The U.S. reaches 20 million cases.

The United States recorded its 20 millionth case since the start of the coronavirus pandemic on Thursday, surpassing a grim milestone just as the prospects for getting the virus under control quickly in the new year appeared to dim.

Half of those 20 million cases have been recorded just since Nov. 8, a reflection of how widespread and devastating the recent surge has been. And earlier this week, Colorado identified the first known case in the United States of a new variant of the virus that is believed to be much more contagious, and which threatens to overwhelm an already burdened health care system.

The United States now accounts for nearly a quarter of the more than 83 million coronavirus cases reported in the world, and nearly a fifth of the death toll. The country has recorded more than 340,000 coronavirus deaths. Reporting of deaths has been uneven in recent days because of the holidays, but the week from Dec. 15 to Dec. 22 was the worst week for coronavirus deaths in the United States over the course of the pandemic, with 18,971 new deaths recorded.

California has become the new epicenter of the pandemic in the United States, with the huge numbers of new cases reported there in recent days offsetting declines elsewhere, including in the Great Lakes, Great Plains and Mountain West states, where the surge began. Hospitals are stretched to the breaking point in Southern California and the San Joaquin Valley.

The federal government is beginning to distribute two vaccines that clinical trials have shown to be highly effective in preventing Covid-19. But while the vaccines’ development in record time represents a scientific triumph, the rollout so far is proving to be yet another government failure.

It has proceeded at a snail’s pace, with progress falling far behind what the administration had promised. As recently as earlier this month, federal officials said their goal was for 20 million people to receive their first dose by the end of this year. But, while more than 14 million vaccine doses have been distributed, a mere 2.7 million have actually been administered, according to a C.D.C. dashboard. At the current rate, it would take years to vaccinate enough Americans to substantially curb the pandemic.

Meanwhile, the deaths mount, minute by minute, hour by hour.

“In 2020, we let ~340,000 Americans die, sometimes in the thousands per day,” Gregg Gonsalves, an assistant professor in epidemiology at the Yale School of Medicine, wrote on Twitter on Wednesday. “And we watched. There were no protests, no daily banner headlines befitting a national tragedy on this scale. It’s as if we watched 9/11 in a loop for 300+ days.”

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