw an emailed notice from the British-headquartered bank. At Credit Suisse AG CS, -2.93%, an employee who had recently been to a gym tested preliminary positive for the virus, according to people familiar with the matter.

Latest tallies

The global tally for confirmed cases of the coronavirus that causes COVID-19 climbed above 118.6 million on Friday, according to data aggregated by Johns Hopkins University, while the death toll rose above 2.63 million.

More than 67 million people have recovered form COVID, the data show.

The U.S. has the highest case tally in the world at 29.2 million, or about a quarter of the global tally, and the highest death toll at 530,821, or about a fifth of the global toll.

Brazil has the second highest death toll at 272,889 and is third by cases at 11.3 million. India is second worldwide in cases with 11.3 million, and fourth in deaths at 158,306. Mexico has the third highest death toll at 193,152 and 13th highest case tally at 2.2 million. The U.K. has 4.3 million cases and 125,403 deaths, the highest in Europe and fifth highest in the world.

China, where the virus was first discovered late last year, has had 101,285 confirmed cases and 4,839 deaths, according to its official numbers.

What’s the economy saying?

The producer price index for final demand rose 0.5% in February, the Labor Department said Friday, MarketWatch’s Greg Robb reported. The gain was in line with the forecast of economists surveyed by The Wall Street Journal.

Wholesale inflation had jumped 1.3% in January, the biggest gain since 2009.

The gain in February wholesale prices can be traced to higher prices for energy, which climbed 6%. Gasoline prices rose 13.1%. The index for final demand services inched up 0.1% in February.

In the 12 months through February, the PPI accelerated 2.8% after rising 1.7% in the in the prior month. The core PPI index rose 2.2% over the past 12 months, up from 2%.

Prices were weak at the start of the pandemic last year so high annual growth rates are likely over the next few months.

Separately, the initial reading of consumer sentiment jumped to 83.0 in early March, according to an index produced by the University of Michigan.

That is the highest level in a year. Economists polled by The Wall Street Journal had forecast the index would rise to 78.9.

Anticipation of the $1,400 stimulus checks in President Joe Biden’s relief package fueled consumer confidence, University of Michigan researchers said. Release of the checks this weekend should boost sentiment further in the final reading at the end of the month. Sentiment is improving as COVID-19 cases retreat and more Americans are vaccinated. About 29% of the U.S. population has now received at least one dose of vaccine, according to the CDC and other data sources.

The Dow Jones Industrial Average DJIA, +0.44% was 0.4% higher Friday, while the S&P 500 SPX, -0.34% was down 0.5% and the Nasdaq Composite COMP, -1.16% was off 1.7%.

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