California surpassed New York on Tuesday as the US state with the most coronavirus deaths, a grim reminder of the pandemic's toll even as the vaccine distribution programme and a sharp drop in new cases buoyed hopes of life eventually returning to normal.
As of late on Tuesday more than 45,000 people had died from Covid-19 in California, the most populous of the 50 states and one of the hardest hit by the virus in recent months. New York, severely stricken in the early stages of the pandemic last spring, has reported 44,693 lives lost, according to a Reuters tally.
"This is a heart-rending reminder that Covid-19 is a deadly virus, and we mourn alongside every Californian who has suffered the tragic loss of a loved one during this pandemic,” Dr Mark Ghaly, the state's health secretary, said of the milestone in an email to Reuters.
California, home to about 40 million people, became a major US centre of the pandemic during a year-end surge of infections and hospital admissions that swept much of the country, pushing many healthcare systems to their limits.
When considered in terms of per capita deaths, California, with 113 deaths per 100,000 people, ranks 32nd in the nation in Covid-19 mortality. By comparison, New York, with 248 deaths per 100,000, ranks second only to New Jersey, which has logged about 230 coronavirus deaths per 100,000 residents.
Nationwide, the daily tallies of new cases and hospital admissions because of Covid-19 dropped steadily in recent weeks, while deaths, a lagging indicator, plateaued.
The US as a whole has reported 27.25 million infections and 468,559 deaths as of late Tuesday. About 79,000 patients were admitted to hospital with Covid-19 on Tuesday, the lowest daily number since mid-November.
But in California, as in other states, the improvement obscures a wave of illness, hospital admissions and deaths that are far higher than they were at the pandemic's previous peak last summer.
The number of lives lost reported daily in the state declined over the past several weeks, but remains remarkably high at an average of 500 fatalities per day over the past 14 days, Governor Gavin Newsom said.
"Deaths continue to be devastating," Mr Newsom said at the opening of a vaccination site at the Levi's Stadium in Santa Clara County near San Francisco.
Public health experts fear that gatherings for Super Bowl celebrations on Sunday, as well as the arrival of new, highly contagious variants of the virus may lead to another surge in cases before most Americans are vaccinated.
In an effort to speed up the immunisation campaign, President Joe Biden on Tuesday announced that his administration planned to increase the number of vaccine doses shipped to the US, beginning on February 15.
Part of the expanded supply will be sent to community health centres to improve vaccine access for the mostly poor and minority populations those centres serve, the White House said on Tuesday.
By Tuesday, about 33 million Americans had received at least one dose of vaccine, the US Centres for Disease Control and Prevention reported.
"This vaccine is the weapon that will win this war," New York Governor Andrew Cuomo said on Tuesday. Ten per cent of New York state residents have received the vaccine, he said.