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The pandemic’s toll in 2020 and the difficult road ahead

Since the first reported case of COVID-19 a little more than a year ago, the pandemic has taken a devastating toll in the U.S. -- far worse than in many other developed countries. Donald G. McNeil Jr., a science and health reporter for The New York Times, joins Judy Woodruff to give some perspective.

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  • Judy Woodruff:

    Since the first reported case of COVID a little more than a year ago, the pandemic has taken a devastating toll in the U.S., far worse than in many other developed countries.

    The numbers are almost too large to fully comprehend, more than 3,800 deaths recorded just yesterday, on one day, an average of 2,300-plus deaths a day over the past week, and a cumulative death toll larger than the population of cities like Pittsburgh, Saint Louis, or Lexington, Kentucky, all while the country is averaging more than 183,000 new cases a day recently.

    We close the year with some perspective from Donald McNeil, who has been covering this pandemic for The New York Times.

    And, Donald McNeil, welcome back to the "NewsHour."

    We did want to speak with you because you have been looking at this terrible pandemic for the entire year. As you look back on 2020, how does this pandemic come into focus for you?

  • Donald McNeil Jr.:

    Worst year of our national life in my lifetime.

    I mean, I'm not old enough to remember 1918 Spanish Flu or the Depression or World War II, but, other than that, I can't imagine a time when this many people have suffered all around the world all at the same time, and the both fear and death, as you would experience in a war, and economic crushing, as you experience in a recession.

    So, it's been just awful.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    Donald McNeil, we keep asking this question.

    The United States has, what, 4 percent of the world's population, and yet we have almost a quarter of all the cases in the world. How did it come to this?

  • Donald McNeil Jr.:

    Leadership failure is the short answer.

    You know, Donald Trump might have been the hero of this pandemic, and we might have gotten out of it looking pretty great. I don't think we would have ever had the kind of total lockdown and defeat of the pandemic that China managed, because Americans are too ornery to have gone along with those kinds of lockdowns.

    But had we — we had a few — we had a few weeks, even more than Europe did. We got dinged by the virus in mid-January in Seattle, but we didn't have a big outbreak in New York until the virus probably arrived in February at multiple times.

    And had we picked up the lessons from Italy, which saw that things were out of control and locked down really tightly, had the president and everybody around him taken everything very seriously and said, look, get indoors, the way the Italians learned to do, stop travel, adopt masks, as was done in Europe, and let's be careful, and let's unleash America's industrial and pharmaceutical might and build a vaccine, we would have done it.

    And we would have probably on the order of Germany level of deaths, if we'd had that kind of leadership and that kind of determination to take on the virus.

    But we didn't. We lost it all in denial. And then we didn't have tests for two months, so we didn't know where the virus was. We could have avoided lockdowns in many places outside of New York if we had known where the virus was.

    And then we were just a headless chicken for an enormous amount in the early days of the pandemic. And we have been playing catchup ever since, and not succeeding. And the denialism has continued even to this day.

    The president launched these great vaccines and hasn't taken one.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    And now that we have a vaccine that's beginning to be available, it's not available to as many people as we thought it would be.

    We're going into to 2021 with fewer people vaccinated than had been forecast. How hard, how easy is it going to be to ramp that up?

  • Donald McNeil Jr.:

    I don't — we're not getting very clear explanations of what the problem is.

    It sounds like Operation Warp Speed is moving the vaccine to the state depots, but then just sort of dropping it off and saying, OK, governors, take it from here, which, unfortunately, has been the way the federal government has led a lot of things here, even if it's get your own PPE, find your own ventilators and masks. Here, get your own vaccine out there, and we're not giving you enough money to do it.

    This was supposed to be the easy phase. Giving vaccines in hospitals and nursing homes ought to be easy. You have tons of people around who know how to stick needles in people.

    But we're already struggling. And I worry quite a bit about what's going to happen once we have got the massive numbers of people outside of hospitals and nursing homes leading for vaccines.

    So, we don't have a clear idea, but we really need to get to about a million vaccines a day in order to hope to reach the goal of vaccinating 80 percent of this country by the — by mid to late next year. And we're nothing close to a million a day. We're 100,000 or so right now.

    So it's a real problem.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    A lot — excuse me — a lot of people wonder, with different leadership in Washington, which there will be under president-elect Biden starting in a few weeks, how different will things be?

    I mean, can decisions be made with regard to testing, with regard to decisions made at the states, with regard to attitudes about taking the virus seriously? How much should Americans expect that things will be different starting on January the 21st?

  • Donald McNeil Jr.:

    Well, I'm sure the attitude from the top will be very different. I'm sure there will be scientific guidance for things.

    But when you have got 200,000 new cases a day, if that's still going on by the time Joe Biden comes into office, it's going to be very hard.

    This — King Canute couldn't stop the waves, and you can't change cold weather, and you can't stop a virus from spreading, unless everybody changes what they do. You can't really declare a federal mask mandate. You can't force people back into their homes federally. It has to be state by state. Those are state laws.

    And so I'm not sure how much a change in attitude is going to make a difference. And I'm not sure that he will be able to speak to the Trump base, which is where the pandemic has been hitting in this third wave very hard.

    I mean, the people who have denied wearing masks in the Midwest and the Dakotas and the places like that are the ones being hit hard in this way. It's not the same people who were being hit in the first wave that hit the cities.

    So, he has to find people who can speak to those groups and convince them that they have got to protect themselves and accept the vaccine. And then he's got to help roll out the vaccine. And, hopefully, he can take some money from some budgets that — there's always bloated budget somewhere in the federal government — and route that into getting the vaccine into people's arms.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    I'm asking you this because I think some people believe that, with a change in leadership, we're going to begin to see some dramatic or at least noticeable changes.

    But it looks like — I mean, with hospitals overflowing in California and other states, more people than ever in ICUs, I mean, we're still in for some rough times ahead, aren't we?

  • Donald McNeil Jr.:

    Absolutely.

    It's quite — and unless people get scared. There are some hints. You can see, looking at the maps today, that cases are dropping in places like the Dakotas and Minnesota and around the Upper Midwest. I think they got very scared by what happened around Thanksgiving and how their hospitals got filled.

    And if that fear causes people to protect themselves better, then we will do better. But got to see if that happens, and got to see how Mr. Trump handles it when he's out of office. If he's mocking the efforts to stop it, is — it may thwart the new administration's efforts to do things better.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    Finally, Donald McNeil, if there's one thing — I know it's impossible to boil this down to one thing, but if there's one thing that people should be thinking about as we close out this year and go into the new one about this pandemic, what do you think it would be?

  • Donald McNeil Jr.:

    Get the vaccine, and protect yourself until you do.

    My daughter, who works at a hospital in Los Angeles, got the vaccine yesterday. I'm thrilled. It'll be quite a while before I do, but I'm very happy for her and hope that everybody else gets the same thing soon, and that they protect themselves until then.

    And let's hope next year's better than this one.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    For sure.

    And, in the meantime, as you say, everybody stay as safe as we possibly can, wear masks, keep socially distanced, don't gather tonight on New Year's Eve.

    Donald McNeil with The New York Times, we thank you very much. And we…

  • Donald McNeil Jr.:

    Thank you for inviting me.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    … wish you and all of us the best.

    Thank you.

  • Donald McNeil Jr.:

    Happy new year.

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