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US experts alarmed as many don't use masks, predict tough weeks ahead

Health officials alarmed as many do not use masks even as daily cases soar

WASHINGTON: US health officials on Sunday expressed alarm over the refusal of many Americans to wear masks as the nation faces a soaring daily Covid-19 death toll.

News also broke on Sunday that US President Donald Trump's lawyer, Mr Rudy Giuliani, had tested positive for the virus.

With the roll-out of new vaccines expected in just weeks, the officials warned against false confidence - particularly with year-end travel still ahead.

Dr Deborah Birx, coordinator of the White House coronavirus task force, said it was "frustrating" to hear people "parroting back that masks don't work (and) that gatherings don't result in super-spreading events".

"This is not just the worst public health event. This is the worst event this country will face," Dr Birx told NBC. "The vaccine is critical," she said, "but it's not going to save us from this current surge".

Health and Human Services secretary Alex Azar confirmed on Sunday that the government expects 20 million people to receive vaccines from manufacturers Pfizer and Moderna by year's end, assuming the Food and Drug Administration approves them this week.

Dr Moncef Slaoui, who heads the federal vaccine program Operation Warp Speed, told CBS that vaccinations could begin within 36 hours of FDA approval.

But experts expressed exasperation that many Americans continue to ignore guidance to wear masks, practice social distancing and avoid large crowds.

Former FDA commissioner Scott Gottlieb predicted the US death toll, now just over 280,000, could hit 400,000 by late next month.

"There is a grim future ahead of us for the next six weeks," he told CBS. "People really need to protect themselves."

Virus cases and deaths have hit record levels in the US, and television news reports show distraught nurses struggling to hold back tears as they labour in overwhelmed Covid wards.

The latest big public gathering came Saturday in Valdosta, Georgia, where Mr Trump held his first rally since the election, drawing thousands of people, packed tightly together and with few wearing masks.

More than 2,500 people have died from Covid-19 each day for the last five days in the US - the highest numbers since the pandemic erupted.

Meanwhile, Mr Giuliani's positive test has prompted one state legislature to close for a week after he visited to try to persuade lawmakers to help reverse Mr Trump's election defeat.

The 76-year-old former New York mayor is the latest in a long string of people close to the White House, including Mr Trump himself, who have been infected.

"@RudyGiuliani, by far the greatest mayor in the history of NYC, and who has been working tirelessly exposing the most corrupt election (by far!) in the history of the USA, has tested positive for the China Virus," Mr Trump said, using a term for Covid-19 that has drawn backlash.

Mr Giuliani tweeted his thanks to "friends and followers" Sunday evening for their concern about him.

"I'm getting great care and feeling good. Recovering quickly and keeping up with everything," he wrote on Twitter. - AFP, REUTERS

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