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The death toll from COVID-19 in the United States has surpassed 350,000, as experts anticipate another spike in coronavirus cases and deaths stemming from Christmas gatherings during Christmas and New Years.

Data collected by Johns Hopkins University shows that the US crossed the threshold early Sunday morning (Sunday night AEDT). More than 20 million people in the country have been infected.

The United States has begun using two coronavirus vaccines to protect healthcare workers and nursing home residents and staff, but implementation of the inoculation program has been criticized for being slow and chaotic.

Darryl Hutchinson is hugged by a family member during a funeral for Lydia Nunez, who was Hutchinson’s cousin at Metropolitan Baptist Church in Los Angeles on July 21, 2020. Núñez died of COVID-19. (AP)

The United States has reported by far the highest number of COVID-19 deaths in the world, followed by Brazil, which has reported more than 195,000 deaths.

As communities across the country feel the pain of the surge in cases, funeral homes in the Southern California hot spot say they must turn away bereaved families while they run out of room for piling up bodies.

The director of the state association of funeral directors says morgues are flooding.

“I’ve been in the funeral industry for 40 years and never in my life did I think this could happen, that I would have to say to a family, ‘No, we cannot take your relative,'” he said. Magda Maldonado, owner of Continental Funeral Home in Los Angeles.

Continental is averaging about 30 carcass removals per day, six times its normal rate. Funeral home owners call each other to see if anyone can handle the overflow, and the answer is always the same: they are full too.

Magda Maldonado, owner of Continental Funeral Home in Los Angeles, poses at her morgue on December 30, 2020. Funeral homes in Southern California are turning away bereaved families because they are running out of space for all the bodies to be piling up during a relentless coronavirus surge that has pushed COVID-19 death rates to new highs. (AP)

To keep up with the onslaught of corpses, Maldonado has rented additional 15m refrigerators for two of the four facilities it manages in Los Angeles and surrounding counties. Continental has also delayed hospital pickups for a day or two while dealing with residential customers.

Bob Achermann, executive director of the California Funeral Directors Association, said the entire process of burying and cremating bodies has been slowed down, including embalming bodies and obtaining death certificates. During normal times, cremation can occur in a day or two; now it takes at least a week or more.

Achermann said that in the southern part of the state, “every funeral home I talk to says, ‘We’re rowing as fast as we can.’

“The volume is just incredible and they fear they can’t keep up,” he said. “And the worst of the wave could still be ahead of us.”

Los Angeles County, the epicenter of the crisis in California, has surpassed 10,000 deaths from COVID-19 alone. Hospitals in the area are overwhelmed and struggling to keep up with the basics like oxygen as they treat an unprecedented number of patients with respiratory problems. On Saturday, crews from the US Army Corps of Engineers arrived to upgrade oxygen supply systems at some hospitals.

US Covid coronavirus
Walter Smith, a respiratory therapist, administers oxygen to a COVID-19 patient before intubating him shortly after he was transferred to the intensive care unit from the main room for COVID-19 patients at Uniontown Hospital, Wednesday, 16 September. December 2020, in Uniontown. The hospital is at full capacity with about half of its beds, including the 15 ICU beds, being cared for by patients who test positive for COVID-19. (Alexandra Wimley / Post-Gazette) # Uniontown20 (AP)

Nationwide, an average of just over 2,500 people have died from COVID-19 in the past seven days, according to data from Johns Hopkins. The number of new cases reported daily in that period has averaged close to 195,000, a decrease from two weeks earlier.

It is feared that the Christmas gatherings could fuel another spike in cases.

Arkansas officials reported a record of more than 4,300 new COVID-19 cases on Friday. Governor Asa Hutchinson tweeted that the state “is certainly on the rise after the Christmas trips and gatherings” and added: “As we enter this new year, our first resolution should be to follow the guidelines.”

North Carolina officials also reported a record 9,527 confirmed cases on New Year’s Day. That’s more than 1000 cases above the previous daily high.

In Louisiana, a funeral was held on Saturday for an elected congressman who died of complications from COVID-19. Republican Luke Letlow died Tuesday at age 41. His swearing in was scheduled for Sunday. He leaves behind his wife, Julia Letlow, and two children, ages 1 and 3.

US Covid coronavirus
Engineers and volunteers help build a mobile field hospital at the UCI Medical Center, Monday, December 21, 2020, in Orange, Calif. California’s overwhelmed hospitals are installing additional makeshift beds for coronavirus patients and a handful of facilities in Los Angeles County is developing emergency plans in case they need to limit the number of people receiving life-saving care. (AP Photo / Jae C. Hong) (AP)

In Texas, state officials say they only have 580 intensive care beds available as staff treat more than 12,480 hospitalized patients with coronavirus, a number that has risen steadily since September and set record levels last week.

In Window Rock, Arizona, the Navajo Nation stayed in the middle of a weekend shutdown to try to reduce the infection rate. The tribe reported another seven deaths Friday night, bringing its total since the pandemic began to 23,429 cases and 813 deaths. The reservation includes parts of Arizona, New Mexico, and Utah.

The number of infections is believed to be much higher than reported because many people have not been tested, and studies suggest that people can become infected with the virus without feeling sick.

Arizona reported 18,943 new cases on Saturday and Friday, a record for the state in any two-day period. It also reported 46 new deaths on Saturday.

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