US reports over 4,000 daily coronavirus deaths for first time

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The U.S. has surpassed 4,000 deaths in a single day from COVID-19 for the first time, breaking a record set just one day earlier.

The country reported 4,085 deaths Thursday, with nearly 275,000 new coronavirus cases, according to data compiled by Johns Hopkins University.

The high death toll and surging cases underscored the worsening situation following travel for holidays and family gatherings, along with more time indoors during the winter months. 

The coronavirus is surging in several states, with California hit particularly hard, reporting on Thursday a record two-day total of 1,042 coronavirus deaths. Skyrocketing caseloads there are threatening to force hospitals to ration care and essentially decide who lives and who dies.

A medical staff member helps a patient take medication in the COVID-19 intensive care unit (ICU) on New Year's Eve at the United Memorial Medical Center on Dec. 31, 2020 in Houston, Texas. (Photo by Go Nakamura/Getty Images)

"Folks are gasping for breath. Folks look like they’re drowning when they are in bed right in front of us," Dr. Jeffrey Chien, an emergency room physician at Santa Clara Valley Regional Medical Center, told the Associated Press. 

Chien urged people to do their part to help slow the spread. "I’m begging everyone to help us out because we aren’t the front line. We’re the last line," he said.

Meanwhile, the number of Americans who have gotten their first shot of the COVID-19 vaccine climbed to at least 5.9 million Thursday, a one-day gain of about 600,000, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Hundreds of millions will need to be vaccinated to stop the coronavirus.

About 1.9 million people around the world have died of the virus, more than 365,000 in the U.S. alone, according to Johns Hopkins University.

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December was by far the nation's deadliest month yet, and health experts are warning that January could be more terrible still because of family gatherings and travel over the holidays.

Meanwhile, a mutation found in two highly contagious variants of the coronavirus has erupted in Britain and South Africa — causing global concern. 

They both share a common mutation called N501Y, a slight alteration on one spot of the spike protein that coats the virus. That change is believed to be the reason they can spread so easily.

Most of the vaccines being rolled out around the world train the body to recognize that spike protein and fight it. New research suggests that Pfizer’s COVID-19 vaccine can protect against the mutation.

RELATED: Pfizer vaccine works against COVID-19 variant, study suggests

This story was reported from Cincinnati. The Associated Press contributed.