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U.S. expected to have 500,000 COVID-19 deaths by February, CDC official warns

California battling COVID variant as cases surge
California battling COVID variant as cases surge 02:11

As the U.S. closes in on 400,000 coronavirus deaths, the incoming director of the Centers for Disease Control said that by the middle of February, officials expect the death toll to be staggering.

"By the middle of February, we expect half a million deaths in this country," Dr. Rochelle Walensky said.

The grim news comes as Los Angeles is battling a more contagious variant of the virus. California leads the world in coronavirus cases, with over 3 million residents infected.

UCLA epidemiologist Dr. Anne Rimoin told CBS News that she "certainly" suspects there are more variants active in the population. She likened searching for the variants to "shining a flashlight in the dark," adding, "You're going to see something if you start to look, and we just haven't been looking."

Southern California — coronavirus
A nurse wearing personal protective equipment (PPE) communicates through a glass door while attending to a patient in a COVID-19 intensive care unit (ICU) at Martin Luther King Jr. (MLK) Community Hospital in Southern California. PATRICK T. FALLON/AFP via Getty Images

But nationwide, the chaotic rollout of the vaccine continues, leading to more than a few frayed nerves in Florida.

"You can't get an appointment, you can't buy an appointment. So what we going to do?" said Palm Beach resident Elizabeth Johnson.

Florida's department of health has said more than 40,000 are already overdue for their second dose, as the country braces for the worst.

The darkest weeks have already hit Southern California. Data shows the dramatic increase in COVID-19 deaths in LA County, where one person is now dying every six minutes.

The coroner has a backlog of bodies, so many that LA County has just eased air quality rules to allow for more cremations.

And yet, as bad as things may seem, there is at least one uplifting update.

CBS News met Dennis Zayas and his wife Jessica just before Christmas, after a COVID-19 diagnosis led to a double lung transplant. He told CBS News that his recovery was a daily struggle and that he had to almost learn how to walk again.

Now, he's not just walking, he's working out — and over the weekend, got his first dose of the Moderna vaccine.

CBS News has confirmed on Monday that President Trump will lift travel restrictions from Europe and Brazil, where the virus is surging, before he leaves office. The restrictions would be lifted on January 26 — but President-elect Biden's team said later Monday that he would block the changes. 

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