In late 2020, the coronavirus pandemic entered its deadliest phase yet in the United States. As colder weather took hold and the holidays arrived, the nation set repeat records for new infections and deaths.
December was by far the most lethal month, but it also brought hope: Precious vaccines arrived offering the potential to contain the disease in the near future.
The shots got off to a slow start. Initially, they went to health care workers and nursing home residents. Those 75 and older were next in line. But problems arose in vaccinating even that limited pool of people. Some hospital and nursing home workers were hesitant to get the vaccine. Scheduling issues created delays in getting shots to nursing homes. Politicians and health officials complained that too many doses were sitting unused on shelves.
So barely a month into the largest vaccination campaign in U.S. history, the nation shifted gears to speed the delivery of shots. The government decided to stop holding back required second doses of the Pfizer-BioNTech and Moderna vaccines, practically doubling supply. States were advised to start vaccinating other groups lower down the priority scale, including people age 65 and older, and younger people with certain health problems.
The efforts were sure to accelerate. As he prepared to take over the executive branch, President-elect Joe Biden made a commitment to administer 100 million shots in his first 100 days in the White House.
Cities and states sought to scale up their vaccination operations, opening centers designed to inoculate thousands of people a day in a single location. Some of the sites offered drive-thru injections. In New York City, the centers were scheduled to be open around the clock.
The pandemic, which had been tamed in some places over the summer, came roaring back in the final months of last year.
The misery deepened in the first weeks of 2021. The number of daily confirmed cases continued to race out of control, rising above 200,000 and then creeping closer to 300,000. Daily deaths sometimes surpassed 4,000. By mid-January, the total American death toll had crossed 375,000, with no immediate improvement in sight.
The winter surge also reshaped the COVID-19 map. Where the virus’ first wave hit hardest in New York City, the winter version was especially devastating in California.