INTERNATIONAL NEWS - Brazil registered a record 2,286 deaths from Covid-19 in the past 24 hours, the health ministry said Wednesday, as a worrying surge pushed the figure past 2,000 for the first time.
The South American country of 212 million people, which has the world's second-highest death toll in the pandemic, is struggling to deal with a crush of cases that has pushed many hospitals close to the breaking point.
The new daily record brought the number of people who have died of Covid-19 in Brazil to 270,656, second only to the United States.
The country also registered its third-highest number of coronavirus infections Wednesday, with nearly 80,000.
Health experts say the surge is fueled by new, more contagious variants of the virus, including one known as P1 which is believed to have emerged in Brazil, in or around the Amazon rainforest city of Manaus.
"We're at the worst moment of the pandemic in Brazil. The transmission rate with these new variants is making the epidemic even worse," said Margareth Dalcolmo, a doctor and researcher at leading public health center Fiocruz.
"2021 is still going to be a very hard year," she told AFP.
Brazil has struggled to secure enough vaccines for its population, adding to criticism of far-right President Jair Bolsonaro's hands-off handling of the health crisis.
The president, who flouts expert advice on fighting the coronavirus despite having contracted it himself last year, last week urged Brazilians to "stop whining" about Covid-19 and renewed his attacks on stay-at-home measures.
On Wednesday he donned a face mask - a rarity for him - to sign a bill accelerating vaccine purchases, fending off criticism of his handling of the pandemic.
"Let's trust our government, trust the health ministry," he said. "This is an administration of seriousness and responsibility."
But former president Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva attacked Bolsonaro for his "imbecile" Covid-19 policies, adding "the Earth is round, and Bolsonaro thinks it's flat... a lot of deaths could have been avoided."
Individual cities and states have set their own policies in the face of the president's stance.
Vaccination began late in the huge country and remains slow, with 8.8 million people (4.2 percent of the population) receiving a first dose.
Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, the director general of the World Health Organization, has urged Brazil to take aggressive steps, warning that the country could affect its neighbors and beyond if it didn't take the virus seriously.