December 12, 2020

Coronavirus updates: US reports 16 millionth case; vaccinations to begin Monday


The United States on Saturday reported its 16 millionth COVID-19 case, even as a newly authorized vaccine is already being distributed and vaccinations are expected to begin Monday, according to federal officials.

It took three months for the U.S. to record its first million cases. But it’s been just four days between the 15th and 16th million case milestones — yet another sign the virus is spreading at an alarming and deadly pace. But the nation’s first authorized vaccine promises to help slow the pandemic in coming months, as the federal government races to quickly distribute it.

“As I speak today, right now, vaccines are being packaged,” Gen. Gustave Perna, co-leader of Operation Warp Speed in charge of logistics, said Saturday. “Tomorrow morning, vaccines will start rolling from manufacturing to distribution hubs. By Monday, vaccines will be received.”

Vaccinations will begin Monday, Dr. Nancy Messonnier, director of the National Center for Immunization and Respiratory Diseases at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, said during a meeting Saturday.

Health care workers and nursing home residents are first in line. Patients and caregivers will receive fact sheets describing the risks and benefits, she said.

Earlier Saturday, Food and Drug Administration officials reassured the American public that the agency did not cut corners in its review and urged people to get vaccinated. The United States is on the cusp of losing 300,000 people to COVID-19.

Here are today’s top headlines:

  • An advisory committee to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention voted Saturday to recommend the Pfizer/BioNTech vaccine for people 16 and older. Now it goes to the director of the CDC for his signature.
  • The Food and Drug Administration late Friday granted emergency authorization to Pfizer/BioNTech’s vaccine that research shows is highly effective at preventing a disease.
  • The promising news will not immediately end the pandemic, which is raging out of control. Dr. Ugur Sahin, CEO of BioNTech, estimated it would be March or April before the vaccine could impact the virus’ spread — underscoring the need for measures like mask-wearing and social distancing in the meantime.
  • About 1 in 8 U.S. hospitals had few or no intensive care unit beds available last week, according to new federal data. Experts say the number of hospitals struggling to accommodate the nation’s sickest patients likely will increase following another week of record COVID-19 cases.
  • Two Florida men are facing federal charges that allege they stole nearly 200 ventilators the United States shipped to El Salvador to help the Central American country treat coronavirus patients.

? Another day of record deaths in the US: On Friday, 3,309 people in the U.S. died from the coronavirus, according to Johns Hopkins University data. The previous record was set Wednesday at 3,124, the first time the daily death toll surpassed 3,000. As of Saturday, about 297,000 people in the U.S. have died, with more than 16 million confirmed cases. The global totals: 71.6 million cases and 1.6 million deaths.

By Joshua Bote, Grace Hauck and Joel Shannon

New York’s 21 Club closes indefinitely due to pandemic

The storied 21 Club in midtown Manhattan, a favorite of celebrities and the power elite for nine decades, is closing indefinitely due to the coronavirus pandemic, but the owners are optimistic about reopening at some point.

The restaurant’s owners filed notice about the closing with the city on Wednesday, saying all 148 employees will be terminated on March 9. The news comes as indoor dining at New York City restaurants will be banned again starting Monday in an effort to halt a resurgence of the virus, but takeout and outdoor dining will still be allowed.

The restaurant has been closed since last March during the first wave of the pandemic, as indoor dining was prohibited.

The 21 Club was a favorite dining place of presidents since Franklin D. Roosevelt’s day. Shortly after the 2016 election, then-President-elect Donald Trump broke protocol by leaving his Trump Tower residence without taking along his press contingent to eat at the restaurant. John Steinbeck, Ernest Hemingway and Frank Sinatra had favorite tables at 21, and Humphrey Bogart proposed to Lauren Bacall there. It appeared in films ranging from the 1950 Bette Davis classic “All About Eve” to 1987’s “Wall Street.”

— Associated Press

12-county California region has 0.0% available ICU capacity

In San Joaquin County, part of California’s vast Central Valley that produces most of the country’s fruits and vegetables, the coronavirus is spreading like a weed and the hospitals are running out of beds for the sickest patients.

San Joaquin is part of a 12-county region that on Saturday, according to the California Department of Public Health, had 100% of its intensive care unit beds filled, the highest rate anywhere in California. And with cases continuing at an unprecedented rate, the death toll inevitably will grow, too.

A new stay-at-home order was imposed this week but it is unknown whether it will have the intended consequence of finally changing enough people’s behavior to slow infections as a vaccine is widely rolled out.

— The Associated Press

UPS Worldport hub in Louisville to soon ship vaccine

The first shipments of Pfizer/BioNTech’s COVID-19 vaccine will move through UPS’ Worldport global air hub at the Louisville, Kentucky, airport Sunday, a company spokesman told The Courier Journal, part of the USA TODAY Network.

