Virus Updates: First Vaccines Going to Health Workers, Nursing Homes

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The United States reached a record number of coronavirus hospitalizations with 93,238 patients admitted on Sunday, according to a tally by the COVID Tracking Project. That's more than double the number of patients admitted a month ago.

The staggering number comes as Dr. Anthony Fauci, the government's leading infectious disease expert, warns that the travel-heavy Thanksgiving holiday could make the current surge in COVID-19 cases even worse. Raising further concern, the Transportation Security Administration says it screened more than 1 million passengers on Sunday, the highest number since the pandemic began in March.

Meanwhile, Moderna Inc. applied for emergency use of its COVID-19 vaccine Monday, which data shows is more than 94% effective. The company became the second to seek FDA approval after Pfizer applied two weeks ago. Officials have said the first immunizations could happen on Dec. 12.

The U.S. has seen more than 13 million confirmed coronavirus cases and 270,000 deaths since the start of the pandemic, according to a tally by NBC News.

CDC to Shorten COVID-19 Quarantine to 10 Days, 7 With Test

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention is set to shorten the recommended length of quarantine after exposure to someone who is positive for COVID-19, as the virus rages across the nation.

According to a senior administration official, the new guidelines, which are set to be released as soon as Tuesday evening, will allow people who have come in contact to someone infected with the virus to resume normal activity after 10 days, or 7 days if they receive a negative test result. That’s down from the 14-day period recommended since the onset of the pandemic.

The official, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to preview the announcement, said the policy change has been discussed for some time, as scientists have studied the incubation period for the virus. The policy would hasten the return to normal activities by those deemed to be “close contacts” of those infected with the virus, which has infected more than 13.5 million Americans and killed at least 270,000.

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First COVID-19 Vaccines to Be Offered to Health Workers, Nursing Homes: CDC

Health care personnel and residents of long-term care facilities will be the first groups to receive the COVID-19 vaccine, according to a new proposal from an independent advisory committee within the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

The Advisory Committee on Immunization Practices met virtually on Tuesday to discuss who would receive the first doses of the vaccine and to vote on the proposed language for the recommendation. The proposal passed 13 to 1.

The first phase of the vaccine rollout will be known as Phase 1a and is set to begin as soon as a vaccine receives authorization from the Food and Drug Administration, expected to happen this month.

The two groups in Phase 1a together represent around 23 million Americans out of a U.S. population of about 330 million.

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Mnuchin Defends Shut Down of Fed Emergency Loan Programs

Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin is defending his decision to close down a number of emergency Federal Reserve loan programs at a time when coronavirus cases are surging.

Democrats were unconvinced, however, saying that Mnuchin’s actions are politically motivated and intended to remove tools that the Biden administration could use to support the economy.

Mnuchin argued that the programs he decided not to extend into next year were being lightly utilized. He said the $455 billion allocated for those Fed loan programs could be better used elsewhere if Congress moved the funds into relief programs for small businesses and unemployed workers.

Democrats aired their criticism Tuesday as Mnuchin and Federal Reserve Chairman Jerome Powell testified at a Senate Banking Committee oversight hearing about the $2 trillion CARES Act approved by Congress last March.

Powell, as he had before, urged Congress to authorize further economic support, something that lawmakers have been struggling to do for months.

FDA Commissioner Summoned to White House to Defend Vaccine Timetable

White House chief of staff Mark Meadows summoned FDA Commissioner Stephen Hahn to the West Wing on Tuesday to discuss why his agency hasn’t moved faster to approve Pfizer's coronavirus vaccine, according to a source familiar with the matter, NBC News reports.

The morning meeting was first reported by Axios, which quoted an unnamed administration official saying, "There are some who are complaining the FDA is not working around the clock to get things approved."

While President Donald Trump has publicly accused the agency of dragging its feet, Hahn told Axios his team is doing what's necessary to make sure the vaccine is safe for the general public. 

"Let me be clear — our career scientists have to make the decision, and they will take the time that’s needed to make the right call on this important decision," he said.

Bipartisan Group of Senators Offer $900B Stimulus Package as Stalemate Drags on

A group of bipartisan lawmakers unveiled a stimulus package Tuesday in an effort to break the legislative stalemate as the coronavirus surges throughout the country, CNBC reports.

The roughly $908 billion proposal includes $288 billion in small business aid such as Paycheck Protection Program loans, $160 billion in state and local government relief and $180 billion for supplemental unemployment insurance, according to a draft framework. It would put $16 billion into vaccine distribution, testing and contact tracing, funnel $82 billion into education and allocate funds for rental assistance, child care and broadband.

The proposal would not include another direct payment to most Americans. It also would offer temporary federal protection from coronavirus-related lawsuits — a provision Democrats have opposed — while states determine their own laws.

