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The US just suffered its worst day for COVID-19 deaths. But summer could be 'dramatically better'

Mass vaccinations, warmer weather, a new presidential administration and a population building immunity could lead to a "dramatically better" summer, one expert says.

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COVID-19 is now killing faster than at any point in 2020. And the new year just started.

The U.S. reported its highest number of COVID-19 deaths in one day Tuesday: 4,327, according to Johns Hopkins University.

In fact, the five highest daily tallies for new infections and new deaths have all occurred in 2021.

Over the past week, the U.S. has averaged more than 3,300 deaths every day, a jump of more than 217% from mid-November.

Many experts aren't surprised after widespread holiday gatherings, casual get-togethers with friends and weeks of record-high hospitalization numbers.

More than 131,300 people are now hospitalized with COVID-19, according to the COVID Tracking Project.

In some parts of the country, hospitals have reached their breaking point.

On Tuesday, Arizona reported a record-high 5,082 hospitalized COVID-19 patients. The same day, it broke a second record: more than 1,180 COVID-19 patients in ICU beds.

Louisiana Gov. John Bel Edwards extended an order that keeps Covid-19 mitigation measures in place for nearly another month, saying the state was seeing a "huge spike" in cases and hospitalizations.

Why June could be 'dramatically better'

While vaccinations continue to lag behind predictions, health experts are begging Americans to hunker down in their bubbles for these next few months as soaring hospitalizations lead to record daily deaths.

While those "awful" numbers will likely continue this winter, better months are coming, said Dr. Paul Offitt, a member of the U.S. Food and Drug Administration's Vaccines and Related Biological Products Advisory Committee.

Mass vaccinations, warmer weather, a new presidential administration and a population building immunity could lead to a "dramatically better" summer, he said.

Two "remarkably effective" vaccines are already being administered, and two more vaccines — from Johnson & Johnson and AstraZeneca — "are right around the corner," Offitt said.

The incoming Biden administration "isn't into this cult of denialism" that has surrounded the Trump administration's coronavirus response, and it would "take this problem head on," Offitt said.

If another 55% to 60% of the population can be vaccinated — something Offit said can be done if the U.S. gives 1 million to 1.5 million doses a day — "then I really do think that by June, we can stop the spread of this virus."

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Big changes to vaccine distribution

On Tuesday, Health and Human Services Secretary Alex Azar said the federal government will no longer hold back second doses of COVID-19 vaccines that it kept in reserve.

"We are telling states they should open vaccinations to all people ... 65 and over and all people under age 65 with a comorbidity with some form of medical documentation," Azar said.

Second doses will still be available to those who need them, he said, noting that "based on the science and evidence we have, it is imperative that people receive their second doses on time."

The Pfizer vaccine doses should be spaced 21 days apart, and the Moderna doses should be 28 days apart.

More than 27.6 million vaccine doses have so far been distributed, according to CDC data, and more than 9.3 million people have received their first dose — a far cry from where some experts hoped the country would be by now.

In many cases, it's been the rigid following of guidance on who should get the vaccines first that has slowed the vaccine rollout, Dr. Anthony Fauci said Tuesday.

While priorities recommended by the CDC shouldn't be abandoned, Fauci said, "When people are ready to get vaccinated, we're going to move right on to the next level, so that there are not vaccine doses that are sitting in a freezer or refrigerator where they could be getting into people's arm."

And starting in two weeks, vaccines will be distributed to states based on which jurisdictions are getting the most doses into arms and where the most older adults reside.

"We will be allocating them based on the pace of administration as reported by states and by the size of the 65 and over population in each state," Azar said.

"We're giving states two weeks' notice of this shift to give them the time necessary to plan and to improve their reporting if they think their data is faulty."

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Only six states have administered more than 50% of the doses distributed to them, according to data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention: Connecticut, Montana, North Dakota, South Dakota, Tennessee and West Virginia.

On the opposite end, seven states have administered less than 25% of the doses they were given: Alabama, Arkansas, California, Georgia, Hawaii, Idaho and Virginia.