UPS said the vaccine will originate from storage sites in Michigan and Wisconsin.

“The vaccines will be transported to UPS Worldport facilities in Louisville, where they will be expedited Next Day Air to select destinations, including hospitals, clinics and other medical facilities, to inoculate healthcare workers,” the company said in a news release.

The shipments will arrive at the hub to be sorted and will be shipped out — all on Sunday, UPS spokesman Jim Mayer said. He said he did not know how many doses will be moving through. Mayer previously said that UPS will deliver to states in the eastern half of the United States. FedEx will deliver to the western half of the U.S.

– Ben Tobin, Louisville Courier Journal

‘We are not taking a victory lap,’ Operation Warp Speed official says

The chief operating officer of Operation Warp Speed, the White House effort to fund, produce and distribute a vaccine, cheered the emergency authorization of the Pfizer/BioNTech vaccine but warned of a tough road ahead.

“While this moment is extraordinary … we have a lot of work to do. We are not taking a victory lap,” Perna said Saturday.

He said it wouldn’t have made a difference to Operation Warp Speed if the FDA had authorized the vaccine Saturday instead of Friday. “Our ultimate goal was to get it there no later than Monday morning,” he said.

Perna reiterated that Operation Warp Speed wouldn’t distribute the second vaccine dose or a portion held in reserve until it has “ultimate confidence” that there are enough doses and the delicate distribution system works. That could change in January or February.

“We want no vaccines on a shelf,” Perna said. “Doesn’t matter how effective a vaccine is if it’s on a shelf.”

Perna said vaccine doses were not positioned in advance because the operation “did not want to presume” emergency use authorization. “Under no circumstances did we want to get ahead of the great FDA and their decision making,” he said.

FDA: No corners cut in reviewing Pfizer/BioNTech vaccine

Amid concerns about how quickly the FDA issued an emergency authorization for the Pfizer/BioNTech vaccine, agency leaders stressed Saturday that they conducted a thorough, transparent review.

“Science and data guided the FDA’s decision. We worked quickly because of the urgency of this pandemic, not because of any other external pressure,” FDA Commissioner Stephen Hahn said. “I will absolutely take this COVID-19 vaccine.”

Hahn said reports Friday that the White House had threatened to fire him if the agency did not authorize the vaccine were “inaccurate.”

Hahn said the agency was “very concerned about vaccine hesitancy” and made the process as transparent as possible by posting trial data and documents online.

“Efficiency does not mean any cutting of corners,” Hahn said. The FDA “found ways to cut the red tape,” but “important safety checks remained in place,” he said.

Dr. Peter Marks, director of the FDA’s Center for Biologics Evaluation and Research, said the FDA requires vaccine developers to monitor for “any significant adverse events” as they seek standard approval. The FDA and the CDC are monitoring as well, he said.

Officials provided more information about whether certain groups of people should get the vaccine. People who are pregnant or immunocompromised, who were not included in safety trials, should discuss the vaccine with their providers “on an individual basis,” Marks said.

Vaccination sites will be equipped to treat allergic reactions, official says

Sites where the Pfizer/BioNTech vaccine are administered will be able to treat allergic reactions, Marks said. About 1.6% of the population has had a severe allergic reaction to food or something in the environment but are eligible to receive the vaccine, Marks said. Only people who have had a severe allergic reaction to a previous dose of the vaccine or one of its components should not receive the vaccine.

Experts say the ingredients in the Pfizer/BioNTech vaccine look typical: an active ingredient (in this case, messenger RNA), fats, salt and sugars.

Dr. Matthew Heinz, a hospitalist based in Tucson, Arizona, said if any part of the vaccine were to trigger an allergic reaction, it could be one of the components of the fat molecule. But that’s rare. “We’re talking about a number of relatively mild reactions that you can count on one hand,” out of tens of thousands of people in the study, he said.

Two British people with severe allergies apparently had reactions to Pfizer/BioNTech’s vaccine this week. Allergic reactions were not a significant problem in the U.S. trial, in which more than 20,000 people received two doses of the vaccine. The U.S. trials kept out subjects who have had severe allergic reactions.

— Adrianna Rodriguez

Friday set another record for COVID-19 cases, deaths

On the same day that the FDA approved the first vaccine for emergency use in the United States, the nation reached another milestone in COVID-19 cases and deaths.

The country recorded 3,309 coronavirus deaths Friday, according to Johns Hopkins University data, surpassing Wednesday’s record when 3,124 people died. Friday also saw the highest number of daily cases to date in the U.S.: 231,775.

Pfizer’s COVID-19 vaccine gets FDA authorization

In what is hoped to be the beginning of the end of America’s COVID-19 pandemic, the FDA on Friday evening authorized the first vaccine to prevent people from getting sick.

