A health worker prepares a dose of the Pfizer-BioNtech vaccine on February 22, 2021 in Israel, which maintains a tight blockade on Gaza, where some 20,000 Russian-made Sputnik V vaccine doses have arrived from the United Arab Emirates

Washington (AFP) - The United States stood on the brink of 500,000 Covid-related deaths on Monday, while the vaccination rollout picked up pace globally including with the first shots in Australia.

The catastrophic US toll comes as some signs of hope are emerging in the world’s hardest-hit country, with millions of people now vaccinated and winter’s massive spike in infections dropping.

But deaths are still coming, and President Joe Biden last month warned that “well over” 600,000 people in the US could die from the virus.

Biden’s chief medical advisor Anthony Fauci reaffirmed that Americans may have to wear masks into 2022.

Graphic highlighting the countries with the largest number of Covid-19 cases and deaths in the past week.

Fauci told CBS on Monday that “despite the fact that many people have been vaccinated – we certainly will likely, very likely be much better off than than we are now – but it is conceivable that there will be enough virus in the community that in order to be extra safe, we may have to be wearing masks under certain circumstances.”

The US toll stood at 499,056 on Monday mid-morning, according to Johns Hopkins University. Globally, the figure was approaching 2.5 million.

- Normal ‘by end of year’ -

After America’s first Covid-19 death was announced in February last year, it took about three months to pass the 100,000 mark, during a first wave that hit New York particularly hard.

But as the outbreak surged across the country, the pace of deaths increased, with the toll jumping from 400,000 in just over a month after a spike fueled in part by holiday gatherings.

Shoppers wearing face masks keep their distance from one another at the Dupont Circle Market in Washington

Meanwhile India, the world’s second worst-hit nation in terms of infections, passed a bleak threshold on Monday by registering its 11 millionth case following a renewed rise in cases.

Fresh restrictions on gatherings came into force in the western state of Maharashtra, home to financial capital Mumbai, which has logged almost 52,000 deaths since the start of the pandemic.

The vast nation’s inoculation drive is creeping slowly, and India’s Serum Institute – the world’s biggest vaccine maker – has urged other countries to be “patient,” saying it has been told to prioritize the home market.

In the capital New Delhi, vegetable vendor Radhekrishna Negi spoke for many around the world, telling AFP: “I am fed up of corona.”

- Vaccination rollouts -

US President Joe Biden (L) appears alongside his top virus expert Anthony Fauci, who says a sense of normalcy may only return by the end of 2021

According to the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), more than 61 million people have received at least one shot of vaccine in the United States, with some 18 million getting the full two doses.

Biden has made it a priority to get 100 million people vaccinated within the first 100 days of his administration.

In Australia, top officials Sunday were among a small group receiving the first vaccinations, a day before the program starts in earnest.

Prime Minister Scott Morrison got the Pfizer/BioNTech vaccine at a medical center in Sydney, in what the government said was a bid to boost public confidence after some anti-vaccine protests.

And in Gaza on Sunday, some 20,000 Russian-made Sputnik V vaccine doses arrived from the United Arab Emirates.

The shots came via the Rafah crossing with Egypt, meaning they did not pass through Israel, which has maintained a tight blockade on Gaza since 2007.

Britain’s government has vowed to offer a first dose to every adult by the end of July. More than 17 million people have now received at least a first vaccine dose – one third of the adult UK population.

Prime Minister Boris Johnson was on Monday set to start unwinding England’s third lockdown as a quickening UK-wide inoculation drive relieves pressure on hard-hit hospitals.

Johnson is expected to confirm the reopening of all English schools on March 8 in the first big step towards restoring normal life, nearly a year after he imposed the first stay-at-home order.

Meanwhile hundreds of thousands of German pupils returned to schools and kindergartens for the first time in two months on Monday, despite fears of a third coronavirus wave fueled by the British variant.

In Hong Kong, leader Carrie Lam received a shot of the Chinese Sinovac drug after the financial hub last week fast-tracked its approval.

And, further south, Air New Zealand said it will trial a digital travel pass to give airlines and border authorities access to passenger health information, including their Covid-19 vaccination status.

The scheme, dubbed a “vaccination passport” by industry observers, is intended to streamline travel once borders reopen by allowing passengers to store their health credentials in one place.