The programs lapsing at the end of December include an unemployment insurance extension, a federal student loan payment moratorium and eviction protections.

House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., and Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., have not yielded ground from their respective $2.2 trillion and $500 billion aid bills. Leaders of the Democratic-held House and GOP-controlled Senate have not held formal talks on stimulus since the 2020 election on Nov. 3.

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CDC Panel to Decide Who Gets First Doses of a COVID-19 Vaccine

A Centers for Disease Control and Prevention panel is scheduled to meet Tuesday to decide who will get the first doses of a COVID-19 vaccine. They're expected to reserve scarce first doses for health care workers and, if the shots work well enough in the frail elderly, for residents of long-term care facilities.

The meeting comes as at least two vaccine makers have filed for emergency use authorization with the Food and Drug Administration.

If the FDA allows emergency use, Moderna expects to have 20 million doses ready for the U.S. by year’s end. Recipients will need two doses, so that’s enough for 10 million people. Pfizer expects to have 50 million doses globally in December. Half of them — or enough for 12.5 million people — are earmarked for the U.S.

As more vaccine gradually becomes available in coming months, other essential workers and people at highest risk from the coronavirus would get in line. But enough for the general U.S. population isn't expected until at least spring.

Shipments are set to begin to states within 24 hours of FDA clearance. 

California Hospitalizations Soar, May Spur More Restrictions

California could see a tripling of hospitalizations by Christmas and is considering stay-home orders for areas with the highest case rates as it tries to head off concerns that severe coronavirus cases could overwhelm intensive care beds, officials said Monday.

Hospitalizations have increased 89% over the past 14 days and nearly 7,800 coronavirus patients were hospitalized as of Monday, NBC Bay Area reports. About 12% of Californians testing positive are likely to need hospital care within the next two to three weeks.

The biggest concern is intensive care cases, which have increased 67% in the past two weeks. If that continues, it would push ICU beds to 112% of capacity by mid-December.

That statistic is likely to drive decisions over whether to impose state-mandated stay-at-home orders in 51 of California’s 58 counties that already are seeing the most restrictions on business activities, said Dr. Mark Ghaly, the state’s secretary of health and human services.

At Tiny Rural Hospitals, Weary Doctors Treat Friends, Family

As Dr. Shane Wilson makes the rounds at the tiny, 25-bed hospital in rural northeastern Missouri, many of his movements are familiar in an age of coronavirus. Masks and gloves. Zippered plastic walls between hallways. Hand sanitizer as he enters and exits each room.

But one thing is starkly different. Born and raised in the town of just 1,800, Wilson knows most of his patients by their first names.

He visits a woman who used to be a gym teacher at his school, and later laughingly recalls a day she caught him smoking at school and made him and a friend pick up cigarette butts as punishment. Another man was in the middle of his soybean harvest when he fell ill and couldn’t finish.

In November, Wilson treated his own father, who along with his wife used to work at the same hospital. The 74-year-old elder Wilson recovered from the virus.

The coronavirus pandemic largely hit urban areas first, but the autumn surge is devastating rural America, too. The U.S. is now averaging more than 170,000 new cases each day, and it’s taking a toll from the biggest hospitals down to the little ones, like Scotland County Hospital.

The tragedy is smaller here, more intimate. Everyone knows everyone.

With cases spiking across the country, hospitals in some areas are nearing capacity and health care workers are feeling the strain.

Moderna President: Distribution Could Be 'Within Hours' of Approval

NY Could Go Back on ‘PAUSE' If Hospitals Get Overwhelmed; Gov. Cuomo Triggers Emergency Protocols

Hospitals are key to New York's success in combatting the current surge in coronavirus spread, Gov. Andrew Cuomo said Monday, triggering emergency hospital procedures statewide as part of his new five-point winter strategy to shore-up the state's weak points, NBC New York reports.

"Literally every region is dealing with a hospital issue now," Cuomo said. Hospitalizations surged past 3,500 over the weekend, an alarming volume not seen in New York since May, and are four times higher than the levels seen in June.

The state has ordered hospitals across the state to identify retired doctors and nurses to return to the frontlines, confirm a 90-day PPE stockpile, and increase bed capacity by 50 percent. Elective surgeries will be halted in regions when necessary, starting with Eric County on Friday.

Cuomo's most stark warning came Monday when he warned the state could go back on "PAUSE" if the hospitals become overwhelmed. Beyond preparing the state's hospitals for the "war against COVID," the governor's winter strategy also prioritizes increased testing, keeping schools open, minimizing small gatherings and deploying the vaccine, once approved and available. Additional restrictions, like limiting indoor dining in New York City, don't appear to be on the table at the moment.

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