What this means: The Pfizer/BioNTech vaccine received emergency use authorization, which is not full approval. Although it has received all the standard short-term safety and effectiveness reviews, the vaccine has not been tested for the two years typical of an approved vaccine. So it is not yet clear how long protection will last.

When will you get it? Frontline health care workers and nursing home residents are expected to get the vaccine first. More doses will be rolled out in the weeks and months to come, with Pfizer and Moderna each expected to deliver 100 million doses of their vaccines by the middle of next year.

What about other vaccines? Next week, a similar COVID-19 vaccine developed by the Massachusetts-based Moderna will go through the same review process, and could swiftly be cleared for use.

– Karen Weintraub

In America’s hardest-hit county, COVID deaths claimed parents, friends

Just over a month ago, the coronavirus pandemic tore through Quinter, Kansas, a rural town of 1,000, killing 20 residents. Here, where most everyone knows most everyone else, the pandemic has killed farmers and their wives. The town’s unofficial historian. The beloved grandmother whose sour cream chocolate cake with chocolate fudge frosting was always the talk of the party. The mom whose piano-playing still echoes in the heads of her friends.

And it has drained the hearts of the survivors. Those who feel guilty about recovering. The ambulance workers battling to treat their own relatives. The exhausted doctor who watched nearly half his patients die.

As of Thursday, the coronavirus has killed a higher percentage of Gove County residents than any other county in the United States: one out of every 132 people. Even today, mask-wearing remains controversial. Friendships are strained as authorities struggle to persuade their neighbors to follow basic public health guidelines, such as avoiding large gatherings.

“We are living through history right now, and I worry what the history books will say about us,” said Ericka Nicholson, 47, who helps run the town’s volunteer ambulance service and survived the infection. 

– Trevor Hughes

Relentless coronavirus surge fills 1 in 8 hospital ICU units

About 1 in 8 U.S. hospitals had little or no intensive care unit space available last week. Experts say the number of hospitals struggling to accommodate the nation’s sickest patients likely will increase after another week of record COVID-19 cases.

The federal government this week released a sweeping database showing a one-week average of COVID-19 patients in hospitals nationwide. It’s the first time the Department of Health and Human Services has provided such detailed information on nearly 5,000 U.S. hospitals since the pandemic began.

The absence of hospital-level information has been a blind spot in the pandemic, as administrators must call neighboring hospitals to transfer patients when they run out of beds and staff.

“We know what’s happening in our system, but I don’t know what’s happening in the other systems,” said Dr. Lewis Kaplan, professor of surgery at University of Pennsylvania Hospital in Philadelphia. “To have a coordinated effort you need to have that kind of data so everyone knows where everyone else happens to be.” 

– Ken Alltucker and Aleszu Bajak

US buys another 100M doses of Moderna’s vaccine

The Trump administration announced Friday that it has purchased an additional 100 million doses of a coronavirus vaccine made by Moderna, bringing the federal government’s total order from the company to 200 million doses. The additional doses would “provide for continuous delivery through the end of June 2021,” the Department of Health and Human Services said in a press release.

“Securing another 100 million doses from Moderna by June 2021 further expands our supply of doses across the Operation Warp Speed portfolio of vaccines,” HHS Secretary Alex Azar said in a statement. “This new federal purchase can give Americans even greater confidence we will have enough supply to vaccinate all Americans who want it by the second quarter of 2021.”

Moderna became the second vaccine maker in the U.S. to request authorization from the FDA at the end of last month. The company’s latest findings showed that of 196 people in the clinical trial who caught COVID-19, 185 of them had received the placebo, while only 11 had received the vaccine. That works out to an effectiveness rate above 94%.

Wisconsin woman reunites with family after battling virus for nearly 3 months

After spending over 80 days battling COVID-19 in a Wisconsin hospital, Nancy Van Dyn Hoven on Friday was reunited with her family and friends — just in time for the holidays.

“Other than 2020 being awful, this is just the best,” Van Dyn Hoven, 60, said Friday at home, chuckling with her husband, Dennis, and daughter, Stacy Arnoldussen. “It’s all I could ask for.”

Dr. Anthony Zeimet, an infectious diseases specialist at the hospital and Nancy’s doctor, said the severity of her illness was particularly surprising because she was just 59 years old — she turned 60 in the hospital — and had no underlying health conditions that would put her at higher risk of severe illness.

“The virus kind of ravaged her body,” Zeimet said. “It just goes to show that, with COVID, we don’t know who’s going to do well or do poorly. Nancy was someone who, when she was first admitted, we thought she’d do pretty well. … Unfortunately, she ended up being here for 80-plus days.”

Although Nancy’s recovery is far from over and she has a long road of rehabilitation services ahead, Friday marked the end of a months-long struggle with the virus.

— Samantha West, Appleton Post-Crescent

Leave a Reply