Coronavirus will have killed half a million people in the US by the end of next month, Joe Biden predicted on Thursday as he warned that his administration would not be able to dramatically speed up the pace of vaccinations.
The president, who ran for election on a pledge to overhaul the US response to the pandemic, told reporters “the death toll will probably top 500,000 next month, the cases will continue to mount”.
“We didn’t get into this mess overnight. It’s going to take months for us to turn things around,” Mr Biden added during a briefing at the White House on his first full day as president.
Mr Biden also lowered expectations for a step-change in the speed of the US vaccination campaign, warning that “the brutal truth is it’s going to take months before we can get the majority of Americans vaccinated”.
He reaffirmed his commitment to launch “an aggressive, safe and effective vaccination campaign” so that 100m inoculations will be administered during his first 100 days in office.
However, that would not represent a significant increase to the current pace of vaccinations: according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, in the past week, an average of 912,497 doses were administered per day.
Asked by a reporter whether the target was ambitious enough, Mr Biden responded: “When I announced it, you all said it’s not possible. Come on give me a break, man.”
Mr Biden takes office as the rate of fatalities continues to climb. On Wednesday, the US reported a record 4,409 deaths from the virus, according to the Covid Tracking Project, which puts the total number of fatalities at 396,837.
The president’s bleak assessment of the pandemic marks a sharp departure from his predecessor Donald Trump, who repeatedly predicted that the US was on the cusp of defeating the virus only for it to spiral further out of control.
“The honest truth is, we’re still in a dark winter of this pandemic,” Mr Biden said. “It’s going to get worse before it gets better. It’s going to take many months to get where we need to be.”
He said that the best way of containing the virus was to mitigate its spread as he pleaded with Americans to wear a mask for the next 100 days. “The fact is that the single best thing we can do is [wear masks].
“It’s more important than the vaccines because they take time to work.”
The president also said that his administration would force anyone flying into the US to have had a negative coronavirus test result beforehand and to quarantine upon arrival, in a slight toughening-up of the existing regime.
And he added he would make it mandatory to wear a mask on some forms of interstate travel.
Meanwhile, Mr Biden pledged to invoke the Korean war-era Defence Production Act to force companies to make some items that are in short supply, including vaccine syringes, N95 masks and materials for testing kits.